I won’t lie to you it’s been hard to be motivated about much with Canberra’s climate the way it is at the moment. Waking up to a backyard covered in frost, whilst beautiful in its own way, is a sure way to make me yearn for the comforts of my warm bed forsaking any work commitments. Despite that though I’ve had quite a few productive weekends huddle away from the icy bite of the outdoors and I’ve come to notice a lovely trend in the headlines gracing my feed reader: There’s been some tangible progress in almost all areas of space exploration and that never fails to make me extremely happy.
The first bit of news comes from Virgin Galactic. It’s been a while since we last heard from them after the maiden flightof SpaceShipTwo, almost 4 months to the day. Still that doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t been made and the announcement came out just recently that they had performed their first fully crewed flight:
A private suborbital spaceship built for the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic made its first flight with a crew onboard Thursday as it soared over California’s Mojave Desert beneath its enormous mothership.
The commercial spaceliner – called VSS Enterprise, one of the company’s fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft– did not try to reach space in the test flight. Instead, it stayed firmly attached to its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership.
The two crewmembers riding onboard VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spacecraft’s systems and functions during the 6-hour, 12-minute flight, Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement. In addition, automated sensors and ground crews conducted thorough vehicle systems tests.
Now that might not seem like much on the surface but it is in fact quite a giant step forward for Virgin Galactic and the Scaled Composites guys. The two craft soared to over 15KMs high, that’s nearly double the height that most passenger jets fly at. To put that in perspective that means that many of the life support components of the craft have been verified as at that altitude you wouldn’t last long without functioning life support, and definitely not the 6 hours they were up there for. Completing these tests brings the SpaceShipTwo dream that much closer to reality and with the commercial flights scheduled for 2011 I’m sure we’ll see a powered test flight before the year is out.
The second came in the form of my current space crush, SpaceX. It’s been little over a month since their Falcon 9 rocket soaredinto the history books and gave us Australians a lightshow to rival those that our Nordic cousins had experienced. This week brings news that so soon after their last launch they’re already gearing up for the next one, with the parts for a new Falcon 9 arriving at Cape Caranaveral:
Six weeks after the first Falcon 9 rocketed into orbit, pieces of the second launcher have begun arriving at Cape Canaveral for a shakedown flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in September, according to the company’s top executive.
The Falcon 9 first stage pulled into Cape Canaveral Thursday after a truck ride from SpaceX’s test site in central Texas.
The stage was placed inside the company’s rocket assembly hangar at launch pad 40. Officials said they untarped the rocket and completed initial inspections Thursday night.
Engineers plan more testing over the next several weeks to make sure the stage and its nine Merlin engines are ready for flight.
Again it might not seem like a lot but it’s a testament to the fact that SpaceX is quite serious about being a fully fledged orbital launch company competing with the giants of Boeing and Lockheed who’ve dominated this sector for decades. Additionally it shows that many of the processes that are required for them to be able to churn out a respectable number of rockets are in place and working beautifully, rather than the recent launch being nothing than a one off prototype ala Ares 1-X. The next flight, which looks to be on track for a launch towards the end of this year, will fly the first fully functional Dragon capsule complete with full avionics, life support and most importantly the heat shield for re-entry. The current specs of the Dragon capsule have it rated to be able to return to Earth from missions to the Moon and Mars, something that suprised the entire space community. I have no doubt that it is quite capable of this and it gives me the feeling that Elon Musk might have dreams of going far beyond LEO with SpaceX. I’m getting all giddy just thinking about it.
The last, and most impressive, is something that any science fiction fan will tell you is possible but until just recently it wasn’t actually used as the primary means of propelling a space craft. IKAROS, a craft I wrote about 2 months ago, unfurled its sails and successfully used the sun’s radiation pressure to propel the craft through space:
We’ve been following the progress of the Japanese spaceship IKAROS — the first to unfurl a solar sail in deep space. Today, the ship made the only first that really matters: it caught the sun’s rays with its 3,000 square-foot sail and successfully used the energy to speed its way through space.
Each photon of light exerts 0.0002 pounds of pressure on the 3,000-square-foot sail, and one after another they succeeded in propelling the nearly 700-pound drone. Japanese scientists expect to be able to control IKAROS’s velocity by adjusting the angle at which incoming radiation strikes the sails. For a full technical explanation of how the drone is moving, check out the Japanese space agency JAXA’s press release.
Solar sail technology is important because it allows spacecraft to travel without fuel, which could allow them to penetrate ever deeper into space.
This is probably one of the biggest advances in space technology we’ve seen in quite a long time. Solar sails have the potential to propel craft to speeds far beyond any of our current craft and rivalling even some of the theoretical nuclear craft. Of course there is still a long way to go until this can be used for larger craft (IKAROS is ~300kg) but the demonstration verifies that several key technologies function as expected and produce the required results. This success means there’s a good chance that the proposed larger solar sail craft will get the funding it needs to bring it into reality. I can’t wait to see what kinds of interesting missions solar sails will make possible.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write one of these starry eyed posts about space and I’ll be honest it feels good to be able to do it. Space is one of those things that I always find myself losing hours on and being able to share some of that wonder with an audience always gives me such a great feeling of accomplishment. I know one day, thanks to the achievements outlined here, that I’ll be able to venture into space and share in the impressive achievement that is humanity reaching out into space.
Interesting, if you turn the clock back a year it seems that I wrote a very similar post to this one, coincidence? Most likely 😉
There are times when I stare at this page for hours trying to think up something to write, hoping that a spark of inspiration hits me at just the right time and with enough force for me to spill out a few hundreds words. There are other times when I have no such trouble and today is one of those days. Just a couple days ago one of my favourite space companies, SpaceX, launched their Falcon 9 rocket into space carrying a prototype of their Dragon capsule which will one day bring astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Before I say anything about it though I think you need to see the launch for yourself:
The whole video is awe inspiring in the simplicity of the image that hides the thousands of man hours required to make such an event happen. I watched the entirity of it with bated breath as even though the most difficult part is liftoff there are still so many things that can go wrong. You can then imagine my elation when the Dragon capsule reached orbit and the engines shutdown, making this launch nothing short of completely flawless.
As you would expect the space community is completely engulfed in the enormity of this achievement, and rightly so. SpaceX has proven that they’re quite capable of doing what is usually reserved for large governments and budgets in the billions on what amounts to a shoestring budget. Additionally they’ve shown that they’re quite capable of learning from their mistakes as this flawless launch avoided all the problems that they’d previously encountered. The incredible pace of development that they’ve managed to keep up over the past couple years shows just how talented the entire SpaceX team is and how much they mean to the future of space for all of humanity.
The launch itself isn’t the only thing making headlines either. You see around the same time as the launch some of my fellow Australians noticed a strange spiral lightshow up in the sky. Whilst many where quick to jump on the alien UFO bandwagon the space community cast our minds back 6 months to when a similar event happened over Norway. As it turns out they are obstensibly the same thing as our lightshow was caused by the Falcon 9 first stage booster spiraling back down to earth, venting its remaining fuel as it did. This was probably the only unexpected part of the Falcon 9 launch as SpaceX didn’t expect it to create such a show on its way back down and future launches of the Falcon 9 will not do this again.
So what does this launch actually mean for the future of space? Well the success of this intial flight means that all their processes and systems have been verified as fully capable of launching an orbital craft. Whilst the Dragon capsule is in orbit (I think it has returned already as the mission profile was 5 hours, but can’t find any confirmation of that) it will provide quite a lot of useful data on the real world flight characteristics of the craft. Additionally upon return it will verify their landing capabilities, ensuring that once this thing is used for people it won’t turn them into soylent jam. Most importantly it means that the next 2 scheduled flights can focus on their core objectives, rather than verification of core systems had this initial flight failed.
SpaceX currently has 2 more flights of the Falcon 9 planned for 2010 and if you look at their objectives you can see why I and every other space nut in the world is going ballistic:
|1||2010||5 hours||Launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft|
|2||2010||5 days||ISS Fly-by. Dragon will approach to within 10 km of ISS and exercise the radio cross-link, demonstrating the ability of ISS crew to receive telemetry from Dragon and their ability to send a command to the spacecraft. After this primary objective is completed, Dragon will leave the vicinity of ISS and perform a comprehensive set of in-space check-outs before returning to earth.|
|3||2010||3 days||Full cargo mission profile including mate to ISS|
Do you see it? This year could see the first fully private space vehicle actually docking with the ISS and delivering cargo to it! Whilst I understand that these times are tentative you can still see just how mind blowing this is, as we’re mere baby steps away from replacing the retiring space shuttle’s cargo delivery service and arm’s reach from delivering the people it used to carry.
So my congratulations goes out to SpaceX and all the supporting people for their success with launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule into orbit. Your hard work and dedication is paving the way not only for a new era of private space travel but also for NASA to return to its true goal of pushing the boundaries of what the human race is capable of. I look forward to watching your accomplishments roll on steadily and, one day, to be just another happy customer of the services that you provide.
See you SpaceX cowboy.