Is NASA out of the Space Business?

It is now 2015 and in July it would have been four years since an American Spacecraft launched a crew into space. I have heard many people say that NASA is no longer in the space business because of this.

In this article we will explore not only the missions that are currently operating in space, but also the activities that NASA and it’s partners are engaged in currently that will not only bring manned space flight back to US soil but will bring multiple options for launches to the table.

Current Missions in Space

International Space Station (ISS) – We will start with the biggest mission currently operating in space, the ISS which is located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has been permanently occupied for 5200+ days and counting (since 2nd November 2000).

For the majority of the time there are six crew members on board at the same time, when the space shuttle was flying this could increase to thirteen. At present the crews travel to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft which remains docked to the station while they are on board. Occasionally the crew will step outside the spacecraft to perform spacewalks to maintain the spacecraft and change out experiments etc.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2024 and may be longer depending on the hardware. In 2017/18 the crew complement is expected to increase to seven as new crew transportation options become available (see later).

At present NASA has two US commercial companies providing cargo services to the ISS, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX with another round of awards coming soon.

Earth Observation Missions – NASA currently has 18 satellites in space observing our own planet, plus two more systems on the ISS. The image below shows all the missions currently operating.

EarthSat_HD

Sun Observation Missions – NASA currently has XXX satellites either directly observing the Sun or observing the effects the Sun has on the solar system.

Mars Exploration Missions – NASA currently has three satellites and two rovers exploring Mars with another lander and rover in the works.

Mercury – The Messenger spacecraft has been exploring Mercury since 2011.

Jupiter – The Juno spacecraft is currently on route to Jupiter and is scheduled to arrive in 2016.

Saturn – The Cassini spacecraft which was launched in 1997 and has been in orbit of Saturn since 2004 continues to return a wealth of information about Saturn and it’s moons.

Pluto – The New Horizons spacecraft is currently racing to a July 2015 flyby of Pluto and will then continue onto another distance world even further away.  The primary science mission for the flyby has started and will continue throughout the flyby.  This will be the closest ever view of the planetary system.

And Beyond – The Dawn spacecraft is currently approaching Ceres and continues to return amazing views of the distance dwarf planet.  The Voyager spacecraft are the further human made objects and continue to move further away.  There is still some debate as to whether they have actually left our Solar System yet as the boundary isn’t fully known yet.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking amazing images since 1990 changes our view on the Universe.

NASA’s Future Plans

Commercial Crew Program – NASA has award Boeing and SpaceX contracts to develop the ability to launch crew to the ISS. With at least two actual flights for each company under the contract. The first missions are expected in 2017, once the two vehicles are online and able to deliver crew to the ISS NASA plans to increase the crew complement to seven to allow more experiments to be performed.

In addition to these there is also Sierra Nevada who despite losing out on a contract have been working on there Dream Chaser spacecraft and have vowed to continue development.

Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA is also busy building it’s own rocket and spacecraft which is designed to take crew further into space than ever before. The first launch of the spacecraft happened late last year without a crew to verify the design, the lessons learnt from this mission will be applied to future versions of the spacecraft. The first flight of the SLS is expected in 2018 although the date has slipped several times so only time will tell, this will also be an un-crewed mission with the first crewed mission expected some time in the early 2020’s.

NASA are also working on an Asteroid Redirect Mission which will allow a crew to explore the surface of an asteroid by capturing it and moving it into a Sis-Lunar orbit. This will be a two phase mission with a spacecraft tasked with moving the asteroid (or part of one), and then the second mission the crew travelling to the redirected asteroid to explore it.

As of this article a final decision on the first phase of the mission had not been announced.

Mars – NASA continues to explore Mars with a lander (InSight) planned for launch in 2016 and another Curiosity sized rover to launch in 2020.

Asteroid – The OSIRIS-REx mission will visit asteroid Bennu in 2018 to retrieve samples to be returned to Earth.

Europa – In the recently released NASA FY 2016 budget initial plans were including for a mission for Europa.

Beyond – The James Webb Space Telescope currently scheduled to launch in 2018 will significantly change our view on the Universe.

Summary

While at present the US doesn’t have the ability to launched crewed missions into space and have been reliant on the Russians it is clear that this will change reasonably soon with the potential of having three or more launch options.

In addition it is very clear that NASA is far from out of the Space Business and in fact is way ahead of any other nation in how far into the Solar System (and beyond) they have traveled.  We are still the only country to successfully land on Mars, although it does look like the Beagle 2 spacecraft did land but failed to deploy correctly.

SpaceX launches DSCOVR spacecraft

Following a three day delay due to a faulty radar and uncooperative weather SpaceX successfully launched the long delayed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this week.  This was the first deep space mission for SpaceX and the Falcon 9 with the DSCOVR spacecraft travelling to the Sun-Earth Lagrangian Point 1.  Due to severe weather at the landing site SpaceX didn’t send out the Drone Ship and instead did a soft landing in the Ocean.  Data from the attempt was encouraging and the changes to the spacecraft since the last attempt showed that it should have landed successfully.

Instruments

The Plasma-Magnetometer (PlasMag) measures solar wind for space weather predictions. It has 3 instruments:

  • Magnetometer measures magnetic field.
  • Faraday cup measures positively charged particles.
  • Electrostatic analyzer measures electrons.

300px-Deep_Space_Climate_Observatory_spacecraft_diagramNational Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR) measures irradiance of the sunlit face of the Earth. This data is to be used to study changes in Earth’s radiation budget caused by natural and human activities.

The radiometer measures in four channels:

  • For total radiation in ultraviolet, visible and infrared in range of 0.2-100 µm.
  • For reflected solar radiation in ultraviolet, visible and near infrared in range of 0.2-4 µm.
  • For reflected solar radition in infrared in range of 0.7-4 µm.
  • For calibration purposes in range of 0.3-1 µm.

The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) takes images of the sunlit side of Earth for various Earth sciences purposes, in 10 different channels from ultraviolet to near infrared.

See the launch here

SpaceX successfully concludes CRS-5 mission

Dragon just below the station
Dragon just below the station before docking

Despite having to again delay the launch of the DSCOVR mission, this time due to higher than acceptable upper level winds, they still had a successful conclusion to another mission that has been in space for the last month.

The Dragon capsule that was docked to the International Space Station as part of there Commercial Resupply Services contract concluded its mission with a splash down in the Pacific Ocean.  The spacecraft which spent the last four weeks berthed to the station was released by the ISS’s robot arm earlier today and following a successful de-orbit burn splashed down.

ISS outside the Cupola just after release
ISS outside the Cupola just after release

The spacecraft will now be returned to port where the critical supplies will be off-loaded and handed over to NASA, it will then return to Texas for final processing.

Video of the release is available here.