A Printer Upgrade Aboard The International Space Station Is Not That Simple

When you think of a printer upgrade, you may not consider it to be a big task. But when you are on the International Space Station (ISS),  it suddenly becomes a much bigger task than originally envisioned. The special conditions meant special challenges for the usually mundane hardware. This may be why the printers aboard the ISS have grown to be rather long in the tooth.

ISS Printer Upgrade
Image: HP

The printers that are now in service on the ISS  had been in place since the early 2000s. Sure, the astronauts made do with it, but a printer upgrade was long overdue. The problem is that there is not exactly a handy electronics store that the astronauts can shuttle over to and pick up a new printer. And then there are the unique problems presented as a result of the unique conditions aboard the ISS.

For example, a printer aboard the ISS must be able to handle paper in a zero-gravity environment. Any printer upgrade must take this requirement into account since often printers use a gravity feed mechanism to help manage the paper feed. Even something as simple as loading the paper could be a challenge aboard the ISS. I am sure that you could imagine the difficulties if the paper would not simply lay in the tray as you slide it back into position.

Another potential problem with printing aboard the ISS is with ink waste. On a planet with normal gravity, any stray drops simply fall onto the page. In zero gravity, the drops could float around for a while, ending up in any number of unwanted places.

A printer upgrade aboard the ISS must also take into account how much power it uses. The ISS gathers most of its power from the sun via solar cell arrays, but any devices still need to be conservative with its power usage. Most consumer level printers are not very power efficient.

Finally, a printer upgrade on the ISS must be designed to be flame retardant. A printer uses electrically powered mechanical conveyances to handle the paper, and a bad jam or malfunction could pose the threat from an electrical fire. A fire aboard the ISS could be devastating.

So, with those requirements on the line, most people might think that NASA would hire a contractor to special build a custom printer device suited to life in outer space. But that was not what happened.

Instead, NASA contacted HP with their requirements, and HP had a recommendation for them – how about using the HP Envy 5600, a $129 commercially available printer? This all in one printer proved to be a great starting point for NASA’s needs. Of course, when you have to launch it into space you need to save every ounce you can, and as Stephen Hunter, Manager of International Space Station (ISS) Computer Resources, explains:

We removed the capability to do scanning, fax and copy out of it to reduce weight and remove glass portions

But there was one more modification that was required before the printer could be used in zero gravity. In the original product, the printer incorporates a gravity fed rod in the printer carriage. HP designed a new mechanical piece to allow it function properly in zero gravity. There were other modifications as well, including a custom 3D printed paper tray to allow proper operation aboard the ISS. In other words, the printer itself got a printer upgrade.

Since there is no real way to test the changes on earth, the modified printer was sent on a parabolic zero-g test flight to try out. And the unit performed flawlessly.  Back on the ground, HP modified a total of 50 printers for the ISS to use, and each one is slated to last for 2 years.  The printer upgrade won’t happen until a SpaceX resupply mission takes place in February 2018, at which time the first 2 printers will be put into service.

After all of that, it certainly seems that having a Best Buy or Office Max in orbit would have been very handy for the astronauts aboard the ISS. Who knows, maybe in time we’ll see such a thing. After all, it’s obvious that the market is already there.

 

Elon Musk Releases SpaceX Blooper Reel

Private space pioneer and all around entrepreneur Elon Musk has been building a collection of fantastic bloopers from his efforts at SpaceX, and announced on August 31 that he would release them for our viewing (and gasping) pleasure. Well, the man has made good on his word, and the video has been released.

The piece has the grandest mishaps from the SpaceX effort, and what better way to present it than to be set to the theme music of Monty Python. Of course, these are not explosions that we are witnessing here, but rather “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. And it goes to show that even the most successful endeavor will have its missteps. The important thing is to keep going, and SpaceX continues to rack up impressive achievements with new technology and techniques for extending rockets and effort. But for now, relax and enjoy some expensive lessons learned along the way.

 

China Builds World’s Highest Gravitational Wave Telescope

On a spot in Tibet situated over 5,250 meters (17,200 feet) above sea level, China is building a telescope designed to research gravitational waves. The area is ideal, given that it has  a clear view of the sky and human activity is very minimal. The telescope, code named Ngari No. 1, is already under construction with an operational date of 2021.

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Ngari No. 1, as hinted by the name, is only the first of several such telescopes China is building, The second project, Ngari No. 2, will be built at an altitude of about 6,000 meters and consists of a series of telescopes.

Clearer View of the Universe

Gravitational waves offer a unique way to study the universe, since they are unaffected by typical cosmic noise.  They do interact very weakly with matter as they travel through space at the speed of light, allowing their study to be informative about the universe.

Gravitational waves are completely different from standard electromagnetic radiation that otherwise populates the universe.  They can be considered a “ripple” in the fabric of space time itself, created by violent events taking place in the universe. Colliding black holes, supernovas, coalescing neutron stars, and even the creation of the universe itself are theorized to generate gravitational waves.

Recent Proof

Einstein proposed the existence of the waves in his Theory of General Relativity, but it wasn’t until February 2016 that scientists could prove their existence. The experiment by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO)  detected the gravitational waves produced by two black holes colliding over 1.3 billion years ago.

 

 

 

The researchers were able to isolate the the source of the waves to a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy found in the southern Earth sky. The discovery opens the door for new ways to view the universe. As Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist from Caltech, said,

With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe — objects and phenomena that are made from warped space-time. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples.

With the construction of China’s Gravitational Telescopes we are seeing the application of the theory. As to where it will lead, this is unknown at the moment. But there is a whole universe out there to explore, so anything could happen.

Stuffed Animals In Space!

Stuffed animals in space! Well, one, anyway, as a group of primary school kids send their furry pal off on an adventure. Sam the stuffed astronaut went soaring (or at least floating) into the stratosphere course of a large helium balloon and no doubt a ton of hopeful wishes from the students.

Sam went over 15 miles into the atmosphere, equipped with his handy GoPro camera, giving us a beautiful view. The ballon landed about 30 miles from the launch site, but alas Sam was nowhere to be found. Ground Control Calling Major Sam…

 

Year In Space Astronaut Scott Kelly Back On Terra Firma

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Astronaut Scott Kelly is back on Earth after spending a whopping 340 days on the International Space Station. The “Year in Space” mission came to a close after a successful landing took place March 2 in Kazakhstan.

After things settle down, Scott Kelly’s physiology will be compared to those of his earthbound identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The information yielded could prove to be invaluable on future long-term space missions.

 

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