Category Archives: Wednesday Word

What’s next for New Horizons after Pluto?

Unless you live under a rock, you know that the New Horizons probe succesfully ‘explored’ Pluto yesterday.  After traveling 3 billion miles over 9 years, it flew by Pluto at fantastic speeds and took the first close-up photos of the dwarf planet.  Needless to say, this is a remarkable technical and scientific achievement for NASA and something the human race can take lots of pride in.

You've come a long way baby. Credit: NASA.
You’ve come a long way baby. Credit: NASA.

On a side note, New Horizons is an outstanding example of how America continues to lead on the international stage.  We, the American taxpayer, paid for this mission that will have benefits for all of humanity.  It is science for science’s sake: pure exploration for the love of knowledge.

But what now? What comes after the triumph of the Pluto fly-by? The show is not over as New Horizons will continue to probe the furthest reaches of the Solar System by heading into the Kuiper Belt. According to NASA, “The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. [Kuiper Belt Objects] belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.”

The Kuiper Belt: as far away as you can get and still be in the Solar System. Credit: NASA.
The Kuiper Belt: as far away as you can get and still be in the Solar System. Credit: NASA.
In other words, New Horizons is not stopping at Pluto; it is going even further into the black. It is heading into the rural hinterlands of the Solar System far from the busy cosmic neighborhood around Earth. It is in this wilderness that New Horizons will explore pristinely preserved mini-planets that are thought to be the building blocks of planets like Pluto and possibly even Earth. In short, the search for the origins of the Solar System and life itself will continue. The quest goes on; what else might New Horizons discover?




What is a ‘smallsat’ and why should you care?

You may not know it but we are living through a renaissance of commercial activity in space.  Dozens of satellites are being launched in the form of smallsats.  Experts predict smallsat activity will jump by two-thirds over the next five years, as compared to the last five years.  One glancing at the front page of Space News recently could be forgiven for thinking the only item the website covers is satellites: most headlines mentioned “smallsats” in one way or another.

BlackSky Global Says it’s Poised To Cover Globe with 60 Smallsats

OneWeb Taps Airbus To Build 900 Internet Smallsats

Smallsat Propulsion Company Wins Defense Department Contract 

But what exactly is a smallsat?  How is it different from a regular satellite?

According to NASA, small satellites have a ‘dry mass’ – that is, what their mass is without fuel – of less than 180 kilograms.  However, smallsats can be much, much smaller than that.  Specifically, “On the lower mass end, there are [satellites] with a mere size of a large postage stamp and with a mass well below 1 kg.  Spacecraft are generally grouped according to their mass, where small spacecraft include minisatellites with a mass of 100-500 kg,  microsatellites with a mass of 10-100 kg, nanosatellites with a mass of 1-10 kg, and picosatellites with a mass below 1 kg.”  For comparison, a conventional communications satellite can easily mass 6,000 kilograms and be the size of a school bus.

Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.
Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.

According to the same report, “CubeSats are a type of small spacecraft that weigh only a few kilograms and are built using a standard form factor relying on a 10 cm3 cube.  CubeSats can be composed of a single cube (nicknamed a ‘1U’ unit) or several cubes combined forming, for instance, 3U or 6U units.”  CubeSats are a particularly popular form of smallsat because they are a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ solution for the smallsat developer.

Geniuses working on a Cubesat. Credit: ESA.
Geniuses working on a teeny-tiny Cubesat. Credit: ESA.

Ok so, basically, smallsats are simple, cheap satellites.  Why does this matter?

Smallsats can do a lot of the same things expensive, bus-sized satellites can do but they can do them cheaply and, in some cases, more effectively.  Because smallsats are so cheap they can be launched in constellations.   In this way many smallsats can take the place of one big satellite.  This has huge implications for global communications, imaging and weather forecasting.

Global wifi

Two very well-funded companies (Google and OneWeb) are moving forward with plans to provide high-speed internet access anywhere in the world using constellations of small satellites.  Consider the implications of high-speed wifi anywhere you can see the sky.  You could replace or augment your cellphone data plan with a more capable satellite wifi plan.  You could stream movies or video chat anywhere: in the woods, on an airplane, or far out at sea.  Lost hikers and missing airliners will become a thing of the past.   The possibilities for the developing world are even more exciting: farmers and workers can get crop and job information more easily.  Dictators and tyrants will have a harder time terrorizing their populations when news and information are literally streaming through the air.  The implications of cheap, high-bandwidth wifi enabled by constellations of small satellites are enormous.

Small satellites will cover the globe.
Small satellites will cover the globe.

I see you!

Fleets of small satellites will be able to monitor the entire globe using advanced video cameras.  One will literally be able to see the entire globe in video in real-time.  The type of satellite imagery that is currently available only to militaries and intelligence agencies will become available to everyone.  And the quality and coverage of that imagery will be much, much better.  Air traffic around busy airports or even vehicular traffic on individual city streets will be observed and directed.  Entire fields of crops will be assessed from orbit.  Natural disasters or other emergencies will be managed using orbital imaging.

Fire the weatherman

With better imaging and a pervasive presence over the entire globe, weather forecasting will become more accurate.  This will have obvious benefits for the farmer, the sports fan, the commuter and pretty much everyone who spends any time outdoors at all.

But wait, there’s more!

These benefits are all great but the smallsat revolution will have an even greater impact.  For decades space enthusiasts have been waiting for ‘the killer app’ that will open up space.  A product or service that will catalyze the creation of the spacefaring civilization many have been waiting for since the Apollo days.   Smallsats might be that killer app – they might create an industry that lays the groundwork for moon colonies, trips to Mars, giant space stations and all the trappings of a space cadet fantasy land.

Smallsats may be the killer app that opens up space.
Smallsats may be the killer app that open up space.

How so?  The simple answer is launch costs.  Smallsats will provide payloads for launch vehicles.  Lots of them.  If lots of rockets are launching stuff into space all the time, the technology will mature faster and the price to access space will drop.  This could be the start of a virtuous cycle.  The lower launch costs become, the more other space businesses become feasible.  And the more space businesses there are, the more rockets will launch, lowering launch costs even further.  Eventually, hopefully, launches will be so cheap, safe and frequent that the really big exciting space projects become feasible.

So now you know why small satellites are such a big deal.  Smallsats are here, and they’re about to become much more numerous.  They will change your life and, just maybe, they might be your ticket to space one day.



How do you cook in space?

Update: Take our poll!

Which space meal sounds tastiest?
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Imagine this: you’re in space, and you’re hungry.  You’ve got ingredients and kitchen tools.  You think, why not cook up a nice meal?

How might that work out? Cooking in space is very different from cooking on Earth because, as you know, there is very little gravity in space.  While this may seem straightforward, the implications may not be obvious when it comes to cooking a meal.

Without gravity, it becomes impossible to pour liquids or shake powders into mixing bowls.  Chopping vegetables is tricky because pieces of food could fly off in random directions.  But it gets worse: apparently boiling water behaves differently in outer space than it does on Earth.  Bubbles do not percolate up and out of a boiling pot.  Rather, the entire mass of seething water pours out of the pot all at once, sort of like an exploding can of soda. Ouch!

Water boils differently in space (right pic) than it does on Earth (left pic). Credit: NASA
Water boils differently in space (right pic) than it does on Earth (left pic). Credit: NASA

It’s not all bad news though. Researchers have discovered that french fries taste better when prepared in environments with higher gravity. In other words, some foods will be tastier in space than they will on Earth.  Exploring space might lead to new culinary experiences!

Astronauts today eat the majority of their meals from pre-packaged, de-hydrated foil pouches. If eating all your meals from a foil pouch for months at a time sounds less-than-ideal, many astronauts would probably agree with you.  In fact, astronaut Sandra Magnus is famous for her extensive cooking experiments during her time on the International Space Station.

Sandra Magnus, Orbital Chef Extraordinaire. Credit: NASA
Sandra Magnus, Orbital Chef Extraordinaire. Credit: NASA

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling inspired.  Are you ready to cook that meal? Grab an onion and some duct tape and let’s get started!

Click here to get the Star Trek Cookbook!

Feature Image Credit: Pocket Books/Star Trek


Wednesday’s Word: What is 3D Printing?

As you may have read, Italian turbo-hottie astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti brewed the first espresso in space on the International Space Station the other day.  According to several articles, she drank her (undoubtedly delicious) Italian coffee out of a ‘3D-printed espresso cup.’

3D printed astro-espresso cup. Science!! Credit: NASA
3D printed astro-espresso cup. Science!! Credit: NASA

What the heck is 3D printing?  It is increasingly common in news and culture but you may not know exactly what it means.  You should, especially because it has huge implications for expanding human activities in outer space.

3D printing is, essentially, a new type of manufacturing.  Conventional (non-3D) manufacturing means taking a chunk of raw material and basically hacking/carving/slicing off bits until the final shape is produced.  It’s not that different from carving a sculpture from marble.

Another Italian hottie, not 3D-printed.
Another Italian hottie, not 3D-printed.

But 3D printing works the opposite way: a special machine lays down individual bits of raw material (usually plastic or something that can be easily manipulated) and slowly builds up a shape.  That’s why 3D printing is more accurately called ‘additive manufacturing’: layer upon layer of raw material are slowly built up until the final product is produced.

Why is this such a big deal for space travel?  3D printing in space has proven to be easier, faster and less expensive than conventional manufacturing.  This could be especially useful for a Mars mission with regards to spare parts.  It will be impossible to carry back-up equipment to cover every conceivable contingency on Mars.  With 3D printing, however, spare parts could be manufactured on demand.  Looking even further ahead, giant 3D printers could churn out space station parts and lunar base components using raw materials derived from Moon dirt and asteroids.  In short, 3D printing is a key technology that will enable space exploration and a permanent human presence in outer space.

So now you know about 3D printing.  As a reward for reading this entire article, here is a pic of Samantha Cristoforetti.


Thirsty? Get your Espresso Products Here!



Wednesday’s Word: What is the Space Launch System (SLS)?

Today we’re introducing a new type of post on This Orbital Life: Wednesday’s Word.  The space world has lots of technical jargon and weird acronyms.  So, in order to help you sort it all out, every Wednesday we will take one phrase or word or acronym and break it down.  Ready? Let’s go!

This week’s word is actually an acronym: SLS.

SLS = Space Launch System

The Space Launch System is America’s next big rocket.  We had Apollo, we had the Shuttle and soon we’ll have SLS.  And when I say big, I mean really big.  It will be the most powerful rocket ever built, able to launch 143 tons to orbit.  That’s more than five times what the massive Shuttle could haul.

SLS is big.
SLS (on the right) compared to other famous rockets. Payload is in metric tons.


It’s strength isn’t the only thing big about it: it’s price tag is also quite large.  It will cost at least $500 million every time you send an SLS up, but more likely closer to $2 billion.  For comparison, SpaceX’s new mega-rocket is estimated to cost a measly $90 million to launch 58 tons to orbit.

Cost is not the only controversial thing about the SLS.  Basically, NASA doesn’t know what it will use the SLS for.  I’m not kidding.  It’s being told by Congress to build this thing.  That’s why it is sometimes derided as the “Senate Launch System.”  NASA talks about using this rocket to go to Mars but it currently has no funding to do so.  So, the first launch will be in 2018 with plans for a follow-on launch…seven years later.  Two launches in seven years makes a lot of people ask if it’s worth building such a beast, absent any strong reason (and funding) to use it.

So now you know: SLS is the Space Launch System.  A really powerful, really expensive rocket that could probably take us to Mars if we had the funding to do so.