Archive for the ‘Space News’ Category

Artwork of incoming ERS-2.
Image credit: ESA

A European Space Agency spacecraft is making an uncontrolled nosedive into Earth’s atmosphere – with elements of the 2.3-ton spent satellite likely to survive the plunge into purgatory.

The exact time and place above Earth that the radar-scanning ESA European Remote Sensing (ERS-2) augers in is unknown, but a new prediction of the spacecraft’s demise has been issued.

Image credit: ESA

Using data acquired on February 20, ESA’s Space Debris Office currently predicts that the reentry of ESA’s ERS-2 satellite will take place at 20:53 UTC (21:53 Central European Time) February 21.

The uncertainty in this prediction is now just (+/- 7.48 hours), according to an ESA statement.

“This uncertainty is due primarily to the influence of unpredictable solar activity, which affects the density of Earth’s atmosphere and therefore the drag experienced by the satellite,” ESA adds.

Image credit: ESA

Leftovers

As for the ERS-2 re-entry itself, there’s likely to be post-re-entry spacecraft leftovers.

 

“It is likely that some parts survive the re-entry, as on average between 10 and 20 percent of the mass for large objects does,” says Simona-Elena Nichiteanu, a media relations officer in the communication department at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC).

ESOC serves as the main mission control center for ESA in Darmstadt, Germany.

ERS-2 artwork.
Image credit: ESA

Component survival

As for the ERS-2 component survival to Earth’s surface, Nichiteanu told Inside Outer Space that the biggest and heaviest fragments that might survive reentry into the atmosphere are the 4 tanks (heaviest), the 3 internal panels supporting instruments (largest cross section) and the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) antenna structure (largest fragment assuming it does not fragment at all).

A vast majority of ERS-2 will “burn up” in the atmosphere, ESA experts explain. Furthermore, given that the Earth is largely ocean water-rich, chances are for splash down of any remaining spacecraft components.

Orbital debris regulation

The fall of ERS-2 can be viewed both as a calling card from space and a wake-up call.

“While the ESA should be lauded for its efforts to de-orbit the ERS-2, it should be unsurprising that a 2.3-ton satellite launched into Earth orbit without any enforceable orbital debris regulation will then return to Earth’s atmosphere as orbital debris in an explosive uncontrolled reentry,” said Michael Runnels, an assistant professor of business law at California State University, Los Angeles.

“Indeed, these events highlight the continuing need for enforceable orbital debris regulation to support the sustainable exploration and scientific investigation of outer space,” Runnels told Inside Outer Space.

Taking the fall. Space hardware dives into Earth’s atmosphere with some fragments making their way to the ground.
Image credit: ESA/D.Ducros

ERS-2 artwork.
Image credit: ESA

That incoming European Remote Sensing (ERS-2) is closing in on a nose-dive into Earth’s atmosphere.

Tipping the scales at an estimated 2.3 tons (2,294 kilograms), when and where the defunct spacecraft completes its final orbit is an unknown.  ERS-2 was launched on April 21, 1995.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) latest prediction is that ERS-2’s demise is now heading toward re-entry on February 21 at 15:19 UTC (16:19 Central European Time).

Image credit: ESA’s ESOC operations center, Darmstadt, Germany

“The uncertainty in this prediction is now less than one day (+/- 18.82 hours),” ESA satellite trackers add. “Please note that all predictions are still affected by significant uncertainties.”

Breaking up – easy to do?

ERS-2 will break up into fragments as it plunges through Earth’s atmosphere.

A vast majority of these will “burn up” in the atmosphere, ESA experts explain, although some fragments could reach Earth’s surface. Given that the Earth is largely ocean water-rich, chances are for splash down of any remaining spacecraft components.

Image credit: ESA’s ESOC operations center, Darmstadt, Germany

“No intervention can be made from the ground, so ERS-2 will return entirely naturally – now a common occurrence as on average one spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere per month,” an ESA statement explains.

Entirely naturally

However, there are those that see the fall of ERS-2 as a calling card from space that doubles as a wake-up call – and on several fronts.

Ewan Wright is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and Junior Fellow of the Outer Space Institute. He is actively focused on the sustainability of the outer space environment.

Credit: CORDS/The Aerospace Corporation

ERS-2 is a three decade old Earth Observation satellite with a mass about that of a Ford F-150, Wright said. “ERS-2 won’t burn up entirely when it reenters the atmosphere, so there is a chance that debris will hit someone on the ground, or disrupt air traffic.”

Uncontrolled re-entry

Wright told Inside Outer Space that, fortunately, the probability of someone getting hit is small. “But if we keep doing this again and again, someone someday will get hurt.”

Last year, 30 satellites larger than 500 kilograms uncontrollably reentered the atmosphere.

In total, in 2023, about 55 tons of satellite reentered randomly, Wright stated. ESA was responsible in lowering ERS-2’s orbit to make sure it didn’t become permanent space debris, he said.

Launch and reentry particle emissions in the Earth’s stratosphere.
Image credit: The Aerospace Corporation

“But in the future, all large satellites should do controlled reentries. Operators should control them to reenter over the oceans, away from people, aircraft and ships,” Wright concluded.

Hot topic

The incoming ERS-2 is something that happens quite regularly with defunct satellites, said Leonard Schulz, a researcher at the Technische Universität Braunschweig’s Institute of Geophysics and Extraterrestrial Physics in Braunschweig, Germany.

Such falls will only increase in the future, Schulz added, due to the growing number of objects brought into low Earth orbit.

Schulz said that there’s need to consider the effects on the atmosphere from spacecraft re-entry, a hot topic that ESA is evaluating.

“Today, we are lacking information on many aspects when it comes to materials released and subsequent effects on the atmosphere,” Schulz pointed out to Inside Outer Space.

Satellite reentries are a good opportunity to gather observational data with measurement campaigns, Schulz advised. However, such uncontrolled reentries as with ERS-2 are extremely difficult to observe, he said, as the uncertainty of where the satellite reenters is so high.

Chunks of space junk rained down in Australia, later identified as SpaceX leftovers from its Crew-1 Mission that flew in 2020-2021.
Photo courtesy: Brad Tucker

“But controlled reentries provide great measurement opportunities,” Schulz concluded, “which should be a focus in the future!”

Long-term impact

ESA organized a dedicated event in January 2024 to address the topic of satellite leftovers and pollution within Earth’s atmosphere.

ESA also carried out two studies on the atmospheric impact of spacecraft reentries in 2019. They concluded that the short-term impact on the atmosphere due to the burn up of a single spacecraft is modest, primarily because the particles created during a reentry are generally too large to react chemically with the atmosphere.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/Center for Space Policy and Strategy

On the other hand, what about long-term impact?

In a recent study issued last year, a research team led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detected in Earth’s stratosphere more than 20 elements that mirror those used in spacecraft-building alloys.

Given projected launch rates from countries around the world, the NOAA research team calculated that in the next few decades, up to half of stratospheric sulfuric acid particles would contain metals from reentry.

Difficult to study, complex to understand

But what impact these space junk-laden particles could have on the atmosphere, the ozone layer and life on Earth is yet to be evaluated.

Image credit: NOAA

“Changes to the atmosphere can be difficult to study and complex to understand,” explains Purdue University’s Daniel Cziczo, professor and department head of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He took part in the NOAA-issued report.

“But what this research shows us is that the impact of human occupation and human spaceflight on the planet may be significant,” Cziczo adds, “perhaps more significant than we have yet imagined. Understanding our planet is one of the most urgent research priorities there is.”

For details on this NOAA research, go to “Space Pollution: Cautionary News” at:

https://www.leonarddavid.com/space-pollution-cautionary-news/

Image credit: Mars Guy

 

Mars Guy reviews new images from tests that expose the extent of the destruction of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter.

Image credit: Mars Guy

One rotor blade appears to be missing.

 

 

On the 72nd flight of Ingenuity, the craft suffered catastrophic damage when its rotor blades contacted a sand ripple during landing.

Go to video that features the work of Simeon Schmauß at:

https://youtu.be/a6r4-rDc-3U?si=clWd2R1n9wZUm1gc

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover used its Right Mastcam-Z Camera to acquire this new image of the damaged chopper on Feb. 16th.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Pre-launch photo with technicians working on the Varga capsule-mounted spacecraft.
Image credit: Rocket Lab/Inside Outer Space screengrab

 

The reentry of Varda Space Industries’ in-space manufacturing capsule, named Winnebago-1 (W-1), is set for February 21.

The FAA has granted a world-first reentry license for the mission, enabling Rocket Lab to conduct a targeted reentry of the capsule and subsequent landing in the Utah Desert.

Rocket Lab built and is operating the spacecraft currently hosting the capsule on orbit.

Varda’s W-1 mission was lofted on SpaceX’s Transporter 8 flight last June.

SpaceX Transporter-8 liftoff.
Image credit: SpaceX/Varda Space Industries

However, Varda’s initial plan to reenter the capsule back in September of last year was curtailed due to both Air Force and FAA approval issues.

Engine burns

In the coming days, Rocket Lab will conduct a series of maneuvers to bring the capsule, named Winnebago-1, back to Earth.

The Varda capsule is approximately 3 feet in diameter, 2.5 feet tall, and weighs less than 200 pounds. It is slated to parachute into the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) – a remote area in which NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid return capsule also landed last year. 

In the evening of February 18, Pacific Time (PT) there will be an initial burn of the Curie engine on Rocket Lab’s spacecraft that places Winnebago-1 in its first staging orbit.

On February 20, PT, a second engine burn places Winnebago-1 in its second staging orbit.

Image credit: Varda Space Industries

Afternoon of February 21, PT, the spacecraft’s third and fourth final engine burns to de-orbit and set Winnebago-1 on its atmospheric reentry trajectory.

First of four

The Varda capsule was lofted to grow Ritonavir crystals, a drug commonly used as an antiviral medication for HIV and hepatitis C.

According to a Rocket Lab statement, this mission is the first of four which will use identical Rocket Lab spacecraft to support Varda’s in-space manufacturing.

“The second spacecraft has completed assembly, integration, and testing at Rocket Lab’s spacecraft production facility in Long Beach, California, and is scheduled to launch in the coming months,” adds the statement.

Utah landing site. Image credit: FAA/Final
Environmental Assessment

Coming in hot! (MSL stands for mean sea level. Image credit: FAA/Final
Environmental Assessment

Varda test capsule and still attached main parachute following a 2022 parachute test in Arizona. Image credit: FAA/Final
Environmental Assessment

Image credit: Intuitive Machines

The Intuitive Machines (IM-1) Moon lander has transmitted its mission images to Earth on February 16th.

The lunar lander images were captured shortly after separation from the SpaceX’s second stage.

The IM-1 mission Nova-C class lunar lander called “Odysseus” continues to be “in excellent health, in a stable orientation and remains on schedule for a lunar landing opportunity on the afternoon of February 22,” according to an earlier IM-1 posting from the private group.

Intuitive Machines flight controllers have successfully fired the first liquid methane and liquid oxygen engine in space, completing the IM-1 mission engine commissioning.

This engine firing included a full thrust main stage engine burn and throttle down-profile necessary to land on the Moon, the company reports.

Commission maneuver

There was a delay in a spacecraft Commission Maneuver burn on February 15.

“This approach provided flexibility in the mission’s engine burn schedule to allow for learning as we operate the lander in the vacuum of space,” the private company explains. Adjusting for this learning process is why the team chose to delay the burn.

Image credit: Intuitive Machines

While preparing for the CM burn, flight controllers experienced intermittent uplink and downlink data communications between the Nova-C lander and ground stations, potentially impacting our ability to collect the critical information required to support the CM burn and follow-on performance analysis.

“As we prepared for the first-ever in-space ignition of a liquid methane and liquid oxygen engine, we reviewed our Earth-based test data against the data we’ve accumulated in space,” the communiqué from Intuitive Machines explains.

Image credit: Intuitive Machines

Chill out

“The in-space performance demonstrated that it takes longer to chill the liquid oxygen feed line than the Earth-based testing. After understanding the in-space liquid oxygen feedline requirements, we adjusted and uploaded the CM burn preparation timeline and increased the onboard event sequence timer.”

The IM-1 mission Nova-C class lunar lander “is in excellent health, and we expect to continue to provide mission updates at least once a day,” explains the posting.

IM-1 landing area between the craters Malapert C and Malapert B and east of Malapert A, in relatively ancient terrain within the south pole Aitken basin.
Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 4100 duties – wheeling toward 20 miles of distance from its touchdown location on August 5, 2012 Pacific Daylight Time (morning of August 6 EDT).

Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports that the newly shaped weekend plan calls for Curiosity to continue to support two sets of long-term science campaigns.

“First, we want to understand the processes that built Mt. Sharp’s sulfate-bearing (salty) unit,” Fraeman notes, “and what that can tell us about Mars’ past changing climate and habitability.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fraeman continues, pointing out that the second aspect of the long-term science objective is trying to understand how Gediz Vallis channel formed, “and by extension, what the ‘last gasps’ of surface water in Gale crater might have been like.”

Hugging the edge

The robot has been hugging the edge of Gediz Vallis channel for the past few drives, Fraeman notes, “getting as close as we can in order to image the rocks within the channel, but we had to turn ever so slightly east today, away from the channel, where the terrain is a little easier for Curiosity to navigate.”

Last Wednesday’s southeastern drive placed Curiosity right at the edge of a “dark band” (as characterized in orbital data) of the sulfate-bearing unit.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo acquired on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

On the hunt

“In addition to still collecting lots of images of Gediz Vallis channel, we’re also now on the hunt for another possible drill target that will help us continue to characterize the rocks in the sulfate-bearing unit,” Fraeman adds.

“We’ll assess the textures and compositions of rocks in this and an upcoming dark band to help us determine whether there’s anything we’d like to sample.”

To cover the upcoming U.S. holiday on Monday, four sols of robot work were planned.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera imate taken on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Methane measurement

The first sol of the plan is mainly devoted to getting ready for a Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite atmospheric observation that will take place just after midnight on the first sol and will measure methane in the Martian atmosphere.

We’ll also have some remote sensing observations on the first sol, with Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) observations of dark bedrock in front of the rover (“Red Kaweah”) and Mastcam images of Gediz Vallis channel.

Science action

Remote sensing will continue on the second sol of the plan, with more Mastcam observations and a ChemCam LIBS observation of “Muro Blanco,” a light-colored piece of bedrock.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera imate taken on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) will get in on the science action on the sol as well, Fraeman explains, with observations of two targets on dark toned rocks in front of us named “Thunderbolt Peak” and “Tenderfoot Peak.”

Drive to the south

“We’ll snag one more LIBS observation on the third sol of the plan on Tenderfoot Peak, then we’ll drive roughly 25 meters [82 feet] to the south, towards a rock we are interested in assessing as a possible drill target,” Fraeman reports.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera imate taken on Sol 4099, February 16, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fourth sol of the plan will be relatively quiet, with Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) observations to characterize the weather only, Fraeman points out.

Mastcam, Navcam, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) and the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) will also make observations throughout the plan to characterize the Martian environment, Fraeman concludes.

Book Review: Off-Earth Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space by Erika Nesvold; MIT Press (2023); 304 pages, Hardcover: $27.95

This is a thought-provoking, even controversial for some readers!

Erika Nesvold, an astrophysicist, has worked as a researcher at NASA Goddard and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

As a developer for Universe Sandbox as well as cofounder of the nonprofit organization the JustSpace Alliance, Nesvold is also the creator and host of the podcast Making New Worlds.

The book rests on a stated premise: Can we do better in space than we’ve done here on Earth?

An issue is that we don’t, shouldn’t, or can’t leave our ethics back here on home planet Earth.

As stated by the publisher, Off-Earth includes historical and contemporary examples from outside the “dominant Western/US…and privileged narrative of the space industry.”

What that translates into is the author’s narrative on the potential ethical pitfalls of becoming a multi-planet species.

Bottom line: We won’t be departing our earthly problems and start afresh – even by taking in that space suit, airlock and cramped habitat smell.

Here’s an extract from the book, courtesy of MIT Press titled “The Thorny Ethics of Planetary Engineering – Whenever someone waxes poetic about terraforming alien worlds, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ethical implications of the proposal.”

Go to:

https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-thorny-ethics-of-planetary-engineering/

For more information about this book, go to:

https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262550994/off-earth/

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 4099 duties.

Alex Innanen, an atmospheric scientist at York University in Toronto, Ontario, reviews the rover’s new workspace. “There’s a lot to look at — different textures, different colors, different shapes.”

One of these is a contact science target, “Horseshoe Meadows,” a section of bedrock that is redder than what Mars researchers have been seeing recently.

Curiosity contact science target, “Horseshoe Meadows,” is a section of bedrock observable in this image, right above where “Curiosity” is written. This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera on Sol 4096 February 13, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Familiar target

After the robot’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) takes a look, the science team is set to move into a main science block, Innanen points out, which starts with a session using Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) on a different bedrock target, “Post Corral Creek.”

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“ChemCam will then set its sights further afield to a familiar target, Fascination Turret,” which Mastcam examined earlier.

 

 

Old friend

Mastcam was scheduled to start imaging two mosaics of the upper Gediz Vallis Ridge “and an old friend, the Orinoco Butte, which has been a regular companion of Curiosity for many, many sols,” Innanen adds.

Mastcam will also join ChemCam in imaging “Post Corral Creek.”

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The science block finishes up with a deck monitoring image. We’ve been taking these recently before and after every drive to see how the dust that collects on the rover deck changes because of things like driving or wind,” Innanen reports.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bid farewell

After the science block, the plan is to return to Horseshoe Meadows with Curiosity’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT) and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), “and then it’s time to bid farewell to this workspace and drive away.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sol 4098 was not set to end there, though. “After the drive we have another science block to sneak in some later afternoon environmental activities. These include a Mastcam observation and Navcam line of sight to look at dust in the atmosphere and a dust devil survey to look for dust being lifted from the ground as well as a cloud movie,” says Innanen.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B photo taken on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Robot nap

Curiosity’s Sol 4099 was slated to not only have one science block a little before noon which includes a ChemCam AEGIS activity, a post-drive deck monitoring, another cloud movie and a long dust devil movie.

 

 

 

AEGIS stands for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science) – a software suite that permits the rover to autonomously detect and prioritize targets.

“Once that’s wrapped up, Innanen concludes, “Curiosity will nap for the rest of the sol in preparation for a weekend plan.”


Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera on Sol 4098, February 15, 2024.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) Courtesy: Lockheed Martin

The final count is in – 121.6 grams (4.29 ounces)!

That’s the total amount of collected bits and pieces of asteroid Bennu here on Earth, courtesy of NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission.

The capsule containing the extraterrestrial goodies landed last September, parachuting into the Department of Defense Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah Test and Training Range, roughly 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Following its high-speed re-entry, the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule served as an artificial meteor before parachuting into the desert landscape of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Image credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

Due to hard-to-remove fastners, specialists were initially thwarted opening the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – where the bulk of Bennu collectibles were stored.

That issue was resolved in January.

Big reveal

The samples from afar include the rocks and dust found on the outside of the sampler head, as well as a portion of the bulk sample from inside the head, which was accessed through the head’s mylar flap.

What was not known was how much additional material remained inside the sampler head, to be added to the mass total.

View of the OSIRIS-REx Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism (TAGSAM) head with balky lid removed, unveiling the bulk of asteroid Bennu sample inside.
(Image credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld/Joseph Aebersold

The big reveal just announced by NASA:

The remaining Bennu sample was recently poured into wedge-shaped containers, amounting to 1.81 ounces (51.2 grams).

Final total

Combined with the previously measured 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) and additional particles collected outside of the pour, the bulk Bennu sample mass totals 4.29 ounces (121.6 grams), NASA reports.

A view of eight sample trays containing the final material from asteroid Bennu. The dust and rocks were poured into the trays from the top plate of the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. 51.2 grams were collected from this pour, bringing the final mass of asteroid sample to 121.6 grams. Image credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

 

That final total is a little less than what OSIRIS-REx researchers originally thought snagged by the spacecraft – but twice what was promised prior to launching the asteroid mission on Sept. 8, 2016. The goal of the enterprise was to bring at least 60 grams to Earth.

Go to my earlier Space.com story on what’s being learned by analyzing the Bennu samples. Take a read of “1st look at asteroid Bennu samples suggests space rock may even be ‘a fragment of an ancient ocean world’” at:

https://www.space.com/asteroid-bennu-osiris-rex-samples-1st-look-surprises

Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator from the University of Arizona holds a mock up of the asteroid collection device – TAGSAM.
Image credit: Barbara David

Ambassadors ready to board Zero-G plane. From left to right is (top row) Mary Cooper, Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, Eric Shear, Apurva Varia, Sina Bahram, Zuby Onwuta, Dr. Mona Minkara, Viktoria Modesta, (bottom row) Sawyer Rosenstein, Dana Bolles, Eric Ingram, and Ce–Ce Mazyck. The four individuals in front are seated in wheelchairs, the two standing Ambassadors flanking the group each have visible prosthetic legs, and one of the blind Ambassadors is holding a white cane.
Image credit: AstroAccess

We are in a golden age of human spaceflight due to both governmental and private capabilities and knowhow.  

To help enhance the roster of public space travel participation, attention is being paid to disabled and mixed ability individuals.

Exploratory research on parabolic zero-gravity flights has been performed underscoring the fact that disabled individuals can operate safely and effectively in weightless environments.

A new research paper highlights what types of technologies offer promising solutions for accessible design of space habitats, suits, and tools. The work also notes what accommodations can enable future disabled astronauts to operate safely in space.

An Ambassador used both hands to remove a prosthetic foot from her left leg. She is mostly floating with her other toe touching the floor.
Image credit: AstroAccess 

AstroAccess

In the past, Disabled individuals have been excluded from human spaceflight opportunities in both the public and rapidly growing private sector, notes the paper: “AstroAccess: Testing accessibility accommodations for disabled and mixed-ability crews operating in space-like environments.”

That exclusion is due to perceptions that Disabled individuals “lack the physical endurance or capacity to function in extreme environments, ability to perform rigorous or dexterous athletic activity, or the ability to operate effectively as part of a team with nondisabled individuals,” the paper explains.

“Such perceptions are born from broadly pervasive and harmful societal assumptions about their ability to act and live independently,” the paper points out, “and from the lack of motivation on the part of individuals and institutions to invest in making the necessary modifications to our physical environments and daily behaviors required to make society more accessible.

NASA Gallaudet research participants chat in sign language while sitting in a zero gravity aircraft before take-off.
Image credit: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection

While no public space agency has yet to “officially” fly a Disabled astronaut, the paper observes that individuals with conditions that may be considered disabilities in some contexts have been to space. They include NASA shuttle astronaut, Rich Clifford, with early signs of Parkinson’s, NASA’s Scott Kelly with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Haley Arceneaux of the private Inspiration4 mission, a bone cancer survivor with an artificial femur.

Gallaudet Eleven

The paper spotlights NASA’s own history, flagging the space agency’s recruitment of the “Gallaudet Eleven.” This select group of deaf men back in the 1960s offered NASA insight into the effects of spaceflight on the body.

“Since they had sustained damage to their vestibular systems, they were immune to motion sickness and therefore able to endure physical challenges while being subjected to rotation, high acceleration forces, and weightlessness they may experience in space without becoming nauseous,” the paper reports.

“Unfortunately, this very advantage which made them excellent candidates for research,” the paper adds, “would have disqualified them from applying for astronaut candidacy.”

Image credit: AstroAccess

Ambassadors for microgravity

Fast forward to today.

Enter AstroAccess with its mission to allow the next generation of disabled scientists, students, athletes and artists to see that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is truly possible for them.

To bolster the cause, AstroAccess is advancing research on disability and human spaceflight by flying Disabled researchers on parabolic flights that produce stints of weightlessness.

Called the “Ambassadors,” these specifically recruited individuals came from three broad categories: Blind/Low Vision, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, and Mobility Disabilities.

“These categories do not represent the full spectrum of types of disabilities, but it was necessary to limit the scope of our efforts given the small size of the flight crew and the initial questions we wished to investigate,” the paper elucidates.

Evolving project

Since October 2021, AstroAccess Ambassadors have participated in five parabolic flights making use of the Zero Gravity Corporation’s spiffed up G-FORCE ONE Boeing aircraft.

Among the findings is that communication and way finding are primary challenges to mixed ability crews. Furthermore, for inclusive human spaceflight, redesign of emergency response systems is critical. Also, redundancy using varied solutions is key to accessible design and operations.

In 2007, wheelchair-bound theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking floated freely during a zero-gravity airplane flight. Hawking said of the experience: “For me, this was true freedom. People who know me well say that my smile was the biggest they’d ever seen. I was Superman for those few minutes.” (Image credit: Steve Boxall/ZERO-G Corporation via AstroAccess)

“This has been an evolving project over several years and multiple Zero-G flights, and our research has only touched the surface of topics to study in accessible human spaceflight,” said Jamie Molaro, a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

Molaro is lead author of the research paper on AstroAccess that details the results from initial investigations.

Molaro told Inside Outer Space that the research project has spurred interest in building upon findings so far. “We’ve already seen discourse building around Disability within the public and private space sectors as a result,” Molaro said.

To learn more, go to “AstroAccess: Testing accessibility accommodations for disabled and mixed-ability crews operating in space-like environments” appearing in Acta Astronautica at:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576524000699#sec2

For more information on AstroAccess, go to:

https://astroaccess.org/