Editorial | Making the Most of ISS

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Tough budgetary circumstances can be a breeding ground for creative thinking, and two recent examples can be found in NASA initiatives that take advantage of an obvious yet underutilized resource: the international space station.

The latest is the plan to use the station as a host platform for an ocean-wind monitoring sensor that will incorporate spare parts from NASA’s Quick Scatterometer, or QuikScat, mission, so named because it was pulled together quickly following the sudden failure of a Japanese satellite that was carrying a U.S.-supplied scatterometer instrument. The price of the ISS-RapidScat mission is expected to be about $18.5 million, not including the cost of launching the hardware aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Dragon cargo capsule, which has already begun making commercially contracted runs to the orbital outpost.

Those familiar with NASA’s environmental monitoring program will recall QuikScat as a relatively low-cost mission whose data on ocean-surface wind speed and direction proved invaluable not only to the scientific community but also to operational weather forecasters at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the spacecraft, launched in 1999, began to age, a clamor arose from those who had come to rely on the data over the lack of plans for a follow-on mission.

But the necessary funding never materialized, and QuikScat, though it continues to operate, suffered an antenna failure in late 2009 that severely degraded its capabilities. Since then scientists and forecasters have been making do with data from other spacecraft, including Europe’s Metop A and India’s Oceansat-2 satellites, that don’t provide the same detail or coverage as QuikScat.

The same might be said of ISS-RapidScat, which is scheduled to launch to the space station in 2014. QuikScat provided global coverage on a daily basis from its near-polar orbit, for example, while the space station orbit doesn’t cover high northern or southern latitudes and is not optimized for weather forecasting.

On the other hand, one of QuikScat’s best-known applications was monitoring hurricanes, which tend to occur well within the space station’s coverage area. More to the point, NASA has come up with a low-cost plan that can go a long way toward filling the data void left when the spin mechanism on QuikScat’s scatterometer antenna failed. That’s an unqualified success story, especially considering the realistic alternatives.

NASA’s Jan. 29 ISS-RapidScat announcement followed closely on the heels of the agency’s agreement to pay Bigelow Aerospace $18 million to build an inflatable module that will launch to the space station in 2015, also aboard a Dragon capsule. Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow, sees the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module experiment as a steppingstone to a commercial, human-tended space station based on similar technology, while NASA will get data that might be applicable to future space exploration programs.

Already operating aboard the space station is the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization system, intended to provide experience in automated Earth observation data collection from the orbital outpost. Meanwhile, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, the nonprofit that manages and coordinates non-NASA science aboard the space station, is gauging industry interest in utilizing the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, which was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory and began operations in 2009.

These sensors are already demonstrating the space station’s utility as an Earth observation and research platform. Plans to add the ISS-RapidScat sensor and Bigelow module will further take advantage of this available resource, but with a twist: Both will take commercially operated transportation services to the orbital outpost, another indication of the station’s growing accessibility. Given the dearth of funding for new space projects, coupled with the retirement of the space shuttle — the orbiter fleet was a crucial, if complicated, means of getting experiments into space — this comes not a moment too soon.