MISSE: Testing Materials In Space

If you had a really, really, really good telescope and took a peep at the International Space Station (which would be quite a feat for as quickly as it moves across the sky), you might notice what looks like a make-up kit or a watercolor palette dangling from the side of the station.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk. – Credit: NASA

While some astronauts have taken their makeup into space, and some have found time to create art in orbit, they don’t tend to leave their supplies attached to the outside of the ISS. Ruling those out, instead what you’d probably be looking at is a Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). – Credit: NASA

MISSE projects serve as a laboratory to test and study various material samples as they’re exposed to a space environment. Attached on the outside of the ISS, the specimens are simultaneously exposed to a variety of conditions that would be very difficult, if even possible, to mimic on Earth, including exposure to: atomic oxygen, various levels of radiation, vacuum, extreme temperatures, and zero gravity. While MISSE wasn’t the first project of this type–similar experiments had been carried out on Skylab, Mir, and NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF)–it was the most formal and programmatic.

The first two MISSE projects were deployed in 2001, carried to the ISS via the Discovery crew of STS-105. They were originally planned to only be deployed for one year, but as a result of the grounding of the Shuttle program following the STS-107 Columbia disaster, they ended up staying in orbit for 3 years. There were a total of 8 MISSE experiments conducted by NASA, sometimes deployed in multiples and sometimes singly.

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8 – Credit: NASA

The samples are loaded into trays and installed inside suitcase-like Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). When ready to be deployed, the PECs are carried outside the station during an EVA (extra vehicular activity), and fastened to the station’s exterior. The mounting location has changed throughout the program’s history.

Samples from MISSE 3 and 4 carried 8 million basil seeds that were then provided “to children for science experiments to stimulate interest in space science”. Other samples included paints, lubricants, fabrics, and solar cell technologies. In total, more than 4,000 samples have been tested through MISSE.

As part of NASA’s efforts to privatize routine space projects, MISSE was recently transferred to the private corporation Alpha Space:

MISSE is now a privatized, commercial facility owned and operated by Alpha Space with a permanent placement on the ISS. The facility and its first set of experiments have been manifested to fly to the International Space Station in September of 2017 on the SpaceX Dragon resupply vehicle’s flight SpaceX-13.

Now dubbed MISSE-FF (Material International Space Station Experiment Flight Facility), Alpha Space’s contract is good through at least June 30, 2024 (currently the authorized remaining lifetime of the station). Alpha Space’s plans call for a permanently-mounted tower that will hold multiple PECs at once. If the customers are there (some have already signed contracts), Alpha Space is ready to provide routine testing in the unparalleled environment of space. They expect to begin operations this year (2017).

Animation of Alpha Space's PEC deployment

Animation of Alpha Space’s PEC deployment – Source: Alpha Space

SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE

Be the first team to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, transmit HD images and video back to Earth, and you’ve won yourself $20 million. Oh, and you also have to do this 90%-funded by private investment and do it by the end of 2017. That’s the mission for the Google Lunar XPRIZE.


The XPRIZE is the name of various competitions organized by the non-profit XPRIZE Foundation.

The XPRIZE mission is to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. We foster high‐profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity’s progress.

One of the most famous XPRIZE competitions was the Ansari XPrize. In 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures took that $10 million prize with their SpaceShipOne, after they became the first team to “build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks”. The prize was a major step forward for the development of a private space industry. A few other XPRIZEs have included developing super-efficient automobiles, solutions for cleaning the ocean after oil spills, improving sensor systems for health care services, and to improve our understanding of ocean acidification.

Google Lunar XPRIZE

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is the biggest competition yet, and sets-out to”ignite a new era of planetary exploration by lowering the cost to explore and capturing and inspiring the imagination of a new generation.” More than thirty teams initially registered for the lunar competition. Of those, sixteen participated in all of the required registration activities. But as of January 1st, 2017, the pool was reduced by another eleven. Five teams currently remain, all of which have active contracts to launch to the Moon this year. Those teams are:

SpaceIL (Israel)

SpaceIL was the first team to secure a launch contract. They plan to land their “hopper” craft on the Moon, then fly–in a single ‘hop’–the required 500 meters and land again to secure the prize.

Moon Express (United States)

Moon Express was the first country to secure their government’s authorization to operate on the lunar surface. They intend to launch their “hopper” craft from New Zealand in late 2017.

Synergy Moon (International)

Synergy Moon isn’t contracting with a launch provider for their launch, they’re doing it themselves thanks to Interorbital Systems being a part of the team. Their launch is expected to take place from the Pacific Ocean, off of the coast of California, in the second half of 2017.

Team Indus (India)

Team Indus is planning on launching their adorable 5kg rover, ECA, on December 28 of this year. ECA will include science instruments and cameras from the French national space agency: CNES.

Team Indus's ECA rover

Team Indus’s ECA rover – Source: Team Indus

Hakuto (Japan)

Hakuto’s rover is hitching a ride on the same lander as Team Indus, and boasts some big “partnerships, including au by KDDI, Suzuki, rock band Sakanaction, and a longterm Moon-resources-exploration plan with the Japanese space agency JAXA“.

The Prize

The first team to pull this amazing feat off will earn themselves the $20 million grand prize. In addition to the grand prize, the second place finisher will receive a respectable $5 million. Also, Google has handed out over $5 million in Milestone Prizes for teams (former and current) that have accomplished various important steps to make the mission possible.

Thanks to the Google Lunar XPRIZE, 2017 is set to be an exciting year for private space exploration–The New Space Race is on.

If you’d like to learn more about the Google Lunar XPRIZE, check out the excellent documentary series: Moonshot.

SpaceX CRS-1 Update

As I mentioned yesterday, the private corporation SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon capsule en route to the International Space Station, on the first Commercial Resupply Services contract ever. I watched the video live and didn’t immediately notice any issues but, come to find out, the Falcon launch vehicle lost one of its engines on the way to orbit. Not to worry, however, as the other engines stepped up and compensated for the failure.

Check out this video of the catastrophic engine failure:

SpaceX released a mission update this morning, describing the event:

The Dragon spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station this morning and is performing nominally following the launch of the SpaceX CRS-1 official cargo resupply mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:35PM ET Sunday, October 7, 2012.

Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event.

As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.

Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V (which experienced engine loss on two flights) and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability.

It is worth noting that Falcon 9 shuts down two of its engines to limit acceleration to 5 g’s even on a fully nominal flight. The rocket could therefore have lost another engine and still completed its mission.

Dragon is expected to dock with the ISS on Wednesday.

SpaceX Launches Into the Commercial Spaceflight History Books

Or, “This time, for real”.

Back in May, SpaceX launched it’s Dragon capsule on top of their Falcon 9 rocket, on an intercept course with the International Space Station. This was a test to prove that SpaceX could take over the resupply of the ISS, as space becomes a commercial frontier. The test went perfectly and SpaceX was green-lighted as a contractor to deliver cargo to the ISS.

Tonight, the Dragon capsule screamed into the sky as part of the first of these Commercial Resupply Contract deliveries. Launch occurred right on schedule, and from the best I could tell watching the live webstream everything went flawlessly. A few minutes after launch, the Dragon capsule separated and reached orbit. Shortly after that, it deployed its solar arrays and will now cruise its way to the ISS.

This mission carries a full load of supplies for the station, but won’t be leaving empty; Dragon will be returning nearly 2,000 pounds (approximately twice the payload going up!) of equipment, astronaut blood and urine samples, and other items.

Dragon is set to dock with the ISS on Wednesday, again through the use of the station’s massive robotic arm as it was during the May trip.

SpaceX Launches Itself Towards History

SpaceX COTS 2 Mission Patch

SpaceX COTS 2 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Early Tuesday (5/22) morning, commercial spaceflight took an important step forward which, if everything goes as planned, will result in a historic bookmark in world history tomorrow morning. On May 22nd, 2012, at 3:44am (EST), the private aerospace company, SpaceX, became the first private organization to launch a space capsule filled with supplies on an intercept-course with the International Space Station. If everything checks out, NASA will give SpaceX the go-ahead to dock with the ISS. This first docking maneuver will be accomplished with the aid of the ISS’s robotic arm, which will grab a hold of the Dragon capsule and precisely mate it with the ISS. Subsequent missions will dock solely under Dragon’s power.

Based on my timezone and preferences, the launch was too early to wake up for, yet too late to stay up for. I set an alarm and woke up to watch the show. I watched the final couple of minutes of countdown before seeing that Falcon rocket gracefully take flight towards the stars. The launch feed was quite unlike the typical ones you’ll see coming out of NASA’s mission control. Where NASA’s controllers and announcers stoically announce data and rarely deviate from “strictly-business”, joy was ubiquitous following the Falcon launch and that emotion turned into sheer jubilation when the Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon and deployed its solar arrays.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, described the scene inside SpaceX headquarters:

 “People have really given it their all. We had most of the company gathered around SpaceX Mission Control. They are seeing the fruits of their labor and wondering if it is going to work. There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked, and Dragon worked, and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should. There was tremendous elation. For us it is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Regardless of the fact that I was too excited to fall asleep right away after turning off the NASA feed, I’m very glad I sacrificed some of my sleep to watch that historic scene unfold.

Early this morning, the Dragon capsule conducted a “fly-under” of the ISS, bringing it within 2.4 km of the station. A number of maneuvers and tests were conducted to ensure that the Dragon capsule was operating properly and could be completely controlled, in anticipation of tomorrow’s docking. Everything went flawlessly.

I’ll likely be sacrificing some more sleep to catch all the action.  You can too: Live coverage begins at 7:30am ET (3:30am Pacific), and the feed can be found at SpaceX’s website.

Planetary Resources: From Sci-Fi to Reality

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar. Part of my kids' collection.

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the children's educational book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar

Exciting (and historic!) news came to the world via the space-front yesterday. A major announcement was made by Bellevue, Washington-based, entrepreneurial start-up, Planetary Resources. Yesterday morning, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, they unveiled their plans — plans which up until now had existed primarily in the realm of science fiction: they intend to commercially explore and mine asteroids robotically.

So who are Planetary Resources, and do they have the… well, planetary resources to pull off such a feat?

Planetary Resources emerged from the cocoon of an organization, Arkyd Astronautics, which was founded in late-2010 by Dr. Peter Diamandis (spaceflight entrepreneur, founder of the X Prize Foundation) and Eric Anderson (founder of the commercial spaceflight/space tourism corporation, Space Adventures). If not there at the start-up, Chris Lewicki (a former NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission manager) quickly came on board as president and chief engineer. They began very quietly, offering employment for engineers and other professionals and presenting themselves as devoted to  developing “disruptive technologies for the commercial robotic exploration of space”.

Then there are the prominent billionaire investors and advisors, including according to their April 18 teaser press release:

Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr.

If there is a group of people with the potential, background, and resources to make this venture a reality, I think we’re looking at it.

So what’s the plan here; plop some robotic miners on an asteroid, bring home a lode of precious metals, and sell it for profit? Yes and no. They claim their primary purpose is based on their vision, not a return on investment. That said, the potential return on investment is huge, even if it takes one heck of an initial investment to get to that point. If that claimed motivation is truly the case, I have extremely high hopes for Planetary Resources. The greatest breakthroughs and advancements, those technological leaps that change our world, generally don’t emerge out of a profit-plan. They bloom from inspiration and a yearning to do big things, to follow one’s passions wherever they might take them, no matter the cost. This venture can afford to follow those dreams. And while they will face many challenges along the way, as long as they stay motivated by their vision I don’t foresee them limited into accomplishing it.

Here’s a quick run-down of their initial plan:

They will begin by launching and deploying a number of small space telescopes — already developed under the Arkyd name — that will find, observe, and characterize near-Earth asteroids (NEOs, Near Earth Objects). The first of these is slated to go up within the next 24 months. Once asteroid targets have been selected, probes will be sent to them to begin mining operations.

Interestingly, their first mining goal won’t be to see what precious metals they can extract; their first targeted material will be water and other materials that can be used as supplies in space operations (oxygen, nitrogen, etc.). When you consider the costs of launching supplies from Earth into space, it’s overwhelming. During the historic press conference, former NASA astronaut and Planetary Resources adviser, Tom Jones, pointed out that carrying a single liter of water to the International Space Station costs approximately $20,000 USD! With such tremendous shipping costs, there’s little difference in the cost of putting a kilogram of gold or a liter of water into space — virtually all of the cost is fuel to get into orbit. So with that idea, turning asteroids into supply depots would be extremely valuable, and drastically reduce the cost of space programs.

Planetary Resources logo.

This will also allow Planetary Resources, and other companies that might emerge between now and then, the opportunity to extract other natural resources to return to Earth. Asteroids hold the potential to make some of Earth’s rarest materials abundant, and acquiring them for use on Earth could rapidly transform our technology and infrastructure.

If you want to delve deeper into the hows and technical details of the project, you can check out the FAQ on Planetary Resources’s website and watch the archived webcast of their groundbreaking press conference.

Again, I feel highly inspired by all of this. I feel extremely lucky to live in a time when exciting things like this begin to grow legs (I hope things move quickly enough that I will live to see humans exist as a true space-faring species).  The challenges will be immense, and I don’t even want to consider the up-front economics involved, but I believe now is the time to take this step forward — and whatever Planetary Resources undertakes and no matter how far they go, we’re headed in the right direction.