Reflections from the International Astronautical Congress 2014 in Toronto - Tuesday
We started the Tuesday's programme with visiting the plenary session of the commercial human space flight moderated by former American astronaut and president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Michael Lopez-Algeria. Their opinions and experiences of this new and progressively growing industry has shared in the panel discussion five leaders of the space industry and representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for commercial space transportation. During the introduction there were listed several main characteristic features of this industry that has been agreed upon by all presenters - significant cost savings compared to a fully government-controlled programmes, greater tolerance for risk-taking with associated high degree of innovation and the maintenance of intellectual property of the industry. Compared to other fields, the sector of commercial manned and unmanned space flight is characterized by openness among partners and competitors, sharing best practices, experiences and lessons learned from mistakes and failures that naturally belong to development process. Last but not least, these projects are characterized by a high degree of personal commitment and enthusiasm.
Over the last decade, the sector of commercial manned and unmanned space flight has undergone very rapid development. "I remember years ago, I gave a lecture on private space flights and in the audience sat only one person in the back row. Today, I look to the room full of young and highly educated people," said Stuart Witt, director of the Mojave Air and Space Port. The initial government subsidies amounted only tens of millions of dollars that were distributed among six companies. Now, the NASA's allocated budget is more than ten times higher, while the next year, there are plans to increase it to billions of dollars. Barry Matsumori, vice president of SpaceX and Peter McGrath of Boeing praised NASA for its support of commercial manned and unmanned space flight. The role of NASA is getting through transformation from agency developing and operating the space transportation systems of low orbit to the customer seeking finished products and services. Therefore, the resources for launch of new ambitious projects of manned flights beyond low orbit have been released.
One of the challenges that need to be overcome in the coming years, is the harmonization of rules and safety regulations for manned space flights as well as the future cosmodromes. in the USA region, there is the FAA engaged in this field. George C. Nield, deputy of the FAA commercial spaceflight division noted that "recently, there has been released a new document about the safety of manned space flight and it has been signed a cooperation agreement with Great Britain on the construction of new private cosmodrome in Europe." Within this affirmation, there was also mentioned the newly built cosmodrome SpaceX in Texas.
As the cradle of commercial human spaceflight industry, it can be considered the Mojave Desert in USA where nowadays, two dozens of commercial companies such as XCOR Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and Orbital Science Corporation are settled. These companies are developing and testing their own prototypes of both, new suborbital crafts and spacecrafts. Stuart Witt adds that "half of the profit at the local airport today comes from commercial test flights and examinations which is compared the situation twenty years ago unprecedented situation."
A separate chapter are the activities of Bigelow company that is known for its inflatable modules tested in 2006 and 2007. "Our job is to prepare the targets for spacecraft flights presented by my colleagues. Next year, we are going to connect and test a new module in the International Space Station and it's no secret that we are ambitious to use our modules for a permanent lunar base," says Mike Gold, one of the Bigelow directors.
During the day, we continued to promote the CSO and Czech organizations at our booth at the Congress exhibition. "Compared to Monday, we watched with pleasure the increased interest in the activities of CSO, Czech products and our cooperation offers. A great cheer were the visits of small groups of Toronto pupils who had performed duties in physics class and honestly wrote down everything we had said to them. I and my colleagues can say that we look forward to them tomorrow," briefly summarizes the events at the booth Josef Šobra of CSO.
After the end of the second day of the exhibition, we took the opportunity and participated in the first Highlight Lecture on the Rosetta probe of the European Space Agency (ESA). This is an ambitious robotic exploration mission to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet of which are involved in addition to ESA also NASA, DLR, CNES, ASI and many other research organizations and industrial companies, not only from Europe. The reason for including this topic in the Congress programme is the fact that ten years after the probe launch, it reached its destination and November 12, 2014 it is going to launch Philae lander that will, after seven hours of solo flight, land on the surface of the comet's nucleus. The programme was guided by prof. Berndt Feuerbacher, former president of the International Astronautical Federation and also one of the initiators of the Rosetta mission.
Dr. Gerhard Schwehm, head of ESA planetary exploration, was in 1985 the first scientist in this field admitted by the European Space Agency. "It started year earlier with consideration of the implementation of the mission of returned samples of the comet's nucleus. Later we rethink our view and stated that we do not have to bring samples of comet into terrestrial laboratories, but deliver the lab on a comet. In 1993, such a mission was approved," Dr. Schwehm recalls the beginnings of the Rosetta mission. It resulted in the probe which carries 10 scientific instruments and lander Philae that also carries dozens of scientific instruments. This is the first probe orbiting the comet and taking pictures with a resolution of up to 0.5 m/px. So far we had the images of cometary nucleus with best resolution of 30 m/px. Dr. Schwehm also presented the first measurements and images of the dust detector COSIMA, which October 24, 2014 captured the first two particles of comet dust.
The second speaker was prof. Jean-Pierre Bibring, scientific supervisor of Philae lander. "After getting the first images of the comet from July 12, 2014 I had no idea how to land on a comet. The shape of its nucleus literally took my breath away. Two months later, everything looked much better and now we have selected one main and one backup landing site," prof. Bibring very modestly summarizes several months of hard work .
For the landing areas selection served detailed images of the comet taken with one of the onboard cameras and a comprehensive geological evaluation of the comet's surface. A critical factor for landing is particulary the slope which shouldn't exceed 30 degrees. It is also unknown the coherence of comet's surface. At this point, it is uncertain whether the comet's surface is sufficiently hard for module landing as it is not exactly known the geological structure of the comet's body, exploration of which is also one of the scientific objective of the mission. What is known is that the comet has a lot of frozen water and carbon dioxide and the surface is covered with a layer of organic material, predominantly of aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also the reason for its very low albedo below 5%. The surface is formed by not precisely known mixture of material composed of particles from different size molecules to fine grains of dust.
Cometary nucleus has a peanut shape with a length of about 6 kilometers. One of the interesting results of the comet observations is the fact that most of the material, which subsequently forms the tail of the comet, is evaporating from the narrowed area, more or less in the middle of the body. The exact reason for this phenomenon hasn't been known yet. In addition to the surface clearly visible crater structures there is, at the narrow area, debris basin which the material falls in from the eroding surrounding reef structures that are about 100 meters high. There are two opinions on why the comet has such a shape - two bodies connected by narrowed bridge. The first is that the comet was created by a collision of two bodies which had joined together. The second and more probable variant is a single body separating into the two pieces due to the gradual loss of material in its center.
There are a lot of scientific tasks for Rosetta probe. It is assumed that the comet is composed of a material that originated in the early stages of the solar system. This material has been conserved in comets and analysis of its composition will help to answer some questions about the material migration during the formation of our solar system and planets. In particular, thanks to Kepler's cosmic telescope we have known many exoplanetary systems and we can say that almost every star has a planetary system around. These can be very diverse and we don't know the exact processes that take place during its formation and also to what extent our solar system is unique.
One of the key questions is also the origin of life in our solar system. It is a very complex issue and the scientific community knows that the comets helped to the process significantly. They contain not only water but also significant amounts of hydrocarbons with the structure of molecules close to the fundamental components of organisms including amino acids. The Philae lander contains, among other devices, a drill removing material samples from a depth of 20-30 cm for analyzing. On the comet's surface, there will be carried out the measurements of the magnetic field that should answer the question whether the comet's rock is magnetized or not, the mechanical and electrical properties of the rock which influence the evaporation of materials, microscopic structure of the rock, chemical composition of the gas and others. All the scientific devices meet extreme requirements, since they have to work at temperatures -100 ° C with only 5 W power consumption.
"The lecture of prof. Bibring was a stunning example of how the presentation of scientific results should look like. The audience devoured every word as well as the unpublished images. The lecture could easily take much longer than an hour and I'm sure it would be still just as impressive," Michal Václavík of CSO concludes the second day's evaluation.