Meet Int-Ball: The Japanese Robot Floating Around the International Space Station

This is Int-Ball.

JAXA's Int-Ball

JAXA’s Int-Ball – Source: JAXA/NASA

No, it isn’t a flying BB-8. Int-Ball is the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) grapefruit-sized camera drone deployed in the Japanese Experiment Module1 attached to the International Space Station. Its full name is JEM Internal Ball Camera. Int-Ball functions autonomously under the direction of ground crews at the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. Its function is to record images and video for real-time viewing back on Earth. The device uses existing drone technology and its structure is made from 3D printed components.

JAXA estimates that 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) Int-Ball can replace nearly all of the onboard crew’s time spent recording images and video, which is approximately 10% of their total working time. It utilizes ultrasonic and inertial sensors, as well as image-based navigation to make its way between tasks. An array of twelve small fans allow the drone to maneuver in any direction, as well as to hold completely steady in the weightless environment.

A planned future version of the drone will perform additional monitoring tasks to free up even more astronaut working time.

Check out this video for some footage of Int-Ball in action.

  1. nicknamed Kibo (which in English, means ‘hope’

Space Tweets: @AstroKomrade’s ISS Pets

Yesterday Was A Big Day For SpaceX

Yesterday was a big day for Elon Musk and his space launch services company SpaceX. On April 9, 2016, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The rocket was topped with the company’s Dragon capsule, filled with 7,000 pounds of supplies destined for the International Space Station. Included in the payload was the 3,100 pound Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), Bigelow Aerospace’s attempt to demonstrate its expandable space habitats.

SpaceX CRS-8 Mission Patch

SpaceX CRS-8 Mission Patch – Source: SpaceX

The highlight of the mission, designated CRS-8, was SpaceX’s first successful landing of its Falcon 9 rocket on a droneship (christened “Of Course I Still Love You”) in the Atlantic Ocean. This feat is something SpaceX had tried and failed four times previously. SpaceX has successfully landed its Falcon 9 on land, but that challenge paled in comparison to a landing on a barge being tossed around by Atlantic currents.

SpaceX has put a huge emphasis on making its programs efficient and reusable. Their hope is that their methods will drive down the costs of putting people and equipment into orbit and beyond, and make launches much more common. Friday’s successful landing of the Falcon 9 was a huge step in that direction.

All in all, Friday’s success should serve as an important milestone in space exploration. It also highlights the ever increasing transfer of space access from governments to commercial industries.

Check out the amazing video below, of the Falcon 9 landing on ‘Of Course I Still Love You’.

Unreal.

Dragon will arrive at the ISS tomorrow, April 10.

Tour the International Space Station

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. – Source: NASA

Have you ever wanted to visit the International Space Station? Without a whole lot of education, extreme determination, and a fair helping of luck, chances are you won’t be visiting it in-person anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a virtual tour of humanity’s only off-planet home. With the multimedia below, get a feel for what life aboard the International Space Station is like. No spacesuit required.

ESA Panoramas

The European Space Agency (ESA) put together the following 360° panorama of the ISS’s Russian Zvezda module. Notice how there are work surfaces that could only function in a weightless environment. For example, pan straight up towards the ‘ceiling’. (Note: After you hit play, you’ll want to click the full-screen button in the bottom right corner of the video.)

This 360° panorama allows you to explore the International Space Station’s third module, Zvezda. Launched on 12 July 2000, the Russian module supplies life support for the Station and crewquarters. All five of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles docked with the module.

The images to create this view were taken by ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during her Futura mission in 2015; the cosmonaut in the picture is Gennady Padalka.

Two other views like this are also available on YouTube thanks to the ESA. Check out the Zarya and Unity modules as well.

ESA Interactive Tour

Next up, we have an interactive presentation that you’re going to have to go see for yourself. Check out this interactive tour of nearly the entire ISS. Turn on the map overlay and you can jump to individual sections of the station, or just tour it manually by clicking on the blue arrows. (I managed to get myself lost!) Video clips are interspersed throughout the tour for a more-detailed look.

Just before ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti left the International Space Station after 199 days, she took up to 15 pictures inside each module. Now, the images have been stitched together to create this interactive panorama.

These panoramas offer a snapshot of the International Space Station as it was in June 2015, after moving the Leonardo storage module to a new location.

Wasn’t that cool?

Commander Sunita Williams Tour

One more for today. While not interactive like the other two, this video is one of my favorite tours of the ISS.

In her final days as Commander of the International Space Station, Sunita Williams of NASA recorded an extensive tour of the orbital laboratory and downlinked the video on Nov. 18, just hours before she, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency departed in their Soyuz TMA-25A spacecraft for a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan. The tour includes scenes of each of the station’s modules and research facilities with a running narrative by Williams of the work that has taken place and which is ongoing aboard the orbital outpost.

 

The 2012 video is somewhat long, 25 minutes, but by the end of it you find yourself wishing it would go on longer. Commander Sunita Williams takes us all throughout the space station while demonstrating various features and functions. I especially enjoyed her taking us inside the docked Soyuz capsule that she would be dropping back to Earth in, mere hours after creating this video.

Soyuz Spacecraft Returns to Earth: Year-In-Space Mission Ends

The image below shows the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft’s return to Earth, on March 2nd, 2016. Inside are NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov. Both Kelly and Kornienko spent almost an entire year in space aboard the International Space Station, in a research effort to understand the health impacts of long-term spaceflight.

Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft, floating back to Earth

Soyuz TMA-18M, floating back to Earth – Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Click the image for an even gorgeous-er huge version.

Isn’t that image simply amazing?

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.


Flashing the ISS

In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.

For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.

Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.

Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
Image showing the flash experiment from the ISS.

(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)

Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!

It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.

For more information about the event, you can view a video of the experiment from the ground here and listen to an episode of 365 Days of Astronomy pertaining to the event.