Thursday, May 10, 2007

Space Mail, Tether-Style

How the heck do you get stuff from Space back to Earth? Drop it, of course. Let gravity take it. Unfortunately you have deal with the whole toasty atmosphere re-entry thing. Oh, and you should probably be able to point the stuff in the right direction with the right speed to get it precisely to where you have to go. And then there’s sticking the landing. Like they say, “It’s not the fall that kills ya, it’s when you hit the ground.”

Up ‘til now, getting materials to the Earth from space in one piece has involved huge, clunky, expensive space capsules, large amounts of rocket fuel, and gigantic efforts by men and machines to retrieve materials. This has usually been done by way of Soyuz capsules or shuttle missions, at least from the International Space Station (ISS). Experimental samples, mother’s day letters to Mom, captured space aliens, it all has to go this route.

But in the last couple years, nearly 500 students from all over Europe have been working as a team on a plucky little contraption which should make this clunky method obsolete, at least for small payloads:


Nitty-Gritty Details:

European Space Agency Page:

The students have worked on a project called YES2, or Young Engineering Satellite 2, whereby they have created a delivery system called Fotino (and generated numerous theses and dissertations in the process). Fotino is this little spherical capsule, about 1.3 feet (0.4 meters) in diameter, that contains the items to be transported from space. It will piggyback on the European Space Agency’s Foton-M3 microgravity satellite due to be launched in September. During the flight, Foton will eject the Fotino delivery system. Here’s the kicker: there will be no use of rocket fuel to guide the drop. Instead, the system will deploy a 30-kilometer-long, super-strong tether, at the end of which is the Fotino capsule. That’s almost 19 miles long, for you non-metric folks. Said YES2 engineer Marco Stelzer from Germany: 'The tether is made of Dyneema. The same material used by kite surfers to surf through the waves on the end of their kite. Strong stuff.' This will be the longest man-made object ever erected by mankind in space. Orbital dynamics will cause the tether to swing, guiding the capsule’s trajectory and speed. At the right moment in the swing, the capsule will be released to fall to earth. It’s sorta like the Olympic hammer throw. Since Fotino is made of a heatshield material, the contents should be safe from the re-entry burn. It will then make a parachuted landing in a rural area of Russia and record the whole process.

If this works, it will be a new method by which astronauts at the ISS can send stuff to earth without going all “Right Stuff” on it. So, in the future, all they have to do is “swing” the goods down to Houston.

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