Image: Asteroid
This view of the asteroid Itokawa was captured by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft from a distance of about 1,640 feet (500 meters). The probe's shadow can be seen as a dark mark on the asteroid's surface.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 12/9/2005 7:00:27 PM ET 2005-12-10T00:00:27

Somewhere beyond the far side of the Sun, a battered Japanese space probe is struggling to make its critical condition clear to controllers back on Earth so they can diagnose the latest problems, develop another set of "work-around" procedures and implement them by remote control. The project’s goal, to return from a years-long interplanetary odyssey with samples from an asteroid, has been teetering on the edge of failure for most of the trip, but the Japanese control team has always been able to work something out before.

Even if that goal does slip through the team’s fingers, however, the enormously innovative and resilient mission promises to deliver perhaps an even more important cargo back to Earth: a renewed interest in far-out high-risk imaginative space technology demonstrations.

In recent years, it’s been up to private groups, or small "sideshow" space teams, to attempt some of the most innovative advances for future space capabilities. The “big agency” groups such as NASA and the Russian Space Agency have been spending their money elsewhere, laying future plans based on ideas that are decades old. Whether “Apollo on steroids” (as NASA's moon return project is often called) or the Russian ‘Kliper’ spaceship (which appears to be a cut-and-paste amalgam of upgraded hardware that was first flown in the 1960s), these projects have one glaring aspect in common: a lack of imagination.

Imagination drove the Japanese designers of the Hayabusa in its flight to snatch samples of the asteroid Itokawa. Imagination drove the private Planetary Society to try, and soon try again, to deploy a "solar sail" in space. Imagination drove a small Russian team with European funding to attempt to perfect “re-entry on an airbag,” the inflatable heat shield technology that might be able to step in and replace major functions of the retiring space shuttle fleet in the next decade.

These projects have run into trouble, as truly pioneering projects often do, drawing smarmy press comments and sniping criticism from the "big boys" in space. Those are the same "big boys" who have usually been too timid (and too afraid of bad press and angry lawmakers) to divert a fraction of their budgets into far-out stuff.

NASA has done a few projects of this type — Deep Space 1 and Deep Impact are honorable examples, as is the Pentagon's Clementine project — but NASA has too often shied away from the higher-risk efforts. When it has tried them and they have failed, as with the 1999 Mars fleet debacle, officials are all too willing to let the blame fall on lower-level workers ("they mixed up English and metric units") rather than accept the real verdict of top management misjudgment.

That may changed with a new NASA program called the "Centennial Challenges," which is starting to offer funding for private space technology demonstrations. Perhaps it will establish adequate funding for bold experiments while insulating the agency from the embarrassment of the inevitable setbacks. If Hayabusa’s inspiration can encourage the expansion of this new program, it will have made an extremely important delivery back to Earth.

The failed sail
For more than half a century, space theoreticians and science fiction writers have imagined gossamer spacecraft that move through the pressure of sunlight (NOT the solar wind) on wide, light sails. Some Russian efforts funded from spare change achieved interesting results in the 1990s, and NASA considered (and rejected) the idea for a Halley’s comet probe, but the most serious current effort is managed by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif.

Artist's conception of spacecraft Cosmos 1
Rick Sternbach  /  Reuters
This artist's conception shows what Cosmos 1 would have looked like in flight. The spacecraft was destroyed when its launch rocket broke down.
Their most recent attempt failed last summer when their bargain-basement Soviet military surplus rocket broke down, but project director Louis Friedman released a statement just last week saying that they were working on another attempt "to fly the world’s first solar sail spacecraft.” He pointed out that they have “a tested spacecraft design, almost all flight components available, and at least two attractive launch vehicle possibilities.”

Previous launches on a surplus submarine-based military missile went awry, possibly connected with the looming bankruptcy and massive layoffs at the missile firm that has lost all its Russian military contracts. Next time, the payload may be able to "hitch-hike" on a commercial Soyuz launch as a secondary payload. But since the last mission was not insured (a policy on the first failed attempt helped pay for the second attempt), about $4 million in additional funding is needed. “We will need a major corporate or individual sponsor,” Friedman wrote.

However, he added that there was a potential relevant development in NASA. “As part of their new Centennial Challenges program, the space agency is considering a prize to be awarded for the first solar sail flight,” he reported, although current prizes are only for Earth-based technology demonstrations. “But whether or not NASA offers a prize,” he promised, “we will pursue our goal to demonstrate controlled solar sail flight.”

The missing ‘space balloon’
Another highly innovative space device with tremendous potential is also struggling both with peripheral technical problems, bare-bones budgets, and a general lack of respect. It’s the decades-old concept of “landing on air” on return from space.

The inflatable descent system replaces a traditional solid heat shield with an insulated heat-shield-shaped balloon, which is not only lighter, but also is smaller until it is deployed for the descent. The balloon can also widen further during final descent to decrease impact speed to a parachute-like touchdown.

Ten years ago, the European Space Agency began funding a Russian project to modify one of its space vehicles to serve as a cargo return vehicle from the international space station. The Russians had developed an inflatable braking device for their Mars probes, and had suggested a beefed-up version could survive entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The project became known as the “Inflatable Reentry and Descent Technology” (IDRT), or just the “Demonstrator.” One test flight in 1999 was close to perfect — the small payload canister and the larger rocket stage both survived the searing heat of high-speed entry without the weight of traditional metal, ceramic, or tile shielding. Instead, high-temperature fabric pressurized by nitrogen formed a serviceable shield.

artist's conception of inflatable re-entry shield
European Space Agency
This artist's conception shows an inflatable re-entry shield descending to Earth.

But two later tests failed due to booster problems, and a third test two months ago was also frustrated when the descent vehicle could not be located in the recovery zone in eastern Siberia. The region is covered in deep snow currently, so further searches aren’t feasible, but officials believe the mission may have been a partial success.

The probe radioed telemetric data to a ground station both before, and more significantly AFTER, the period of most intense entry heating. During that critical period, however, an ionization barrier interrupted the transmissions. If the probe followed a different path, as hinted at by the data it radioed to Earth, it might still be findable in this new region, come spring.

Success with this project could quickly lead to deploying similar inflatable landing devices to the space station, where they could bring samples back to Earth in the long gaps between Soyuz and shuttle flights. With slight modifications, the device could serve to bring a person back to Earth, perhaps in a medical emergency. And with an expanded version of the device, larger objects — including shuttle payload bay sized modules — could be safely returned even after the shuttle itself ceases operations.

These imaginative projects need encouragement, and they need the respect they have already earned, albeit without wide recognition. As with the other far-reaching projects, they can help make the space future more than merely an extrapolation (and rehash) of the past.

The bold attempts by Hayabusa, Cosmos-1, Demonstrator, and others have underscored what the poet said, that "Man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Today we can modify it, based on these projects: in space, our reach SHOULD exceed our grasp, because that's what the heavens are FOR.


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