A Tour of The International Space Station

I came across this the other day and just had to share it. ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers provides the most detailed tour of the completed space station that I’ve ever seen, and it’s in HD! The tour is almost an hour long but trust me it’s worth it, I’ve seen a lot different ISS tours videos on youtube over the years, but this one really gives you a feel for the size of the station, and what it must be like to live up there. So set aside an hour, grab some popcorn and let Andre show you around his home.

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6 Surprising facts you didn’t know about living in space

We have all seen the images of Astronauts goofing around in space, playing with their food and flying around like an uncoordinated version of superman. But what is it really like up there. Here are six surprising facts that you didn’t know about living in space…

1 -In space no-one can…taste their dinner.

One common complaint made by the modern space-farer is that food eaten up there on the final frontier tastes bland compared to food eaten on the ground. Consequently meals are often garnished with a number of assorted condiments from salt and pepper (in liquid form to prevent loose grains getting up noses or into equipment) to spicy hot sauce, horseradish and Wasabi.

Astronauts eating dinner on the ISS – Note the huge bottle of Sriracha Chili Sauce Strapped to the wall behind them

The causes of this diminished sense are not entirely clear but the leading theories put it down to the redistribution of body fluids in micro-gravity causing congestion in the nose, and as the sense of taste is heavily reliant on the sense of smell, food can end up tasting bland. Whatever the cause one thing is certain, a bottle of Tabasco sauce should be included in any would-be astronauts supply kit.

2 -Its’ not really zero gravity!

That’s right folks there is gravity in space, in fact the Earth’s gravity is only 3% weaker at the edge of space than it is on the ground. So if it’s not zero gravity how come everything is floating around up there?

Well it turns out that gravity is actually partly responsible. As the space station travels around the earth at the mind boggling speed of 17,000 mph, the Earth’s gravity tries to pull it back down to the ground, but the station is travelling way too fast for that to happen, so instead of falling down to the ground it falls all the way around the earth. It is because of this that the astronauts are able to fly around inside the space station, they are not floating they are falling. Just like skydivers flying around in formation, the space station and the astronauts are continuously falling around the Earth; here is a cool video to explain it.

…and it turns out that you don’t need to make it all the way into space to experience it. NASA frequently use specially equipped planes to simulate weightlessness by flying them in a series if parabolic arcs. As the plane reaches the top of the arc the engines are throttled back and the plane enters free fall for a few short seconds. During this brief time everyone inside the plane experiences the same weightlessness that Astronauts experience in space. Here is video of it in action.

3 -Space is bad for you.

We have all seen science fiction examples of hapless space travellers meeting their untimely end in the merciless vacuum of space, but it turns out that you don’t have to venture outside the airlock for space to take its toll on you.

Many of the most common problems are actually a result of all that floating about. The micro-gravity environment reduces stress on the muscles and skeleton and as a result astronauts lose muscles mass and bone density at a rate that is 10x that of a 70 year old with Osteoporosis. The micro-gravity environment also causes the heart to weaken as it no longer needs to work as hard to pump blood around.

Naturally keeping these effects at bay is a top priority and to do this astronauts will typically work out for up to two hours a day using specially designed equipment to make sure that their bodies get a proper work out. But even with all of that hard work the return to Earth’s gravity can prove to be challenging and some astronauts find themselves unable to walk when they get back on the ground. Space tourist Anoush Ansari describes this sensation in her space blog.

Other health problems that are known to be caused by extended periods in space include; long term damage to eye sight, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, vitamin D deficiency due to a lack of sunlight and… flatulence. But on the plus side some astronauts have noted that living in space can ease snoring…

4 -Space Smells… and not just because of the flatulence.

First of all let’s be clear, space is a vacuum so there isn’t actually anything there to smell, but nonetheless a lot of astronauts describe encountering the smell of space any time the hatch is opened on a newly docked vehicle or someone comes inside from a spacewalk. Most describe it as being a strong, metallic smell, and it is thought to be caused by materials interacting with ionized particles out there in the vacuum. But don’t just take it from me; astronaut Greg Chamitoff describes the smell in this youtube clip.

5- Living in Space turns your feet upside down.

This might sound like a pretty strange side effect, but according to a number of astronauts the way you use your feet in space can cause some unusual changes.

Walking is not something astronauts do a lot of in space, in fact the only time they use their feet in the normal way is while exercising. Most of the time they are floating around weightlessly and after only a few weeks the soles of their feet start to change. The hard, rough calluses that we have all built up after years of pounding the pavement, peel away (gross) revealing soft, new skin underneath.

… But, just because astronauts don’t use their feet for walking doesn’t mean that they aren’t being used. Floating around in micro gravity is lots of fun, but it can also present a challenge when it comes to staying still at a workstation.

Astronaut Hans Schlegel using handrails with his feet to keep him in place

Astronaut Hans Schlegel using handrails with his feet to keep him in place

To help solve this problem the surfaces of the International Space Station are covered with hand rails that the astronauts can grab on to with their hands or hook their feet underneath to keep them place. In the same amount of time that it takes for the soles of their feet to soften, many astronauts develop calluses on the tops of their feet from hooking them under the hand rails. Many also report that the muscles in the front of their legs ache from all the extra work they are doing.

6 – So near yet so far.

Often when we think of space we imagine a far off place that most of us will never reach, and sadly while the last part is still true (though hopefully not for too long), space itself is closer than you might think.

Defining the edge of space is a tricky business. The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t just stop and give way to the vacuum of space, instead it gets gradually thinner until eventually there is nothing left. The point at which this happens varies at different times and places as various factors cause our atmosphere to expand and contract. In fact the Thermosphere (the second furthest reach of our atmosphere) extends so far out that the International Space Station is actually flying around inside it. The very furthest and thinnest reaches of our atmosphere actually extend half way to the moon. In this extraordinarily thin part of the atmosphere (known as the Exosphere) the air molecules are so dilute that they are unlikely to ever come into contact with each other.

So how do we define the edge of space? The most commonly accepted boundary is known as the Karman line and was devised by a smart chap called Theodore Von Karman who noted that above a certain height the atmosphere is so thin that an aircraft would need to be travelling at orbital velocity (i.e. roughly 17,000 mph) to maintain lift. In other words, once you have past the Karman line the only way to prevent yourself from falling back down is to be going fast enough to achieve orbit.

So, how high up is the Karman line? Well Karman was smart enough to realise that the boundary would change as the atmosphere expanded and contracted, so he calculated the approximate height and then rounded the result to 100 km (approximately 62 miles).

By everyday standards this is quite a long way up, for comparison most airliners fly at around 5 to 7 miles above the ground. But try thinking of it this way… The distance to Karman line is roughly equal to the distance between New York City and BridgePort, Connecticut. Search Google Maps for directions between the two and it should draw you a nice straight(ish) line on the map, now zoom out so that you can see the whole of the Earth, that line on the map should now look very small indeed, now imagine that line was stood on its end – and that’s how far it is to edge of space.

Another way to think about the distance to the Karman line is in terms of travel time. Most modern rockets reach space after only a few minutes. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket is able to reach the 100 km mark after only 3 minutes and achieves orbit in less than 10 minutes, but that what it was designed to do. What if the plane that is taking you Mexico this summer was able to fly straight up to the Karman line (it can’t do this so don’t ask the pilot to try), how long would it take you to earn your astronaut wings. Well assuming you are flying on a 747 and that it is travelling at is average cruising speed of 567 mph then you would reach the edge of space in about six and half minutes… But let’s take this one stupid step further… Let’s assume that the mountain bike that you got for Christmas was somehow capable of overcoming the Earth’s gravity and you could cycle your way in to the heavens, how long would it take you to cover the 62 miles between you and the final frontier. Assuming that you are capable of peddling yourself along at an average speed of 13 mph (this is the lowest estimate I’ve found for the average cycling speed – some go as high as 25 mph) then you will be able to consider yourself an astronaut after a mere five hours. That’s right guys – you could cycle your way into space in an afternoon… providing you ignore the laws of physics.

And there you have it… six surprising things you didn’t know about living in space… So what are your thoughts, did you already know all 5 or do you have another surprising fact that I really shouldn’t have missed? Post me your thoughts in the comments section below…

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The successful launch of Falcon 9 and the Dragon Capsule

Well the guys and gals at SpaceX did it… Falcon 9 launched perfectly and Dragon is on her way to the international Space Station. I don’t think I can recall ever witnessing a launch as emotional as that one. The cheer from everyone at SpaceX when the solar arrays deployed was just awesome, they are clearly very proud and they have every right to be…

But actions speak louder than words, so without further a do, here it is…

… and here is the complete SpaceX webcast from today…

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Reflections on a successful launch abort

Like many people I dragged myself out of bed at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning to watch Space X make history by becoming the first private company to build and launch a vehicle to the international space station. I tuned in to NASA TV early to listen to the range and launch crews going through their preflight polls, my excitement levels rising with each confirmation to “Proceed”. Then it’s was over to SpaceX.com to watch their live webcast containing various short films and interviews with the team and of course the launch of Falcon 9. Then after 40 minutes of preamble and punditry that would make any sporting event proud, it was over to the main event. In those final few moments before launch I felt a surge of excitement and as the last few seconds disappeared from the clock the engines ignited and…

Nothing.

In that last second before launch, a second which hung in the air for an eternity, the engine controller had spotted a problem. It had noticed an upward trend in the chamber pressure on engine 5 and with 0.5 seconds left on the clock Falcon did exactly what she was supposed to do and aborted the launch. The brilliant burst of fire that had erupted from the flame trench extinguished it’s self, the roar of the engines quietened and my excitement turned to disappointment.

In those first few moments after the abort I thought about all of the people at Space X and NASA who have worked so hard to get to this point and the disappointment that they must be feeling, and I thought of the millions of people around the world who like me have been watching and waiting for a company like Space X to come along  and give space exploration the shove it needs, and the disappointment that they must be feeling…

But then I got a grip…

Sure, it would have been great to see Falcon souring through the sky taking food supplies and the hopes of millions to the ISS, but it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen because the right call was made at the right time. Launching with 8 engines instead of 9 would have made it impossible for Falcon to complete it’s mission and could even have caused the destruction of the vehicle; in either scenario the vehicle and the mission would have been lost. As it stands the vehicle is not lost, the faulty check valve that caused the problem has been replaced and a new launch date (22nd May) has been chosen.

Getting in to space isn’t easy as both the Russians and the Americans have found out on more than one occasion. Thousands of procedures, valves, pipes, switches, microchips, pumps, connectors, programs, circuit boards, surfaces, fluids and people all have to work together in harmony for the mission to be a success, only one of them has to fail for the mission to be over.

The scrubbing of a launch is not something new NASA has scrubbed hundreds of launch attempts over the years for all manner of reasons, but with pressure on NASA and companies like Space X to provide launch solutions in the post shuttle era it is easy for people to come away from this thinking that it has been a failure. But as Gwynne Shotwell (president of Space X) pointed out in the post mission press conference, this was not a failure, simply an abort with purpose, to launch and lose the vehicle would have been failure – Although I’m quite sure the Space X would view this as a learning opportunity and not failure.

I cant wait to see Falcon fly, but she will fly when she is ready… hopefully that will be on the 22nd but if not lets hope for another successful abort.

You can watch footage of the launch abort here… and the post mission press conference here

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Great Things Happening in Great Britain

SKYLON on orbit: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

SKYLON on orbit: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

As a Brit it feels good to be able to write that title without the hint of sarcasm or cynicism that could so easily accompany it. That’s not to say that I’m not proud to be British – I am – but in recent years we have taken something of a passenger seat on the journey to space and when it comes to manned space flight we have pretty much just climbed in to the back seat and had a bit of a snooze.

But…

Tucked away in the wilds of Oxfordshire is a company that has been steadily working on a project that has the potential to deliver a game changing vehicle to the commercial space industry… That company is Reaction Engines LTD and the vehicle is SKYLON!

SKYLON on the Ground: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

SKYLON on the Ground: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

The first thing you will probably notice when you look at SKYLON is that it is sexy… Lets be honest, this is what a spacecraft should look like, it even has a sexy spaceship-type name. When you look at SKYLON you can almost feel the future catching up to us and following a quick scan over the blurb on the Reaction Engines LTD web site it’s clear that SKYLON is much more than a sexy looking vehicle, she is also capable of providing the holy grail of space flight… Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO). In other words, unlike every other vehicle that has ever flown in space, every single piece of hardware that goes up, will make it in to orbit and then come back down to earth, no parts are discarded to burn up in the atmosphere or to be recovered from the ocean. Skylon will take off from a runway like a conventional aircraft, travel in to Orbit and then land back on a runway when it has completed it mission. It is this capability that truly makes SKYLON a game changer.

SABRE: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

SABRE: Image Courtesy of Adrian Mann

All of this is made possible by a new type of engine that Reaction Engines LTD have been busily beavering away on, that engine goes by the name of SABRE. This revolutionary engine essentially combines the functions of a traditional Jet engine with those of a rocket engine. This allows SABRE to seamlessly transition from atmospheric flight to space flight and back again without the need for multiple rocket stages as seen on the Saturn V and the shuttle, or the need for a carrier plane like Virgin Galactic’s White Night. Previous attempts to design and build similar engines have all fallen by the wayside, doomed by poor thrust to weight ratios brought on by the excessive weight of the pre-cooling systems required to make them work. But all this has changed with the advancement of light weight materials and Reaction Engines LTD’s patented design.

So why haven’t we all heard about this sexy, British, game changing, potentially revolutionary new space vehicle? Well that’s because it hasn’t been built yet, at least not entirely. Elements of the essential pre-cooling system have recently undergone successful tests but the developmental phase alone is set to take 10 years to complete and cost £10 Billion. Right now funding is the one thing that stands in the way of delivering SKYLON. With that in mind an e-petition has been set up to help convince the UK government to find the £1 Billion a year that’s needed to see it through to completion.

Funding SKYLON is an expensive gamble for the government, particularly in the current economic environment, but the potential pay off could be significant with the cost of launching payloads in to space reducing from £15,000 per kg to £650 per kg, and the benefits are not restricted to orbital space flight as SKYLON could also be used as a suborbital space liner allowing people to travel around the world in a fraction of the time it takes today. So why not get involved and sign the petition… If my own personal blatherings haven’t convinced you that this endeavour is worth putting you electronic John Hancock to, then please have a read of this astonishingly well written article by Mark Stewart over at the British Interplanetary Society.

The next ten to fifteen years are going to bring a whole host of exciting firsts in the commercial space flight industry (see my earlier post on the Future of Commercial Space flight for more on this) and through SKYLON Great Britain may well be the one delivering some of those great firsts.

Let me know what you think about SKYLON and the future of Commercial Space flight in the comments section below.

All images are courtesy of Adrian Mann – you can find more of his work on his website

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Boost to the UKs Space Tourism Industry in the Budget!

During todays budget announcement the UK’s Chancellor has indicated that changes will be made to the 1986 Outer Space Act. The move is intended to resolve the issue of the unlimited liabilities a company might face in the event of a space related accident. These liabilities have long been seen as something of a block to the further expansion of the UKs space industry as it pushes up the cost of insurance premiums and makes the UK an uncompetative place to do space business.

As well as the changes to the liability rules, the chancellor has also called for a review of the licensing requirements that are laid out in the act to make them more relevant to the emerging space tourism market. This would potentially make the UK a far more appealing option to companies looking for a base of operation in Europe.

This is great news for the UKs space tourism industry but particularly for Virgin Galactic who is already considering setting up a potential launch site in the UK, with sites in Scotland being ear marked as potential candidates.

Todays budget has also brought a much-needed £10m boost to the UK space industry. The money is to be spent on the development of space craft systems and is therefore most likely to find its way it the development of satellites. This investment comes as a part of a £100m investment in the UKs science sector.

I’m sure there will be many people in the UKs Space and Science industry that will be over the moon (pun sort of intended) with the £100m injection, but its worth keeping in mind that this years budget also provides the same amount to fix potholes across the nations roads!

So, what are your thoughts? Is the UK doing enough to support the sciences and can the UK ever become a serious contender in the Commercial Space Industry? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

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Yuri’s Night 2011

On the 12th of April 2011 it will be exactly 50 years since Vostok 1 carried Yuri Gagarin into the history books as the first man in space. Yuri’s Night is an international celebration of this and other remarkable milestones in Human Space exploration.

So to celebrate this momentous occasion hundreds of events (which are basically just a big party) are being thrown all around the world. As of this posting there are 219 events being planned around the world, which means there is bound to be one happening near you… Check out the Yuri’s Night website for more information and a list of planed events.

To help you get into the celebrating mood the event organisers are also running three exciting competitions:

  • Design an inspiring print ad for a chance to win a Zero G flight in Russia!
  • Enter the sweepstake for a chance to win a tour of the past and present in the Russian space program  – Including a chance to watch a Soyuz launch!
  • Create a tribute video for a chance to win $500!

I’ve already entered the sweepstake and im now considering my options for how to win the other two. Full details of all of this competition awesomeness can be found here.

Whatever you are doing on April 12, take two minutes out of your day to reflect on how far we have come in manned space flight over the last 50 years and then have a think about the next 50 years. Who knows what might be around the corner…

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