Saturday, December 17, 2011

Website and Blog Are Still Alive!

...Just on a bit of a hiatus, at least until 2012.

I am very sorry I haven't been updating either like I used to, and in fact there's been a six month gap since I put up any new articles. The reason for that is rather straightforward: I have been very busy.

Orbital Vector, both the blog and the main site, are a one-man operation. And that one man (myself) has found himself in rather stressful financial straits. IN this day and age, that should come as no surprise, as there's a lot of that going around. That has meant doing a lot more work to just keep myself afloat. Since OV is more or less a hobby, making just enough from its ads to pay for its own hosting with little to no profit for its creator, its one of several things I've had to let slide for now just to make ends meet.

Some people have sent in donations through the button on the main site's front page, and for that I'm very grateful. I do plan on easing back into updating the site and blog regularly early next year, when (hopefully) work in other areas ease up for me.

OV is more or less an informational database, so hopefully even without regular updates people are finding it useful and educational, and the blog here fun and throught provoking. Hopefully you'll be seeing more on here soon!

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Habitat Gap

The big news going around the space community recently is that China recently announced plans to construct and orbit a 60-ton, multiple-module space station by 2020 (pictured above.) You can find more details of it HERE on's website. See also the original source HERE from the China Daily website.

I can do nothing but applaud this development. I know according to some people, China is supposed to be the US's big bad rival in the next decade, but any nation or organization that helps to expand on humanity's presence in the daunting frontier of space should be welcomed and encouraged.

The station itself, called 'Tiangong' (translated as 'heavenly palace') for now, will be composed of a main habitat module and two laboratory modules. It will be attended by a dedicated cargo ship and be designed to dock with Chinese space capsules. Though more modest than the ISS, it is definitely a step in the right direction for China's fledgling manned space program.

For the longest time, people pushing for human space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit have focused almost exclusively on propulsion technologies. I think in some ways that has proven a mistake.

As I've stated a number of times on this blog, the development of long-enduring space habitats is as vital as advanced propulsion if we ever want to create a real human presence off Earth. And the way to do that is to actually live and work for long periods in space to determine which systems and techniques work best. That's what the project that eventually became the ISS was originally all about, but somehow people always end up whining (such as in the article's comment section) that the ISS "isn't going anywhere" or "isn't giving a valuable scientific return." It was never supposed to. It was originally supposed to be a testbed for humans living and working in space.

Some people seem to have the idea that all we have to do is strap a huge rocket onto an Apollo capsule and just like that we can zoom off to Mars. But even if NASA's advanced propulsion projects achieve all their goals flawlessly, future astronauts are still going to have to consign themselves to voyages of months or years once past the Earth-Moon system. Cramped, skimpy metal cans like current space capsules simply will not be able to keep human explorers safe and productive for such immense journeys, especially in an environment as hostile as space.

For those impatient to travel into the greater Solar System, one has to come to terms with the fact that improved propulsion technology like VASIMR alone is not enough. You also need space habitats that can keep a human crew healthy and in working shape for the entire voyage, and that's far, far more complex and tricky than most people surmise. In order to develop such habitats, we need the experience that space stations can provide us. Perhaps if more people had understood this and had not tried so hard to roadblock the ISS program in its various incarnations over the years, we might have already had human explorers on the way to other planets.

I have the feeling that future interplanetary spacecraft will end up looking much more like MIR or the ISS than the souped-up space capsules than many dreamers seem to envision. Or perhaps even like China's newly proposed Tiangong station, at a minimum. When you're out in the deeps of interplanetary space, on the longest journey by several orders of magnitude that any human has ever undertaken, what kind of ship would you rather have? A large one with the redundancy of systems and space to handle emergencies, or a cramped one that will tank if any one of several dozen life support systems fail?

NASA's proposed Nautilus-X, basically a mobile ISS, is definitely where things should be leading to by the 2020s. It would be relatively slow compared to some visions of interplanetary flight, but it definitely would be the best bet for getting a human crew alive and healthy to its destination. And the only way we can ever build such a craft successfully is through the data and experience we can collect through operating space stations. The public has to get past the notion that space stations are just hunks of metal orbiting in the sky, and understand that they are in truth our gateways to the heavens.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

NASA's Exploration Mothership

(First a quick apology for lack of updates lately, both here and on the main site. I've been caught up in that whole 'earning a living' thing lately and that's been sapping time away from OV. Hopefully things will calm down soon.)

Its big. Its ugly. Its as graceful as a swan glued to an anvil.

I love it.

Its NASA's proposed Nautilus X ("Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States eXploration"), an idea put forth by the NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. You can read more about the details in THIS recent Blog.

Basically, it replicates ISS in over all design using cheaper components, attaches rockets and more up-to-date supplementary systems, and sends it cruising on long-term missions. Proponents say that it could be built for $4 billion dollars and be ready by 2020. Realistically, we know that all initial budget and time estimates are significantly low-balled, so let's say it would really cost 3 times that ($12 billion) and would take as long to build and assemble as the ISS, which means 15-20 years with an earliest launch date of say, 2025.

It would still be more than worth it, in my opinion.

This is EXACTLY the approach to long-range manned exploration we should be focusing on. A larger robust, customizable, reusable habitat that can use reasonable propulsion technologies. This is in contrast to the super-compact vehicles where most of the emphasis is on the engine rather than what keeps the astronauts alive and healthy. The idea behind the latter is that if you can get astronauts to and from their destination sufficiently fast enough, you needn't bother with advanced habitat systems.

But the reality of both the vast distances in space, as well as our own near-future technological limitations (no warp drives or antimatter rockets any time soon. Sadly,) would seem to dictate the former approach. We HAVE to get used to the idea that if you want to go anywhere interesting beyond the Earth-Moon system, you're going to be spending a long time getting there. And that's just for manned exploration. Trying for economic exploitation such as construction or mining will require even more capable long-term mobile habitats.

Astronauts in these situations don't need cramp capsules attached to gigantic rockets, as many deep space proposals have posited, such as those to send astronauts to an asteroid or even to Mars in nothing more than two linked Orion capsules. They need actual ships that they can properly live and work on for months at a time. If you were trying to cross the Atlantic, it wouldn't matter how big a motor you attached to a canoe, because in the end it would still be a canoe, and poorly designed to handle the rigors of transoceanic travel. But if you had a big enough ship, travelling slower wouldn't be that big a deal, and you would be much better prepared to handle unforeseen circumstances.

This analogy I think very much applies to space travel, and why an idea like the Nautilus X is a big step forward. If we want to go back to the Moon, to an asteroid, even beyond to Mars or Venus, having an actual reusable ship that can do all that in succession makes more sense than building a new ship for each task. Plus the Nautilus is designed to be modular, and can be modified and updated through it operational lifetime.

But whether anyone at NASA will take the Nautilus-X seriously and moved forward with it is another matter. The space community is nothing if not traditionalist and slow to change, not only in their methods but in their modes of thinking about space exploration in general. Let's hope that won't be the case this time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

NASA's Solar Sail Makes Saving Throw, Orbits Earth

NASA had some amazingly good luck recently as its NanoSail-D spacecraft spontaneously came unstuck from its mother satellite and unfurled its solar sail. It has since been orbiting Earth. For the full story, go HERE to read the full article on NASA's science page.

Earlier in January, a defective spring aboard the FASTSAT mothership had prevented the NanoSail-D from separating from it. For reasons still unknown, however, it spontaneously launched itself free on January 17th. On January 20th, the spacecraft unfurled its solar sail, only the second such to be deployed in space after Japan's IKAROS probe last year, and the mission is now proceeding as scientists had hoped.

NASA has often caught a lot of bad luck in the past on too many missions, so its nice to see them catch some good luck for a change, especially in testing a technology that could be very vital to a number of future space efforts.

(Plus for those who didn't spend (mis-spend?) many hours of their youth playing tabletop RPGs, a 'saving throw' refers to a D&D trope where a character has to avoid a bad outcome by a literal roll of the dice.)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Exoplanet Atlas

Wired recently put out THIS great graphic that illustrates in a layman-friendly way a lot of facts about the most interesting known exoplanets. Relatively sizes, distances, and temperatures, plus a quick primer on how exoplanets are discovered.

Exoplanets is one of the most exciting fields of astronomical study, and the one that may have the most long-range benefits. In terms of not only possibly finding other Earth-like worlds and alien life, but in more fully understanding the genesis and development of our own solar system. Plus of course there's the possibility, many centuries from now, our descendants may be visiting or perhaps even living on or around these far-off planets.

Anyway, check out the graphic!