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Sven’s Space Blog
Sven Grahn is a pioneer in Swedish space activities. He started his career as a rocket assemply technician at the Kronogård base in 1962 and has remained true to the Swedish space business ever since. Sven has had leading roles in all SSC’s satellite projects, and has been engaged in most other SSC projects too… Before his retirement in 2006, he was Senior Vice President for Engineering and Corporate Communications. He is still very much involved in a number of projects for the SSC, but now as Senior Adviser. Swedish media often turn to Sven for expert comments on various space events, and his close colleagues know that they get quicker answers regarding space history from Sven than by googling the web!  Sven’s CV

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Soup at TsUP
6/3/2008 5:47:28 PM | Permalink

“Soup at TsUP”

A pilgrimage to the roots of spaceflight

The last week of May 2008 I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream of every spaceflight enthusiast – that of visiting the “roots of spaceflight” in Russia, i.e. the factory where the first Sputnik, the first moon probe and the first manned spacecraft were built under the leadership of the famous chief designer Sergei Korolev, the cosmonaut training center and the mission control center for manned Russian spacecraft (TsUP = Tsentr Upravleniya Poloyotami, pronounced “tsoop”, i.e. Flight Control Center). I and another space enthusiast, Bob Christy of Lincoln, U.K., traveled to Moscow at the invitation of Vladimir Agapov, a space debris specialist at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His friends at Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki also took care of us!

The organization that Sergei Korolev led is nowadays called Rocket-Spacecraft Corporation Energia but still located in the vast industrial complex in a northern suburb of Moscow bearing the chief designer’s name. The only part of Energia open to the “space technology tourist” is its museum where there are exact replicas of the classical unmanned spacecraft such as the first three Sputniks and the first probes to reach the Moon as well as the actual capsules that carried Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova into space. It is hard not to feel solemn when standing in front of the Vostok-1 capsule which carried the first human into space 47 years ago. It is a museum piece that one can approach up close. This museum is remarkable in its accessibility. One can touch and feel most exhibits and examine technical details at almost microscope distance.

Before entering the old factory hall converted into a museum the visitor passes through what could almost be called a shrine dedicated to Sergei Korolev who died in 1966 at the age of 59 after having led his great design bureau for only 20 years and created the first intercontinental missile and then the famous spacecraft that started the space age. Since we were only a group of two persons it was possible for us to sit behind Korolev’s desk in his office chair. The reconstructed office even contains a photo of Lenin reading Pravda on the wall.

The following day we returned to the suburb Korolev to visit the mission control center TsUP located in a part of TsNIIMash, the Central Scientific Research Institute for Machine Building (The Institute plays a central role in spacecraft and rocket technology and reports to Russian Space Agency. The Institute is responsible for system analyses, research and development of spacecraft and rocket programs, as well as for the Russian space program as a whole). 

There are two major control rooms at TsUP – one built for the Soviet-US docking in space in 1975 (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, ASTP) and the other built for the Soviet space shuttle Buran.  The ASTP control room is used as mission control for civilian space missions and launches of the US/Russian/Norwegian Sea Launch rocket.

When we entered the ASTP control room the displays showed that the center supported the Resurs-DK1 earth observation satellite that also carries a cosmic particle instrument – PAMELA – with Swedish participation. There were no staff in the main control room, but we were assured that there were people in the “back rooms”. By contrast the ISS control room in the control center built for Buran was staffed. A handful of persons sat at the consoles. The space station was not passing anywhere near Russia at the time. A rehearsal of some sort in preparation for the launch of the Space Shuttle STS-124) four days later was going on.  At the visitors’ balcony there were a couple of telephones with the pictures of the current crew attached to them. These telephones are used by VIP visitors to talk to the crew.

Before we left TsUp we were served lunch at one of the small buffets in the center. We all chose borscht – Russian soup – of course. “Soup at TsUP” – I can’t resist the pun!

After the visit to TsUP we continued in an easterly direction to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (TsPK) where we met a very engaging tour guide Boris Yesin, who has retired from a technical position at the center. He took us to the Mir simulator which is a high-fidelity simulator and not just an exhibition piece. When powered up, every button pushed produced a reaction. The simulator is complete with a “treadmill” for keeping fit and a fully assembled toilet. Interestingly, the seats in front of the main control console seem like they are assembled backwards (see image on the right) but in reality this feature keeps the cosmonaut attached to the seat instead of floating away in microgravity.

Another high point at TsPK is the gigantic centrifuge used to train crew members to withstand the rigors of accelerations during launch and landing. This centrifuge was built by the Swedish company ASEA (nowadays ABB) and delivered to TsPK from Västerås near Stockholm and taken over by the customer in 1980 – nine years after the contract was signed (negotiations had started already in 1968!). The centrifuge uses what is probably the world’s largest DC electric motor that has a rotor with 4.5 meter diameter and consumes 27000 amperes when accelerating at the maximum rate.

The rotation radius is an impressive 18 m and the maximum g-level in the crew cabin is 30 g. The centrifuge is capable of increasing the g-level at a rate of 5 g/s. There are two interchangeable crew cabins for one and two pilots, respectively.  The pressure in the cabins can be varied in the range 40-800 mm Hg while the temperature can be controlled between +5 °C and +50 °C. When the centrifuge spins at maximum speed the velocity of the crew cabin is 250 km/h! 

It felt good to see this massive piece of machinery – a product of Swedish engineering prowess!

The visit to the Moscow region contained two more visits to space history shrines. We visited the museum dedicated to the president of the Academy of Sciences during the halcyon days of space exploration, Mstislav Keldysh. His office has been preserved as it was in the mid 70’s when he passed away. It was Keldysh and Korolev that drove early space exploration projects. We were shown the original, declassified, documents from the late 40’s examining the feasibility of artificial satellites and long range missiles. We also traveled 200 km southwest to the town Kaluga where Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), teacher, scientist and pioneer of astronautics theory lived and worked. There is a space museum and park to his honor and his home and small laboratory in a typical Russian paneled log house is preserved. With that visit our pilgrimage to the “roots of spaceflight” ended.

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever” – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky



To measure or not to …
2/9/2008 4:04:40 PM | Permalink

To measure or not to measure? – that is the question

The first meeting between scientists that had instruments on Sweden’s first satellite, Viking, was held on 5-6 June 1986 at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. This was three months after the launch of the satelllite and data were streaming down from space (see for example the image on the right). Swedish Nobel Laureate (1970), professor Hannes Alfvén was the keynote speaker with a talk entitled “To measure or not to measure – that is the question” – an admonition to stick to important scientific questions!

Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995) has played a central role in the development of several modern fields of physics, including plasma physics and interplanetary and magnetospheric physics. He is also usually regarded as the father of the branch of plasma physics known as magnetohydrodynamics.

Recently I found the text of his keynote speech on 5 June 1986. I feel that it is worthwhile to reproduce the opening part of his address which I think is a useful reminder when planning new scientific space missions:

“… In his scientific biography “Hur det kom sig” (“How it happened”) Ragnar Granit discusses the relation between theory, experiment and technique in biophysics and points out that in many fields there are too many people who restrict themselves to do only what is technically possible instead of concentra­ting on what is of importance to do (p 212-213). He speaks of the “sterilizing effect” of a technique that has got stuck in pure routine. “What happens then is that the scientists are transformed into big suppliers of trifles.” The study of the human eye alone is the origin of so many publications that no one has the time to read them.

If you try to follow the magnetospheric literature, you get the impression that this is true even in this case. Now when Viking is providing large amounts of excellent new data, it is impor­tant that we, when using it, try to reduce this danger. In other words, what is of importance to clarify should be un­conditionally separated from what is technically possible to measure but is only an annoying ballast in literature.

Carl-Gunne Fälthammar is now publishing a paper “Magnetosphere Ionosphere Interactions – Near Earth Manifestations of the Plasma Universe” in which it is emphasized that the study of the ionosphere-magnetosphere system is of fundamental impor­tance to the understanding not only our own space environment but also to other magnetospheres, to the sun and stars to interplanetary, interstellar and intergalactic space and remote regions of the “Plasma Universe”.

Below are listed same problems that appear to be of importance to clarify …”

In essence this keynote speech by Alfvén is nothing less than the claim to relevance of space plasma physics – an inspiring programmatic statement.

By the way,  the term “The Plasma Universe” refers to  a non-standard, perhaps controversial and nowadays mostly ignored, cosmology that is generally attributed to Hannes Alfvén in the 1960s that attempts to explain the development of the visible universe through the interaction of electromagnetic forces on astrophysical plasma.

Note: Ragnat Granit (1990-1991) was a Finnish scientist that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1967.

Sven Grahn

Faster, better, cheaper …
1/6/2008 5:29:13 PM | Permalink


The other day I found my notes from the conference “Low-cost Planetary Missions” at the Applied Physics Lab/Johns Hopkins University 12-15 April 1994. This conference was held at the height of the Faster, Better, Cheaper paradigm promulgated by NASA administrator Dan Goldin, still a very controversial figure in U.S. space history. I must admit I was smitten by Goldin’s speech at the conference. Despite all his shortcomings, and the disrepute into which the ‘faster, better, cheaper’ paradigm fell because of some spectacular Mars probe failures, I think Dan Goldin had some good ideas. I think the readers of this blog might enjoy my notes from this epoch in space history – 14 years ago. Here they are:

Dan Goldin’s dinner speech 14 April 1994
NASA administrator Dan Goldin (picture on the right) gave a speech at the banquet in the evening of April 14.This man is brilliant!  If successful he will turn NASA and the whole space business upside down. When he entered the rostrum at the conference you could hear a pin drop. He took Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a starting point and how young people in the U.S. have nothing to look forward to, no vision: “Young people do not see the future in positive terms. They have a bleak attitude towards the future”. Then he asked what the space program can do to help and replied himself: “By seeking answers to the Big Questions about how the Universe, the Solar System and the planets were formed, why Earth looks like it does…” He continued: “America tries to change from an old survival mode (Cold War) to a new survival mode with a big investment in the future.”

Then he attacked all the old ways of doing business and that NASA must reduce its infrastructure. “The Space Race made cost irrelevant, politics caused NASA budgets to increase, but in the last 12 months NASA’s budget has been cut by 30%. People are always asking me: Why can’t we have more money for space science, or, why can’t we have more money for aeronautical research? My answer is: What program are you prepared to cancel?”, There are those who want to cling to the past – but the past is gone and forgotten. Also the NASA infrastructure is too big – it will have to collapse!

The space community must shape up! We have set a cost cap of 150 M$ for the Discovery-class missions to the solar system. Why is it that all proposals come in at precisely this figure? If we had set the cost cap at 100 M$ the proposals would have come in at that number! Shape Up!

And industry must also deliver what they promise; Industry scans the federal budget and spots a program costed at, say, 100 M$. How does industry think? Well, let’s quote 60 M$, win the contract and then recoup the remaining 40 M$ on changes! These old habits have to disappear! The key words for the future are:

  • Accountability: If projects run over budget they will be canceled. I am looking forward to the first opportunity to cancel a project for this reason!
  • Teamwork: The US does not have to do everything; we must work with other nations!
  • Excellence: Our space missions must feed technology back to society.
  • Relevance,..”

Dan Goldin also revealed that NASA had asked for a go-ahead from the White House to proceed with development program for a “Single Stage to Orbit” (SSTO) launch vehicle and added: “I believe that in the very near future it will be possible to put a small satellite in orbit for less than 5 M$”.

Great, this guy has a vision – something that we have long wanted in the ESA programme and in our own program. Goldin’s speech was like a three-star restaurant in the Guide  Michelin: Worth the whole trip!

Luncheon address on April 12 by Dr Wesley Huntress, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science

  • “…Low-Cost in space science does not mean using off-the-shelf technology. We cannot afford to be conservative – we have to start being developers, not just assemblers. Low mass means low cost.
  • We have to move from a paradigm characterizeed by ‘Design and spend with minimum testing’ to one of ‘Design and test to minimize spending’. We should also go forward to the past and give back the program manager full authority.
  • NASA now has a new high-tech policy: ‘Each mission must contribute to the development of spaceflight technology’…”

Panel debate on April 14 on “How to reduce mission costs”
I took part in this debate that was moderated by Gerard Haerendel. I said: “We all know how to do it, but there are three basic prerequisites:

  • You have to be desperate
  • There has to be a total lack of money (at least initially)
  • There has to be an iron-clad launch date, either through a piggyback launch or through a launch window determined by celestial mechanics. “

The old NASA “fox” Mario Acuna added from the audience: “Obscurity, if they know what you are doing they will not let you”. Yes, that is the way it is. When a project becomes a matter of national priority it cannot fail, everybody wonders how it is faring and what to (in all well-meaning) stick their nose into it! 

Various notes  

  • NASA:s Discovery-missions into the Solar System are supposed to be low-cost missions costing 150 MUSD per project and take 36 months to complete. The 150 MUSD do not include launch and mission operations.
  • The Brazilian space organization INPE is planning their own equatorial mobile phone system with 8 satellites in orbits at 2000 km. The system is called ECO-8.
  • I learned a new term from a JPL guy (Lane) who is developing the MOx experiment for the Mars 94 lander: ODR=”Only Design Review”. In a crash program you can only find time for one review.
  • Gordon Whitcomb (started the SMART-1 project three years later) from ESA described ESA’s attempt to start a small satellite program, and the institutional obstacles to such a program. Also, ESA has defined a small program as one with a single instrument and the argument is that you get more out of 10 instruments on one satellite that gather co-ordinated data than single instruments on ten different satellites. All scientific proposals for small satellite missions were rejected by ESA:s selection board as being not of sufficient caliber (There were several dozen proposals). The fair industrial return to each member country will make a small program a management nightmare and as long as ESA does not change the way these rules are implemented there is no way ESA can conduct small missions. Whitcomb’s talk was very candid but I do not agree with the notion of single-instrument for small missions. Even on our little ASTRID micro satellite there are three instruments. A bizarre twist to Whitcomb’s talk was that he kept repeating the need for a small European launcher while assuring the auditorium that there is no program possible!

Panel debate on April 14: Miniaturization, Fact or Fiction? 
Mario Acuna (see picture on the right), NASA Goddard’s magnetometer-guru chaired this panel. Mario’s introductory remarks in short:

  • “The real cost drivers in space science programs are often associated with the acceptable risk issue. What is the acceptable risk from a scientific or political point of view? You may say that the following formula applies:

Program Cost= AvailableDollars/AcceptableRisk

  • Also, to cut costs the probability of the spacecraft failing catastrophically should not be lower than the probability for a catastrophic launch vehicle failure.
  • Another cost driver is the fact that the actual work is messed up by the decision process – introduces delays that cost manpower. We should put more emphasis on the PRODUCT than on the PROCESS, but this is incompatible with current government procurement emphasis. We should de-emphasize the PROCESS, i.e. we should get rid of the lawyers!!!!!
  • To comment Dr Huntress’ talk; is ‘high-tech’ really science-driven? Science is a great adapter of new technology, not a driver.
  • Everybody talks about miniature instruments, but there is no miniature launch vehicle!
  • We have to move from an adversary management of our space programs to a collaborative management style that we had in the past! …”

Chuck Carlson, Berkeley:
“… Laptop computers drive electronics miniaturization and that is where most of our progress in miniaturization can be made. We look at commercial devices and test them for SEU and SELs. The result is that FPGA:s (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) like Actel and Xilink replace discrete logic. An ideal technology for small satellites … ”

Roy Torbert, Univ of New Hampshire
“… FPGA crucial to our Cluster instrument. ‘Faster, cheaper .. but also MORE?? To be able to make the small satellite revolution a success you need more missions in the same way as mass production has made the laptop such a success … “

I hope you have enjoyed this look back into space history. We still battle with the same equation of costs, schedule, and reliability!

Sven Grahn 

Anniversary reflections
10/30/2007 10:36:14 AM | Permalink

I certainly have been lazy lately. A blog is supposed to be updated regularly, but you cannot accuse me of having done that.

A difficult question at Sputnik + 50
However, the recent 50-year anniversary of the launch of Sputnik has kept me busy. It is interesting how space activities are still regarded as part of “modernity”. Journalists have asked me questions like “what is the next revolutionary application of space technology”? What do you answer?

Maybe: “We could use it to look for Life Elsewhere in the Universe..?”

Well, they have heard that before, so even if finding Life Elsewhere would be the crowning achievement of any technology, the reporters keep asking. It surprises me that “space” is still not regarded as “mainstream”, but an activity at the “leading edge” instead of the “trailing edge” of human endeavours. As a space cadet I naturally agree, but still…fifty years is a long time.

So, what do I answer? Well, all the applications we see today were invented or started in embryonic form during the very first years of the space age. Telecom, navigation, weather, reconnaissance satellites – such satellites were really launched, albeit primitive, during the first four years of the space age.

So, space tourism is the only really new strongly developing application of space technology that I can see in the near future. Of course there are exotic applications like Solar Power Satellites to feed our ever-hungry power grids, but the “establishment threshold” of such facilities is very high – much higher than for space tourism. To establish space-based power generation systems a gigantic amount of capital must be collected and the decision-making process involves nation states and not corporations. Corporations usually take decisions more promptly than nations because they have a narrower focus!

Mixing high and low
For the orthodox space cadets mixing a grand purpose such as finding Life Elsewhere with mundane tasks as sending tourists aloft is an abomination. But such is life – the computer graphics developed by kids’ computer games find uses in medical technology and save life. Space technology is an enabling technology for many purposes. Let’s cheer and not sulk.

Of course, in this day and age, thinkers and space enthusiasts appear that advocate neo-liberal free-market strategies to develop space. By deregulating space activities the all-powerful market forces can be unleashed and make space activities prosper, is their message. Often, this credo is accompanied by a scathing criticism of NASA as bureaucratic, unimaginative, conservative…”NASA-bashing” in short. In areas such as space tourism the free-enterprise solution is most certainly the key to progress – NASA uses its astronauts as heroes (even though the Space Shuttle for a while has reduced them from the Apollo-era explorers to truck drivers) and a plethora of picture-taking holiday-makers aboard the ISS or a private space hotel in orbit would make NASA’s heroes look less heroic and possibly reduce political support for NASA’s budget… Even the prospect of sending tourists around the Moon (of which there is talk) could have that effect. So, NASA is not the right agent for developing space tourism, I am sure.

Market forces in space
But some activities in space have no classical market of demand and supply. Space research and exploration of the Moon and Mars still is something the taxpayer will have to finance despite all the hype about commercial mining operations on the Moon. Of course the government could “outsource” the actual operation of space vehicles to commercial companies – and this is already happening, but the taxpayer still foots the bill.

Space vehicles for practical purposes should rather be regarded as infrastructure. On the ground there are both publicly owned infrastructure and privately owned infrastructure. In each case governments regulate the design and operation of this infrastructure. The same is true in space.

Navigation satellites are public infrastructure while telecom satellites are both private and public. These two applications concern the ordinary person directly and still privatization is not dominating the picture. Of course the explanation is quite straightforward: there are simple ways of charging telecom satellite users, while the users of navigation satellites are harder to charge – especially since GPS established the free-service style. The problems of establishing a Private-Public-Partnership for Europe’s Galileo navigation satellite system is a case in point – I think.

Observations satellites certainly do not have a revenue stream that could support their development and launch on purely commercial terms. Indeed the governments have “outsourced” some of the intelligence-collection to private companies, but still the taxpayer pays most earth observations satellites directly from her/his pocket.

So, infrastructure is an arena for governments – also in space. The infrastructure of space affects many strategic functions in society and that is why we still have space agencies to secure access to such infrastructure. However, activities “downstream” of the space segment are very much an area of normal market forces – selling satellite TV dishes, GPS navigators, Google Earth pictures etc. – and in that arena governments do not play much of a role.

Would deregulation help in expanding the role of free enterprise in the infrastructure of space? Hard to say. A recent article in the on-line magazine “The Space Review” argues that space is not much regulated at all and that the airline industry is much more regulated. I tend to agree. People often ask me if it is necessary to get “permission” to launch a satellite. When I answer “no” there is surprise.

What I should have written about
I had planned to write something with the title “The Rocket Equation is a harsh mistress”, dealing with the realities of creating a ballistic space tourism vehicle – but that will have to wait. Anyhow, I would like to lead  you to some new toys of mine – satellite tracking on S-band without a big tracking dish. Here is the account – only for real nerds!

A software freebie
8/17/2007 9:10:10 AM | Permalink

Finding a software gem!
Incredibly enough one can still find real gems for free on the Internet. The other day I bumped into a piece of software that NASA makes avialbale for free – the Debris Assessment Software (DAS) provided by NASA:s Orbital Debris program Office. It a marvelous piece of software (1.1 MB to download) that calculates the risk of being hit by space debris etc. It has some nifty features like being able to compute the lifetime of a satellite. Of course you have to know the initial orbit and the “ballistic coefficient”, i.e. the ratio between projected surface area and mass. The projected area or cross section area in the direction of flight can be a bit tricky to estimate and it requires good knowledge of the spacecraft’s geometry and orientation.

Odin – when will it decay?
As a pastime I tried to look at Sweden’s Odin satellite. This satellite is in an unusual sun-synchronous orbit passing over the day-night line (called the terminator – no it is not Arnold!). The solar panels are normally aligned with the orbital plane, but often they are 10-20 degrees out of alignment with the orbital plane in order to cover observation targets in the sky and in the atmosphere. Below I have sketched what DAS calculates for a few different cases. If the satellite is kept operating as now, it will decay 12 years from launch, i.e. in 2013. The actual orbital elements six years after launch are also marked showing that my estimate of the crossection of the spacecraft is close to the truth. The graphs also show beautifully how the DAS package models the solar sycle. It is of course at peak solar activity that the risk of decay suddenly is very high. In between solar maxima the satellite does not decay in these examples. Indeed an interesting orbit!

Another example – Freja
So, this shows that DAS can be used for parametric studies of the sensitivity of orbital evolution to orbital parameters and spacecraft orientation. I then performed a similar analysis of the first satellite developed by SSC, i.e. the Freja satellite launched from China in 1992. The satellite used to be controlled so that the spin axis of the disk-shaped satellite was pointing at the sun, but now that we have no contact with it the spin axis points randomly. The graph below is very typical of decay from an elliptical orbit. Freja will last 363 years in orbit. The graph shows also that DAS models the sun’s 11 and 22 year cycles.

So, get DAS and play with it! It has a space debris model that is updated by NASA at regular intervals…have fun!

Sven Grahn

Sounding rockets – yes!
6/12/2007 9:01:55 AM | Permalink


Thirty years ago, the sounding rocket was seen as obsolete as a tool for science and technology. Its purported nemesis then was Spacelab, the manned laboratory in the Shuttle cargo bay. Well, the 80’s saw an intensive series of sounding rocket launches for microgravity and space science. The micro-gravity experiments were seen as preparatory to Spacelab and later ISS experiments and the space science rockets became increasingly more complex.

The past twenty years has seen constant or slowly waning activity in the use of sounding rockets here in Sweden. The reasons are manifold – more satellite experiments are available to scientists and the extensive Swedish program in the 70’s and 80’s touched many of the relevant scientific issue that can be explored with sounding rockets. But, instrument technology, information technology and branches of space technology like control engineering have advanced rapidly in the last 20 years.

Is it time to revisit some of the scientific branches and topics that used sounding rockets (and also balloons) in the past? Have these new technologies possibly changed how we see the role of sounding rockets and balloons? Or, are there new fields that can use the sounding rocket and the balloon as tools? Isn’t it time for scientists and space industry to take a systematic common look at these questions?

A short look at history
The graph below shows the payload mass launched by sounding rockets in the Swedish national sounding rocket program up till now. Of course accumulated payload mass is not a perfect measure of activity, but it is easy to measure and in some way indicates the level of activity. After Sweden took over Esrange and the Swedish Space Corporation was formed there was a surge of activities that lasted about ten years. Almost 1/3 of the total payload mass was launched in the five-year period 1976-1980.

It has long been conventional wisdom that while sounding rocket launches have been fewer and fewer the payload mass per rocket has increased. Again, let us see what history tells us:

Already at the end of the 70’s the average payload mass reached the 150 kg level. The peak in the late 90’s is due to two single launches and therefore not so significant. The drop to below 100 kg in recent years is due to the switch to single-stage Orion rockets instead of two-stage vehicles. Thus, average payload mass has been around 150 kg for the period 1976-1995, i.e. during a period of twenty years. Admittedly, microelectronics advanced rapidly to provide more functionality per kg during this period. But anyhow, conventional wisdom is not completely true.

However, these overall graphs hide some interesting details which appear if one distinguishes between payload mass for atmospheric studies and that for magnetospheric and purely ionospheric investiga-tions. Admittedly, sometimes the distinction between D-layer research and atmospheric physics is blurred, but I have tried to separate projects into categories to the best of my ability. The graph below shows that only atmospheric research shows a relatively constant level of activity. 


Magnetospheric scientists entered the sounding rocket game late since they were busy with early satel-lite experiments in the 60’s and “dropped out” of sounding rockets in 1986 after a truly magnificent activity peak at the end of the 70’s. The last magnetospheric research rockets in the Swedish program launched from Esrange were those that were coordinated with the Viking satellite at the end of 1986. The magnetospheric scientists in Sweden went back to satellites as carriers of their instruments, while the atmospheric research group (i.e. the Institute of Meteorology at the University of Stockholm) kept up its interests in in-situ measurements despite their deep engagement in the Odin satellite project.

If one sums the payload masses for the two categories one finds that about 5000 kg of payload mass have been launched for atmospheric research and 3000 kg for magnetospheric research.

Advances in technology since the “halcyon days” of sounding rockets
So, sounding rockets in the Swedish programme and launched from Esrange have not been used by magnetospheric scientists since twenty years. But some rather sophisticated experiments were tried during the “halcyon days” like “mother-daughter” payloads – both with an instrumented “daughter” and with a chemical release “daughter”. When one looks back at these experiments one can note that they were both advanced and unsophisticated.

Formation flying – an example
For example, the S-17 payloads were launched by Nike-Tomahawks in the winter of 1976. This was a very sophisticated sounding rocket project, even according to today’s standards. Both “mother” and “daughter” were instrumented with booms, electron density probes and particle detectors. The daugh-ter was manoeuvred sideways at 5 m/s by a small solid rocket motor. A Doppler radar on the “mother” provided range-rate from which relative range was calculated. Magnetometers on both payloads showed the spin orientation vis-à-vis the magnetic field lines. A star camera also provided data that could be reconstituted as attitude after the flight. The idea was to distinguish between temporal and spatial variations in key magnetospheric parameters.
Let us just imagine what we could do with modern technology in an experiment like this;

Monopropellant thrusters coupled with a miniature inertial platform (e.g. the IMT30 from IMEGO) could be used to manoeuvre the “daughter” or multiple “daughters” to exactly the desired location relative to the “mother”. The inertial platform could also provide accurate attitude data. Back-up relative position data could be provided by onboard GPS receivers and attitude updates to the IMU could be provided by miniature star trackers with direct attitude read-out now available “off-the-shelf”.

The technology for such “formation flying” could possibly be derived from the Swedish Prisma formation-flying demonstrator satellite project. Nowadays the design of complex guidance, navigation and control systems is much simplified by modern tools for integrated design, simulation and test so such a project is more affordable.

Modern data handling
The data rate from the S-17 “mother” was 205 kbps and from the “daughter” 128 kbps. Of course this pales in comparison with for example the MASER service module which can provide a total data rate of almost 20 Mbps (3×5 Mbps for digital video and 1.5 Mbps for housekeeping and experiment telemetry). Modern systems could easily provide 100 times the data rate of 1976.

Sounding rockets have now adapted to the international CCSDS telemetry and telecommand standard where packet telemetry is now “conventional technology”. For sounding rockets where data rates need to be extremely high during short flights this is probably still the most efficient data transfer mode. But for balloon payloads, where rapid changes in data are uncommon, computer-to-computer links with extensive “handshaking” for file transfer could be a good new standard to develop. SSC has made some initial strides in this direction with its E-LINK system.

Science sensor technology
Science sensors also have been reduced in size while increasing functionality. An example is the mass analyzer (PRIMA) from the Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna using micromechanical shutters to be tested on the Swedish PRISMA satellite (see picture on the lower right).

Recovery aids
An important factor behind the survival of the sounding rocket as a research tool has been the use of recovery systems even for payloads that do not return physical samples. One driving force behind the use of parachute recovery has been the need for post-flight calibration of sensors, but mainly it has been a way of saving money through the re-use of both service systems and science instruments.

If one takes a look at today’s recovery systems the only innovation is that we use GPS for locating the payload after landing. However, recovery is still a risky business. The payload may land in difficult terrain and be damaged or fall into water. But technology now provides the ability to steer parachutes to selected landing site by GPS navigation. Why couldn’t there be, for example, sites in the Esrange impact area that have certified as reasonably smooth for landing that the GPS-supported parachute navigation computer can choose between as it descends? This could potentially save money and in-crease the efficiency of recovery. Perhaps this is worth examining as a means of rejuvenating sounding rocket technology? Or could air-bags such as used for landing on Mars be used to protect the payload from damage upon landing?

Hopeful/useful signs
So, is the sounding rocket still a useful tool for space science and technology? I think so. Let me men-tion three factors that give a glimmer of hope:

  • The examples above hopefully show that there is plenty of powerful new technology available that perhaps could be attractive to users of sounding rockets both for refining old measure-ments and for solving new scientific problems…
  • Also, upper-atmosphere research has a “second wind” due to the climate debate. Upper-atmosphere conditions seem to be precursor indicators of larger changes in the climate at lower altitudes. Providing in-situ validation for remote sensors on satellites is another obvious application in this context. The sounding rocket (and indeed balloons) may be precisely what is required a this point in history.
  • Despite much talk of small satellites and even student satellites as training tools for young sci-entists and engineers sounding rocket projects still are attractive because they can be carried out in a couple of years from first idea to real data.

    Recruiting good people to our field needs a bolder approach. Sounding rockets are still a cost-effective training ground not only for graduate students at research institutes but also for engi-neers and managers in the space industry.

    In my personal experience it is hard to overestimate the benefits that SSC’s Space Systems Division has had from its sounding rocket activity, both for training the technical and manage-rial staff and for providing a technology test-bed.

So, what should we do if we want to keep the sounding rocket as a useful tool in the future?

Revisit scientific themes in the light of new technology
The most obvious action is to gather space agencies, scientists and space industry in a study where scientific themes are revisited in the light of new available technology. The study should examine:

  • Which themes can benefit from a rejuvenated sounding rocket technology.
  • Which new technology is worth incorporating into new sounding rocket vehicles and payloads.

Provide regular flight opportunities
An equally important action – once the future direction of sounding rocket technology has been sketched – is to provide regular flight opportunities. I am not talking about a scheduled “sounding rocket bus” departure schedule, but a stable “line item” in the space budgets of space agencies. If this is provided science groups can spend serious efforts on studying and proposing ambitious sounding rocket projects and recruit the young scientists to use them. Also, space industry can build at least a modest product line – otherwise the price of an occasional sounding rocket project will be ex-orbitant. A certain business volume is required to attain at least a semblance of industrial efficiency.

Hopelessly romantic about sounding rockets –

Best Wishes

Sven Grahn

Space launches 2006
5/14/2007 9:09:40 PM | Permalink


Space launches 2006 – it is not a boring subject – I promise!
At this time of the year I usually look back at the past year’s launches into space – long after everybody else. But it is an interesting exercise and shows how difficult it is to compare space events from year to year. The challenge is one of classification. In the old days the launching country was also usually the owner of the spacecraft. Nowadays, commercial entities buy launches from various sources, and a particular launch can carry two spacecraft from two different commercial organizations. So, how do you count that launch? 

My approach is to count a launch coming from the country where the launch vehicle – or most of the launch vehicle is manufactured. Therefore all launches from launch sites in the former Soviet Union plus those from the Sealaunch platform are regarded as “successors” to those of the Soviet Union. When the Soyuz starts flying from Kourou I intend to include those in the same category.

Defining categories is another difficulty. Nowadays, armed forces outsource telecom services to commercial operators. “Technical tests” may be prototypes of new observation spacecraft. Anyhow, I have tried my best.

First, let us look at the overall launch rate since 1957 which rose above 60 launches per year in 2006.

In this graph the rapid rise at the beginning of the space age and the ensuing 25 year almost constant launch rate of about two satellite launches per week. After the end of the cold war the launch rate started declining. It seems that the launch rate has now, possibly, leveled off at half the Cold War rate.

By looking at the source of the launches we add a new dimension. The three launch sources in the graph below are “Former Soviet Union” Red, the U.S Blue, and “other” Green.

“The former Soviet Union” (FSU) again dominates space launches while U.S. and “other” sources are about equal in launch rate. During the cold war the Soviet Union greatly dominated space traffic, mainly because they used short-lived photographic, recoverable reconnaissance satellites instead of long-lived, electro-optical observation satellites gradually brought online by the U.S. The decline is “former Soviet Union” launch rate after the end of the Cold War about 1990 can be seen as a measure of the sheer inertia and backlog of manufactured spacecraft that eventually all were launched. Meanwhile, FSU space enterprizes picked up outside customers.

Let us finally take a look at spacecraft categories:

If you add up telecom satellites, civil observation, and navigation satellites you reach the number 34, which is more than half the total launch rate of 62. These three categories represent space-based services and infrastructure that most affect the ordinary citizen. Isn’t that what we space enthusiasts always have wished would happen – that space matters? We may marvel at exciting scientific discoveries by automatic spacecraft, but the seemingly humdrum services of society’s space-based infrastructure is also something to be proud of.

A real old-timer still flies

Fourty-seven years ago – on 15 May 1960 – the prototype of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceship was launched on its first, unmanned test flight under the name “Spaceship-Satellite 1” or “Sputnik-4” (see picture below). It was supposed to stay in orbit three days, but when its retrorocket fired it did so in the wrong direction and the spacecraft entered a higher orbit. Later, the spacecraft did well as a manned spacecraft but the first test flight in May 1960 was also a test of the reconnaissance satellite version of Gagarin’s spaceship – Zenit.

Hundreds of Zenits were manufactured at the Central Specialized Design Bureau and its associated “Progress” factory in Samara in southern Russia. I think that this facility must be the space factory that has manufactured the largest number of spacecraft and launch vehicles. By the way, a Swedish “Royal Technology Mission” will travel to Samara and the CSDB next month.

The Telescience Support Unit
Also, in September, a modernized version of the craft that flew in May 1960 will be launched from Baikonur in Kazakstan under the name Foton – a microgravity research facility carrying instruments from ESA. Foton-M3 also carries a telemetry and command unit (The Telescience Support Unit, TSU) to interact with the instruments developed by SSC and operated from our ground station at Esrange during the two-week flight.

Best Wishes

Sven Grahn

Noctilucent clouds – again!
4/18/2007 8:23:01 PM | Permalink

This week’s topics:

Pulsar mission nearing its end – fifth space tourist coming home
Charles Simonyi was indeed launched aboard Soyuz TMA-10 from Baikonur on 7 April. On the third orbit I could pick up the voice of the Russian crew with a handheld ICOM R-20 receiver here in Sweden. On this particular pass they had a minor nuisance in talking to the ground station and you can hear them calling mission control in Moscow (“TsUP”) using their call-sign “Pulsar” (listen here) and not receiving an immediate reply.

Later everything went smoothly and Mr Simonyi will return from the International Space Station in the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft docked to the station since 20 September 2006. ISS long-term crew members Mikhail Tyurin and Michael Lopez-Alegria will accompany the space tourist home on April 21. The landing was delayed a day and moved farther south because wet ground at the initial site in Kazakhstan precluded helicopter operations there. Welcome home to the fifth space tourist. In a few years suborbital space tourists will be so commonplace that only local media will take notice of these space travelers taking off from place such as SpacePort America and Spaceport Sweden.

Noctilucent clouds – an old topic for Swedish space activities – “hot” again!
On April 25 NASA will try to launch the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft with a Pegasus rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. AIM is the first mission dedicated to the exploration of mysterious ice clouds at the edge of space in the Earth’s polar regions. These clouds have grown brighter and more prevalent in recent years and some scientists suggest that changes in these clouds may be the result of climate change.

AIM will study this phenomenon typically observed at approximately 80 kilometers altitude. These clouds form in the summer at high latitudes because of the extreme cold in this region of the so-called mesosphere. The mesosphere is the region just above the stratosphere. When observed from high latitudes these clouds scatter light from the sun which is slightly below the horizon in the north and illuminates the clouds while the observer on the ground is in darkness. For this reason these clouds are called night-shining clouds or noctilucent clouds, abbreviated NLC.

How these ice clouds actually form is not completely understood and neither are the reasons behind their increased appearance at lower latitudes or why they have recently grown brighter and more

NLC have been a main topic in Swedish space research since the very earliest days of space activities in Sweden. The first ever rocket launched into space from Sweden on 14 August 1961 tried to create an artificial noctilucent cloud by injecting a cloud of talcum powder at 80 km altitude (see picture on the right). The idea was, i.a., to compare the optical properties of this man-made cloud with those of real NLC.

Two years later rockets launched from the temporary rocket base at what is now known as the Vidsel Test Range measured the temperature at 80 km altitude while NLC were observed. It turned out that there is a temperature minimum of down to -143 oC at this altitude – neatly explaining why the clouds appear there.

These first sounding rocket launches from Sweden were joint projects between NASA and the Institute of Meteorology at the University of Stockholm. A predecessor organization to SSC, the Space Technology Group ran the rocket campaigns. I myself was a rocket assembly technician during these launches – at the age of sixteen! Later rocket flights from Esrange determined that the particles are basically ice particles with a diameter of about 0.1 μm.

Since the sixties NLC research has continued in Sweden, also with the Odin orbital observatory, which studies NLC on a routine basis. A sounding rocket, PHOCUS, will be launched from Esrange next year to study NLC. Little did we realize in 1961 that noctilucent clouds would be a “hot” climate topic forty-six years later!

Best Wishes

Sven Grahn

Gagarin’s difficulty
4/3/2007 9:02:35 PM | Permalink

This week’s topics  

The trip to Genoa 21-23 March was really interesting. The workshop ” Humans in Space”, organized by the European Science Foundation, was attended by about twenty personalities in very diverse fields; medieval history, philosophy, air & space law, space science, space technology etc.

Why go to Mars?
I hope to sprinkle impressions from the workshop in this text in the future, but the most hard-hitting fact that I learned was from my old friend professor Gerhard Haerendel, a space physicist from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching. He gave a talk on the search for life in space. Let me just quote one sentence from his presentation:

“…Since on Earth it took only a few 100 Million years for microbial life to develop and Mars seems to have had a stable atmosphere for a comparable period, it is very tempting to expect the existence of fossil life on Mars…”

Here is the reason you need to set off for Mars! But great care must be exercised not to contaminate Mars with microbes from earth. Humans are dirty mobile explorers.

Artillery vs. aviation – or “Gagarin’s difficulty”
My own contribution covered many analogies between human spaceflight and other human endeavors, in particular the analogy with aviation. Let me just quote one passage from my talk:

“… In the Soviet Union the role of man in controlling spacecraft as pilots was an issue for debate. The first piloted spacecraft, the Vostok and the Voskhod, were almost entirely automatic with back-up manual control systems… While in the U.S. space program the astronauts were given primary responsibilities for these tasks, the Soviet designers largely continued their reliance on automatic systems. They saw the automation of spacecraft control as a complete replacement of human activity with automatic devices. The emphasis on automation in the Soviet Union has been ascribed to the fact that spacecraft were developed by “artillery men” and not by aircraft designers. The latter would have put emphasis on manual control in analogy with piloting aircraft while “artillerymen” had no such prejudice… In the United States spacecraft were developed by the organizations and companies deeply rooted in aeronautics.
So, even though only obliquely related to the functional role of man in space the issue of automatic or manual control is interesting to examine also in a political context. As far as I can remember there was an undertone in reporting about manned space flights in the 1960’s. The strong reliance of manual control by the United States was portrayed as a political statement – free man navigating freely on the New Ocean, in contrast to the passive Soviet cosmonaut carried along by the spiritless automaton of an oppressive society. Little did we know that the difference in approach may have had to do with the difference technical approach between two branches of military industry; artillery and aviation…”

There is even a story that the hand controller in Gagarin’s spaceship Vostok back in 1961 looked like the joystick of a modern jet fighter, but the control inputs for yaw and roll were reversed compared to what is usual in airplanes, which caused problems when training for the flight. This is often attributed to the fact that Vostok was designed by the “artillery industry” and not an airplane factory! This may be an apocryphical story…

Strange stories about exotic technology
At regular intervals stories about secret air & space systems with very advanced capabilities surface. The most common such example is that of a “black” US aircraft “Aurora” powered by some kind of pulsed reaction motor flying at extreme speed. Pictures of strange-looking contrails have even been published in reputable aviation magazines. Now there is talk about ‘Prowler’, a secret space shuttle payload from 1990, that supposedly performed a series of automated rendezvous inspections of geostationary satellites, while ‘stealthy’ (invisible from Earth radar and optical observatories). Why is there an effort presently in the U.S.A. (and Europe, by the way) to develop such a capability in low-earth orbit if this capability existed seventeen years ago? Are we to believe that the purported “Prowler” was so secret that it has been entirely forgotten within the responsible agencies? One can be sure that some rather extraordinary “black” spacecraft have indeed been launched, but this particular story seems a bit hard to swallow.

A real space veteran
On 7 April the manned Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft takes off from Baikonur for the International Space station. This is almost to the day the 40 th anniversary of the first flight of this spacecraft, which occurred 23 April 1967 when Vladimir Komarov was launched on Soyuz-1. His flight ended in tragedy the following day when his capsule was crushed when the parachute refused to open. Another fatal accident occurred in 1971 when three cosmonauts perished when their capsule lost cabin pressure during descent. Since then no such accidents have occurred with Soyuz and it has now been launched with people on board almost 100 times, i.e. one every five months! The unmanned cargo version, Progress, has been launched 110 times since 1978, i.e. one launch every four months! Hard to beat!

More Chinese moon plans
Scientists in Shanghai are said to be developing a nuclear-powered lunar rover for the country’s first unmanned mission to the moon in 2012. It is designed to transmit video in real time, dig for and analyze soil samples, and produce three-dimensional images of the lunar surface. The picture from the news agency Xinhua shows the prototype which is 1.2 meters long and can move at a maximum speed of 5 cm/sec and an average speed of up to 100 meters/hour.

Killer asteroids and comets
At my favorite hunting ground on the Internet, the list server Friends and Partners In Space (FPSPACE), the defense of the Earth against cosmic objects that may hit it has been debated hotly the past week. Asteriods can be monitiored and predicted, but comets may change their paths as they sweep past the sun and on the next pass their trajectory may be hard to predict. Also, the time to change its course is very small. Wasn’t it a Comet impact that killed the dinosaurs, not an asteroid impact? At FPSPACE I found this link to a nice online asteroid impact simulator. The poster on FPSPACE says that it’s frequently updated to take into account new data. Next time you hear in the news about a new killer asteroid you can check yourself how much damage it can do. have fun!

Flash: Space servicing and formation flying – getting real
Right now the US “Orbital Express” is flying in orbit and demonstarting this technology. Check here for example. Our own Swedish project Prisma to demonstrate this technology is described here.

Best Wishes
Sven Grahn

Reflections on space events
4/2/2007 4:31:45 PM | Permalink

Reflections on space events
This is the first issue of my space blog and, as a matter of tradition, the first issue should be accompanied by some sort of “mission statement”. So, here it is: the flow of events in our wonderful business is relentless and it is impossible to chronicle everything on a twice-monthly basis. So I will simply offer reflections on events that I personally find interesting – as simple as that. I hope you will enjoy it.
Sven Grahn, senior adviser, Swedish Space Corporation.

Off to the Moon – again
Would you believe it, China is about a month from launching its Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter? It will take off from the Xichang satellite launch centre in the Sichuan province. On 17 April a Long March 3A rocket will send the 2350 kg probe towards the Moon. This the first time since SMART-1, ESA’s moon probe built by SSC, that a mission to our nearest celestial neighbor is launched. Chang’e will use an interesting way to reach the Moon. Its elliptical orbit around the Earth will have its apogee raised in several steps until it reaches lunar distances. SMART-1 raised its apogee over a 13-month period by using electrical propulsion. Chang’e uses chemical propulsion. Many see this first Chinese mission to the Moon as a first step to land astronauts on the Moon. NASA administrator even said to Congress on 14 March that “The next humans to walk on the moon may well be Chinese”. Shades of the past when NASA’s boss James Webb warned that the Soviet Union was developing a rocket to compete with Apollo – which they were – but few believed him. Stay tuned.

There are many stories appearing about Germany’s plans for an unmanned lunar orbiter in 2013 – outside the ESA program (!!) – to the tune of €500 million ($658 million) – which sounds like a lot of money for just one mission, but as details emerge what the sum covers may become clearer. This is another program to follow closely.

Commercial transport to the ISS
Cynical observers of NASA’s effort to procure commercial-off-the-shelf (!) transport to the International Space Station say it is just a way of squirreling away money that can be used later for NASA’s own Crew Exploration Vehicle – the Shuttle replacement – if there is a lack of money. But the companies involved in the COTS program take it seriously. Check out the web site of one of them, Space-X, where you can read that the first unmanned five-hour test flight of their Dragon “space capsule” on the company’s Falcon-9 rocket is planned for the end of 2008! Wow! That’s the kind of aggressive schedule for orbital projects that we have not seen since the halcyon days of the Gemini program! We shall see.The company’s second attempt to launch its Falcon-1 rocket is scheduled for 19-20 March – break a leg!
In the meantime reports say that NASA will need an additional $350 million in fiscal 2009 and $400 million FY to counteract current budget cuts and put the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) back on schedule to make a debut in 2014.

Ever wondered about quantum entanglement?
An ESA study has shown that the quantum effect called entanglement remains intact over a distance of 144 kilometers opening up the possibility of using light beams with entangled photons to communicate with satellites. If you want to read a primer on the subject of quantum entanglement, try retired SSC engineer Stefan Zenker’s fascinating web site!

Upcoming space launches
This is a necessary element of a blog like this….but, just a warning, it can easily be incomplete and already outdated.

  • 19 March: Falcon 1 from Kwajalein in the Pacific with DARPASAT.
  • 27 March: Dnepr launch from Baikonur with i.a. Egypt’s first scientific satellite, Egyptsat 1.
  • 28 March: AGILE, the Italian gamma-ray astrophysics satellite on an Indian PSLV rocket.
  • 1 April: DSP-23 missile warning satellite on a Delta 4 Heavy from Cape Canaveral
  • 7 April: Soyuz TMA-10 crew transport to the ISS from Baikonur at 1731 UT.

The Soyuz launch will carry cosmonauts Yurchikhin and Kotov to be part of the next long-duration crew of the International Space Station – and – U.S. millionaire Charles Simonyi, a space tourist to make a visit to the ISS ending on 20 April.

Other possible launches in April: 

  • GeoEye 1 (Orbview 5), commercial earth observation with 0.4 meter resolution from Vandenberg
  • Hai Yang 1B, a Chinese small earth observation satellite on a Long March 2C from Taiyuan.
  • A Kosmos satellite, an electronic intelligence satellite of theTselina-2 type on a Zenit-2 rocket.

A deep dig into history
In addition to this blog for SSC I keep a web site for the real space aficionados – Sven’s Space Place. The most recent posting on that site is a short article about the radio systems of the Gemini manned spacecraft which carried the world’s first space-based radar back in 1965! So, a warning, this site is not for the faint-hearted, it goes into deep technical detail!

Off to Genoa
Next time I write this blog I hope to bring some impressions from a seminar, Humans in Space, which the European Science Foundation arranges in Genoa 21-23 March. My own contribution is entitled “The power of analogies and symbolism in discussing the role of humans in space”. An impressive-sounding title for sure, but don’t worry – nothing earth-shaking.

Best Wishes

Sven Grahn