As of right now there’s only one way to get humans into space: on board a Russian Soyuz craft. It’s an incredibly reliable spacecraft, and probably one of the longest serving spacecraft ever, however it’s ability to only send up 3 astronauts at a time does limit it’s capabilities. Couple that with the fact that the going rate for a seat on one of them is about $70 million you can imagine why there’s an imperative on NASA to find another way to get themselves up there. Whilst there’s been a lot of internal work to develop the next generation of crew transportation NASA has realised that the private space industry will very soon have that capability. To that effect they created the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) award, a $6.8 billion dollar contract to provide crew transportation services.
Today they announced the winners: SpaceX and Boeing.
The contract split gives $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing. Considering NASA’s long relationship with Boeing it’s not surprising that they got a larger chunk of the pie (and the fact that they’ve already sunk about half a billion into the program already) however I’m sure SpaceX won’t be unhappy with that much business coming their way. Both companies are already well underway with their respective crew transports, Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon, which is likely why they were chosen in the first place. This program won’t replace the work that’s currently being done by NASA with the Orion capsule (under contract with Lockheed Martin) and will instead function as a supplement to that capability.
Being awarded work under CCTCap isn’t all roses however as NASA is looking to have at least one of the capsules up and running by 2017. That largely lines up with the timelines that SpaceX has for their Dragon capsule, with the first flights scheduled for late next year with crewed missions to follow shortly after. As to how that fits with the current CST-100 schedule is less clear as whilst there’s been some mockup tests done a couple years ago I haven’t seen much progress on it since. Boeing isn’t the same kind of company that SpaceX is though so there’s every possibility that the CST-100 is just as far along its development pipeline as the Dragon is. Still the CCTCap only calls for one of them to be ready by that time and if I was a betting man my money would be on SpaceX.
Both company’s solutions are of the reusable capsule variety which might seem a step backwards but it’s actually the smarter way to do space travel, especially if cost is a primary factor. The Space Shuttle, whilst iconic in its shape and unmatched in its capabilities, was a compromise between far too many objectives that were at odds with each other. If you’re goal is just getting people up and down then capsules are the way to go. It will be interesting to see if the economies of scale kick in with these craft as the Dragon is designed to be launched many times per year and the CST-100 can be reused up to 10 times before it needs a full teardown.
Needless to say this is an incredibly exciting announcement. I’ve long been of the mind that NASA should leave things like this to the private companies who can deliver the same service at a much better price without compromising on saftey. That then leaves them free to do the big picture stuff that will inspire the next generation, the kinds of things that we all remember the NASA name for. The CCTCap is the first step towards them rekindling that spirit and, as an avid space geek, that makes me so wonderfully happy.
It seems I can’t go too long without hearing about everyone’s favourite celestial event: the Supermoon. It’s a somewhat rare event, typically occurring once every 14 months or so, but given the amount of attention it seems to get on various news and social media sites you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s more akin to a total solar eclipse. Considering what actually happens during this event, I.E. the coincidental alignment of the moon being full whilst also being at it’s closest point on its orbit around Earth, you wouldn’t expect there to be much interest in it but everyone seems to be wowed at just how huge the moon appears when this happens.
Problem is though that it’s not that much bigger at all.
As you can see the supermoon on the right hand side isn’t really that much bigger than the more regular moon on the left. Indeed if I could somehow show you both of them in the sky at the same time you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. Still come tomorrow morning I’m sure there’ll be dozens of pictures showing the moon in all of its super glory, towering over buildings and dwarfing every other source of light in the night sky. So the question is then where do all these pictures come from and why is the moon so gosh darn huge in them.
The answer is somewhat complicated, and we don’t have an exact answer for it yet, but it comes down to something we’ve dubbed the Moon Illusion. Essentially any stellar object in our sky, be it the moon, sun or even stars, will increase in apparent size the closer it is to the horizon. All those amazing pictures you’ll see of supermoons around the globe tomorrow will likely be taken when the moon is rising when this effect is at its most pronounced. This makes the moon appear much, much bigger than it would normally but over the course of it’s full rotation it’ll begin shrinking back down to a more reasonable size. This is why you don’t see any pictures of it up in the middle of the sky, it just doesn’t look as massive as it would otherwise.
Photographers are also somewhat guilty of exacerbating the moon’s super-ness during this time by using telephoto lenses that compress the visual space significantly, often putting other objects near or in front of it to make it appear much bigger than it would with your eyes. Don’t get me wrong it makes for a stunning picture but it also feeds into the idea that the moon appears that huge at all points in the sky. The reality is unfortunately nothing like that.
I know I’m probably being a killjoy for some people mentioning this but honestly things like this fall into the same realms as those claiming we’d have 2 moons when Mars was at its closest approach to Earth. Sure it’ll be bigger than it would be otherwise but the effect is usually beyond our ability to perceive and the photos just give a false impression of what a supermoon actually is. To be fair though the term supermoon isn’t a scientific term at all (it comes from astrology) so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised about the smoke and mirrors that surrounds it.
It’s hard to believe that Curiosity, the successor to the incredibly successful Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers, has been on the martian surface for a total of 2 years now. Not only did it prove many of the complicated engineering processes behind getting such a large craft onto Mars’ surface it’s also greatly improved our understanding of our celestial neighbour. Like its predecessors Curiosity has already outlived its original mission parameters, although not by the same margin, and barring any catastrophic failures it’s highly likely that it will continue to be productive long into the future. However it did recently come dangerously close to falling victim to one of Mars’ most insidious features: the sand traps.
Curiosity’s current mission is to get to Mount Sharp, a 5KM tall peak which NASA scientists hope will have varying layers of rock they’ll be able to study as they climb up it. This would give a better insight into the evolution of Mars’ environment over the years, showing us how it transitioned from a once wet planet into the barren desert that it is today. However between Curiosity and the base of Mount Sharp there’s a trench of wavy sand that’s been dubbed the “Hidden Valley” and up until recently NASA scientists were just going to drive across it. However upon attempting to do this Curiosity has found that the sand is far more slippery than it first anticipated and thus it has been turned back whilst NASA figures out what approach they’ll take.
This is a very similar situation to the one that was eventually the downfall of Spirit. A lot of the surface of Mars looks visually similar however often the makeup of the underlying surface varies drastically. In both Curiosity’s and Spirit’s cases the soil lacked cohesion making it extremely difficult for the rovers to get traction. For Spirit this meant that it was no longer able to get its solar panels into the required angle for the martian winter, meaning it couldn’t generate enough electricity to keep its circuits functioning. If the same fate had befallen Curiosity however it wouldn’t matter as much (well apart from the obvious) as it’s internal power supply doesn’t rely on solar energy.
In terms of the mission profile it’s likely that this will probably just be a delay more than anything else as whilst there aren’t many ways out of the valley that Curiosity is currently in there are other potential paths it can take to get to Mount Sharp. In actual fact the delay might not be all bad news for Curiosity either as the return journey from the slippery slopes of Hidden Valley actually revealed a potential rock for further investigation, dubbed the Bonanza King. We’ll have to wait and see if anything interesting can be derived from that, however.
I guess things like this just go to show that no matter how well you prepare, nor how good the equipment is that you bring with you, it’s still entirely possible for old problems to come back and bite you. Thankfully this time around we were prepared for such things and we haven’t ended up with another stationary science platform. Hopefully this won’t delay Curiosity’s mission for too long as it’s proven to be incredibly valuable thus far and the Mount Sharp mission could really give us clarity over how Mars became the desolate place that it is today.
The moon is a barren and desolate place. The face which every human on Earth has stared at for centuries was shaped long ago by the innumerable impacts that peppered its surface. This is in stark contrast to say the surface of planets (or even some other moons) whose surfaces have been shaped through volcanic or tectonic means. This lack of surface activity is what led us to believe that the Moon was dead, a solid ball of rock that solidified many billions of years ago. However recent studies have shown that the Moon might not be as dead as we first thought with its center being not unlike that of our own Earth.
Data from the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE or Kaguya as it’s known to JAXA), as well as information gleaned from other missions, was used to model the Moon’s interior at different levels. We’ve known the rough structure of the Moon’s interior for some time now, ever since the astronauts on the Apollo missions deployed seismometers, however we never had much insight into the viscosity of those layers or whether or not the core was molten. This research shows that the mantle actually has 2 sections, the upper layer with a high viscosity and a lower layer that’s low viscosity. This would then suggest that there’s a source of heat in the Moon’s core that’s causing the lower mantle to become more liquid, indicating that the Moon’s core is likely molten.
Since the Moon is much smaller than Earth the processes that keep our core molten aren’t likely to have as much of an effect which is why it was long thought to be dead. However it appears that tidal forces, the same things that responsible for warping and shaping the moons around other planets, is what is responsible for causing the heating in the Moon’s core. In all honesty I didn’t think Earth would have the mass required to exert a strong enough tidal force to do that, we’re not exactly sitting on a gas giant, however it appears that Earth has sufficient mass to accomplish this.
Whilst this won’t be fueling the next revolution in space exploration it does open up some interesting possibilities for future expeditions to our celestial sister. Having some kind of temperature gradient opens up the possibilities of using that heat for useful work on the Moon’s surface from things like power generation to good old fashioned heating. Of course the challenge of drilling a couple kilometers into the lunar surface in order to do this is an exercise I’ll have to leave up to the reader but it’s at least an option instead of a science fiction fantasy now.
One of the biggest limitations on spacecraft today is the fact that you have to carry your fuel with you. The problem is that fuel is heavy and the more fuel you want to take with you means more fuel needed to get it up there, compounding the issue. There are some novel engines that combat this problem like the Ion Thrusters which are extremely fuel efficient, able to achieve massive delta-v over long periods of time. They still require fuel to be brought with them however and their performance characteristics don’t lend them to being useful for anything but long duration robotic missions. So there’s been something of a quest to find an engine that has similar properties that could potentially be used for more timely adventures and the latest candidate in that arena is the Cannae Drive. Although many sites have been hailing this as an “impossible” kind of drive that’s a little misleading as it was essentially an unproven theory with an unknown mechanism of action. The Cannae Drive (the latest variant of what’s called an EmDrive) uses a magneton to produce microwaves inside a specially designed vessel that’s tapered out to be larger at one end. The theory goes that this will then produce a net thrust in the desired direction even though no detectable energy leaves the device. Upon hearing that I can see why many people would say that it’s impossible however the latest results from NASA would suggest that the idea may have some merit to it, at least enough to warrant further investigation.
Eagleworks, the informal name for the Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory at NASA, has test all sorts of exotic propulsion devices including the original EmDrive design. The Cannae Drive has a much flatter resonant cavity when compared to the EmDrive, slightly degrading some of the performance characteristics (although what benefits it gives I can’t seem to find out), and the design called for radial slots along the bottom side of the vessel in order to be able to produce thrust. To properly test this theory NASA also tested a “null” vessel that lacked the slots. However both vessels produced a thrust, something which throws a wrench into the proposed mechanism of action.
Essentially it means one of two following things are true: the thrust produced is anomaly of spurious effects and mathematical errors or the mechanism of action proposed is wrong and something completely different is responsible for it. The former explanation is starting to look less appealing as there’s been several positive results with the engine thus far. It’s entirely possible that the original theory behind the mechanism of operation was wrong and there are numerous tests that can be done in order to ascertain just what makes this thing tick. Eagleworks don’t seem to be satisfied with their current answer so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this engine in the not too distant future.
If this, or any of the other reactionless drives, come to fruition it will be a major boon for the space industry as there are numerous applications for propulsion that doesn’t require fuel to drive it. Things like geostationary satellites, which currently have a limited life thanks to the station keeping required to keep them there, could benefit greatly from this extending their usable lifetimes far beyond the current norm. It would also open the possibility of ever more ambitious exploration goals, allowing us to explore the solar system in ways that are just simply not possible today. Between then and now though there’s a lot of science to be done and we should be all glad that NASA is the one on the case.
The southern hemisphere isn’t much of a haven for the space industry. Some might say this is due to a lack of desirable launch sites (as the closer you are to the equator the bigger boost you get from the Earth’s rotation) however it’s more due to the economies just not being big enough to support them. I’ve often argued that Australia would make an ideal place to test innovative space technologies, mostly thanks to the large swaths of land that we have which aren’t good for much else, but we’ve only taken the first few cautious steps towards making Australia a space faring nation. However despite all this it appears that a New Zealand company, called Rocket Lab, is poised to kick start the space industry in the asia pacific region.
Rocket Lab was founded back in 2007 and was initially a producer of sounding rockets used to get small payloads to just beyond the edge of space. They made their first successful launch of their Ātea-1 craft in 2009 which then led onto them winning additional business overseas for various parts of the technology they’d developed as part of that program. The Ātea-1 was interesting because it was an all composite craft, being built out of carbon fibre rather than the more traditional metal structures that we see today. Whilst it doesn’t appear that the Ātea-1 has since been used in a commercial aspect Rocket Lab’s initial success attracted enough funding for them to pursue a bigger goal: a rocket capable of achieving orbital velocities.
The result of the last 5 years or so of research have resulted in what Rocket Lab are calling Electron, a scaled up version of their initial demonstration rocket that’s capable of putting at 110KG payload into a 500KM low earth orbit. The revolutionary thing they’re proposing with their rocket, apart from the construction, is a total launch cost of just under $5 million, a fraction of what it costs today. Whilst this might not be the sexiest of endeavours when it comes to space it is by far one of the most useful, especially when it comes to science missions that might not be able to afford the space on a larger craft. If they’re able to deliver on this then they’ll be in a market that’s woefully underserved, meaning there’s potential for a large revenue stream.
The two major competitors in this area are (or were) SpaceX’s Falcon 1 and the Orbital Sciences Pegasus. Unfortunately it seems that SpaceX has discontinued production of the Falcon 1 rocket in favour of launching multiple payloads aboard a Falcon 9 instead. This is actually good news for Rocket Lab as the Falcon 1 was in the same ballpark in terms of price ($6.7 million in 2007) with a slightly larger payload. The Pegasus on the other hand is still a cheap rocket comparatively, going for $11 million a launch, however its payload capacity is 4 times greater making it a much better bang for buck by comparison. Looking at the launch time frames however the Pegasus rarely launches more than twice a year which is where Electron will have it beat if it can deliver on its weekly launch schedule.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Rocket Lab has a hard date set for the first launch of Electron so we’ve probably still got a little bit of waiting ahead of us before we see the first of these blast off into space. Still the technology they’ve developed is quite novel and should they be able to deliver on their current promises there’s a bright future ahead of them in the small satellite market. Whether they then translate this into a grander vision of bigger rockets with all composite constructions will remain to be seen but for me I’m just excited to see the private space industry start to take off.
Even if it’s in my neighbour’s backyard, and not mine.
Ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttle the USA has been in what’s aptly describes as a “launch gap”. As of right now NASA is unable to launch its own astronauts into space and instead relies completely on the Russian Soyuz missions to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This isn’t a particularly cheap exercise, coming in at some $70 million per seat, making even the bloated shuttle program look competitive by comparison. NASA had always planned to develop another launch system, originally slated to be dubbed Ares and developed completely from scratch, however that was later scrapped in favour of the Space Launch System which would use many of the Shuttle’s components. This was in hope that the launch gap could be closed considerably, shortening the time NASA would be reliant on external partners.
News comes today that NASA has approved the funding for the project which is set to total some $6.8 billion over the next 4 years. The current schedule has the first launch of the SLS pegged for some time in 2017 with the first crewed mission to follow on around 4 years later. Developing a whole new human rated launch capability in 7 years is pretty good by any standards however it also begs the question as to whether or not NASA should be in the business of designing and manufacturing launch capabilities like this. When Ares and SLS were first designed the idea of a private company being able to provide this capability was still something of a fantasy however that’s no longer the case today.
Indeed SpaceX isn’t too far off deploying their own human rated craft that will be capable of delivering astronauts to the ISS, Moon and beyond. Their current schedule has the first crewed Dragon flight occurring no sooner than 2015 which, even with some delays here and there, would still have it happening several years before the SLS makes its manned debut. Looking at the recent Dragon V2 announcement it would seem like they’re well on their way to meeting those deadlines which will give the Dragon several years of in-flight usage before the SLS is even available. With NASA being far more open to commercial services than they used to be it does make you wonder what their real desire for the SLS is.
There’s an argument to be made that NASA has requirements that commercial providers aren’t willing to meet which, when it comes to human rated vessels, is mostly true. Man rating a launch system is expensive due to the numerous requirements you have to meet so most opt to just not do it. SpaceX is the notable exception to this as they’ve committed to developing the man rated Dragon even if NASA doesn’t commit to buying launches on it. Still the cash they’re dropping on the SLS could easily fund numerous Dragon launches, enough to cover NASA off for the better part of a decade if my finger in the air maths is anything to go by.
The only argument which I feel is somewhat valid is that NASA’s requirement for heavy lift outstrips pretty much any commercially available launch system available today. There’s really not much call for large single payloads unless you’re shipping humans into space (we’ve got an awfully long list of requirements compared to our robotic cousins) and so most of the big space contractors haven’t built one. SpaceX has plans to build rockets capable of doing this (the Falcon XX) although their timeframes are somewhat nebulos at this point in time. Still you could use a small portion of the cash set aside for the SLS in order to incentivise the private market to develop that capability as NASA has done quite successfully with its other commercial programs.
I’ve long been of the mind that NASA needs to get out of the launch system business so they can focus their time and resources on pushing the envelope of our capabilities in space. The SLS might fill a small niche that’s currently unserviced but it’s going to take its sweet time in getting there and will likely not be worth it when it finally arrives.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has proved to be an incredibly capable craft. Ever since it made it’s debut journey to the International Space Station back in 2012 the craft has made another 3 trips as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA. Should all things go to plan then 2014 will be the Dragon’s busiest year yet with a grand total of 4 launches planned, 3 of those to occur within a couple months of each other. Still the current Dragon is only half the puzzle for SpaceX as whilst it’s quite capable of delivering cargo to the ISS the human carrying variant has remained as a concept for quite some time. However that all changed last week when SpaceX announced the Dragon V2 capsule.
The original Dragon capsule was readily comparable to Soyuz and Apollo style craft, except for the fact that it couldn’t carry a single human into or back from orbit. The Dragon V2 on the other hand is really unlike any other craft, being able to carry up to 7 astronauts (equal to that of the Space Shuttle) and also with the capability to soft land anywhere on Earth within a very small area. That’s something that no other craft has ever been able to boast previously as even the venerable Space Shuttle required a runway to land and there were only 2 places on Earth capable of receiving it. Other notable improvements include fully automated docking and the world’s first fully 3D printed rocket engine, the SuperDraco.
Inside the capsule is when things start to get really impressive. however. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a Soyuz capsule you’ll know things are pretty tight in there and the Dragon V2 isn’t that much bigger. The interior design of the Dragon is where the big differences come in to play as you can see in the screen capture above. That giant screen flips down from the ceiling, making ingress and egress from the capsule extremely easy whilst at the same time providing a lot more room inside the capsule than you’d traditionally see in a craft of this nature. I’m guessing that they’re likely touchscreens as well, providing an incredible amount of flexibility in turns of what those panels can be capable of.
The ability to land anywhere in the world, even on land, is a pretty incredible achievement for SpaceX. Right now when astronauts and cosmonauts come back from space they come back on what’s called a ballistic trajectory, I.E. they’re falling to the ground like a rock. The Soyuz capsules have “soft landing” rockets which fire moments before they hit the ground to reduce the impact however they still get rolled head over heels several times before coming to a complete stop. The Dragon V2 is luxury by comparison, able to come to a soft landing right side up every time. Whilst many of the launches and landings will occur at the same places (due to orbital mechanics for the most part) the ability to land somewhere else, especially in an emergency, is an incredibly useful feature to have.
If everything goes perfectly we could see the first unmanned demonstration flight of the new Dragon capsule towards the end of next year with the first crewed mission coming in 2016. That’s likely to slip, something which NASA is prepared for as they have secured spots on Soyuz craft through 2017, but even that is a pretty incredible turnaround for a manned craft. Indeed SpaceX will achieved in under 20 years what many government agencies took far longer to accomplish and it seems like they have no intention of slowing down.
Our spacecraft have reached nearly every corner of our solar system, from the barren sun baked world of Mercury to the (soon to be visited) frigid ice ball of Pluto. We’ve gazed at all of them from afar many times but there are precious few we have made even robotic footfall on, with only a single other heavenly body having human footprints on it. Still from those few where we’ve been able to punch through the atmosphere the scenery we’ve been greeted with has been both strangely familiar yet completely alien. Mars is most famous of these but few are aware of the descent video from the Huygens probe that it made on its way down to Titan’s surface:
Titan gets its thick orange atmosphere from its mostly nitrogen atmosphere being tainted by methane which is thought to be constantly refreshed by cryovolcanoes on its surface. Whilst the mountain ranges and valleys you see were formed in much the same way as they were here on Earth those lakes you see in between them aren’t water, but hydrocarbons. Indeed much of Titan’s surface is covered in what is essentially crude oil although making use of it for future missions would likely be more trouble than its worth.
Still it’s amazing to see worlds that are so like ours in one aspect yet completely foreign in so many other ways. This rare insight into what Titan looks like from on high is not only amazing to see but it has also provided invaluable insight into what Titan’s world actually is. I honestly could watch videos like this for hours as it’s just so mesmerizing to see the surface of worlds other than our own.
If there’s any place in our solar system that we’d want to start seriously looking for life it’d be Europa. The dust covered snowball of a moon likely contains a vast subsurface ocean, one that is kept liquid by the giant gravitational forces of its host planet Jupiter. This makes Europa a great candidate for life as we know it as once we find water it’s inevitable that we find life shortly thereafter. The challenge with Europa though is getting to that subsurface ocean to study it as it could be covered in several kilometers of water ice, not something you can simply puncture through. Whilst there are numerous people more qualified than me on this subject, many of them actually working in the aerospace industry, with NASA asking for ideas for a potential mission to Europa I figured I’d throw my 2 cents in.
So the total budget for the potential mission is a cool $1 billion and whilst that sounds like a lot of money projects that I’d consider simpler than my idea (like say Curiosity which was $2.5 billion) but I think there’s potential to build a platform that could fuel further missions. With that in mind this initial mission is likely only to be a scouting mission, one that will give us the most detailed picture of Europa possible so that the follow up mission can choose the perfect site to land on and commence the search for life in its vast underground ocean. My proposal then is to develop a compact nuclear reactor (not a RTG) to power a scouting craft laden with instruments to analyse the gravitic field and surface of Europa. This craft will be able to find the point at which the surface ice is the thinnest and identify potential landing sites for the second generation craft: a cryobot that will punch through to the ocean below.
Putting a nuclear reactor into space might sound like the plan of a crazed sci-fi nerd but there’s actually been dozens of small prototype reactors launched into space with all of them proving to be safe and reliable. The power capabilities of such a reactor are far beyond that of what a small satellite would usually require however attempting to melt through kilometers of ice will require power of that scale. Thus it would make sense to fund research into developing the power supply first and then validating it on the scouting craft. Then, once that mission is successful, the reactor can be scaled to the appropriate dimensions for the cryobot mission and even used in other deep space programs.
Having such a generous amount of power available also opens up the opportunity to using instruments on the scouting craft which would not be feasible, typically. Things like high-power antennas (which could function as a relay for the follow up mission), radar imagers or bigger and better versions of other instruments. My knowledge on the power requirements of various instruments is limited but I know that even the most advanced RTGs, like the one in Curiosity, produce a measly 125W. Being able to draw on several kilowatts, an order of magnitude more power, seems like it would open up many opportunities that just weren’t possible previously.
I’m probably vastly underestimating how much it would cost to develop such technology, especially in today’s nuclear hostile political environment, but if we’re serious about actually digging under Europa’s surface I don’t see what our other options would be. Melting through giant sheets of ice is no small task and one that has requirements that far surpass anything we have currently. Using that $1 billion mission to set ourselves up for future exploration seems like the best bet especially considering how many other applications a safe, small nuclear reactor would have.