We had a rare glimpse last month into the mission of NASA’s current space shuttle: the somewhat uninspiringly named X-37B. When this unmanned space shuttle was first launched back in 2010 it was described by the Iranian government as a “secret space warplane”.

Since then it has set the longevity record for a reusable spacecraft spending 674 continuous days in space, as well as prompting continuous speculation as to what it is up to.

Space technology: from LightSail to Ion Thrusters

Well thanks to a surprising level of detail from NASA for a supposedly “secret space warplane”, we know much of what its current mission involves. And this in turn shines a light on some of the interesting R&D that is going on in these relatively early days of space technology. After three successful missions where the focus has been on the spacecraft itself, this time all eyes are on the payload, which includes:

  • Materials – The spaceship will carry approximately 100 samples of different materials (including polymers, composites and coatings) to research the effect that prolonged exposure to the space environment has on them.
  • Orbital data networking – A CIA funded satellite containing a TCP/IP web server is on board to research telecommunications in space.
  • A solar sail – A space technology propulsion system called LightSail that may one day power flight into outer space. It is powered entirely by photons from the sun. For now though the focus of the research is on the deployment of the sail, rather than propulsion itself.
  • Ion Thruster – A more fuel efficient, and therefore lower cost, method of manoeuvring spacecrafts in orbit.

There are ten CubeSats in total being taken up on the tiny drone X-37B (its wing span is just 15 feet!)

Space technology: Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

The X-37B is hardly the only space technology story to hit the headlines recently. One of the most prominent space missions in recent years has been the Mars Curiosity Space Rover (also known as the Mars Science Laboratory). Since it successfully landed on the Red Planet back in August 2012 it has provided researchers with a wealth of data.

When dealing with projects this complicated, it is not just the data that the mission collects that feeds into R&D. An immense amount of research and development is required just to carry out the mission. Some of this has been taken from previous space projects, including earlier missions to Mars. But much of it is new to this project. Lets take a look at some of the innovations of the Mars Science Laboratory.

For many years, NASA has used radioisotope power systems to generate the electricity required on space missions. These convert heat generated through the decay of non-weapons grade plutonium into electricity. The key benefits of this method are that it provides a stable power (and heat) supply which is unaffected by temperature fluctuations and day and night, as well as offering longevity. A next generation system known as a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) is being trialled on the Curiosity.  Its technical specs which hint at numerous areas of R&D can be seen here. As the name suggests, the idea is that it can be flexible enough to be used on a variety of different types of mission.

Mars Science Laboratory utilised new precision landing techniques to reduce the probability of a hazardous touchdown – on an unstable surface for instance. Guided thrusters helped reduce the targeted landing range from hundreds of kilometres to just 20km. In another innovation, the vehicle was able to receive information right the way through the landing process.

The use of a sky crane was another ‘first’ pioneered by the Curiosity Rover. Past rovers have been about the size of a golf cart, but Curiosity – carrying significantly more equipment – was closer in size to a small car. Extensive research and development therefore went into how to provide it with a soft landing, as the airbag method of past rovers wasn’t possible due to the increased size.

A parachute slows the whole vehicle, then part of it known as the ‘descent stage’ breaks away from the rover maintaining contact only by a bridle and (for want of a better term) umbilical cord. The descent stage has four engines to slow the rover further and neutralise the effect of wind. When it has slowed to a hovering position, the rover is lowered to the ground ready for immediate deployment. Meanwhile, the descent stage whizzes off to crash-land far away from the rover. Working in a harsh environment with completely different gravitational conditions, this in itself was a major and innovative display of engineering prowess.

These are just a small sample of the vast array of research and development projects that go into a project like the Curiosity Rover, and only concern the project delivery itself. They do not even touch upon all the research the rover carries out once on Mars’s surface.

Rosetta – Hitting a cosmic hole-in-one

In October 2014 a ten-year space mission drew to a dramatic finale. You may remember it: the Rosetta Space Probe, which had been tracking comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its three-legged lander – Philae – successfully landed on the comet. An interesting theme to the technical challenge faced by the European Space Agency team was trajectory.

The Rosetta had to travel 6.4 billion kilometres and undertake a number of difficult manoeuvres in order to fulfil its mission. This included slingshots around Mars and then Earth, fly-bys of other asteroids (many kilometres in diameter themselves) and long periods of hibernation flight where its solar arrays were too far away from the sun to generate sufficient power.

Space technology contractors

Although most traditional space exploration has historically been undertaken by government agencies like NASA, private contractors are often brought in to deliver specific aspects of a project. On the Rosetta for example, although it was a European Space Agency initiative they involved more than 50 contractors from Europe and the United States.

As well as the complicated trajectory work, the Rosetta mission pioneered innovative solar panels known as Low-Intensity Low Temperature Cells that allowed it to become the first vehicle to travel beyond the asteroid belt relying on solar power alone.

During its journey, the Rosetta was exposed to extremes of hot and cold as it first flew close to the Sun and then headed out to Jupiter. It coped thanks to a combination of special radiators and louvres. All these innovations have the potential to feed in to future missions.

How much does it cost to land on a comet

Link to infographic ‘How much does it cost to land on a comet’ 

Beagle 2: A reminder of the inherent risk which forms a key component of R&D

Going back further, to the start of the millennium in fact, we had another mission to Mars. Sadly this one was destined to end in failure when the team lost contact with the Beagle 2 lander after it entered Mars’ atmosphere. The risk of failure is of course an important aspect of making an R&D claim.

One of the most disappointing parts of the failure was that the cause could not be determined. The radio waves simply went dead. A largely confidential report in 2004 speculated about what had happened but no one could say for sure. Then, in January 2015, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the Beagle 2. It sent photographs showing it had landed intact but that its solar arrays had not deployed correctly, leaving its antennae obstructed and unable to broadcast back to the team on earth.

Space technology: Private (Starship) enterprise.

SpaceX Research & Development

While bright spark Elon Musk may be at the cutting edge of electric cars on terra firma with his prestigious Tesla range, he is also at the forefront of contemporary space exploration with his company SpaceX. The company’s mission is to revolutionise space technology with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Exciting stuff!

SpaceX and space technology

While the whole planet colonisation thing may be a little while off, SpaceX have been making breakthrough after breakthrough in advanced rocket technology. Here are a few of SpaceX’s milestones:

  • The first private company to ever return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.
  • The first private company to dock with the International Space Station, exchange payloads and safely return to earth.
  • The first private company to win a NASA contract to send a human crew up to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has three vehicles: the Dragon free-flying spacecraft, the Falcon 9 reusable two-stage rocket, and the newest addition, the Falcon Heavy. The latest is the world’s most powerful rocket being able to lift more than twice the payload of its nearest rival the Delta IV. Only one Rocket has ever delivered a greater payload into orbit and that was the Saturn V moon rocket, which was last flown in 1973.

One of the key drivers of the research of SpaceX is reusability. This is one of the great keys to making space exploration accessible, as it brings about an enormous reduction in cost. To date, space exploration has been financed and controlled almost entirely by government agencies around the world. SpaceX – with a positive cash flow and profitability – is leading the way in showing that it could likely be the private sector, and not governments that are looking to lead the way in space exploration in the future.

And while the multi-billion dollar contracts that SpaceX is winning may seem to be prohibiting to smaller outfits, it is worth noting that they themselves have suppliers from just about every State in America. This demonstrates the trickle-down effect of money, expertise, and research and development in the sector.

Virgin Galactic space technology

Equally prominent in 21st Century space exploration is Virgin Galactic. Another private company pushing the boundaries. They are approaching it from a rather different angle though: Space tourism. The company is, of course, fronted by Richard Branson, who wants to pave the way for anyone to become an astronaut.

Their different aims are reflected in many different areas of R&D. The Virgin Galactic launch system for instance is not rocket-based like the SpaceX Falcon. Instead it uses a duel-fuselaged jet plane called WhiteKnightTwo to carry the spacecraft up to an altitude of 50,000 feet, before uncoupling from it and leaving it to propel itself into orbit (at this stage using rockets). Like the Falcon, Dragon and X-37B both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceshipTwo are reusable. A third craft – LauncherOne – is being developed to launch satellites and deliver payloads into space, thus maximising the commercial use of the underlying research and development.

Space technology and human passenger experience

Virgin Galactic is placing great emphasis on the research and development it is conducting into the human experience of Space. From its already functioning spaceport in the New Mexico desert where customers will undergo days of training before setting off on their adventure, to the cabin of SpaceShipTwo. This is the first spacecraft in history designed with the brief to optimise passenger experience. It can carry eight people in total (including two crew) – more than any space mission with the exception of a NASA flight in 1985 which also managed eight. Special consideration has been given to features such as the windows for viewing both deep space and aerial vistas of planet Earth, articulated seats that adapt for safety and comfort during rocket boost and re-entry, and the floating environment for when zero-gravity is experienced.

Despite the primary aim of the SpaceShipTwo programme being to be the world’s first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic are making their cargo hold (which has the capacity to hold 600kg of equipment) available at comparatively low cost. This is for the benefit of organisations, researchers and even students to conduct sub-orbital experiments. The idea is that this will make space research far more accessible: although for now one of the early customers is our old friend NASA, who will be conducting R&D into in-space 3D printing, on-orbit propellant depots, asteroid formation and biological gene expression.

Future challenges in space technology and space exploration

The challenges for space exploration are huge.

Sticking with Virgin Galactic, they suffered tragedy in October 2014 when SpaceShipTwo exploded in mid-air shortly after being released by WhiteKnightTwo. The explosion killed the pilot – 39 year old Mike Alsbury – and seriously injured the co-pilot.

This was a grim echo of NASA’s infamous Challenger crash in 1986 which killed all seven crew members. These tragedies illustrate the dangers which are still clearly involved in space exploration. Risk and safety must be carefully managed. It’s only truly courageous people who are able to experience zero gravity, for now at least.

Another major obstacle to space exploration is the effects of zero gravity and other harsh conditions on the human body. Space agencies have been researching this for decades looking at the effects such as muscle and bone atrophy.

And finally, the clue is in the name – Space. The sheer size of it. Despite the best efforts of visionaries like Elon Musk and Richard Branson and the huge resources of government agencies such as NASA, the fact remains that most of space seems impossibly far away from us for now. Still, the research, development and exploration done now are sure to provide stepping-stones to greater things.

Crazy space missions of the future!

The BBC Future website speculates on what the craziest space missions of the future may be. We can’t be sure how likely they would be to take place but one thing is for certain: they would need some serious R&D!

  • Putting humans into orbit around Venus in hot air balloons to control rovers at the toxic ground level.
  • Navigating the methane seas of Titan in nuclear fuelled boats.
  • Getting under Europa’s icy skin to explore theoretical subterranean oceans for life.
  • Snaring an asteroid and redirecting it into orbit around our moon for detailed analysis.
  • Star travel – NASA and the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency are working on a 100 Year Starship project.

You can see some detail on all these projects on the BBC website.

Are you working in the aerospace sector to develop space technology?

The scope for R&D in the aerospace sector is pretty much unbounded. There are so many unknowns, so much risk and so many ways to improve the status quo that R&D tax credits and huge range of other forms of funding available should always be explored. The space technology sector is open to private involvement like no other time before, whether it be at a component level, or developing entire spacecraft. WEAF state that a staggering 75% of the UK’s aerospace companies are based in the South West, with the UK as a whole responsible for 17% of the global aerospace market, growth in the sector is set to continue at around 7% for many years to come.

We’ve worked with a number of companies in the aerospace sector to recover R&D tax relief, and understand that the fine level of precision-engineering required to do anything from developing space technology, through to testing jet engines can be immense. Contact ForrestBrown today to find out if you could be entitled to recover up to 1/3rd of your development costs from HMRC.

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