The Next Big Thing In Space Tourism? A Weightless Night’s Sleep

The Russians are launching a project for a commercial space station with a hotel that will supposedly be ready for occupancy by 2016. Guests would pass the night very much under the stars - at 350 kilometers above the Earth.

Russia's proposed Commerical Space Station would be launched into space with a Soyuz rocket (above)
Russia's proposed Commerical Space Station would be launched into space with a Soyuz rocket (above)
Wolfgang W. Merkel

Russia has an ambitious plan for a tourist hotel in space. Orbital Technologies and RKK Energija are unveiling plans for it this week at the International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) taking place from Aug. 16 to 21 in Moscow. A Soyuz rocket is supposed to launch the "Commercial Space Station" (CSS) - where the hotel would be located - into space.

Orbital Technologies, a Russian firm, is expecting that, by the latest 2016, guests will be able to move into the four double rooms situated 350 km above the earth. This is also the altitude at which the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the earth. "The project should encourage investors to invest in Russian space travel," said Vitaly Davidov, deputy head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

The CSS could also be used to conduct experiments under conditions of weightlessness. And it could also provide refuge for ISS astronauts in case of emergency. The ISS has several times been threatened by possible collisions with manmade space debris. Crews have had to be evacuated to the space ship docked at the station. Thus far, however, no collisions have actually taken place.

The model at the aviation and space fair is based on computer–aided designs of the hotel. That the project could be ready to go by 2016 is the subject of some doubt, particularly as it is another in a series of announced plans - and not just by the Russians - for space hotels that so far have not been implemented.

In the United States, for example, there is the project involving Boeing in Seattle, Washington, and Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, Nevada, which signed a contract to build an "inflatable hotel" in space, based on NASA research conducted in the late 1990s. Plans foresaw a metal frame construction that opened up in space and over which a cover was stretched – it would have provided 11 cubic meters of room.

From Budget Suites to the stars

Five years ago, a Russian rocket launched the experimental Bigelow "Genesis I" into orbit at an altitude of 450 km. The frame and cover folded out, as did a solar module to provide electrical energy for the habitat. A second habitat, "Genesis II," was successfully launched in 2007.

Now company owner Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune with the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is looking ahead to the launch in 2014 of a more fully developed space module called "Sundancer." The tubular module will measure 6.3 meters in diameter and be 8.7 meters long.

If the unit, which can hold three to six people, withstands months of testing, non-professional astronauts will soon be able to visit. That, however, will depend on whether the space transporter on which the station relies is also ready to go by 2014.

Another player, at least verbally, in the development of space hotels was the Hilton Group. In 1999, it expressed interest in buying used external space shuttle tanks from NASA, joining them together in a ring in space, and equipping them as hotel rooms. However, NASA couldn't free up any tanks to sell them, and the Hilton plans (which some believe were never more than a public relations stunt anyway) were shelved.

Plans were announced in 2001 by MirCorp, a Russian firm, to build a cosmic hotel by 2004 – but the project never got past the announcement phase. Nor has anything further been heard from Spanish entrepreneur Xavier Claramunt, who years ago announced his "Galactic Suite" project. The Japanese construction company Shimizu, which was saying a decade ago it would be opening a space hotel in 2017, is leaving the project open on its website but making the realization of it contingent on whether or not a "low-cost fully reusable space vehicle is successfully developed."

Markedly more realistic than hotel-building plans are those for tourist space flights to an altitude of 110 km. The Virgin Galactic flights, which would last around an hour, could start leaving from Spaceport America in New Mexico as soon as 2013. Cost of a flight per passenger is 140,000 euros.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Undertow851

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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