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SpaceX Chosen to Give International Space Station its Fiery End

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International Space Station CREDIT: NASA

When the International Space Station is decommissioned, sometime after 2030, it will be up to SpaceX to help NASA guide it safely to a fiery end. Think of it as a very high tech controlled demolition job in space.

NASA says SpaceX has been selected to develop and supply the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle that will deorbit the ISS away from populated areas. The deorbit vehicle needs to destructively breakup as part of the re-entry process.

In 1979 Skylab’s re-entry didn’t go as planned leading to chunks of the space station landing in Western Australia. Skylab took longer than expected to burn up in the atmosphere, that’s why a deorbit vehicle is required for the 450,000 kg ISS.

The United States’ first space station – SKYLAB Credit: NASA

The ISS has been orbiting the Earth since 1998 and hosted more than 270 astronauts.

“Selecting a U.S. Deorbit Vehicle for the International Space Station will help NASA and its international partners ensure a safe and responsible transition in low Earth orbit at the end of station operations,” aid Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“This decision also supports NASA’s plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth. The orbital laboratory remains a blueprint for science, exploration, and partnerships in space for the benefit of all.”

There are five space agencies operating the ISS. CSA (Canadian Space Agency), ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and State Space Corporation Roscosmos.

NASA says the safe deorbit of the International Space Station is the responsibility of all five space agencies.

The deal is worth more than a billion Australian dollars.

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NASA

NASA’s Deep Space Broadband Sends Cat Video at 267 Mbps

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Of course it just had to be a cat video – an orange cat at that.

NASA’s first high-definition streaming video sent via laser from deep space is a huge step towards vastly improving off world communications over great distances. On the 11th of December 2023, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft beamed a short, ultra-high definition cat video, 31 million kilometres back to Earth.

The Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demo transmitted a 15-second looping video of ‘Taters’ the cat – via a flight laser transceiver. The video signal took 1 min 41 secs to reach Earth and it was sent at the system’s maximum bitrate of 267 Mbps. While the delay is long – once it starts – the data rate is much better than any Netflix video you’ll see back on this planet.

At 80 times the Earth-Moon distance, the transmission is a record. Laser communication is designed to transmit data from deep space at rates 10 to 100 times greater than the radio frequency systems currently used by deep space missions.

Capable of sending and receiving near-infrared signals, the flight laser transceiver beamed an encoded near-infrared laser to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. Each frame from the looping video was then sent “live” to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the video was played in real time.

“This accomplishment underscores our commitment to advancing optical communications as a key element to meeting our future data transmission needs,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.

“Increasing our bandwidth is essential to achieving our future exploration and science goals, and we look forward to the continued advancement of this technology and the transformation of how we communicate during future interplanetary missions.”

The video of Taters was uploaded before the launch of the Psyche mission. Taters is the pet of a JPL employee. Aside from the joy of seeing Taters chase a laser pointer from 31 million kilometres, the overlayed graphics show Psyche’s orbital path, Palomar’s telescope dome, and technical information about the laser and its data bitrate. Tater’s heart rate, colour, and breed are also on display.

The Psyche spacecraft will travel to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, sending high-data-rate signals from as far out as Mars’ greatest distance from Earth. This latest milestone comes after “first light” was achieved on 14th of November. On the 4th of December, downlink bitrates of 62.5 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 267 Mbps were demonstrated. NASA downloaded a total of 1.3 terabits during that period. Compare that with 1.2 terabits from NASA’s Magellan mission to Venus between 1990 to 1994.

So remember this story. This is when the era of modern space streaming began.

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Australian Space Agency

Advanced Navigation Receives $5.2M for Future Lunar Exploration

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The Australian Space Agency has awarded Advanced Navigation (an industry-leading navigation and robotics technologies company headquartered in Australia) $5.2 million to support NASA’s endeavour to explore the Moon and beyond to Mars.

“We are humbled the Australian Space Agency has awarded Advanced Navigation a Demonstrator Mission Grant as it represents a pivotal milestone in the company’s trajectory, as we embark to be among the the first Australian technologies to reach the Moon,” said Xavier Orr, CEO and co-founder of Advanced Navigation. 

“Our work with Intuitive Machines will enhance Australia’s sovereign Space capabilities, further unlock the commercial Space economy, and ignite a new era of innovation as we push the boundaries of scientific discoveries and exploration on the Moon and beyond.”

The grant will accelerate development and production of the company’s breakthrough Light Detection, Altimetry and Velocimetry (LiDAV) technology. Supported by this award, Advanced Navigation will deliver a space-qualified LiDAV sensor called LUNA (Laser measurement Unit for Navigational Aid) to US-based space systems company, Intuitive Machines, as part of NASA’s ongoing Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Project LUNA will be demonstrated on board Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander during the final descent en route to the lunar surface. Following this demonstration, Advanced Navigation’s LUNA technology will be offered commercially for integration into landers from 2025-26. The technology will improve the safety and reliability of autonomous landing manoeuvres, enable reliable navigation on the lunar surface, and serve as a catalyst for autonomous space exploration and transportation.

“The projects being supported show just some of the many ways that space technologies are improving how we live and how we work,” said Enrico Palermo, Head of the Australian Space Agency.

“By helping Australian organisations like Advanced Navigation to develop their space heritage, they can break into new markets and supply chains and take their innovative Aussie technology to the world.

“That will help them to grow, keep their ideas in Australia and generate more employment opportunities here.”

Spacecraft autonomy demands exceptional situational awareness and relies on multiple navigation technologies for mission success. Based on more than a decade of research and development at the Australian National University, LUNA represents a breakthrough in commercial extraterrestrial navigation. The technology delivers precise three-dimensional velocity and altitude information relative to the lunar surface. When visual references are unavailable and cameras fail due to lack of light, dust and other obscurities, LUNA can serve as a primary navigation input. 

The navigation sensor will ultimately become a crucial technology that will improve the safety and reliability of complex autonomous landing manoeuvres and the confidence with which we can explore the lunar surface.

Outside of the Nova-C Lander, the light weight and performance capabilities of LUNA are well suited for Intuitive Machines Micro-Nova, a mini extreme mobility lunar vehicle also known as a “hopper”. The spacecraft will explore shadowed craters and lava tubes, using LUNA to help it navigate autonomously, regardless of ambient light conditions and lack of access to GPS. 

During this project, Advanced Navigation will be collaborating with Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) at Macquarie University to design, fabricate, and qualify LUNA’s optical head assembly to survive the extraordinarily challenging environmental conditions of space. Advanced Navigation will also be supported by Australian company Transparent Earth Geophysics, for comprehensive flight test campaigns, and to explore terrestrial applications of LUNA for airborne gravimetry and precision navigation of airborne vehicles when GPS is unavailable or unreliable. This includes aircrafts, helicopters, commercial drones and flying taxis among other exciting applications. 

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