The 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) took place in Naples, at its Congress centre and exhibition venue at Mostra d’Oltremare during the first week of October.  The IAC Congress broke records with its attendance with 4,000 excecutives, scientists, engineers, students and space aficionados attending. IAC is organised by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and is held every year, usually alternating between a European and a non-European city.  Like the Olympics, cities vie with each other to have the honour of holding the Congress.

The IAC allows meetings of the major players in spaceflight, with public access to heads of the world’s space agencies held in plenary sessions.  Scientists and engineers from all around the world present papers in strands of lectures on all subjects ranging from space debris to space law. There is a strong youth element to the Congress with students allowed to both attend and participate in events.  Social events, paid and unpaid are also provided by the organisers.

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Naples remains a popular destination for airline carried visitors and those arriving by ocean.  The reason: Pompeii and Herculanium – those preserved towns of Roman civilisation that had the misfortune to be buried by falling ash and pyroclastic flows emenating from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius one day in AD79.  As it dominates the bay, Vesuvius remains a dangerous volcano (it last erupted in 1944). 

For those that could not spare the time to take one of the paid-for conference bus tours to Pompeii or Herculaneum, there was the famous museum in town.  It has the best of their beautiful artifacts from nearly two millenia ago.  These range from stoves and bedsteads to beautiful statues and mosaics.  In truth some of them in the so called “secret room” are a bit rude.  

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Medusa mosaic from Pompeii as shown in Museum of Archeology (MANN) in Naples. Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Naples itself has a certain shabby charm. Some of its 19th Century architechture is beautiful but its streets are let down by piles of litter.   For pedestrians, crossing these streets remains a danger as drivers (especially those in taxis or on scooters) drive like madmen.  The town also had traditional “Italian job” traffic jams with choruses of hooters and horns.  There are also the ubiquidous strikes, this time by the public transport workers which caused the buses and metro to grind to a stop for a day.  Still, at least the free conference bus was unaffected even if its timetable was not attendee user-friendly.  

While violent crime has lessened significantly in the city, visitors are told to remain on guard for bag snatchers and pickpockets.  Neverthless, there is friendliness from the locals on show.  For those lost  in the back streets of the city, old ladies leaning out of their balconies will be quick to tell you the way to go – but only in Italian.  And for those who like to eat well, the food in the various restaurants and osteria is good  – especialy the sea food in this town.  

The Venue:  Good (in parts)

The venue was both good and not so good.  The main area for lectures was a five minute walk away from the reception and exhibition.  The catering facilities were mixed consisting of an acceptable but very limited rage pizzeria, a poor cafeteria, and several small cafe outlets sellling sandwiches and cakes.  

In the main reception and exhibition area there were two few too few toilets/washrooms, although the main lecture building was well catered for.  Meantime, temporary lecture theaters erected in the noisy exhibition area not insulated enough from sound to work well.

The Exhibition:  A bit spread out and missing US majors

The exhibition stands, which seemed to stretch in a long line from the entrance to the pizzaria, did have an international presence with those from South Korea, South Africa, Japan etc. Nevertheless, overall the exhibition did have a strong European bias with large stands from the European Space Agency and Arianespace. 

Many potential exhibitors have a policy of only exhibiting within their own countries/member states and so while European firms were in strongly represented, US exhibitors were few and far between with no sign of stands from NASA or Boeing or Lockheed Martin.  Having said that US rocket firm Aerojet was in attendance due to their European interests. 

While they may not have had stands, NASA and US firms did have strong contingent present in the lectures and plenary sessions, though some members of NASA’s contingent ruefully noted that there should have been more but travel budget limits had prevented many other NASA scientists and engineers from coming. Some NASA attendees even had to present papers for their missing colleagues,

The United Kingdom had a good booth stand from Reaction Engines Limited displaying a video of test of one of its rocketplane engine heat exchangers.  Backing onto this was a small block from the British Interplanetary Society, Commercial Space Technologies and 4Links.

IACNaplesexhibition.jpgThe Arianespace line up of launch vehicles stand attracts its fans.  Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Not surprisingly, Italy put on a good show. One of the interesting models shown was the Italian suggestion for a mini-space plane akin to the X-37/OTV.  The USV 3 is designed by Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali – CIRA in collaboration with Japan’s JAXA and Germany’s DLR to be a small orbital space plane.  Like the larger US Air Force X-37/OTV it would fit inside a launch vehicle fairing.  

The final configuration is still being worked on with the winged spacecraft with internal engine option able to vary its angle of attack currently being favoured over a lifting body with a fixed angle of attack during re-entry.

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CSV 3 model on display. Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Opening Ceremony and reception: Quite good but there was a catering cock-up

As a change from usual IAC practice of having it in the morning, the opening ceremony was held in the early evening of the first day, in an outside arena near to the main conference block.   This worked quite well and the rain held off.  Apart from the usual speeches and tributes to the great and the good (past and present) including a Memorial Award givne to the family of the late Luigi Napolitano, a former IAF President, the main entertainment was a performance by a group of men and women who provided sensual dancing (within limits of decency) along with talenting singing and musical instrument playing.

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The dancers and singers at the Opening Ceremony.  Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

The downside was that the event started 30 minutes late, to the point that several of the audience were seen to leave early.  

Following this was what can only be described as one of the worst IAC receptions of recent years, with little food and drink of what was of relatively poor quality.  Worse, as thousands of individuals turned up like a hoard of locusts from the opening ceremony, the servers were totally overwelmed with people grabbing what little they had.  After this shambles many of the participants went away hungry and thirsty.

The Plenary Sessions:  A chance to see the leaders debate and see the coming men

Several Plenary Sessions were held, after the Heads of Agencies plenary session  on the first day,  following days has plenary sessions on subjects ranging from small and medium satellites and the trend towards “all electric’ spacecraft, to how to launch such small satellites economically.

Other plenary discussion sessions debated the effect that spaceflight has on society, how disaster monitoring can be peformed fron space, and how to keep spacefaring peaceful,

A plenary on the future of space transporation included some of the “coming men” involved in reusable suorbital and orbital hardware including George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and Alan Bond, Founding Director, of Reaction Engines Limited.

Alan Bond, noted that his firm is developing the Skylon reusable spaceplane (this writer is a small shareholder). He noted that he views the launch market as changing with operators becoming distinct from manufacturers – much like the airline business of today.

“Operators should be operators. Manufacturers should be manufacturers,” Bond said.

While Bond gained plaudits for Reaction Engines audacious bid for the ESA New European Launch System, a programme that was, as expected, won by the Ariane 6, most appreciated that re-usable technology one day be required.  But when would the market let it become economic? 

Having noted in the Heads of Agency plenary session that Europe would concentrate on those technologies that it leads on, Jean-Jacques Dordain refused to be drawn on whether ESA should support reusable technology more fully.  ESA has already supported some technology demonstrations at Reaction Engines, and has, in the past, examined liquid flyback boosters for the Ariane 5.  

Dordain noted that reusabilty only becomes economic at higher traffic levels and that growht was not at a level that would allow it to be supported for the time being.  Neverthless there are signs that reusability may yet have a place in ESA’s launch programme with possible collaboration with Russia under on-going negotiation (see technical briefing).

With respect to regulation, NASA’s exploration Associate Director of Human Exploration and Operations, William Gerstenmaier, accepted that as commercial companies tried to reduced the cost of acess to space, for good economics and innovation such firms might need  lesser certification standards even if he was not exactly in favour of doing this.

Technical sessions:  Real technology and ideas destined to remain just paper projects

There is not the space (excuse the pun) to cover all the subjects and strands covered in the technical sessions of the IAC.   Below is just a selection of ones seen by this writer.

While some presentations were, in effect, just organisations’ public relations statements, most of the presentations were of of a standard varying between good and excellent – even if some concepts stretched credibility.  The trick that attendees needed to apply was to sift between those space technological ideas that were already in action or about to become so, and those which were destined to remain merely “paper projects”.

Lunar missions from Earth-Moon L2 and how to remove lunar dust

Of particular interest was the presentation and paper by Michael Rafferty of Boeing (IAC-12.B3.1.10) which described the latest thinking on how lunar and asteroid exploration might be best  achieved.  The Boeing plan, which has NASA’s initial support, is to set up a ‘way station’ called the Exploration Gateway Platform in a halo orbit at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point on the far side of the moon (one of the points where the gravitational fields of the Earth-Moon system are balanced).  This would, in effect, be a manned base and fuel stop which would allow a reusable landing craft and transfer stage to move to and from the Moon’s surface.   Raffterty also noted that Space Launch System (SLS) would have enough capability to acheive such a mission. 

The message was re-iterated in a later paper IAC-12.D2.8.7 by Boeing (Donahue et al) in which they noted how the SLS launcher would help such a mission and how such an L2 base could be the basis of missions to the asteroids, Phobos and Mars..

Such a plan would need the development of new in-space cryogenic fuel storage systems. The mechanics which were described by George Flynn (IAC-12 D2.3.3) as he noted how such hardware would need cryocooler and passive cooling technologies.  A NASA mission dubbed POD (Point of Departure) is to demonstrate such technologies in 2016.

In his lecture, Michael Rafferty of Boeing had explained that reusability for any lunar lander could be hindered by abrasive lunar dust and that for lunar landing mssions space suits with docking ports could be a solution,  This would, in effect, insulate the interior of any landing and ascent vehicle from this abrasive dust. 

A cleverer method of lunar dust avoidance and removal was presented by NASA’s Robert Meuller.  He disclosed that NASA had patented an electrodynamic system for dust shielding.  The system uses a multi-phase travelling electronic field to electrically repel/shake the dust off.  The system works on the basis that the dust carries a charge by its very nature.  The electrodes used can be in the form of very thin wires in fabrics or in transparencies (ideal for helmet visors).  The system is to be tested on the Materials International Space Station Experiment-X (MISSEX) experiment on the International Space Station.

Launch Vehicles: ESA battles over Ariane 6 while reusability is not dead yet

While there were suggestions how Europe’s small Vega might improve its paylaod performance, possibly using a stage using an engine called Mira which is based on a Russian LOx-Methane design, the Congress itself had bigger rockets on its mind.  

While SLS booster dominated the thinking of NASA and Boeing presentations including how it might be used to shorten Mars sample return missions or how its volume would be good for launching large astronomy satellites,and which SLS booster design should be used, in the European Space Agency arguments continue as to whether it should move straight on to design of its next launcher – the Ariane 6 – or continue with upgrades to the Ariane 5. 

Germany is in favour of the latter “Midlife Evolution” of the Ariane 5, which promises to improve its lifting performance to 12 tonnes to GTO (Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit).  Meanwhile France and the leadership of the European Space Agency leadership remain in favour of the former as they note that Ariane 5 continues to receive a financial subsidy of €120 million per annum.  They reason that their modular concept will allow launch costs to come down by more than 20% while at the same time allowing for just one vehicle to serve all markets from payloads 2,500kg to 8,000kg. 

Europe finds itself at a disadvantage in its propulsion choices for such a vehicle.  Jens Kaufmann of ESA described the progress on the design of the Ariane 6.  Without LOx/kerosene engines (the logical choice for the first stage of such a vehicle), the design is now likely to use either a two hydrogen stage core – the so called H-H option – along with small solid strap-on boosters which would be varied according to size of payload;  or have two solid stages with a hydrogen upper stage – the so-called P-P-H option, again with small solid stap-on boosters (IAC-12.D2.4.4).    

While Ariane 6 may be needed to replace the costly Ariane 5, many in the industry view building another expendable as a backward step.   Professor Uwe Apel of he Hochschule Bremen was damning of the Ariane 6 design noting that industry were effectively fooling the European Space Agency into building the launch vehicle they wanted. “There is no new technology in it” he said, addiing “they are just fitting together the building blocks they have.”

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For the time being it looks like it Ariane 6 will be an expendable similar to this artist’s concept: Courtesy: ESA/C.Vijoux

In his presentation and paper IAC12 D2.4.6 Apel noted that reusable rockets still offered considerable cost savings.  He demanded that ESA should invest in new reusable technology.  “Risky options are always hard” Apel declared.

“The Ariane 6 is not a step forward.” agreed Dr. Martin Sippel, a launch vehicle expert at the German Aerospace Agency, DLR, “but a fully reusable launch vehicle like (Reaction Engines’) Skylon may be too ambitious.”   02_L,7.jpg

ESA has examined using winged flyback boosters in the past but currently thinks they would be uneconomic to operate at current traffic levels.  Courtesy: ESA

While seen as being currently uneconomic to operate by ESA (and also by the US Air Force), the interim alternative to full reusability of using liquid fuel flyback boosters along with an expendable core is currently being examined by the Russian engine firm Khrunichev.  It continues to work on such technologies including LOx/Liquid methane engines to fly on them.  Professor Anatoly Kuzin of Khrunichev described how such engines offer a better performance in terms of specific impulse over LOx/kerosene but also are much less susceptible to coking (carbon deposits) the cleaning of which is a barrier to economic reusability. Such winged boosters would separate from an Angara-class core vehicle at Mach 7 and at 55km altitude, would be designed to fly 25 times.  The technology development programme is funded until the end of 2013 and Kuzin expects that this this will be extended noting that Russia is serious about developing such boosters which could be flying by the end of the decade.

Kuzin also hinted that ESA is interested in working with Russia on such boosters and especially on their LOx/Methane engine technology. Initial negotiations have taken place with respect to cooperation on this liquid flyback booster technology.

Most interesting in terms of low cost access to space – at least for expendable launch vehicles –  were proposals to build so-called micro-launchers.  The D2.7 session had papers descirbing carrier aircraft concepts and even balloons carrying rockets (the “Rockoon” concept).  Others used hybrid rocket technology (the Romanian Space Agency is working on these).  The most advanced of these concepts, and the one most likely to fly in the short term is the US Army’s Soldier Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS) programme.

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Modified image of SWORDS launch vehicl;e. Courtesy: US Army

This will use a three stage launcher – each stage having four engines which would be steered by varying the thrust on each LOx/Liquid Methane burning pressure-fed engine.  The payload to at 28 degree inclination low Earth orbit is expected to be 20-25kg but would only cost $1 million per launch.  Importantly it would give the US Army a rapid access to space.  The first launch of such a vehicle is planned for the Summer of 2014.

A larger low cost rocket is being built by Brazil, with technical backing from Germany’s DLR.  According to current plans, the VLM-1 launch vehicle will become operational in 2016 with various configurations. The initial version will be able to fly 300kg payloads to LEO and the later configuration 2 able to carry 350kg. At a price of only $6 million per launch the three stage rocket would be attractive to many.

With respect to more revolutionary concepts, combined cycle rocked based propulsion research continues to have research done by JAXA (IAC-13.C4.5.1) on it. An eventual two stage launch vehicle is envisaged.

One of the more interesting suggestion for future transportation came from the Romanian Space Agency (IAC-12.C4.5.4) which suggests that ramjet engines could be used to work on the energy released from disassociation of Ozone and Nitrogen.   Whether the world will stand for its ozone being eaten in this way is another matter!

Kyusho University in Japan has made an advances in accelerating the ignition in  Pulse Detonation technologies (IAC-12.C4.5.7) basically using a metal tube in the middle of the duct.

Conclusion:  Overall a good conference

The IAC Naples Congress ended well.  Most enjoyed and were enlightened by it with the major only fault being the catering failure that blighted the main social event.

Having said that, in a few weeks time, most attendees will have probably forgiven this organisational oversight while, no doubt, retaining fond memories of this year’s IAC and of the city of Naples that hosted it. 

The International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in the end voted in Naples to choose Jerusalem as the host city for IAC 2015 as it beat off bids from Pattaya Thailand, Istanbul in Turkey and Guadalajara in  Mexico. 

The host city for IAC 2014 had previously been selected as Toronto, Canada, while, next year Beijing has the honour of hosting IAC 2013.  As we wish that city good luck with their preparations, we say: “See you there.”