Future Now – Replicators

As part of a new series of articles we will take a look at technology that was predicted in films and where they are today.

Today we will take a look at Replicators, in the future predicted by Star Trek replicators are used extensively to produce all sorts of different items. According to Wikipedia in theory replicators work as follows “by rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe, to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.

So do we have replicator technology today?

If we use the definition shown above then then answer would be NO, however we are not going to use that definition. Instead we are going to use what we know today as a basis for our answer. Over the last few years 3D Printer Technology has exploded with printers becoming cheaper and the range of materials that can be used expanding. SpaceX and NASA have both produced Rocket Engine parts using 3D Printer technology both of which have been tested to extreme temperatures.

International Space Station Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3D printer aboard the orbiting lab. The wrench and other parts will return to Earth for comparison with ground samples in early 2015. Credit: NASA
International Space Station Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3D printer aboard the orbiting lab. The wrench and other parts will return to Earth for comparison with ground samples in early 2015.
Credit: NASA

During the SpaceX CRS-4 mission to the International Space Station earlier this year the first 3D Printer in space was delivered and later installed. While at present this is just a test environment a second more capable printer is already scheduled to be delivered some time in 2015 with an ESA printer also joining it on the station.  During the testing on the space station NASA emailed the design for a wrench which was then printed.

Natural Machines has announced a 3D Food Printer and NASA are also looking into this for future space missions, at the moment this is just a research project but could well be used on long duration missions in the future.

Therefore while we do not currently have the replicators described in Star Trek we do have the ability to replicate items using an increasing array of materials and as we invest more time and money into the technology that will continue to expand.

Orion completes maiden voyage

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has completed it’s maiden voyage with a successful splashdown in the pacific ocean.  After the launch this morning a number of tests were performed during the two orbit mission, Orion was the first human rated spacecraft to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 which flew 42 years ago.

This mission allowed NASA and Lockheed Martin, the prime Orion contractor, to verify some of the following:-

  1. The heat shield, further tests will be performed once the spacecraft has been retrieve to give them a full understanding on the effects the re-entry had.
  2. How the systems coped as they traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts.
  3. How the payload fairing and launch abort system worked during liftoff.

Initial indications show that there were no critical issues during the whole mission with one minor issue after splashdown where one or more of the stabilization balloons on top of the vehicle didn’t deploy correctly.  The flight was very successful showing that the heat shield could withstand the heat of re-entry, tests after the landing will show how much of the Ablator on the shield was burned off.

Unfortunately now we will have to wait another four years before the next flight of Orion which will also be the debut of the Space Launch System rocket,

Below are some images captured from NASA TV during the mission, of the return and splashdown of Orion

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NASA’s Orion has begun it’s EFT-1 mission

Following a smooth countdown the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavies three main engine’s came to life today to lift the Orion capsule to orbit.  18 minutes later the upper stage completed its first firing and left the Orion capsule in the desired orbit.

EFT-1 Mission Diagram
EFT-1 Mission Diagram

Over the next two orbits Orion will follow the flight profile outlined to the right before splashing down in the pacific ocean later today.  The upper stage will fire once again after the first orbit to allow Orion to move further away from Earth than any crew rate vehicle has been since the last Apollo mission.

Below are images captured from NASA TV of the launch, our next update will be later today following the completion of the test flight.

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Ariane 5 launch scrubbed

The second launch scheduled today was unable to lift off due to the weather conditions over the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. A new launch date and time will be decided once the weather conditions have been evaluated.

The Ariane 5 ECA was due to launch the DirecTV 14 and GSAT 16 satellites

Orion’s maiden voyage delayed 24 hours

Today’s launch of the Orion spacecraft had to be scrubbed due to a technical issue with the Delta IV Heavy. During the countdown today there were several attempts made to lift off but various factors stopped that from happening. Two of the attempts were aborted due to higher than expected wind gusts during the final four minutes of the count. The issue that ultimately stopped the launch was with the fill/drain valves in the rocket core stages. Two of them had failed to close correctly and despite a valiant effort by the team they were not able to resolve it in time to launch in the window available.

Another attempt will be made tomorrow morning Friday 12/5 with the launch window again opening at 7:05am EST, the weather forecast for the launch calls for a 60% chance that the weather will violate the launch criteria.

Below are some screen grabs taken during the countdown, we will post later today with the Ariane 5 launch.

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T-1 day and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Tomorrow the first Orion mission should be under way, however the future for Orion and it’s carrier rocket Space Launch System (SLS) is not guaranteed.  The first flight for SLS is still four years away maybe sooner if they can finish the rocket faster but given the number of delays already it seems more likely that it could be delayed further.

Unfortunately before then there will be another Presidential election and there is no telling what the new President will do.  In a previous article I talked about the cost of SLS/Orion, that will fact into any decisions that a new administration makes.  The first crewed flight is not scheduled until some time in the early 2020’s, by which time we could be on a second new President.

By the first crewed launch, baring launches by other space agencies or commercial companies, it will have been almost 50 years since a crewed mission went beyond Low Earth Orbit.  There is also speculation that another test flight may be needed as the upper stage for the crewed mission will not have flown before and current flight rules require at last one test flight before a human crew is aboard.

Beyond that there are other missions that have been discussed but nothing has been finalized, proposals include a robotic mission to Europa, Mars Sample Return mission, Deep Space Habitat, etc.  For a full list of current proposals check out the Wikipedia page here.

We believe there is a place for SLS in the future of manned missions beyond Earth but are concerned with the cost so far to build SLS and Orion and whether future governments will be willing to fund it long term.

We have deliberately avoided comparing launch costs with that of SpaceX or Boeing and their commercial crew proposals for several reasons:-

  • SLS/Orion is not designed to fly to the International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion doesn’t currently have a published per launch cost making any comparisons impossible to determine.
  • SLS/Orion is designed for deep space and due to that has heavier components than on the commercial crew solutions.

The next update will be tomorrow after the launch of EFT-1

Japanese H-2A rocket lifts off carrying Hayabusa 2

This evening a Japanese H-2A rocket lifted off with the Hayabusa 2 Asteroid Sample Return mission.  Following the success of the previous Hayabusa mission this mission is designed to go one step further and return an actual sample back to Earth.

Once in orbit the second spacecraft and upper stage will coast for 90 minutes before firing again.  At 1:10am EST we received confirmation that the Hayabusa 2 probe had successfully separated from the upper stage.

An H-2A rocket has never attempted such a lengthy coast period during any of the booster’s 25 previous flights.

“In this launch of the H-2A rocket, we will execute a difficult operation called a long coast operation,” said Hitoshi Kuninaka, JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 project manager, in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “For most H-2A rocket launches, the satellite is separated about 30 minutes after the launch, but for this mission, we have a long coast operation and the H-2A rocket will do one orbit around Earth and when the rocket comes back over Japan, we will turn on the second stage engine again. We accelerate the spacecraft away from Earth and separate.”

Over the next three and half years the spacecraft will travel to Asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3, Once there it will spend one and half years surveying the asteroid before departing to return to Earth expected around December 2020.

For more on the Hayabusa 2 mission check out it’s page here.

The images below were captured from the live web stream of the launch.

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T-2 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

The first orbital flight of the Orion spacecraft will allow NASA and it’s contractor Lockheed Martin to verify the design of the vehicle in space itself, for this flight there will be no crew members however there will be a vast amount of instrumentation and sensors on board to provide as much data as possible during the mission.

While Orion is designed to fly on the Space Launch System (SLS) in the long term because the rocket isn’t ready to fly yet this mission will be flown using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

This is the first flight into space for Orion but it isn’t the first flight, a number of drop tests have already been performed to allow the parachutes and other systems used during landing to be validated, in addition a number of tests have been performed in a large pool to verify that the vehicle can right itself should it land in the wrong orientation.  Like the Apollo module used for the moon missions Orion will land on water, a number of tests have been performed to verify that the recovery ships can retrieve the module once it has landed.

EFT-1 Mission Diagram
EFT-1 Mission Diagram

The four and a half hour flight will take the Orion spacecraft on two orbits of Earth. Peak altitude will be approximately 3,600 miles. The high altitude will allow the the spacecraft to reach reentry speeds of up to 20,000 mph, which will expose the heat shield to temperatures up to around 4,000 °F, or 80% of the temperature that would be experienced upon reentry from a moon mission.

Next update tomorrow we will look at the future for Orion and SLS.

T-3 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Officially known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) the vehicle was announced in May 2011.  The design of the vehicle is derived from the cancelled Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle which was to be a part of the Constellation program announced by President Bush in 2004, that program was eventually cancelled by President Obama and the new mission announced.

Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA
Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA

The spacecraft will be made up of two parts, the Command Module (CM), built by Lockheed Martin, where the crew will reside during flight and the Service Module (SM), supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus Defense and Space, which will provide power and propulsion.  For the EFT-1 flight the Service Module will comprise of the Delta IV upper stage and Orion will rely on batteries to provide power.

The first flight with the ESA provided Service Module is expected on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) currently scheduled for 2018.

Orion is being designed for deep space missions which unlike missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) require a stronger heat shield during re-entry due to the increased speed as the spacecraft approaches the planet.  In addition the vehicle will need to withstand stronger doses of radiation than those visiting LEO which is still somewhat protected by Earth’s atmosphere.  The vehicle is designed along the lines of the old Apollo Command Modules but there the comparison finishes, internally it will have 50% more volume and will be 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length, with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb).  The module is designed to support a crew of 4-6 for up to 21 days of active flight, with an orbital life of six months when combined with another module for longer missions.

Orion’s CM will use advanced technologies, including:

  • “Glass cockpit” digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
  • An “autodock” feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.
  • Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic “Apollo bags” used by the Apollo crews.
  • A nitrogen/oxygen (N2/O2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
  • Much more advanced computers than on previous crewed spacecraft.
NASA has announced that it will conduct an unmanned test flight called the Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1 in 2014. Image Credit: NASA.gov
Artists rendering of the Orion Spacecraft in orbit with the Delta IV upper stage. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Next update tomorrow we will look at the Goals of the test flight.

Information for this article was gather from NASA and the 
Orion wikipedia page.