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ISS Loses Orbit-Boosting Options 150

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the sinking-feeling-that-everything-isn't-ok dept.
An anonymous reader writes "NewScientist reports is reporting that the International Space Station has lost some of its options when it comes to altitude-boosting due to several recent failures. From the article: 'The problems began on 19 April 2006, when the Russian Zvezda service module's main engines failed during a test. The failure may have been due to a sunshade cover that was not completely open, according to a station status report.'"
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ISS Loses Orbit-Boosting Options

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  • Sucesses? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mboverload (657893)
    Can someone lay out what the ISS has actually done for us? It seems to be a crowded bunch of poorly-engineered tin cans floating above us and sucking up money in the process.

    • Re:Sucesses? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:22PM (#15304609) Homepage Journal
      The parent is effectively correct, even if he is a bit abrasive about it. The Space Station, just like the Space Shuttle, was a victim of politics. What was originally going to be a staging point for a moon colony became an international piece of junk that should have been scrapped as soon as its stated purpose was lost. Instead, NASA went ahead and built a station in the wrong orbit that wasn't useful for anything other than showing the flag. Construction has been long behind schedule, over budget, and the poor station has been falling apart at the seams from day 1.

      Of course, I'm sure there are political reasons why they couldn't NOT build it.

      Thank God for the CEV program. It may seem like a step back, but it will actually be a huge step forward for the space program. Let's just hope that Griffin gets it finished before the next political fallout.
      • Re:Sucesses? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:39PM (#15304708) Homepage Journal

        It should never have been built in the first place. Using it as a staging area for moon missions? Did anyone believe that would actually save us any money? That's the only reason why it MIGHT be worthwhile. Which it isn't.

        It's also too small to be a serious staging area for anything bigger than a toaster, anyway. They'd have had to add significant amounts of storage space, much of which will have to be pressurized, further increasing the demands upon the facility. By the same token, it's too small to do much of anything in, so it's not a useful scientific platform.

        The ISS was guaranteed to be a boondoggle from the beginning. It's nothing but a colossal waste of time, aside from the research involved in building the thing and putting it up there. If we were smarter we'd have just built a big spaceship up there in the first place, and sent it to Mars. Of course, we'd still be building the thing, but at least it would be useful when we were done.

        • Re:Sucesses? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by cmowire (254489) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @07:26PM (#15304937) Homepage
          Well, the storage room wouldn't be so expensive if they were to use some modules like the TransHab module..... oops, canceled that.

          I was very excited about the possibilities of the Centerfuge Accomidation Module. Finally they could put up some rodents or fish or other small-enough-to-work-on-the-centerfuge research animals and make them run through the entire reproductive cycle in space repeatedly at different levels of gravity, so if a few Blessed Events accidentally happen some day up there, they'll know what to do..... oops, but that got canned to.

          It would be useful for on-orbit checkout of large spacecraft.... but the 51 degree inclanation orbit is going to cost you enough in payload and reduced opportunities for launch that there's no point... you might as well launch something sized like the FGB into the right orbit and you'll come out ahead.

          It would be great for researching viruses and such because you can crystalize proteins in space easier than on the ground.... except that between the 1980s when they were going on about it and now, they instead developed improved analytical machines that don't require the sort of perfect large crystals that space is good for.

          Oh! Right! We can test out space systems that would be useful for the real missions later on. Except that the station STILL relies on a bunch of Russian hardware that we already know is a smidge clunky.

          The station makes perfect sense when you realize that it's a bunch of repackaged hardware built around assumptions from the 70s that we knew to be untrue around 85. The problem is that they didn't take a big step backwards at any point between 1985 and 2000 and really reassess things.

          For example, the only time that the option of launching some of the American modules on an expendable booster was considered, they wanted to make the Shuttle-C, not just buy a quiver of Atlas or Titan rockets.
          • Oh! Right! We can test out space systems that would be useful for the real missions later on. Except that the station STILL relies on a bunch of Russian hardware that we already know is a smidge clunky.

            Last I checked, it was the American built modules that had most of the problems.

            From TFA:

            The problems began on 19 April 2006, when the Russian Zvezda service module's main engines failed during a test. The failure may have been due to a sunshade cover that was not completely open, according to a station statu

            • I'm more thinking about the Elektron module's endless troubles, which is really the part that's been getting in the way and acting up so far.

              Oh, and there's also the whole reaction wheel thing, that's bad on the US side.

              Much of the hardware on the US side that would have been nice to use long-term in space so that future designs could rely on it hasn't been launched yet (like the US version of Elektron) or has been canceled altogther (like the US Propulsion module).

              Really, the problem I see isn't that the R
          • About research: Half of ISS's research is privately funded. Also, while xray crystallography has indeed advanced here on the surface, large crystals are still a big help. The main problem with the ISS's protein crystal growth experiments is that they have been very inconsistent in performance; some results have been great, but others not very good. There's some suggestion that trying to grow them in the same manner that we do on Earth is to blame for this, and we'd get better results by changing the meth
            • DART was not doing in-space docking. It was doing autonomous in-space inspection and maintenence, which is much much harder, especially because the goal was to not need to design the target to be maintained.

              There's a huge difference between bumping two modules together at a socket-recepticle connector and manuvering around a vehicle autonomously.

              The US has been bumping socket-recepticle connectors together since the days of Gemini and the Russians have been mostly-automatically bumping androgynous connecto
              • All of the current systems, including Russia's radar-based Automated Approach and Docking system, involve some level of human control in the process. To quote Jim Snoddy, the DART project manager:

                "DART is the first thing out for the new exploration initiative, so the intention is, DART is a technology development program to enable the CEV to do one of the things we need, which is to autonomously rendezvous and dock in space."

                DART was a docking technology demonstrator. It wasn't a final project, but it was
                • So?

                  Fully autonomous docking is not necessary. The lightspeed delay to orbit is sufficently small that some people on the ground can bang them together just fine.
        • Agree w/ parent and GP.

          IIRC, the general plan before it got modified by politicians was to place the ISS at a higher orbit and use a never-constructed Space Tug to transfer cargo from the low orbit that is all the Shuttle can manage to the ISS itself. Combined with fully recoverable/reuseable Shuttle boosters, this could have been an effective system (provided the technology of the day was up to constructing it without going too far over budget).

          Too many cost overruns in the Shuttle's development, and t

      • Forget CEV - just go back to BDRs (Big Dumb Rockets) and screw all this people in space crap. Look at the great stuff from Hubble and Mars that's far cheaper than any shuttle or space station missions. (Yeah, yeah, hubble was launched by the shuttle...).

        The space station and shuttle have paralyzed NASA for decades and have set back space exploration and space science by at least 10-15 years.

        While a noble concept, the space station has devolved to symbolize the politicization and popularization of science.

        An
        • Your rant reminds of those that argued that Europeans should not explore overseas. Had they not pushed outwards, then the world would look radically different today. America (and the world) needs to push outwards.
      • Um.

        The CEV's going to be just as much of a clusterfuck as the shuttle. All of the same contractors are going to do to it the same thing they managed to do with the shuttle.

        Look at the proposal. The SRB first stage on the CEV's booster.... so that Thikol doesn't complain to their congresscritter. The cargo vehicle with the external tank so that you don't lose that factory. No effort to make the CEV work on anybody else's launcher, like the EELV Atlas and Deltas or maybe let SpaceX try to undercut things.
        • While the CEV may turn into a cluster F***, it does not matter. We need a large cargo rocket and we need a small cheap rocket for humans. That is what we are getting. In addition, we are funding alternatives. I would rather fund 2-4 of them rather the one that we will probably do. But even then, getting competitive systems off the ground will pay back down the road.
          • Re:Sucesses? (Score:3, Insightful)

            by cmowire (254489)
            Um.

            There aren't any alternatives funded for the CEV. It's about as competitive as the shuttle's procurement was. NASA was going to make the two leading teams do a fly-off, but that was removed from the plan. So, one CEV booster that's intended to last us all the way to the Mars shot, and no alternatives.

            We don't need two new boosters. We don't even need two boosters at all. It would have been far cheaper to just source either Delta or Atlas EELV stages. (and leave open the option for SpaceX to sell a
            • This will provide access to the iSS and LEO. [wikipedia.org]

              As to the boosters, yes, we do need the large one. The smaller one could have been a delta. But none of the other boosters are in the same area WRT to capacity. Of course, that was based on the initial specs. It remains to be seen if they are really going to gut this one. If so, then it is better to go with what we have. But I suspect that griffin will put his foot down and insist on a larger booster, not a smaller one.
              • The need for a large booster is based around flawed assumptions.

                The heavy lift booster flies twice a year, the light booster flies maybe 6 times a year. It would be far cheaper to fly a single medium booster 12 flights a year. Same, if not more upmass will be flown. Remember, the more of the same thing you build, the cheaper it gets, because you can use more economical manufacturing techniques.

                Also, think about the difference between sending two or three smaller earth departure stages into a parking orbi
                • No doubt that it is cheaper to fly a bunch of rockets, then to fly one big one. In addition, the other good arument that you missed is that if we lose one, then we lose a much smaller percentage of the load.

                  Your argument about the timing is very incorrect. What is missing in your argument is that we need to then send multiple mission AND then join them. This leads to a timing issue. Keep in mind that the longer something is in orbit the longer the likeyhood of slow leaks, more fuel, etc. In fact, is the m
                  • No, as you launch more missions, there is necessarily a shorter gap between them.

                    Plus, you forget about pad time vs. stacking time. If we are using LC-39, there are three mobile launch platforms, two pads, and four bays in the VAB without doing major modifications or construction. Without building extra pads in LC-39 (which, if NASA does manage to actually launch the new launch vehicles often, is almost required, given that there are two different types of launcher), that still lets you begin a launch cam
        • All of the same contractors are going to do to it the same thing they managed to do with the shuttle.

          Look around the industry sometime. There aren't exactly many contractors to deal with. T/Space is about the only "new" company on the block, and they are working with NASA now. Albeit in a much reduced capacity from what they were originally attempting.

          The SRB first stage on the CEV's booster.... so that Thikol doesn't complain to their congresscritter.

          Actually, the reuse of technology lets them get the roc
          • Sure there's not much left on the market, although that's mostly because of the problems that NASA has already created for itself in combination with the defense biz.

            Also, there's not even much incentive for the teams to deliver the actual cheapest system. They just have to write the best proposal. Were they to have flown demonstrators of the two designs, NASA wouldn't need to start a bidding and design process all over again to switch systems, they'd just need to give the other team a year or two of lead
      • In the 60's, the Space Race was a nice way to "win" in the cold war. People cared because it was all linked to national pride and semi-justified the fight against communism.

        There is no national pride in an international space station. In fact it looks like the opposite. There's also nothing new and it all looks like been there, done that.

        The only time most people will care is when it de-orbits and makes a nice firework display.

      • When the project first began, there was a wonderful editorial in Science that basically warned it was going to be a white elephant that would suck dry the budgets of all other space science. The whole thing was essentially a "we can't let the Russians hold the success of Mir over us" ego trip. The whole project ignored the fact that the shuttle program had failed in its primary mission: cutting the cost-to-orbit by a couple of order of manitude. We've essentially wasted an entire generation of research/e
    • Re:Sucesses? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:27PM (#15304640)
      The true use of the space station is that is shows that a long term spaceship can't be built in small sections over a long period of time without the whole assembly obsoleting itself or wearing out before it starts its main mission.

      For the sake of argument, presume that the spacestation had been designed to travel to mars. By adding high thrust ion engines and power plants, this could have been done. However an assembly as large as the space station and typical for the requirement, loses over a mile of altitude a day in earth orbit and will burn up in the atmosphere within 1 year of ceasing to re-adjust its orbit higher.

      What has been really learned is that complex space ships of conventional design will age too soon to be of much use other than to learn how fast things wear out and wear down in a space environment.

      Based on that, which had to be learned, the space station has served its intended purposes well.

      • The true use of the space station is that is shows that a long term spaceship can't be built in small sections over a long period of time without the whole assembly obsoleting itself or wearing out before it starts its main mission.
        Uh, you are aware that they didn't plan such a long construction period. Not having a working shuttle has kind of screwed up the schedule.
      • With that point in mind, NASA has commissioned a new official poster [despair.com] for the ISS project.
      • Re:Sucesses? (Score:5, Informative)

        by A non-mouse Cow Herd (67426) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @11:55PM (#15306086)
        The true use of the space station is that is shows that a long term spaceship can't be built in small sections over a long period of time without the whole assembly obsoleting itself or wearing out before it starts its main mission.
        Even if that was true of ISS (which is a stretch at the very least), it doesn't prove it for the general case. In particular ISS is designed to be occupied and used while it is under construction, and designed to be serviced on orbit. If you were designing a deep space craft, you would make different choices.
        For the sake of argument, presume that the spacestation had been designed to travel to mars. By adding high thrust ion engines and power plants, this could have been done.
        Only if you completely redesigned most of it. ISS is designed for LEO. To make it work in deep space would require major changes. The thermal control, power and navigation systems are designed for LEO.
        However an assembly as large as the space station and typical for the requirement, loses over a mile of altitude a day in earth orbit and will burn up in the atmosphere within 1 year of ceasing to re-adjust its orbit higher.
        ISS loses ~100 meters/day when it is on the lower edge of it's nominal orbits. Maybe 200 meters if solar activity is really high. Incidentally, if it lost a mile per day, it would burn up in a matter of months or less, depending on the starting altitude.
        What has been really learned is that complex space ships of conventional design will age too soon to be of much use other than to learn how fast things wear out and wear down in a space environment.
        Not at all. Many of the original components are working fine, and the ones that have failed have definite, identifiable and fixable reasons for failing. Although ISS is an awfully expensive way of doing it, it does provide significant lessons in building long duration crewed spacecraft. Far better to learn these lessons in LEO rather than on the way to mars.
      • However an assembly as large as the space station and typical for the requirement, loses over a mile of altitude a day in earth orbit and will burn up in the atmosphere within 1 year of ceasing to re-adjust its orbit higher.
        ISS height data [heavens-above.com]
    • Can someone lay out what the ISS has actually done for us?

      It got rid of a bunch of poorly engineered tin cans?

      KFG
      • This is an experiment in waste management. It is a replacement for the garbage scow going down the Hudson.
        • It is a replacement for the garbage scow going down the Hudson.

          But I like to take my scow down the Hudson. That's what I built it for.

          Oh, wait, you mean . . . nevermind.

          KFG
    • I heard they do very interesting experiments on the effects of zero gravity on bees. What more do you want?
      • I thought there was no such thing as zero gravity? Everything has some gravitational pull on it. Effects on bees in freefall though may someday cure...something. Vertigo?
    • Can someone lay out what the ISS has actually done for us?

      Why would you have expected it to do anything? It's *under construction*. One hardly expects an incomplete facility of any kind to accomplish anything.

      Now, if one one want to make the arguement that the design and construction process is flawed - you are on firm ground. But complaining about it not having accomplished yet is like driving up to a fast food place before the walls are up - and complaining about the service or lack thereof.

    • All the worlds government's store their pr0n collections up there in case of nuclear war.
  • by ZSpade (812879) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:13PM (#15304557) Homepage
    As the article itself states, they move the ISS when there is a 1 in 10,000 chance something will hit it, and they know well in advance if that's the case. The ISS is getting so old that I think it's starting to get ridiculous to report all of it's little breakdowns here and there. Personally I think at this point it's a money hole that's outlived it's usefulness.
    • If that is the case it was never usefull. The ISS is still relatively young and only partly constructed. It is way over budget and way behind schedule so you may be right.

      Simply put, it is like saying your house is too old when it was a 1 year old and only half built.
      • by peragrin (659227) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @07:52PM (#15305057)
        No it's like saying my parents house was too old and out of date when it was 5 years old, and still not finished. (note they never did finish it even though we lived in it for almost 20 years)

        The ISS can't be finished. it needs the shuttle to finish it and the shuttle will be phased out long before the ISS is finished.

        What the ISS has taught us and no one has figured out is that we need a vaible method for getting small things up to orbit easily. Progress shuttles from Russia don't count. those haven't changed a lot since the 70's. And all the budgets for such craft keep getting cancled.

        • Why does the thing that we send small things up to space in have to be designed more recently than the 70's?

          If it works, use it.

          I quite happily commute on subway trains that are older than colour television.
    • At this point? The ISS has been a money hole since before it was put up in orbit.
    • How can it be old? They haven't finished building the damn thing yet!
    • I don't know if the artcile mentions it or not (DRFA), but a collision isn't a major issue in the short or long term.

      But, in the long term, the ISS is now unable to push itself up to a higher orbit. Its orbit decays very slowly. So every so often when a space shuttle parked at it, the shuttle used its thruster to push the ISS to a higher orbit. It hasn't been able to do that, unfortunately.

      Luck would have it, the solar maximum phase is behind us. At this point the atmosphere is fairly thin at the ISS's alti
  • by Luscious868 (679143) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:17PM (#15304589)
    Let's rename the station to something more appropriate: ICF: International Cluster Fuck
  • 1 in 10,000 something will hit it? what about it hitting something?

  • no worries (Score:3, Funny)

    by ezwip (974076) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @06:21PM (#15304607)
    Don't worry they have a procedure for getting these things down. It's called cross your fingers and aim it at an underdeveloped country. ;)
  • That's a shame. It only had one day left until retirement.
  • It is done whenever there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of an object hitting the station

    Does this mean that every time they see an object that might hit they're prepared to gamble the entire ISS with 10,000 to 1 odds. So if they see 100 distinct objects with a less than 1 in 10,000 chance of hitting, over the ISS lifetime, there's a roughly 1% chance of one of them hitting? Are these reasonable odds when we're talking about something that cost of the order of $100,000,000,000 to build and carries people.

    • >Does this mean that every time they see an object that might hit they're prepared to
      >gamble the entire ISS with 10,000 to 1 odds.

      It's not as though every collision is expected to do catastrophic damage, and you're treating it like it's 10,000:1 odds against assurd destruction.
    • Re:1 in 10,000 (Score:5, Informative)

      by Antony T Curtis (89990) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @07:16PM (#15304879) Homepage Journal

      Probabilities of independent events are not cumulative... ...otherwise, a very large number of individuals who commute by car would have accumulated a probability of having an accident far in excess of 100% every year.

      Concider this:

      What is the probability that the next coin-flip comes up heads? 50%...
      After I flip heads, what is the next probability for getting heads? It is still 50%.
      The next coin flip getting heads? 50% again.

      Now, the probability of three consequtive coin flips getting all heads is 12.5%


      • Probabilities of independent events are not cumulative...

        Woah! I can't wait to hook up with you at Vegas. I hope you have lots of money to burn.
      • Sorry to burst your bubble - but the probabilities *are* cumulative.

        What is the probability that the next coin-flip comes up heads? 50%... After I flip heads, what is the next probability for getting heads? It is still 50%. The next coin flip getting heads? 50% again.

        Now, the probability of three consequtive coin flips getting all heads is 12.5%

        correct so far - but what you describe is the probability of getting into an accident on *every* commute. The probability of getting into at least one acciden

    • Re:1 in 10,000 (Score:4, Informative)

      by ScottLindner (954299) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @07:27PM (#15304944)
      That's how probability works. You *cannot* guarantee an accident will not happen. You can only reduce the odds. You can only get close to 100% guarantee, but not actually achieve 100% guarantee. As you get closer to 100% the costs go up enormously. If you wanted to knock it down to 1:100,000 odds you will pay more than 10x the cost. And then.. it's still only a probability, and not a frequency. You interpretted it as a frequency of problems, and not a probability.

      Even with this low probability, the ISS could get whacked once every day.. and the probably would still be 1:10000 with the procedure they are using today. Assuming they are modelling probability properly.

      • And then.. it's still only a probability, and not a frequency.

        What do you think the difference is?
    • Re:1 in 10,000 (Score:3, Insightful)

      by solitas (916005)
      and carries people

      And carries volunteers - they all know what they may be in for when they sign up.

  • The real problem... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bryansix (761547)
    is that there is so much space junk. And 99.9% of it is from humans. We need some sort of space junk collection device to be deployed.
    • The problem with trying to reduce space-junk is that any ablative system will simply create -more- space-junk. Aerogel may be a semisolution for the smaller pieces, but the larget bits of junk will demolish most platforms put up for restraint. Let's put it this way: The easiest way to utterly destroy access to space is to put up a few satellites full of 1-2cm steel ball bearings, and have them explode. Say goodbye to space exploration, even through telescope, for a few decades.
    • The obvious question is, who or what put in the remaining 0.1% up there?

      Enquiring minds want to know!

      myke
  • So, is this thing going to fall on my house or what? If not, thanks for yet another story that doesn't matter.
  • Progress control (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tango42 (662363) on Wednesday May 10, 2006 @07:46PM (#15305030)
    If the ISS can't control the Progress rockets, but Russian ground control can, it sounds like the problem is simply with the ISS, so why can't they just go through the airlock and control it from inside the Progress craft? I know Progress is an unmanned craft, so probably doesn't have a pilot's seat, but it shouldn't be too hard to rig something up, just in case. They're meant to have some of the best engineers around, surely one of them knows how to splice an extra interface into the system...
    • shouldn't be too hard to rig something up, just in case.

      I can't see a reason for there to be any electronic connection between the pressurised forward module and propulsion module of the progress spacecraft [wikipedia.org].

      The astronaut would have to go EVA to rig up a way of controlling the engines (possibly as easy as starting a car from the engine compartment) while wearing a pressure suit.

      Personally I can't see it happening.

      • "I can't see a reason for there to be any electronic connection between the pressurised forward module and propulsion module of the progress spacecraft."

        This kind of situation would be that reason. The progress craft was launched knowing it would be used for boosting the station's orbit, so they could have rigged something up on the ground as a backup.
  • TFA is somewhat out of date - and misses the point mostly.

    Much better coverage can be found in Jim Oberg's essay [thespacereview.com] at The Space Review.
  • I think I saw that broken sun cover when it flew over my house last week. What do you think from this picture [abandonedstuff.com]?
  • Chart of ISS Height (Score:2, Informative)

    by sam5550 (841429)
    A chart of the height of the ISS:

    Getting lower... [heavens-above.com]
    • Great link. that's scary stuff to see it like that.

      Now why can't they give it a nudge up again? I'm not a space or orbit engineer, why don't they boost it higher so it doesn't decay so rapidly?
      • You can see the full history here [spaceref.com]

        To answer the question, they could boost it somewhat higher, but have chosen not to. Lower orbits give leave more payload for visiting craft, although that must be weighed against extra fuel for reboosts. Reboosts also affect the launch windows for visiting craft. You might look at the graph the GP posted and think "OMG it's falling out of control" but that is not the case. It's at the current altitude because thats where they decided they wanted it. Reboosts are normally d

        • Thanks for the informative response. I did have the negative reaction that you mentioned even though I did notice the scale did not start at 0.0 elevation.

          Is it normal for all satellites to be boosted, or only larger things like ISS, Hubble, etc?
          • It's more about altitude and ballistic coefficient than size. With a some exceptions, un-manned satellites tend to be put in higher orbits, which don't encounter enough atmosphere to make them decay within their operational lifetime. Hubble (which is just barely within reach of the shuttle) is good for many years between reboosts. You might ask, "then why not put ISS at hubble altitude ?" but if it were, the shuttle wouldn't have the payload to bring up the pieces.

            Even where atmospheric drag isn't a big fac
  • It's Skylab all over again.

This system will self-destruct in five minutes.

Working...