Category Archives: Technology

World View Enterprises

For those who don’t fancy being launched into space at a few thousand miles an hour, there seems to be another option in the making to experience what it will be like leaving our planet behind for a short period of time. Check out the stunning video below, from a company called World View Enterprises.

World View’s high-altitude balloon lets Voyagers gently soar for hours on end in a comfortable, smartly-outfitted, specially designed space capsule. It won’t technically make you an astronaut, but what an experience it must be. At $75,000 per “Voyager” (i.e. paying customer), flights are planned to commence in 2016. Start putting it on those birthday wish lists!

Kirobo on the ISS

Robot Astronauts: Kirobo & Mirata

Japan has always been at the forefront of robotics, driven by the need to prepare itself for an ever more aging population that is looking for ways to support itself. So it comes as no surprise that when we talk about Robot Astronauts, the pioneers are Japanese… Meet Kirobo and Mirata.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/japan-robonaut.jpg

What makes these two little robots so special is that at about 34 cm tall and weighing only about a kilo, their Japanese language flows in a natural humanlike by any standard, learning as they go along. They can recognise faces and record video, and pretty much have a normal unscripted conversation as demonstrated in the many videos on their YouTube channel where Kirobo is talking with Commander Wakata – Japan’s veteran Astronaut – aboard the International Space Station. The main goal of these experiments in zero-gravity which they were designed to navigate in is to see how well robots and humans can interact, with a view to having robot astronauts assist on future space missions. Mirata, Kirobo’s identical twin in the meantime stayed on Earth as backup similar to how it would work with a human astronaut.

The Japanese surely believe that humans and robots one day will coexist. Kirobo, its name derived from the Japanese word for hope, and robot – is definitely an exciting step forward so who knows… Below the video, you can find the transcript in English – Enjoy!

Kibo Robot Project


0:04 A truly magnificent project of national policy calibre.

The world needs to know Japan’s real ability.


0:16 Summer of 2013

0:42 The robot astronaut sets out on a journey

0:47 Kibo Robot Project

0:53 Tsukuba Space Center

Sound test

0:54 The hope of Japan’s technological strength

0:55 Environment test

0:57 EMC test

0:59 Connection test

1:01 Man: This will take some time.

1:02 Robot:  Good work everyone!

1:05 Robot: I am a robot astronaut.

1:08  The hope for our children’s future and the hope of a future where humans and robot coexist rest on its little back

1:20 International space station

1:22 Zero gravity test

1:22 International space station.  Hope.  In the Japanese experiment module, a conversation experiment with Astronaut Wakata is carried out.

1:27 Robot: Hello!

1:33: Man: We’re counting on you.

1:35: Robot: No problem.  I’m a robot after all.

1:46: Kibo Robot project

1:49: This summer, our adventure with the robot astronaut begins.

WhiteKnightTwo ready

Virgin Galactic Breaks Own Altitude Record

Now that 2014 is finally here, Virgin Galactic‘s first commercial flight with its WhiteKnightTwo / SpaceShipTwo combo edges ever so closer to reality with every day that goes past. A few days ago, they launched SpaceShipTwo 71,000ft up in the sky and tested several critical features in the process, as Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay was at the helm. One of the features being tested were the newly designed thrusters (RCS) which are used by the pilots to maneuver the vehicle in space. The other feature on trial was the tail section’s new coating which reflects heat produced by that massive rocket engine sitting just behind the passenger’s cabin as it were. SS2’s unique feather re-entry system was also tested during today’s flight.

As the company was gathering a ton of transonic and supersonic data, Sir Richard Branson said the following of the successful flight (the third supersonic, rocket-powered test flight of Virgin Galactic): “I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights. 2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space. Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we’re up there.”

For the full article, head over to the Virgin Galactic website but be sure to check out the video below. What an AMAZING way to get 2014 going!


Today In History – November 15

Today 25 years ago, a major milestone in the space race happened when the Soviets launched their first space shuttle, the Buran on a 200 minute flight into space. The program to develop this orbital vehicle was in response to the U.S. Space Shuttle which obviously was a concern for the Soviet military due to the Shuttle’s ability to take with it enormous payloads. Funnily enough it was actually the calculations by the Soviets that the American Space Shuttle program could never be profitable unless there would be a launch a week, that led them to conclude it must have been military in nature. An assumption that moved the development of the Buran to the top of the military priority list.


US Air Force X-37B

We all know that bureaucracy can lead to overcomplicated situations. If you’ve never heard of UNOOSA then rest assured you will not be the only one. The acronym stands for United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, it’s history can be traced back to the late fifties and early sixties. How does this relate to the X-37B? Well, the UNOOSA created *prepare yourself* the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which has been accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. You can read the content in its entirety here but the short summary would be that all space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law… basically, don’t be the classroom bully shaking down or beating up the other kids.

So, interesting then that the US airforce is developing its own military shuttle, the highly secretive X-37B. Fully automated, launched atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket and able to stay in orbit for months at a time, there don’t seem to be many actual facts about its purpose floating about. Commanded by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado, its official mission is “to provide resilient and cost-effective Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.” Several times smaller than the retired Space Shuttles of which its aerodynamic design was derived, the project started in 1999 when NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to design and develop an orbital vehicle. It was built by the California branch of Boeing’s Phantom Works whose primary focus is developing advanced military products and technologies, many of them highly classified. Five years later, the operation was  transferred from NASA to DARPA and became shrouded in mystery.

The Air Force stated it will “demonstrate various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back”, which could mean absolutely anything. Surely it will only be a matter of time before the public will start asking questions en masse – until someone else leaks a bundle of cables disclosing everything of course.

Lockheed Martin's Venture Star (aka X-33)

VentureStar, aka X-33 (Cancelled in 2001)

At the end of the 20th century, the United States government was already set to developing a reusable space plane to replace the aging Space Shuttle program. The resulting launch vehicle would be able to launch satellites into orbit as 1/10th of the cost, while also having the ability to carry passengers up. Funded by the federal government, it was Lockheed Martin who started development of the X-33 at its Skunk Works facility in 1996, the same facility that saw the development of the revolutionary U2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes . The space ship, which became known as the VentureStar, showed great promise. As a single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch system existing of a lifting body-wing design with no expendable parts, it would launch vertically. But the ship would return to Earth landing like an airplane and because it was lighter by design, it would be able to land at virtually any major airport in case of emergency unlike the Space Shuttle which required much longer runways than those publicly available.

File:VentureStar Shuttle Comparison.PNG

The design would mean considerable savings in time and materials as well as just being safer in general with maintenance happening similar to that of an airplane. Hard to believe, but the Shuttle required around 17,000 man-hours after every flight to check and if needed replace the thousands of heat-resistant ceramic tiles. The VentureStar on the other hand would use a new metallic thermal protection system, which would be much easier and cheaper to maintain. Then there was the basic design of the vehicle, which meant no more large external tank needed for launch, and neither did it need additional booster rockets that had to be recovered from the ocean after launch. Then there was the new engine technology. Unlike the Shuttle which relied on conventional nozzle engines, the VentureStar project would use linear aerospike engines that maintain thrust efficiency at all altitudes and were developed to have thrust reserve just in case things went wrong. Should one of the engines ever have failed, first the opposite engine would immediately shuf off to counterbalance and keep the vehicle going in the right direction. Next, that reserve would mean that the remaining engines were powerful enough to throttle up and ensure the space ship would still safely reach orbit.

Last but not least VentureStar’s main fuels would have been only liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, meaning the exhaust of its engines would have been composed of… water vapor. It was truly next-generation tech! Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Due to spiraling costs, and technical difficulties, NASA scrapped their support for the program in 2001. For Lockheed Martin it didn’t make sense anymore to continue the program on its own and so, VentureStar was scrapped with the prototype 90% complete. Perhaps it did show however that the future of space transportation and exploration would have to be corporate. Ironically that is what Lockheed Martin was attempting to achieve with VentureStar.

After suborbital flights kicking of next year with Virgin Galactic and XCOR to name a few, one of the next logical steps for these pioneers will be to reach orbit and who knows, maybe some day we will see another VentureStar rising from the ashes.

Space Shuttle Discovery on lift off

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 3

Following from Hubble’s story in part two, the year is 1995 and in June of that year space shuttle Atlantis lifts off. It’s mission: to dock with MIR, the Russian space station that by some is seen as the predecessor to the International Space Station. This event led to what was at the time the largest spacecraft ever in orbit, with a total mass of almost 225 tons (around half a million pounds). The following five days saw joint U.S.-Russian operations including biomedical investigations, and transfer of equipment to and from Mir. The lessons learned from this and the following 10 orbiter flights to MIR would later pave the way for the ISS, a station operated by multiple partners.

In October of 1998 John Glenn, America’s first orbiting astronaut (in 1962) made history again by going up with the shuttle Discovery. This made him not only the oldest person to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist at the age of 77, but he also became the only person ever to have flown in both the Mercury and Shuttle programmes. The nine-day mission supported a variety of research, with Glenn spending most of his time in space participating in investigations on the aging process. As the effects of spaceflight on the human body show parallels to the natural changes that take place as a person ages, Glenn’s experiments were designed to test how his body responded to the microgravity environment.

The new millenium unfortunately saw another dark year for space flight. In January of 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off on a 17-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentry however, Columbia suffered from a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occured during launch. As it turned out, falling foam from the external tank struck the reinforced carbon panels on the underside of the left wing due to which the heat shielding was compromised, and hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart. The orbiter including its seven crewmembers were lost approximately 15 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. The loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities of the space shuttle. Again the fleet got grounded, and this time it led to President George W Bush announcing in January of 2004 that “In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”

Stay tuned for the history of the programme’s retirement. Until next time!

Space Walk at the ISS

Building the International Space Station (ISS)

In part two of our coverage of the ISS (you can check out previous coverage here), we will take a closer look at how the station was actually built. With over a dozen countries involved, and so many different components (159 had been installed as of June 2011) that would make up this marvel of space architecture and international cooperation, things could never have been easy. The assembly of the International Space Station began in November 1998 when an autonomous Russian Proton rocket delivered Zarya into space, the backbone module of what would become the ISS, providing propulsion, attitude control, communications and electrical power but lacking long-term life support functions. Two weeks later NASA attached its first module, called Unity – this module then allowed the Space Shuttle to dock to the space station – to Zarya, and assembly was now truly underway.

It was to be another two years before the station would have a module for permanent habitation attached, when in July 2000 Zvezda was launch. This Russian module added sleeping quarters, a toilet and kitchen, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, plus a whole array of  communications amongst other things and it soon took over computer command control from Zarya. The first resident crew arrived in November of that same year in a Soyuz capsule at a time when MIR was being decommissioned and in the two years following, assembly milestones included the larger solar arrays, the primary US research facility Destiny and the station’s main robot arm Canadarm2. Then the unfortunate happened, as Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, putting the entire Space Shuttle programme and further expansion of the ISS at risk, but luckily assembly continued in 2005 as the investigation was concluded and modifications to the Shuttles were made.

In the years following, the station expanded rapidly with more truss segments and solar arrays being added, being able to support a growing number of modules including Harmony (also known as Node 2) which by itself expanded the station’s internal space by 20%, the European laboratory Columbus, and JAXA’s Kibō which was not only Japan’s first manned experiment facility, but is also the largest laboratory on the International Space Station. Early 2010 a third node, Tranquility, got added alongside Cupola, ESA‘s observatory module which you can partly see in Chris Hadfield‘s music video “Is Somebody Singing” as he looks out of its seven windows while playing the guitar. Space Shuttle Discovery’s last mission was to bring module Leonardo to the station, and by June 2011 a total of 15 modules made up the ISS.

Originally planned to have been finished by 2004/2005, it took till 2011 for it to be officially finished. However development is still ongoing in 2013 without the Space Shuttle programme and while there is already talk about decommissioning the station, new modules and components are still being added. If you want to know more, be sure to not miss this Discovery Channel documentary, and this handy infographic. Upon completion the station will have a mass in excess of 400 tonnes and if you look carefully into the nightsky, you might see those lucky few astronauts orbiting around 400 kilometers above you.


How to put a human on Mars

When the BBC starts making interactive sites ( ), you know something is a hot topic, so read on… Scientists at Imperial College London have designed a concept mission to land astronauts on Mars.

It would entail a craft existing of two parts: the Martian lander with a heat shield, in which the crew would also ascent into Earth orbit, and a cylindrical craft split into three floors. Travelling through space for long durations brings up major issues, perhaps the most important one being the muscle and bone wastage that weightlessness causes, which would render astronauts unable to walk upon arrival at their destination. To prevent this, the team explains that the two parts would, once in space, unwind from eachother on a steel cable. Short truster bursts would then set in motion the rotation needed to generate artificial gravity similar to Earth’s.

Aside from the deconditioning of the human body, another cause for concern is solar and cosmic radiation. Several solutions are proposed, including running water within the shell of the cruise craft to absorb the radtiation, while another solution would mean fitting superconducting magnets to the craft that would generate a magnetosphere similar to Earth’s.

You can read the full article here:

As more prominent organisations start to report of the possibilities of the first human visit to Mars, and the race to launch paying customers into space is heating up. But colonizing another planet, can you imagine? We already introduced the Inspiration Mars Foundation, headed up by business tycoon Dennis Tito. Another project out there is the Dutch Mars One which will be looking to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023 – talk about being ambitious! And then of course there is billionaire inventor Elon Musk of SpaceX who has also plans to visit the Red Planet, possibly permanently.

We might see the day when we will look up at the sky, and see our second home, like a red dot in a vast ocean of space. It might make us redefine our place in the universe… who knows.

Space Shuttle Discovery

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 2

The ill-fated Challenger, the second space shuttle to be built was the first to conduct a spacewalk. Unfortunately 3 years later in January of 1986, disaster struck when a seal on a rocket booster failed, leading to the shuttle’s destruction 72 seconds into its mission. It was a disaster on many levels for NASA, because not only did it lose seven astronauts and a very expensive shuttle that day but the event showed the world that this was a dangerous business to be in. On this particular launch, media attention was at an all time high, because of the presence of crew member Christa McAulliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.

The tragedy led to a 32-months hiatus in the shuttle program, and President Ronald Reagan setting up the Rogers Commission, which was to investigate the accident. Not only that, but the Air Force decided to launch its classified military satellites using the Titan IV rockets instead.

The program bounced back however, and saw several highlights in a row in between the launch of a range of science probes and telescopes… in May of 1989, Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter, despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. Even more important as it would turn out was the launch of the Hubble space telescope (HST) in April of 1990 – the two would have an ongoing affair for quite some time as it turned out because the HST would need quite some maintenance.

However, looking at the results of what Hubble gave us, no one could argue with its importance in NASA’s history. The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour, the shuttle which was built to replace Challenger using structural spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters. In December 1993, the shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble’s flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle as it transformed our knowledge of the cosmos by showing us the most dazzling places in the universe like we had never seen them before.

Stay tuned for part 3 where we take it away starting from the Mir missions!