Briefing: IAC 2008

E&T reports from the 59th International Astronautical Congress, Glasgow, Scotland.

Sharing the limelight

Leaders of the world's space agencies and more than 1,500 other space professionals met in Glasgow 50 years after NASA officially began operations on 1 October 1958.

The next half-century of the Space Age promises to be very different from the period in which NASA became a household name, and a synonym for 'space exploration', as an increasing number of nations share the limelight.

Speaking at the 59th International Astronautical Congress, NASA administrator Mike Griffin recognised the need for international cooperation with the words: "We could go back to the Moon on our own, but we don't want to do that."

The European Space Agency (ESA)'s director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, was keen to stress Europe's achievements at the International Space Station (ISS). "Having been an ISS partner for a decade on the ground, we are now a partner in space," he said, highlighting the installation of the Columbus experiment module and the recent docking of ESA's unmanned automated transfer vehicle (ATV). Linking the ATV to the sentiment of the congress theme - 'From Imagination to Reality' - Dordain said: "That's why we called it Jules Verne." The theme is also the slogan of the British Interplanetary Society, which helped organise the congress and celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

By coincidence, the Jules Verne ATV made a successful planned re-entry on the first day of the congress, following its six-month logistics mission to the ISS. Following its launch by Ariane 5, on 9 March 2008, the ATV delivered 6t of cargo, refuelled the ISS, reboosted its orbit and offloaded 2.5t of waste, which was incinerated during its atmospheric re-entry.

In between, it offered a relatively quiet place for contemplation to astronauts such as Soyeon Yi, Korea's first space traveller. She was ubiquitous at the IAC - signing autographs, taking part in plenary sessions and promoting next year's congress in her home country. A world away from the NASA astronaut corps, the 30-year-old biotech PhD describes herself as "crazy, sexy, and cool".

Appearing somewhat cool in an alternative sense was Russian space agency deputy Alexander Medvedchikov, who made the point (as he has before) that "the station must be deployed in full", despite the fact that NASA plans to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010.

While some feel that NASA will dump the ISS for Moon and Mars exploration, others see opportunities for crew and consumables delivery-missions, as well as in-orbit research and development, should NASA take more of a back seat.

One nation determined to become a world leader in space exploration and development is China, as illustrated by its third manned mission concluded shortly before the IAC opened.

A highlight of the mission was a 20-minute spacewalk by taikonaut Zhai Zhigang, the first ever by a Chinese astronaut. Noting China's success in the presence of the more experienced agencies at the congress, Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration, outlined China's plans to launch a manned space station in 2011, conduct an unmanned lunar mission in 2013 and introduce "a new generation launch vehicle" the same year.

As NASA's Griffin said earlier this year - probably by way of a wake-up call to the US Congress - he would not be surprised if China succeeded in sending one of its own citizens to the Moon before America next does so. Changing times indeed.

Fourth time lucky for SpaceX

Just hours before the congress opened, Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) succeeded in launching the first privately developed liquid-fuelled rocket to Earth orbit. It had taken four attempts to achieve this initial goal, but the successful Falcon 1 launch is seen as justification for PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk's confidence that he can challenge the traditional methods (and prices) of established launch suppliers.

Although the rocket carried only a 165kg 'dummy payload', SpaceX has several customers signed up for future launches, which include the first flight of the larger Falcon 9 planned for 2009. According to VP for Business Development Gwynne Shotwell, negotiations are underway to fly 10 to 15 payloads for Falcon 1 between 2009 and 2012, and seven for Falcon 9.

The lesson that 'rocket science' is tougher than software development has apparently not diminished Musk's enthusiasm for space, as shown by his company's plans to deliver supplies, and later crews, to the International Space Station.

According to Shotwell, SpaceX is well on the way to a first flight demonstration of its Dragon cargo-carrying capsule in 2009. It remains unclear when the version capable of supporting a crew of seven will be launched, but with NASA planning to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010, the clock is certainly ticking.

Satellites for sale online

One of the exhibitors was a local firm, Glasgow-based Clyde Space, whose space products are among the first to be available for sale online. According to Clyde's Andrew Strain, hardware such as batteries, solar panels and complete 'Cubesat' structures (for 1kg/10cm microsats) can be bought from the company's website (www.clyde-space.com). For example, a basic Cubesat kit (supplied by Pumpkin Inc in the US) is on offer for as little as £3,500.

Formed in 2005 by Craig Clark, former head of power systems at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Clyde Space was awarded an Innovation Triangle Initiative contract from the European Space Agency last month for characterisation and qualification testing of a lithium polymer battery for small satellites.

Virgin Galactic to fly climate instruments

During the IAC, Virgin Galactic announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct climate research from its space tourism vehicles during their flight-test programme.

Virgin's White Knight Two carrier aircraft acts as a launch platform for the SpaceShipTwo vehicle [pictured above], which is designed to carry passengers on suborbital hops starting in 2010. Before then, the plan is to fly instruments supplied by NOAA on a "no exchange of funds basis" for measuring CO2 and methane.

Virgin Galactic's president, Will Whitehorn, said "a more extensive test flight programme than Concorde" is planned, which will "definitely exceed 100 flights… maybe up to 200". Recognising that SpaceShipTwo will have to be seen as highly reliable to be successful in attracting passengers beyond the early adopters who have already paid their deposits, Whitehorn said simply, "Safety is our north star".

To make the most of these flights to altitudes exceeding 50,000ft (over 15km), which Whitehorn confirms are "very rare", Virgin decided to make them available for science. Later flights of SpaceShipTwo to 110km will help to calibrate the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which is designed to make precise, time-dependent global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide following launch in 2009.

Moreover, added Whitehorn, developing the carrier aircraft with an "open architecture" will enable it to launch rockets carrying satellite payloads, as opposed to passengers. It is for this reason that White Knight Two has been licensed not as an aircraft but as a "space launch system" by the FAA.

This doesn't mean that space tourism is taking a back seat, however. According to Whitehorn, they have 280 customers and $40m in deposits. "We sold six seats last week," he said at the congress, "a measure of growth we didn't expect at this stage". Virgin companies always factor a recession into their business plans, revealed Whitehorn, but Virgin Galactic appears to be "recession-proof" at present.

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