‘Space nets’ aim to capture threats to satellites and spacecraft


One capture concept being explored through ESA’s e.Deorbit system study for Active Debris Removal – capturing the satellite in a net attached to either a flexible tether (as seen here) or a rigid connection. (ESA)

Technology thousands of years old has been overhauled to capture threats to space hardware.

Space junk poses a serious threat, particularly to humans in space whether in the International Space Station, space shuttles, or other spacecraft.

The debris also poses a threat to satellites, which fulfill a critical role for militaries, governments, and businesses. Satellites, for example, help provide television, weather data, phone services and GPS navigation to the public.

The only way to protect current and future missions, as well as the satellites essential to everyday life, is to remove threats lurking in space.

The solution? Fishing. Recent tests for space age ‘space nets’ by the European Space Agency have proved very successful.

While fishing nets have been in use for several thousand years, space nets take this this ancient piece of technology to a whole new level.

The hope is that nets could be deployed to capture and remove space threats.


The threat

Earth is entirely surrounded by a “halo” of junk in space.  Space debris can be natural, like meteroids, or can be manmade.

There are more than half a million pieces of debris and, according to NASA calculations, at least 17, 000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup.

A collision with any of these could be catastrophic to a mission.

Why does the size matter?

Just a single centimeter-sized screw could hit a spacecraft with the impact of a hand grenade.

Space junk travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph – this velocity means just a teeny tiny piece of junk, like a fleck of paint, could damage a spacecraft or satellite.

Abandoned spacecraft, launch vehicle stages, and mission debris are just a few of the sources of junk large and small.

Some of the stuff up there is several tons and, clearly, a collision would have serious results. Some debris, such as batteries and leftover fuel, could also be explosive as a result of solar heating.

One collision could even produce a chain reaction of further collisions.

For example, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a U.S. Iridium commercial satellite in 2009. This collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the space junk problem.

In another example, when China deployed a missile to destroy a satellite in 2007, an additional 3,000 pieces of debris was added to space.

The tests

The ESA announced that its cutting-edge nets passed orbit testing with flying colors this week.

To test the nets in a space-like atmosphere, Canada’s Falcon 20 aircraft flew parabolic arcs. Each arc provided 20 seconds of weightless conditions as the plane fell through the sky and cancelled out gravity.

Over the course of 21 parabolas and two days, twenty net tests were conducted inside the aircraft.

The rainbow-colored nets were packed inside paper cartons. Each corner was weighted to help it entangle its target. A compressed air ejector shot the net at a satellite. The thinner version of the net proved more successful than the thicker one.

The ESA reported that the nets worked so well that they usually had to be cut away with a knife.

The National Research Council of Canada, Poland’s SKA Polska and OptiNav and Italy’s STAM were involved in the ESA project.

The challenges of capturing space junk

Capturing space junk is not easy. Standard space dockings are extremely difficult, but the ESA mission to capture derelict satellites adrift in the protected zone is even more challenging.

A satellite’s speed, size, and trajectory are just a few of the factors that make capturing space threats difficult.

One advantage of nets is they can be scaled to capture larger or smaller objects.  Also, they can handle all sorts of target shapes, rotation rates, and speeds.

In addition to deploying nets, several other approaches have been considered like harpoon, tentacles and mechanical arms, and ion beams.

Mission 2021

ESA’s e.Deorbit mission aims to capture a large piece of space debris at least 4,000 kg – that’s nearly 9,000 pounds. After capture, the mission will remove it out of the Low Earth Orbit protected zone into the atmosphere or above the 1,243-mile LEO line.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter@Allison_Barrie.

NASA details plans to pluck rock off asteroid, explore it

NASA Space Asteroid Mission-1.jpg

This Monday, Sept. 12, 2005 photo provided by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shows an asteroid named Itokawa photographed by the Hayabusa probe. On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, NASA announced it is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it – a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars. Itokawa, 2008 EV5 and Bennu are the candidates for the mission. (AP Photo/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) (The Associated Press)

NASA is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it — a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars.

The space agency Wednesday unveiled details of the $1.25 billion plan to launch a solar-powered unmanned spaceship to an asteroid in December 2020. The ship would spend about a year circling the large space rock and pluck a 13-foot boulder off its surface using robotic arms. It would have three to five opportunities to grab the rock, said Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator.

The smaller rock would be hauled near the moon and parked in orbit around the moon. Using a giant rocket ship and the Orion crew capsule that are still being developed, two astronauts would fly to the smaller rock in 2025 and start exploring. Astronauts aboard Orion would dock with the robotic ship, make spacewalks, climbing around the mini-asteroid to inspect and document, and even grab a piece to return to Earth.

The smaller rock might not even be big enough for the two astronauts to stand on; it would have fit in the cargo bay of the now-retired space shuttles.

The mission will “demonstrate the capabilities we’re going to need for further future human missions beyond low Earth orbit and then ultimately to Mars,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also identified the leading target. It’s a 1,300-foot wide space rock discovered in 2008 called 2008 EV5, making it somewhat larger than most of the asteroids that circle the sun near Earth. Two other space rocks are being considered, called Itokawa and Bennu.

NASA managers chose this option over another plan that would lasso or use a giant bag to grab an entire asteroid and haul it near the moon. The selected plan is about $100 million more expense but it was picked by managers in a meeting Tuesday because it would test technologies and techniques “we’re going to need when we go to another planetary body,” Lightfoot said during a telephone press conference. Those include “soft landing” and grabbing technologies, he said.

A few years ago, the administration proposed sending astronauts to an asteroid and landing on it, but later changed that to bringing the asteroid closer to Earth.

The $1.25 billion price does not include the larger costs of the rockets launching the spaceships to the asteroid and the smaller boulder.

The entire project called ARM for Asteroid Redirect Mission would also test new spacesuits for deep space, as opposed to Earth orbit, and may even help companies look at the idea of mining asteroids for precious metals, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.

Steitz said by getting closer to the large asteroid, the mission will help with “planetary defense” techniques, learning how to nudge a threatening space rock out of harm’s way.

Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University and a NASA associate administrator in the George W. Bush administration, said the concept in some ways makes sense in terms of training, engineering and cost, but “it still leaves the larger questions: What this leads to and why?”

American, Russian leave Earth this week for year in space

  • APTOPIX Year in Space-1.jpg

    In this photo provided by NASA, astronaut Scott Kelly sits inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), Wednesday, March 4, 2015 in Star City, Russia. On Saturday, March 28, 2015, Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will travel to the International Space Station to begin a year-long mission living in orbit. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls) (The Associated Press)

An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut are moving into the International Space Station this week and staying for an entire year.

After more than two years of training, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko are eager to get going. It will be the longest space mission ever for NASA, and the longest in almost two decades for the Russian Space Agency, which holds the record at 14 months.

Their Soyuz rocket is scheduled to blast off from Kazakhstan on Friday afternoon in the U.S. (early Saturday morning in Kazakhstan.)

The world’s space agencies want to know how the body adapts to an entire year of weightlessness before committing to even longer Mars expeditions. The typical stint at the space station is six months.

Ring of light: Total eclipse over Svalbard islands in Arctic

Serbia Europe Solar Eclipse-1.jpg

March 20, 2015: A man watches the partial solar eclipse trough an X ray film at the Kalemegdan citadel in Belgrade, Serbia. (The Associated Press)

Sky-gazers in the Arctic were treated to a perfect view of a total solar eclipse Friday as the moon completely blocked out the sun in a clear sky, casting a shadow over Norway’s remote archipelago of Svalbard.

People shouted, cheered and applauded as Longyearbyen, the main town in Svalbard, plunged into darkness. The skies were clear, offering a full view of the sun’s corona — a faint ring of rays surrounding the moon — that is only visible during a total solar eclipse.

A few hundred people had gathered on a flat frozen valley overlooking the mountains, and people shouted and yelled as the sudden darkness came. A group of people opened bottles of champagne, saying it was in keeping with a total solar eclipse tradition.

“I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it,” said Hilary Castle, 58, from London.

“It was just fabulous, just beautiful and at the same time a bit odd and it was too short,” said Mary Rannestad, 60, from Minnesota.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon lines up between the sun and the Earth. This casts a lunar shadow on the Earth’s surface and obscures the sun. During a partial eclipse, only part of the sun is blotted out.

Though some enterprising eclipse-seekers got exactly what they were hoping for, others were less lucky. A blanket of clouds in the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic blocked thousands of people from experiencing the full effect of the total eclipse.

The Faeroes and Svalbard were the only two places on land where the eclipse was total. About 20,000 visitors had traveled to the two remote island groups to watch the spectacle.

Despite the clouds in the Faeroes, tourists and residents in Torshavn alike hooted and applauded as the daylight dimmed for about 2 minutes and 45 seconds.

“It was a pretty big disappointment not to be able to see the sun,” said Janaki Lund Jensen, who had sailed from Copenhagen with 884 others to see the eclipse. Hotel rooms have been booked for years as thousands came to the Faeroe Islands to try to see the eclipse.

Sigrun Skalagard, in the northern parts of the Faeroes, said birds there went silent and dogs started howling.

“Some people were surprised to see how fast it became dark,” she said.

A partial solar eclipse could be seen Friday across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Britain’s Met Office said 95 percent of the sun was covered in the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetland Islands, and one percent less further south in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In Copenhagen, the sun was 85 percent covered up while 80 percent was hidden in southern Sweden. Cloudy weather put a lid across large parts of the continent, making it hard to see the eclipse. However, a thin cloud cover allowed people in Stockholm to watch the eclipse without protective glasses, as the faint disk of the sun could be seen through the overcast sky.

The last total eclipse was in November 2012 over Australia. The next one will be over Indonesia in March 2016, according to NASA.


Gashka reported from Torshavn, Faeroe Islands. Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Major solar storm hits Earth


A severe solar storm smacked Earth with a surprisingly big geomagnetic jolt Tuesday, potentially affecting power grids and GPS tracking while pushing the colorful northern lights farther south, federal forecasters said.

In a statement released early on Wednesday, The Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado said that the geomagnetic storm had subsided. “Solar wind speed remains high, however, and G1 (Minor) storm episodes are still possible,” it said.

The most extreme geomagnetic storms are ranked as G5 storms by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Space.comnotes that on Halloween 2003 a powerful geomagnetic storm forced astronauts to seek shelter on the International Space Station because of potentially dangerous radiation levels, while also stressing power grids on Earth.

So far no damage from the St. Patrick ’s Day solar storm has been reported. Two blasts of magnetic plasma left the sun on Sunday, combined and arrived on Earth about 15 hours earlier and much stronger than expected, said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center, on Tuesday.

The storm ranked a 4, called severe, on the NOAA’s scale for geomagnetic effects. It was the strongest solar storm to blast Earth since the fall of 2013. It’s been nearly a decade since a level 5 storm has hit Earth.

Forecasters figured it would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning; instead, it arrived just before 10 a.m. EDT. They had forecast it to be a level 1.

“It’s significantly stronger than expected,” Berger said, on Tuesday. Forecasters had predicted a glancing blow instead of dead-on hit. Another theory is that the combination of the two storms made it worse.

The storm had the potential to disrupt power grids but only temporarily, while also causing degradation of the global positioning system, affecting tracking maps and locators.

Often these types of storm come with bursts of radiation that can affect satellite operations, but this one has not, Berger said.

But the most noticeable effect is usually considered a positive. The Aurora Borealis or northern lights that usually can be viewed only in the far north dip south, so more people can enjoy the colorful sky show.

Forecasters said early Tuesday, before sunrise, auroras were already seen in the northern tier of the U.S., such as Washington state, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stunning image shows meteor streaking across sky above Loch Ness



 (John Alasdair Macdonald, The Hebridean Explorer)

It’s an incredible image – the bright tail of a meteor streaking across the clear night sky above Scotland’s Loch Ness. The image, which has been trending online, was an “absolute fluke,” according to John Alasdair Macdonald, a tour guide based in the Scottish Highlands, who captured the rare shot.

Macdonald told the Independent that he headed outside Monday night with his Sony RX100 compact camera to take shots of what he described as a beautiful evening. While walking, he noticed the meteor shooting across the sky.

“As my wife said, it was just sheer dumb luck,” he said. “It was a complete fluke, an absolute fluke.”

Macdonald offers private Highland tours through his business The Hebridean Explorer. When he posted the image to his business’s Facebook page, it quickly made the social media rounds.

For Macdonald, it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

“I will never take a picture like that again,” he told the BBC.

Mystery object appears near Milky Way’s monster black hole


A simulation of the gas cloud G2’s encounter with the supermassive black hole Sgr A*. The blue lines mark the orbits of the so-called “S” stars that are in close orbits around the black hole. (ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann)

A mystery object at the center of the galaxy has astronomers scratching their heads, and a new piece of information won’t be solving the case before the New Year.

In yet another twist to a saga of astronomical proportions, astronomers have identified what they say is a gas cloud that made a tight orbit around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy 13 years ago. The object could be one in a series of gas clouds, the second of which may soon become a snack for the black hole.

The newly discovered object has been dubbed G1. An object known as G2 has been in the news for more than a year, ever since astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany hypothesized that it was a gas cloud. If that is true, it should lose some of its material to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way (known as Sagittarius A* or Sgr A*). This giant black hole — its name is pronounced Sagittarius A(star) — doesn’t dine on material often, so the event would be a rare chance for astronomers to watch a black hole eat. [Top 10 Strangest Things in Space]

While the scientists at Max Planck contend that G2 is a gas cloud, a group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, led by astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, argue that G2 is more likely a star surrounded by a layer of dust and gas. Over the summer, G2 made its closest approach to the black hole and was not torn apart. Ghez and her group argued that this was a knockout punch for the gas cloud theory — clear evidence that G2 is a solid body.

But the researchers at the Max Planck institute countered with an explanation for how G2 could have remained intact even if it is a gas cloud. Their theory incorporates the idea that G2 was once part of a larger gas cloud that subsequently broke up into smaller gas clouds that all follow the same path, like beads on a string. This “beading” of gas has been observed in the universe before. If additional clouds of gas could be identified following the same path as G2, that would strongly indicate that G2 is a gas cloud and not a star, the scientists say.

In their newest paper, the Max Planck group provides a computer model that retraces the path of G1. According to their research, G1 followed a path nearly identical to G2. The model does make certain assumptions about G1’s motion — for example, that it decelerated near closest approach to the black hole.

“The good agreement of the model with the data renders the idea that G1 and G2 are part of the same gas streamer highly plausible,” Stefan Gillessen, a co-author on the new research, said a statement.

The new study was first published on the online preprint journal arXiv.org and has been accepted to the Astrophysical Journal.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft prepares for Ceres rendezvous


NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heads toward Ceres as seen in this artist’s conception. (REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Reuters)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to enter Ceres’ orbit early on Friday, becoming the first ever probe to successfully visit a dwarf planet.

The rendezvous with Ceres’ gravity will take place around 7:30 a.m. ET, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which is managing the mission.

“It’s a gentle handoff from the Sun’s orbit to Ceres’ orbit,” a JPL spokesman told FoxNews.com.

Ceres, which lies between Mars and Jupiter,will be 310 million miles from Earth at the time of Dawn’s arrival.

Dawn’s antennas, however, are not scheduled to be in contact with Earth at the time of the rendezvous, but will be communicating with NASA shortly afterwards. “We have a scheduled pass with NASA’s deep space network that begins about an hour later,” said the JPL spokesman.

Launched in September 2007, Dawn explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and began its final approach to Ceres in December. The Dawn mission is scheduled to end in June 2016, at which time the spacecraft will remain in Ceres’ orbit.

“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at JPL, in a statement released on Monday. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”

Scientists hope that NASA’s investigation of Ceres will boost our understanding of how the solar system formed.

Images of Ceres have already revealed craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres formed and whether its surface is changing. NASA says that as Dawn spirals into closer and closer orbits around the planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.

Since Jan. 25, Dawn has been delivering the highest-resolution images of Ceres ever captured, and they will continue to improve in quality as the spacecraft approaches, according to NASA.

The dwarf planet has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt and is believed to contain a large amount of ice. Ceres is estimated to be 25 percent water by mass.

Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801 and was the first object discovered in our solar system’s asteroid belt.

Initially classified as a planet, Ceres was later called an asteroid, and designated a dwarf planet in 2006.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

Zero Gravity glass makes martinis for space


A Kickstarter campaign hope to give astronauts a chance to enjoy a martini while in space, without blobs of the beverage floating into the air. (Cosmic Lifestyle Corporation)

Everyone knows that martinis on Earth are to be shaken, not stirred. But shaking up your favorite cocktail in space comes with its own set of challenges.

First there’s the issue of lack of gravity, making it impossible for the liquid to elegantly sit in a glass. (Sucking a martini out of a bag like a kid during school lunch is so uncool). Even worse, the surface tension of zero gravity turns the liquid into one mass rather than dispersing through the air.  If you break that mass apart, it creates tiny balls that float around, stick to your clothes and generally make a mess.

But martinis in space may soon have the potential of appearing like its Earth-bound counterparts with Cosmic Lifestyle Corporation’s Zero-G martini glass.

With grooves that make it easier for liquid to flow in one direction, the glass is the first of several projects planned by the group aimed at improving the comfort of astronauts and future space travellers and to “inspire people to dream big about living in off-world.”

The design of the glass is such that it allows a space traveller to “enjoy the aroma of the drink, yet keep the fluids under control,” with your mouth completing the connection “like a straw,” it said.

The glasses are printed using 3D machines, so you don’t have to waste precious space transporting it to the International Space Station.  Currently it takes 15 hours to print one glass.

CLC has created a crowdfunding Kickstarter site to raise money for the project.

“This campaign will help us test the glass in real weightless environments, which is very difficult to simulate on Earth,” CLC said.

The team, which is being supported by the Space Frontier Foundation and the Space Tourism Society, needs to raise $30,000, with the ultimate goal to print a glass on board the International Space Station by October 2015.

The campaign has so far raised over $1,800 of its goal.

Rosetta probe snaps awesome comet photo in harrowing close encounter


An image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken from 9.5 miles above the surface. (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft recently beamed back an amazing photo of its comet taken during a risky, close flyby of the dusty cosmic body.

Rosetta’s flyby took it from the shady side of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko towards sunlight, putting the sun directly behind the spacecraft and showing scientists how reflective the comet’s surface was. The image, taken when the Rosetta spacecraft was 9.5 miles from Comet 67P/C-G’s surface puts the celestial body’s dusty, craggy face on display.

“The data acquired during Rosetta’s close flyby will provide incredible new details of the comet’s surface and near-coma environment, complementing that collected earlier in the mission while on bound orbits,” European Space Agency officials said in a blog about the close flyby. [See more photos of the comet from Rosetta]

Rosetta’s flyby brought it about 3.7 miles from the comet’s face on Feb. 14, but not all went according to plan during the orbit.

The comet has far more dust and gas coming from its surface as it draws closer to the sun. The team discovered that this created drag on the Rosetta spacecraft, and making it difficult for the probe to view the stars it needed for navigation. Rosetta started tracking “false stars,” and even its backup star tracker stopped working, according to ESA.

But in spite of these issues, the spacecraft continued to function, snapping the new photo and collecting data for the science teams back on Earth.

“With a lot of luck, the spacecraft did not end up in ‘safe mode’,” Sylvain Lodiot, Rosetta spacecraft operations manager, said in the same blog post. “Although in this case we could have recovered the spacecraft and resumed operations as planned, the science instruments would have automatically switched off in the meantime. By the time they had been switched back on, we would have been relatively far away from the comet again.”

Rosetta arrived at Comet 67P-C-G in 2014. The spacecraft is expected to function in orbit around the comet through the rest of 2015, following the cosmic body as its makes its close pass of the sun later this year.

In November 2014, mission controllers deployed the Philae lander from Rosetta to the comet’s surface. Philae made a bumpy landing, and officials aren’t yet sure where the probe ended up on the comet. The lander did spend several days gathering data before the spacecraft’s battery died. As more sunlight falls on the surface, controllers are hoping Philae’s solar panels will collect enough energy to help the lander start functioning again.