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Northrop’s ‘life extension’ spacecraft heads to the rescue

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ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 11 (UPI) — A second spacecraft designed by Northrop Grumman to extend the life of satellites in orbit is headed toward a rescue some 22,200 miles above Earth.

The spacecraft is part of Northrop’s new in-orbit services. Analysts and observers predict such services will grow into a multibillion-dollar market over the next 10 years.

Northrop is the first commercial service to enable private space companies to extend the life of large, expensive satellites past their life expectancy as designed.

“Satellite operators have few options when a satellite is aging, and they are all expensive,” said Joe Anderson, a vice president with Northrop subsidiary SpaceLogistics, based in Dulles, Va.

The company’s rescue satellite, Mission Extension Vehicle-2, or MEV-2, was launched Aug. 15 from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, South America.

The launch began a seven-month journey to a rendezvous with a communication satellite, Intelsat 10-02. Sent aloft in 2004, the satellite provides service to customers of for Intelsat Corp., whose administrative center is in McLean, Va.

Once it clamps onto the Intelsat, the MEV will become a new engine for the satellite, which is running low on fuel. The Northrop spacecraft will keep the satellite in the proper orbit and pointed toward Earth, Anderson said.

The first MEV spacecraft, launched in October 2019, is operating successfully as a new, supplemental engine for another Intelsat satellite, Intelsat 901, which was launched in 2001, according to Northrop and Intelsat.

That satellite reached the end of its lifespan and had been moved to the so-called graveyard orbit, which is about 300 miles higher than any functional satellites.

The incentive to rescue such large communications satellites is their high cost — between $150 million and $300 million, Anderson said.

While he declined to reveal the cost of Northrop’s MEV units, Anderson said the company intends to sell in-orbit services at a price that is attractive to satellite companies.

Intelsat previously reported in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would pay about $13 million per year, or $65 million for five years, for MEV-1.

If a company can put off the cost to build and launch a new satellite for five years, it can invest that money in other projects, making the life-extension service a valuable route, Anderson said.

Northrop will own and operate the MEV craft through SpaceLogistics. After the five-year missions for Intelsat, the MEV units can extend their work or move to other missions, Anderson said.

The MEVs are powered by electric engines energized by solar panels to raise their own orbit and control the Intelsat satellites, along with hydrazine chemical propulsion to rendezvous with their target satellites, Anderson said.

The electric thrusters are considered more efficient for such orbital missions, but they take longer to reach high orbit than bigger chemical propulsion engines.

Despite the success of MEV missions, Northrop won’t build more similar satellites, but rather develop a new version with more capabilities. It will be known as a Mission Robotic Vehicle, Anderson said.

The MRV would carry several life extension “pods” — small electric engines that can be dispersed among multiple satellites per mission, Anderson said. Northrop believes that will boost the cost efficiency of each mission.

Northrop also will design the robotic mothership, the MRV, to inspect satellites and possibly conduct limited repairs, providing more value, he said.

Such expanded robotic spacecraft could be valuable to Intelsat, as well, said Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of its space systems engineering operations.

“We are definitely interested in the robotic vehicle under development, although nothing is signed yet,” Froeliger said. “We’re making revenue from the MEV life extension already, but in the long term, MEV doesn’t make sense financially.”

The robotic version, MRV, should be more fiscally attractive if it can extend the life of multiple Intelsat satellites for each launch, he said.

“We got the rebate of being the first customer to help get the program started,” Froeliger said. “I don’t think, long term, it makes good financial business for Northrop or for us to make more MEVs. If it was, we’d have signed up for 10 more.”

Extending the life of multiple satellites with one MRV could address Intelsat’s aging fleet of 51 operational satellites more efficiently, Froeliger added. That’s because it will carry multiple engines — or pods — that can be dispersed and attached to multiple Intelsat satellites per mission, not just one.

“Life extension of our satellites is just one more tool in our toolbox to handle our fleet,” he said.

Such life extension missions haven’t been available in the private sector before, said Dallas Kasaboski, an analyst with Northern Sky Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“Governments have repaired or repositioned spacecraft in space for decades, but these Northrop missions are the first truly commercial in-orbit missions of their kind,” Kasaboski said.

Spacecraft that extend the life of satellites are just one part of an emerging sector in commercial space known as in-orbit services, Kasaboski said.

The commercial market for such in-orbit services should generate about $3.1 billion over the next decade, based on an analysis his firm released in February.

Many other types of in-orbit services are expected in the coming years, he said.

Those services include “relocation, or repair, especially as governments grapple with the problem of space trash and thousands of new satellites being launched,” Kasaboski said.

Although growth is likely for all in-orbit services, life extension may remain only a small niche market for years, said Joel Sercel, a technology entrepreneur and founder of Trans Astronautica Corp., a startup based in the Los Angeles area.

“Life extension for satellites might make sense for large communication satellites, an exquisite spy satellite, or a billion-dollar space telescope, but it could be too expensive for smaller satellites,” Sercel said.

Out-of-this-world images from space

NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy, serving as commander of the Expedition 63 mission aboard the International Space Station, took these photos of Hurricane Laura as it continued to strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico on August 25. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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Ancient trash heaps in Israel show waste management changes among settlements

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — The contents of rural trash heaps outside several ancient Negev settlements suggest farmers during the Roman Imperial Period and Late Antiquity, between the 1st and 10th centuries AD, used livestock dung for fertilizer and as a main fuel source.

For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, researchers analyzed trash mounds outside of Shivta, Elusa and Nessana, agrarian settlements that flourished during the Late Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, from the 4th through the 10th century AD.

By studying the varying concentrations of livestock dung, grass, wood and ash, researchers were able to gain new insights into shifting refuge management techniques and fuel usage among Negev’s early agrarian societies.

“Our findings provide much-needed new insight into community specific responses to social and economic transformations in the Negev during a pivotal time in its history — during the collapse of market-oriented agriculture and ruralization of the urban heartland near the end of the first millennium [AD],” researchers wrote in their paper.

Specifically, researchers found a consistent lack of raw livestock dung in all three trash mounds, suggesting sheep and goat dung fertilizer was vital to large-scale agriculture across the semi-arid region.

“Instead of being disposed of in trash dumps, dung would have been spread in agricultural plots,” researchers wrote.

The discovery of bits of burned livestock dung within the trash heaps outside Shivta and Elusa suggests livestock waste was also used as a fuel source. Woody plant material was scarce in the region. The practice suggests livestock herds were plentiful and household fuel needs did not interfere with field fertilization.

Not all of the livestock dung collected by Negev herders was shoveled into fields and furnaces.

“In sharp contrast to the sustainable use of dung for fuel, and reasonably for fertilizer as well, raw dung was dumped and burned atop the mound outside Early Islamic Nessana,” researchers wrote. “This is the first evidence of its kind from the Negev confirming the management of dung via controlled incineration.”

The sizable layers of scorched dung outside Nessana suggests that by the Early Islamic period, economic disruption had made the practice of dung recycling unnecessary.

“Several of the Arabic documents written after the fall of Byzantine hegemony speak of the difficulties Nessana residents had in paying rising taxes, particularly those levied against farmlands and produce,” researchers wrote.

With large-scale farming on the decline and trade networks crumbling, researchers suspect the market for commercial agricultural products collapses, as did the demands for dung as fuel and fertilizer.

“Nessana appears to have been transforming from an agricultural center into a more rural community persisting from smaller-scale domestic farming, semi-sedentary herding and wild game hunting,” researchers wrote.

The study’s authors said they hope their work will serve as reminder to archaeologists to look beyond buildings and city walls — that important insights into the ancient socioeconomic shifts can be gleaned from refuge.



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Scientists program robot swarms to create art

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — Computer scientists at Georgia Tech have programmed a swarm of robots to intuitively mix colors and decorate a canvas, expanding the technological toolkit available to artists.

Researchers didn’t set out to program artists out of the creative process. Instead, researchers envision their robotic system as a seamless extension of the artist.

“We wanted to explore the potential of multi-robot systems for the purpose of artistic painting, providing artists with an intuitive way to interact with a multi-robot system that abstracts them from the control of the robots or the management of resources,” lead study author María Santos, Georgia Tech computer engineer, told UPI in an email.

The robot swarm — described Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI — isn’t programmed to dream up new images, but it does problem solve with some level of autonomy.

“The human user, the artist, specifies color concentrations over the canvas, for example, by pressing their fingers on a tablet-like interface,” Santos said. “The color commands are then broadcasted to the multi-robot team, which therefore has information about what distribution of color is desired.”

Cognizant of the available paints and the paints available to their nearest neighbors, the robots coordinate the most efficient strategy for mixing and applying pigments to different regions of canvas.

“As they displace over the canvas, covering the different color density functions, they lay trails of paint by mixing color in the closest proportion to the densities they are tracking,” Santos said. “Furthermore, the assignment of a robot to a particular density is not fixed: robots reassign themselves over the canvas to go after the closest densities at each point in time or those densities they can contribute the most.”

As the artist alters their creative demands, the robots adjust their strategy and execution, accordingly.

So far, researchers have relied on projected light trails to demonstrate the robot swarm’s potential. Scientists are currently developing bots that can actually apply paint.

“This step involves not only developing the hardware necessary to manage paint, but also studying the painting release mechanism needed to achieve appropriate color mixing,” Santos said.

Once researchers have bots than can actually paint, they hope to get their technology in the hands of actual artists and see what they can create.

“Testing it with artists would be ideal, as it would let us see which features in the system are most interesting and potentially unlock new directions for the creative expansion of the system,” Santos said.



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NASA funds Nokia plan to provide cellular service on moon

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ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 15 (UPI) — NASA will fund a project by Nokia to build a 4G cellular communication network on the moon with $14.1 million, the space agency announced.

That project was part of $370 million in new contracts for lunar surface research missions NASA announced Wednesday. Most of the money went to large space companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to perfect techniques to make and handle rocket propellant in space.

The space agency must quickly develop new technologies for living and working on the moon if it wants to realize its goal to have astronauts working at a lunar base by 2028, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a live broadcast.

“We need power systems that can last a long time on the surface of the moon, and we need habitation capability on the surface,” Bridenstine said.

Nokia of North America received the contract for the lunar communication project. Finland-based parent company Nokia owns the U.S. subsidiary.

Nokia and British firm Vodafone had announced their goal for a moon mission in 2018. They had planned to launch a lander and rovers built by Audi, utilizing a SpaceX rocket.

At the time, the companies said they would set down near the Apollo 17 landing site and have rovers examine the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or moon buggy, astronauts left behind in 1972. That launch never happened, but the new contract breathes life into Nokia’s plans for moon projects.

“The system could support lunar surface communications at greater distances, increased speeds and provide more reliability than current standards,” NASA noted in its contract award announcement.

Having cellular service on the moon could support communication between lunar landers, rovers, habitats and astronauts, said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“The system would also extend to spacecraft,” Reuter said. “With NASA funding, Nokia will look at how terrestrial technology could be modified for the lunar environment to support reliable, high-rate communications.”

Nokia didn’t respond to questions about the intended landing site for the company’s first mission. NASA hasn’t decided on a landing site for the agency’s Artemis missions, but Bridenstine reiterated Wednesday that the target is a site near water-ice deposits on the lunar South Pole.

The contracts are geared toward NASA’s Tipping Point program, which funds technologies that, if demonstrated successfully, are likely to be adopted by private industry.

“We want to build the [lunar] infrastructure…that is going to enable an international partnership for the biggest, broadest, most diverse inclusive coalition of researchers and explorers in the history of humankind,” Bridenstine said.

Other technologies funded Wednesday include demonstrations of lunar surface power generation and energy storage.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines, for example, will develop a “hopping robot” that could launch and carry small payloads from one lunar site to another.

And Alpha Space, also based in Houston, will create a small laboratory that could land on the moon’s surface and allow researchers to study how the extreme temperatures and radiation affect materials and electronics.

NASA’s 16 women astronauts — at least one likely to walk on moon

Tracy Caldwell Dyson pauses for a portrait in her spacesuit before going underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 8, 2019. Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI



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