Tag Archives: NASA

Plutonium and Space Travel

Plutonium 238 glowing from its own heat.  Image from wikipedia

In places where the sun’s rays do not penetrate…a different power source is required for space travel. One of the favourites used in space missions is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).  RTGs were developed by America in the 1950s and work by converting heat produced by the decay of a radioactive material into electricity directly. This is not the same as nuclear fission, a more complex process used in power plants to split radioactive material and release a much larger amount of energy. The former Soviet Union also used RTGs to run hundreds of lighthouses and navigation beacons in remote areas… While the isotopes used are not much use in bombs, they can still make people ill, even when partially depleted.

America’s RTGs use plutonium-238 (238Pu). The American plant that produced it closed in 1988 and the isotope was then imported from Russia. That stopped in 2009, leaving NASA with 35kg in stock, although only about 17kg of that is estimated to be still suitable for RTGs. After years of hand-wringing about being cut off from space without the material to make an RTG, a deal was reached in 2013 for NASA to pay the Department of Energy to resume production…

America has used RTGs in 27 space missions since 1961. Despite continuing improvements in collecting solar energy, NASA says it still needs RTGs—and not just to reach destinations beyond Saturn. The space agency’s planetary-science division has a list of places where solar power cannot be relied upon, including the dark side of Mercury, craters on the Moon and the poles of Mars, which are partly obscured from the sun.  NASA has been working on a system called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, which offers four times the efficiency of a current RTG.

Excerpts from Powering space travel: NASA’s dark materials, Economist, Apr. 4, 2015, at  75

Space Conquest: Brazil

vls-1, Brazilian Space Agency's satellitel launch vehicle. image from wikipedia

The Brazilian government is ending a decade-long project to operate Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 rocket from Brazilian territory following a government review that found too many open questions about its cost and future market success, the deputy chief of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) said.  It remains unclear whether the decision will force Brazil to pay Ukraine any financial penalties for a unilateral cancellation of a bilateral agreement. Over the years, the work to build a launch facility for Ukraine’s Cyclone at Brazil’s Alcantara spaceport has suffered multiple stops and starts as one side or the other fell short on its financial obligations to the effort…

“There have been challenges on the budget issues, on the technological aspects, in the relationship between Brazil and Ukraine and in the actual market for export that would be available. So it is a combination of things.”  said Petronio Noronha de Souza, AEB’s director of space policy and strategic investments.  The Alcantara Cyclone Space project was to give Brazil and Ukraine access to the global commercial launch market for satellites in low and medium Earth orbit, with the possibility of launching very light telecommunications satellites into geostationary orbit.

Noronha de Souza said the idea of making a profit in the launch business is now viewed as an illusion. The project, he said, was unlikely ever to be able to support itself on commercial revenue alone.  “Do you really believe launchers make money in any part of the world? I don’t believe so. If the government doesn’t buy launches and fund the development of technology, it does not work,” he said.  “Everybody talks about SpaceX [of Hawthorne, California] like it’s magic, somehow different. It’s no different. Their connections with NASA have been important. If NASA had stopped the funding, where would they be? I really appreciate what they are doing, but I doubt whether launch bases can make money and survive on their own without government support.”…

While the Cyclone-4 project is about to end, Brazil has maintained as a strategic goal the development of a space-launch vehicle from the Brazilian military-owned Alcantara facility. As such it is continuing work with the German Aerospace Center, DLR, on a small solid-fueled vehicle, called VLM-1 for Microsatellite Launch Vehicle, that began as a launcher for suborbital missions and has evolved to a small-satellite-launch capability….

AEB is a purely civilian agency funded through the Science and Technology Ministry. Until a few years ago, the Brazilian military had not been a player in the nation’s space policy. That is starting to change with the Brazilian Defense Ministry’s establishment of space-related operational requirements.  Among those requirements is a radar Earth observation satellite, which AEB has penciled into its program for around 2020. Aside from allowing the use of its Alcantara site, the Brazilian military is not yet financing any AEB work, but the military is expected to pay for launches of its satellites once the development is completed

AEB is finishing design of a small multimission satellite platform whose first launch will be of the Amazonia-1 Earth observation payload, with a medium-resolution imager of 10-meter-resolution, similar to the capacity of today’s larger China-Brazil CBERS-4 satellite, which is in orbit.

Brazil and Argentina’s CONAE space agency will be dividing responsibility for an ocean-observation satellite system, using the same multimission platform, called Sabia-Mar. The first Sabia-Mar is scheduled for launch in 2017, with a second in 2018, according to AEB planning.

Excerpts from Peter B. de Selding Brazil Pulling Out of Ukrainian Launcher Project,  Space News, Apr. 16, 2015

Russia has rushed to take advantage of the cancellation of space agreement between Brazil and Ukraine. [Russia] wants bot build  joint projects and space programs on the long term with BRICS Group member countries, particularly Brazil.  Brazil attempts to build its own cosmodrome, and unfortunately for the loss of Ukraine and its technology, the Brazilian-Ukrainian Project for the use of the Cyclone rocket in coastal launchings is practically minimalized…Russia proposed its variant of work, consisting in principle on the installation, already existent, of several satellite navigation stations Glonass and tbe idea of helping Brasilia in some way to the construction of the cosmodrome.

Excerpt from  Odalys Buscarón Ochoa, Russia Interested in Space Coop with BRICS Countries, Prensa Latina, Apr. 24, 2015

China Space Program: the military arm


Most space programmes are military to some extent. Both America and the Soviet Union used modified missiles to launch their satellites and spacemen in the early days. And even in the days of the Space Shuttle, NASA was employing that device to put spy satellites into orbit, and recover them. For China’s space effort these still are the early days, so civilian and military applications remain intertwined.  In July, for example, the CNSA (China National Space Administration) launched a trio of satellites, allegedly as part of a project to clean up space near Earth by removing orbital debris. Such debris is indeed a problem, given the number of launches that have happened since the hoisting of Sputnik in 1957. Nor did China itself help when, during the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, it blew one of its own redundant satellites into about 150,000 pieces. So a charitable view might be that this mission was a piece of contrition. Cynics, however, suspect that what was actually launched was another type of antisatellite weapon—or, at most, a piece of dual-use technology which could act as a space-sweeper as well.

One of the newly launched probes was indeed equipped with a robotic arm of the sort that might pick up space litter. The other two were, the story went, to stand in for bits of debris. But once initial tests were over, the satellite with the robotic arm made a number of unusual manoeuvres and approached not one of the devices it was launched with, but rather an ageing satellite in a different orbit—just the sort of behaviour that would be useful if you wanted to eliminate an observation or communication satellite belonging to another country.

The Chinese are not the only ones working on space weaponry, of course. America is busy in the field, too. And that accounted for a slightly more desolate atmosphere at the meeting than is normal at astronautical congresses. American law prohibits NASA from collaborating with China, or even organising bilateral exchanges with it.

Excerpt, China in Space: How Long a Reach?, Economist, Sept. 28, 2013, at 75

Nuclear Waste: Cold World Nuclear Experiments in California

Santa Susana Field Laboratory, aerial view.  Image from wikipedia

Several environmental groups on Aug. 6, 2013 sued state regulators over the cleanup of a former nuclear research lab, saying low-level radioactive waste was improperly shipped to landfills.  Consumer Watchdog, along with other groups, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court against the Department of Public Health and Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees the cleanup at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  Located about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Susana was once home to nuclear research and rocket engine tests. In 1959, one of the reactors suffered a partial nuclear meltdown. Responsible parties including Boeing Co., NASA and the U.S Energy Department have been working with state officials to meet a 2017 deadline to rid the nearly 2,900-acre site of contaminated soil.

In their complaint, the groups contend that materials from several buildings that were demolished were sent to landfills and metal recycling shops that are not licensed to accept radioactive waste. They also sought a temporary restraining order to stop Boeing from tearing down a plutonium fuel fabrication building on the hilltop complex….Officials at the toxic control agency rejected the allegations, saying that debris sent offsite posed no threat to human health or the environment.

Stewart Black, a deputy director at DTSC, said the state followed the rules in the demolishing and disposal of old buildings.   During the Cold War, workers at the site tested thousands of rockets and experimented with nuclear reactors, which were operational until 1980. And by the time the rest of the lab closed in 2006, a toxic legacy of radioactive and chemical contamination had been left.  Former workers and residents in nearby neighborhoods have blamed the lab for a variety of health problems.

Groups sue to block demolition at ex-nuclear site, Associated Press, Aug. 6, 2013

The Joys and Perils of Puberty: China, Nationalism and Space

China’s grand ambitions extend literally to the moon, with the country now embarked on a multi-pronged program to establish its own global navigational system, launch a space laboratory and put a Chinese astronaut on the moon within the next decade. The Obama administration views space as ripe territory for cooperation with China. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called it one of four potential areas of “strategic dialogue,” along with cybersecurity, missile defense and nuclear weapons. And President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed after their White House summit last week to “deepen dialogue and exchanges” in the field.

But as China ramps up its space initiatives, the diplomatic talk of cooperation has so far found little traction. The Chinese leadership has shown scant interest in opening up the most sensitive details of its program, much of which is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  At the same time, Chinese scientists and space officials say that Washington’s wariness of China’s intentions in space, as well as U.S. bans on some high-technology exports, makes cooperation problematic.

For now, the U.S.-China relationship in space appears to mirror the one on Earth – a still-dominant but fading superpower facing a new and ambitious rival, with suspicion on both sides.  “What you have are two major powers, both of whom use space for military, civilian and commercial purposes,” said Dean Cheng, a researcher with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an expert on the Chinese military and space program.

NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in flux in recent years, fueling particular concern among some U.S. observers about the challenge posed by China’s initiatives in that area.  There is “a lot of very wary, careful, mutual watching,” Cheng said.  Song Xiaojun, a military expert and commentator on China’s CCTV, said that substantial cooperation in the space field is impossible without mutual trust. Achieving that, he said, “depends on whether the U.S. can put away its pride and treat China as a partner to cooperate on equal terms. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, since the U.S. is experiencing menopause while China is going through puberty.”

But while China may still be an adolescent in terms of space exploration – launching its first astronaut in 2003 – it has made some notable strides in recent months and years, and plans seem on track for some major breakthroughs.  On the day Hu left for his U.S. trip, Chinese news media reported the inauguration of a new program to train astronauts – called taikonauts here – for eventual deployment to the first Chinese space station, planned for 2015. As part of the project, two launches are planned for this year, that of an unmanned space module, called Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” by summer, and later an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft that will attempt to dock with it.

On a separate track, China is also working through a three-stage process for carrying out its first manned moon landing. The first stage was completed in October with the successful launch of a Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter. In 2012 or 2013, an unmanned landing craft is scheduled to take a rover to the moon to collect rock and soil samples. By 2020, according to the plan, a taikonaut could land on the moon.

Yet a third track is devoted to the development of a Chinese global navigational system, called Beidou, or “Compass,” to challenge the current supremacy of the American global positioning system, or GPS. Beidou is scheduled to provide satellite navigation services to the Asia-Pacific region next year and to be fully global by 2020.

Chinese academics involved in the space program said Beidou is crucial for China’s military. Without its own navigational system, Chinese troops and naval vessels must rely almost exclusively on the American GPS system, which could be manipulated or blocked in case of a conflict.  The new system “can cover the civilian and military sides,” said Xu Shijie, a professor of astronautics at Beihang University in Beijing. “For the military side, it’s more urgent.”

Xu, who heads a space research team, acknowledged that even some Chinese might question the government’s decision to fund a costly space program at a time when there are other pressing concerns, such as developing the country’s western provinces to bring living standards and incomes there into line with those in the more prosperous east.  But he called the space program “a long-term investment,” with the potential for beneficial spillover effects on the civilian economy. “The government is concerned with social welfare issues,” Xu said. “But a scientist is also trying to look 20 years down the road.”

There is also the matter of prestige. As with other grandiose projects – high-speed rail, the world’s biggest airport in Beijing, staging the 2008 Olympics – China’s Communist leaders view the space program as a way to show citizens that they can produce successes, thus fostering patriotism and support for the party’s continued rule.

“National pride will increase,” Xu said. “It’s a selling point used by leading scientists.”  As part of the effort to expand public awareness of and excitement about the space program, the government broke ground in December for a 3,000-acre space-launch center and theme park on the southern island of Hainan, modeled after the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

When the center opens in 2014, the public will be able to watch rocket launches there from an elevated platform. The adjacent Hainan Space Park, meanwhile, will be divided into four sections, replicating the moon, the sun, Mars and Earth. “We want to combine tourism with education,” said Liu Xianbo, an official with China Aerospace International Holdings, which is building the theme park.

Hainan offers several advantages as a launch site, compared with China’s existing, secrecy-cloaked sites in sparsely populated areas of Shanxi province, Sichuan and the Gobi Desert. It is already a major tourist destination. Its southern location, closer to the equator, maximizes the effects of Earth’s rotation, boosting rocket thrust. And in the event of a mishap, launches over water, rather than land, would make rescues easier.  Hainan also has another advantage: Parts of the island are already zoned for military use under the PLA’s control.  China’s space program has a civilian component, under the China National Space Administration, but it is run primarily by the military. That could make enhanced cooperation with the United States difficult – and not just from the Chinese side.

Last fall, when NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. visited China to explore areas where the two countries could cooperate in space, two senior Republican members of Congress – Reps. Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and John Abney Culberson (Tex.) – wrote to Bolden beforehand to protest, saying they had “serious concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program” and warning that “China’s intentions for its space program are questionable at best.”  Since Republicans won control of the House in November’s elections, Wolf now chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which oversees NASA’s budget, and Culberson is a senior subcommittee member.

Keith B. Richburg, As China eyes the stars, U.S. watches warily, Washington Post, January 23, 2011, at A12