Friday, October 20, 2017

New NASA study improves search for habitable worlds

New NASA research is helping to refine our understanding of candidate planets beyond our solar system that might support life.

"Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study," said Yuka Fujii of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), New York, New York and the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, lead author of a paper on the research published in the Astrophysical Journal Oct. 17.

Previous models simulated atmospheric conditions along one dimension, the vertical. Like some other recent habitability studies, the new research used a model that calculates conditions in all three dimensions, allowing the team to simulate the circulation of the atmosphere and the special features of that circulation, which one-dimensional models cannot do. The new work will help astronomers allocate scarce observing time to the most promising candidates for habitability.

Liquid water is necessary for life as we know it, so the surface of an alien world (e.g. an exoplanet) is considered potentially habitable if its temperature allows liquid water to be present for sufficient time (billions of years) to allow life to thrive. If the exoplanet is too far from its parent star, it will be too cold, and its oceans will freeze. If the exoplanet is too close, light from the star will be too intense, and its oceans will eventually evaporate and be lost to space. This happens when water vapor rises to a layer in the upper atmosphere called the stratosphere and gets broken into its elemental components (hydrogen and oxygen) by ultraviolet light from the star. The extremely light hydrogen atoms can then escape to space. Planets in the process of losing their oceans this way are said to have entered a "moist greenhouse" state because of their humid stratospheres.

In order for water vapor to rise to the stratosphere, previous models predicted that long-term surface temperatures had to be greater than anything experienced on Earth - over 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius). These temperatures would power intense convective storms; however, it turns out that these storms aren't the reason water reaches the stratosphere for slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state.

"We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state," said Fujii. For exoplanets orbiting close to their parent stars, a star's gravity will be strong enough to slow a planet's rotation. This may cause it to become tidally locked, with one side always facing the star - giving it eternal day - and one side always facing away -giving it eternal night.

When this happens, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet and act like a sun umbrella to shield the surface from much of the starlight. While this could keep the planet cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the team found that the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) from a star could provide the heat needed to cause a planet to enter the moist greenhouse state. NIR is a type of light invisible to the human eye. Water as vapor in air and water droplets or ice crystals in clouds strongly absorbs NIR light, warming the air. As the air warms, it rises, carrying the water up into the stratosphere where it creates the moist greenhouse.

This process is especially relevant for planets around low-mass stars that are cooler and much dimmer than the Sun. To be habitable, planets must be much closer to these stars than our Earth is to the Sun. At such close range, these planets likely experience strong tides from their star, making them rotate slowly. Also, the cooler a star is, the more NIR it emits. The new model demonstrated that since these stars emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result even in conditions comparable to or somewhat warmer than Earth's tropics. For exoplanets closer to their stars, the team found that the NIR-driven process increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually. So, it's possible, contrary to old model predictions, that an exoplanet closer to its parent star could remain habitable.

This is an important observation for astronomers searching for habitable worlds, since low-mass stars are the most common in the galaxy. Their sheer numbers increase the odds that a habitable world may be found among them, and their small size increases the chance to detect planetary signals.

The new work will help astronomers screen the most promising candidates in the search for planets that could support life. "As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state," said Anthony Del Genio of GISS, a co-author of the paper. "Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet's atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state."

In this study, researchers assumed a planet with an atmosphere like Earth, but entirely covered by oceans. These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. In the future, the team plans to vary planetary characteristics such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure to see how they affect water vapor circulation and habitability.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Space radiation won't stop NASA's human exploration

While it's true that space radiation is one of the biggest challenges for a human journey to Mars, it's also true that NASA is developing technologies and countermeasures to ensure a safe and successful journey to the red planet.

"Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that's not the current situation," said, Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead. "When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth."

Space radiation is quite different and more dangerous than radiation on Earth. Even though the International Space Station sits just within Earth's protective magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what's naturally occurring on Earth. Outside the magnetic field there are galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped space radiation.

NASA is able to protect the crew from SPEs by advising them to shelter in an area with additional shielding materials. However, GCRs are much more challenging to protect against. These highly energetic particles come from all over the galaxy. They are so energetic they can tear right through metals, plastic, water and cellular material. And as the energetic particles break through, neutrons, protons, and other particles are generated in a cascade of reactions that occur throughout the shielding materials. This secondary radiation can sometimes cause a worse radiation environment for the crew.

"One of the most challenging parts for the human journey to Mars is the risk of radiation exposure and the inflight and long-term health consequences of the exposure," NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, Ph.D., said. "This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes."

NASA is evaluating various materials and concepts to shield the crew from GCRs. Researchers are developing and evaluating shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits with state of the art models and at experimental facilities such as the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL). Scientists are investigating pharmaceutical countermeasures, which may be more effective than shielding to protect crews from GCRs. Teams are integrating radiation-sensing instruments into the Orion spacecraft, like the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are using Personal and operational dosimeters. Engineers are developing enhanced space weather forecasting tools and studying faster rockets to reduce the time spent in space and exposure to radiation.

NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division is also developing various space radiation detection and mitigation technologies. The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was one of the first instruments sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future human exploration. It measures and identifies radiation on the Martian surface, such as protons, energetic ions, neutrons, and gamma rays. This includes not only direct radiation from space, but also secondary radiation produced by the interaction with the Martian atmosphere and ground.

"Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence," Troutman said. We've already found valuable resources for sustaining humans, such as water ice just below the surface and past geological and climate evidence that Mars at one time had conditions suitable for life. What we learn about Mars will tell us more about Earth's past and future and may help answer whether life exists beyond our planet."

NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments. This leads to the development and delivery of a program focused on: human health, performance, and habitability standards; countermeasures and risk mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical support technologies. HRP supports innovative, scientific human research by funding more than 300 research grants to respected universities, hospitals and NASA centers to over 200 researchers in more than 30 states.


Elon Musk Reveals More Details About His Plan to Colonize Mars

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed a trove of new details on the company’s plan to colonize Mars.

He discussed technical details about the giant rocket that he says will take passengers to the Red Planet, the road map for getting to its first launch, and insights into SpaceX’s broader strategy in an “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit Saturday.

Musk was his typical freewheeling self during the AMA, quoting the cartoon Bob the Builder and responding to a question about spaceship design with the highly technical insight that “tails are lame.”

He also gamely responded to questions about tangential details of settling Mars, including speculation that settlers might use a compressed version of the Internet. Musk observed that data would take between 3 and 22 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars. “So you could Snapchat, I suppose. If that’s a thing in the future,” he wrote.

More substantively, Musk clarified the scope of SpaceX’s ambitions on Mars. Though he has shared images of vast Martian cities in his presentations on Mars colonization, he said SpaceX isn’t focused on building those cities itself.

“Our goal is get you there and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place. A rough analogy is that we are trying to build the equivalent of the transcontinental railway. A vast amount of industry will need to be built on Mars by many other companies and millions of people.”

That means SpaceX will be designing and building things like systems for creating fuel from Martian resources, work that Musk said is “pretty far along.” But they won’t be focused on issues like how colonists grow food.

Musk also reiterated previous claims that SpaceX is designing the new Mars rocket – still code-named BFR, which stands for exactly what you think it does – to be as safe and reliable as today’s commercial airliners. That will be crucial if plans to use the BFR for transportation around Earth come to fruition.

Musk also shared some details about the game plan for testing the BFR ahead of its first scheduled flight in 2022.

“[We] will be starting with a full-scale Ship doing short hops of a few hundred kilometers in altitude and lateral distance,” Musk wrote. “Those are fairly easy on the vehicle, as no heat shield is needed, we can have a large amount of reserve propellant and don’t need the high area ratio, deep space Raptor engines.

“[The] next step will be doing orbital velocity Ship flights, which will need all of the above.”

SpaceX’s progress on its Falcon 9 rocket in recent years – especially its unprecedented success in landing and reusing rockets – has fascinated observers and re-energized public dialogue about space.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

JWST launch slips to early 2019

Extra testing of the James Webb Space Telescope and delays in assembling the powerful observatory will push back the $10 billion mission’s launch by at least six months to early 2019, officials announced last week as the telescope successfully completed an extensive performance test inside a cryogenic vacuum chamber in Houston.

NASA ordered the launch delay to keep ground teams from rushing to ready JWST for its previous launch date in October 2018. Assembly of the spacecraft at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach, California, ran behind schedule the last few months, consuming most of the remaining slack in the schedule leading up to the launch opportunity next October.

“During the summer, we started to analyze what’s the work we have yet to do, and what’s the pace at which we’re accomplishing the current work, which is the testing of the telescope down at the Johnson Space Center, and the integration and eventual testing of the spacecraft bus element, the combination of the sunshield and the spacecraft, and then the whole observatory,” said Eric Smith, JWST program director at NASA Headquarters. “It’s about this time that Northrop was encountering difficulties with the integration, not in the sense that they couldn’t do the work, but that it was taking longer than they had planned.”

Most of the delays encountered during spacecraft assembly have been small, Smith said, taking just a few days to resolve. But the difficulties added up to consume most of the three-and-a-half months of schedule reserve JWST had early this year.

“We’re uncovering the normal issues as you go through the integration of something this big and complicated, but there are no showstoppers that are making us scratch our heads, and ask, “How do we do this?” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of there are so many things to do, that they’re all taking a bit longer.

Managers also decided to take more time testing the fully-assembled observatory next year, ensuring engineers can carefully verify JWST’s readiness for launch.

“It’s the first time for doing this activity,” Smith said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “No one’s ever built one of these before, so I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising, but once we did that analysis, we realized it should be prudent to move the launch date out so that we have time to do all the activities very carefully.”

The schedule slip will not add to the observatory’s cost or impact the telescope’s scientific output, officials said.

JWST is NASA’s next great observatory, promising new discoveries about the earliest galaxies in the universe, the formation of stars, and the environments of planets orbiting nearby stars.

The telescope’s primary mirror is made of 18 hexagonal gold-coated beryllium segments that will fold up for launch, then unfurl once in space. JWST also carries a five-layer sunshield to keep the observatory’s scientific instruments cold, giving the telescope visibility in infrared light.

JWST is set to launch on top of a European Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. The Ariane 5 launch is a major contribution to the mission by the European Space Agency.

The JWST program escaped cancellation in 2011 as delays mounted and costs skyrocketed. NASA officials re-planned the program’s budget and schedule at that time, committing to launching the mission by October 2018 at a cost of $8.84 billion to the U.S. space agency.

Adding the contributions of European and Canadian partners, including the Ariane 5 launcher, pushes the mission’s total cost to around $10 billion.

ESA and Arianespace, the Ariane 5’s operator, planned to formally set a target launch date for JWST this month in a customary schedule tag-up 12 months before liftoff.

We’re sort of seeing (the assembly delays) right about the time we’re having to do this schedule assessment, and that’s when we realized you can’t go into detailed testing of the spacecraft element and the observatory with no reserves, so you need to build yourself some adequate reserve,” Smith said. “That’s what we’ve done.”

Webb’s new launch window opens in March 2019 and extends three months.

The delay opens up Arianespace’s October 2018 launch slot for BepiColombo, an interplanetary mission to Mercury jointly managed by ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Engineers in Europe are in the final stages of testing BepiColombo, which includes two Mercury orbiters developed by ESA and JAXA, plus a transfer stage propelled by ion thrusters.

BepiColombo’s launch period opens Oct. 5, 2018, and extends until Nov. 28. The mission must launch during that window to begin a lengthy interplanetary journey that will use a flyby of Earth, two gravity assist swingbys of Venus, and six flybys of Mercury to set up for orbit insertion around the solar system’s innermost planet in December 2025.

The Mercury mission remains on track for its October 2018 launch window, wrote Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project scientist, in an email last week.

JWST comes in two major sections: the spacecraft and the telescope.

Smith said JWST’s sunshield, which will deploy to the size of a tennis court after launch, has been attached to the spacecraft by Northrop Grumman. But the sunshield’s installation took longer than planned.

Workers have re-welded transducers into the spacecraft’s propulsion system to replace units damaged during testing.

“If you were fortunate enough to go see it at Northrop Grumman in the big clean room there, you would see it looks fully assembled as far as the spacecraft element goes,” Smith told Spaceflight Now. “The transducers were repaired. New ones were put in, so that fix is behind us now, and they’ve been tested. We’re all good there.”

Engineers plan to conduct the first deployment test of the JWST spacecraft this month to evaluate how it will transform from launch configuration into an operational layout after liftoff.

Depending on how you count, Smith said JWST will have more than 300 deployments after it separates from from the upper stage of the Ariane 5 launcher. Counting steps in a similar way, the Curiosity Mars rover had around 70 deployments, according to Smith.

Smith said there were many small issues confronting the assembly team at Northrop Grumman, but no showstoppers.

“If you were to look at the list of things that would cause you to use reserve for the spacecraft element, you’d see there are many things, a small one a day or two here and there,” he said. “Installation of the membrane release devices, for instance. There are more than 100 of them. That was scheduled for a certain period, and it took longer.”

While Northrop Grumman puts together the spacecraft in California, the telescope is wrapping up a three-month stint inside a super-cold cryogenic thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Technicians placed the telescope, a structure that includes the mirrors and science instruments, inside the vacuum chamber in June. The test chamber was chilled to 37 Kelvin (minus 393 degrees Fahrenheit) and air pumped out to create a vacuum, mimicking the environment JWST will experience at its operating post at the L2 Lagrange point nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

The test chamber in Houston is the largest such test facility in the world, and it will be the last time the telescope sees the extreme temperatures it will encounter in space. There is no chamber large enough for a thermal vacuum test of the fully-assembled observatory.

Smith said a preliminary look at the outcome of the cryogenic test looks good.

“The initial results from the thermal vacuum test are all very positive,” Smith said. “They showed some images that the optics team had taken of the mirror, and when you look at it with the detailed instruments that we have down there, you can see the gravity sag. It’s sitting in a 1g gravity field right now, so that puts a little deformation in the mirrors on the order of microns. But it was exactly as their models had predicted, so they were delighted by that picture, and the instruments have performed well.”

The telescope passed acoustic and vibration tests earlier this year at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Those tests subjected the telescope to the shaking and sound it will experience during launch.

Ultra-sensitive micro-shutters inside JWST’s NIRSpec instrument, which proved troublesome earlier in the mission’s development, also worked as expected during the cryogenic test, a result Smith said was “very important.”

Engineers used mechanical actuators during the cryogenic test to align each of the 18 primary mirror segments to function as a single monolithic unit. The focusing actuators can also adjust the alignment after the launch of JWST, the largest space telescope ever built.

Methodical checks of JWST’s optics after vibration testing, and in cryogenic conditions, were aimed at avoiding a repeat of the mirror deformity that plagued the Hubble Space Telescope after its launch in 1990. Space shuttle astronauts had to add corrective vision aids to the orbiting observatory in 1993 to fix the problem.

No such astronauts visits are planned to JWST, which is not designed to be serviced in space. The first assessment of test data suggests no such deformity exists on JWST.

The three-month cryo test continued as the Houston area was flooded by drenching rains from Hurricane Harvey.

“They kept testing all through Harvey,” Smith said. “I think, in the end, it might have added two days fo the 93-day test. They did a wonderful job down there.”

The telescope is scheduled to come out of the cryogenic vacuum chamber Oct. 22, Smith said, and test crews will need about one month to prepare it for shipment to Northrop Grumman’s factory in Redondo Beach.

“Engineers will perform the warming gradually … to ensure the safety of the telescope, its science instruments, and the supporting equipment,” said Randy Kimble, an integration and test project scientist for the Webb Telescope. “Once the chamber and its contents are warmed to near room temperature, engineers will begin to pump gaseous nitrogen into [the chamber] until it is once again at one atmosphere of pressure (at sea level) and no longer a vacuum.”

“Depending on how long that hardware removal takes, some time in December you could expect to see it showing up in Southern California,” Smith said.

Workers will mate the telescope and spacecraft in Redondo Beach for another full round of combined vibration and acoustic tests next year. NASA says JWST will perhaps be the most tested vehicle ever sent into space after undergoing systematic tests at the instrument, spacecraft and telescope, and observatory levels.

The spacecraft will travel by boat from Southern California through the Panama Canal to the Ariane 5 launch base in French Guiana around the end of 2018 for fueling and final launch preparations.


NASA will put humans on the Moon again, Mike Pence tells space council

The space agency has a new pit stop on the way to Mars

After months of hinting, Vice President Mike Pence finally made it clear today that the Trump administration will direct NASA to land humans on the Moon and establish a more permanent presence on the lunar surface. It's a return to the vision of President George W. Bush, which was deferred when President Obama reoriented the space agency toward a journey to Mars.

Pence made the administration’s intentions known in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, as well as a speech he gave during the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council — a newly resurrected executive group aimed at guiding the US space agenda. “We will return NASA astronauts to the Moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation, we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” he said to a crowd of representatives and press at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

It’s a move that many within the space community have suspected for a while. Pence suggested a return to the Moon during a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July. And many members of the National Space Council and Trump’s NASA transition team have been advocates of lunar missions. However it still marks a fundamental change for the space agency, which has been focused on sending humans to Mars since 2010 — without any plans for landing people on the Moon.

For now, it’s unknown how this destination shift will affect NASA’s long-term plans. For the last decade, NASA has been developing a new rocket and spacecraft — the Space Launch System and Orion — to take astronauts into deep space and onto Mars. The current plan is to use these vehicles to build a space station in the vicinity of the Moon, known as the Deep Space Gateway, where astronauts can train and then depart for missions to Mars. But it’s possible those vehicles could be used to go to the Moon’s surface instead. Versions of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule were originally conceived as part of the Constellation program — an effort under Bush to take astronauts to the Moon that was canceled by Obama.

It seems likely that NASA will leverage partnerships with commercial companies to help it get back to the Moon. A big focus of today’s council meeting revolved around how NASA works with private space companies to pull off its missions in space. “American companies are on the cutting edge of space technology, and they’re developing new rockets, spaceships, and satellites that will take us further into space faster than ever before,” Pence said. “By fostering much stronger partnerships between the federal government and the realm of industry, and bringing the full force of our national interests to bear, American leadership in space will be assured.” Pence also stressed the importance of commercial companies maintaining a permanent presence in lower Earth orbit so that NASA could focus on deep-space missions.

However, it’s unclear what truly lies ahead for NASA, as most of today’s National Space Council meeting was big on talk, while light on concrete strategies. The meeting was filled with presentations from various space industry leaders — including those from SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. The representatives of these companies discussed how their organizations could best serve NASA in achieving its goals, either by providing rockets and services or by building new space vehicles. SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell touted the company’s successful Falcon 9 rocket launches and landings, while Boeing reminded NASA of its long history building the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Above all, Pence stressed that the US would lead in space again under the Trump administration. He spent a great deal of his speech lamenting the fact that American astronauts have not launched into deep space in the last 45 years, and that NASA is currently relying on Russian vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. “America seems to have lost our edge in space,” said Pence, “and those days are over.”

But it could be some time before we know how the Trump administration plans to lead in space again. No new policies are coming out of the National Space Council meeting, and it’s ultimately up to Congress to decide how NASA’s budget is spent. Perhaps we’ll see some changes to the budget later this year, or perhaps with the president’s budget request early next year. “With the upcoming budget process, we will look to solidify this work with our new goals in place,” NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. But for now, NASA’s route to the Moon isn’t truly certain.

United Arab Emirates to establish human spaceflight program

ADELAIDE, Australia — The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to establish its own astronaut corps in the next year, seeking to fly its citizens into space on other nations’ vehicles starting in the early 2020s.

In a panel discussion at the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here Sept. 28, officials with the country’s new space agency said that the country sought to develop a “sustainable” human spaceflight program with scientific applications, rather than simply the prestige of flying humans in space.

“This is an initiative from the UAE government to have a sustainable human spaceflight program,” said Salem Humaid Al Marri, assistant director general at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. “When we talk about sustainable, that means that we are not looking at launching an astronaut for a week or launching a tourist flight, but we’re looking at a program that is based on science.”

Al Marri said later that the government will formally request applications from astronauts by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2018. He didn’t disclose what criteria the space agency had developed for its astronaut program.

That will be followed by a selection process that he estimated will last from six to ten months before choosing between four and six astronauts. “Probably towards the lower end,” he said of that range of four to six, “because obviously all of the astronauts that we train we would also look to fly them at some point.”

The first of those astronauts would fly by the end of 2021, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. “We have not decided on who will be flying us yet,” he said. “We do envisage that we partner up with all of the major space agencies, somehow and in some structure.”

There would be several options for the UAE to choose from, including Soyuz flights by Russia to the International Space Station and Shenzhou flights to a Chinese space station slated to be completed by the early 2020s. Other options include flights on commercial crew vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.

Al Marri tied the human spaceflight program to the UAE Space Agency’s “Mars 2117” concept announced earlier this year, which projects establishing a full-fledged city on Mars in a century. Near-term aspects of that effort include creating a “Mars Science City” in the UAE that can be used for Mars analog simulations.

He said he expected research conducted there would stimulate follow-on experiments that could be carried out by UAE astronauts on their flights. “We have a long-term strategy of getting to Mars by 2117, so our astronauts will be working on science that is related to long-term habitation of space,” he said. “We look at that as a natural next step in the progression of testing some of our experiments and ideas in the ISS and the space environment.”

The UAE has expressed growing interest in space in recent years, establishing a national space agency and funding satellite projects, in addition to its planned human spaceflight program. The country is also working on a Mars orbiter mission called Hope that is scheduled to launch in 2020 to study the Martian atmosphere.

The UAE also picked up an endorsement of its space ambitions on Sept. 29, when the International Astronautical Federation announced that Dubai will host the 71st IAC in 2020. The IAC will take place in Bremen, Germany, in 2018 and Washington in 2019.


60 years after Sputnik, Russia is lost in space

MOSCOW — Just over 30 years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, the nation that opened the space race stood on the precipice of a second golden age of space exploration. A major program, the Energia heavy booster rocket and the Buran space shuttle, was nearing completion — making its maiden flight in November 1988.

Another three decades later, on the 60th anniversary of Sputnik 1, the Russian space program is a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. The Energia-Buran project, its last major accomplishment, flew just once before the fall of communism gutted Moscow’s space program. For nearly three decades now, the Russian space industry has been in a state of triage, teetering on collapse.

But the Russian space program has consistently defied the dire predictions of those foretelling an imminent end to the program. Today, amid a major effort to reform and reorganize the Russian space industry under the new Roscosmos state corporation, there are signs that the bleeding has been slowed. But major questions about Russia’s future in space linger.

“Russia’s space industry is in deep crisis,” says Pavel Luzin, a Russian space industry expert and CEO of research startup Under Mad Trends. “We are able to maintain some of our capabilities, especially military ones, but without significant reforms we will be unable to go further. Soon, Russia will face a choice: either change itself or lose its space capabilities.”

Why do it?

To understand the current state of the Russian space program, it is important to take stock of why Moscow pursues space activities at all. Generally speaking, the Russian space program today — like its Soviet predecessor — is primarily focused on the military applications of space technology. Almost all Russian space technology was built for or derived from military purposes.

This was true from the very beginning. The R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik in 1957 was itself a modified ICBM, constructed for the Soviet Union’s fledgling nuclear program. The Soyuz launch vehicle used today to fly to the International Space Station was derived from the R-7. The Proton rocket, too, was derived from an ICBM. Soviet space stations began as military outposts.

Only recently has modern Russia began in earnest to develop new space technology, but for the moment the majority of its assets have military heritage. Looking at Moscow’s satellite constellation, according to open source estimates, 80 of its 134 spacecraft on orbit are military hardware, says Luzin. In this way, the Russian program looks very similar to the Soviet one.

The major difference is the political and ideological context that amplified those efforts into an ambitious, broad-spectrum space program that launched Sputnik, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first space stations, and the Energia-Buran project — as well as a wealth of scientific missions to Venus and other far-off locales. Simply put: modern Russia lacks political rationale to do more than it does.

Loss of vision

The major challenge facing the Russian space program today is lack of vision. The Soviet Union, an ideological superpower, had very clear reasons to push forward into space: Communism was humanity’s future, they believed, and that future was in space. The Cold War gave additional ideological impetus, as space could demonstrate the superiority of their system.

“The space race gave people a dream, a vision: space would be a place where the new man of the future, the communist man, would live, explore and create,” explains Ivan Kosenkov, an analyst at the Skolkovo Space Cluster — the epicenter of modern Russia’s private space efforts. “This motivated people to work hard and achieve goals faster than any time since then.”

Post-Soviet Russia is not an ideological nation. In many ways, it is a nostalgic nation. This nostalgia has been expertly co-opted by the government under President Vladimir Putin. Under him, Russians largely draw pride from looking back, rather than looking forward. And in this regard, the space program has already provided what it needs to.

Yury Gagarin is a national hero on the level of Peter the Great and Stalin. The iconography of Soviet space achievements litters Moscow to this day. And a 2015 survey conducted by the state-owned VTsIOM pollster found that 87 percent of respondents supported Russia’s presence in space — far outpacing public support for space exploration in the United States (A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that just 68 percent of Americans viewed NASA favorably).

Earthly concerns

Russia’s priorities in space today are far more grounded that its Soviet predecessor. The primary task for the Russian space industry is to retain Soviet-era capabilities. These efforts since at least 2014 have been enshrined in the massive reorganization and consolidation of the space industry under Roscosmos, which in 2015 became a state-owned corporation.

These capabilities are important for Russia from a national security standpoint.

“During the Cold War,” says Kosenkov, “the Soviet Union’s survival was largely dependent on the success of the nuclear program and the space program, which together enabled the development of a nuclear deterrent for the country and allowing the USSR to achieve parity in the field of weapons of mass destruction with the United States.”

This logic is mostly unchanged today. Nuclear missiles remain Russia’s only real guarantee of national defense. Its territory is simply too large to reasonably defend conventionally. But there is little, if anything, left to develop other that new ICBMs and new rockets — efforts that Russia struggles with now but is making progress. Exploration and science efforts have withered.

“Scientific space activity and space exploration were always a kind of ‘side effect’ of the military and political purposes of the U.S.-Soviet space race,” Luzin says. “Even now, space exploration and space science are not Russia’s priorities. That is why we have such a decline. Without commercial and scientific achievements, it is hard to lead in technology and industry.”

However, Kosenkov argues that the situation isn’t that dire.

“Yes, the pace of space exploration has slowed significantly in light of the lack of interest from the state and a lack of vision for exploration,” Kosenkov says. Russia is one of three nations capable of launching humans into space, the Glonass navigation system is used by iPhones, and Russian Earth-observation and meteorology satellites contribute greatly to science and weather forecasting.

“Just take a look at the photos taken by the Electro-L satellite,” Kosenkov says. “They were acknowledged by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of the best meteorological spacecraft out there.”

10-year Outlook

Still, Russia contributes less to space science than the United States. And the situation with science and exploration is not expected to radically improve under the new Roscosmos structure. For starters, Russia’s projected spending on space over the next decade has been radically downsized.

In 2014, when efforts to create a 10-year plan for space began, officials spoke of a 3.4 trillion ruble (then $70 billion) budget. But that proposal spent two years in government offices being trimmed and rewritten as Russia’s economy felt the twin effects of a global decline in oil prices and Western sanctions imposed for the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

When in 2016 the 10-year plan was finally approved by the government, the budget stood at a mere 1.4 trillion (then $20 billion). And science was far from the nation’s top priority in space. According to the program, the key areas of Roscosmos’ focus over the next decade will be satellites, streamlining rocket production with an eye on competing with the likes of SpaceX, whose billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk is fueled by a drive to colonize Mars — with or without government assistance.

It remains unclear just how Roscosmos intends to compete with the rise of Western commercial launch companies, which are already eroding Russia’s traditionally dominant share of the commercial launch market. No one really knows what Russia’s production costs are, and companies like SpaceX can outcompete just by cost-cutting.

During the late 1990s transtion from Mir to the International Space Station, necessity compelled Russia’s space program to embrace a freewheeling cowboy capitalism. It leased Mir’s final days to a U.S. startup, began to fly Western millionaires to ISS, and cut deals with Pizza Hut and RadioShack to film commercials in orbit.

Although efforts are underway to develop a true, sustainable commercial space industry in Russia, the program is conservative and highly government dependent.

“Roscosmos struggles to become more agile, compact and market-oriented amid budget cuts,” Kosenkov, who is actively involved in private space efforts in Russia, says. “It seems to embrace new practices, like open innovations, and providing venture capital (only in 2017 did it establish a venture fund). And as a corporation Roscosmos can now claim a private sector exists.”

But institutional problems across Russia will limit efforts for Roscosmos to keep up with commercial trends in space. The industry remains heavily dependent on the government, and the workforce itself is aging along with the enterprises that build Russian space hardware. A funding and legal environment do not yet exist for space startups to fully flourish.

“Without real changes,” Luzin argues, “without the liberalization of domestic politics and the economy, we will not even be able to repeat Soviet achievements in space. Our institutions contradict the idea of space exploration. Yes, we can maintain our military space capabilities, but we will not be able to go further, or make our industry effective and profitable.”

For Russia, it seems, a second golden age of space exploration may be further away than Sputnik 1.