Posts Tagged‘falcon 9’

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Lands Successfully, Stands…Unsuccessfully.

If there’s one thing that SpaceX has shown us is that landing a rocket from space onto a barge in the middle of the ocean is, well, hard. Whilst they’ve successfully landed one of their Falcon-9 first stages on land not all of their launches will match that profile, hence the requirement for their drone barge. However that barge presents its own set of challenges although the last 2 failed attempts were due to a lack of hydraulic fluid and slower than expected throttle response. Their recent launch, which was delivering the Jason 3 earth observation satellite into orbit, managed to land successfully again however failed to stay upright at the last minute.

A video posted by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on


Elon stated that the failure was due to one of the lockout collets (basically a clamp) not locking properly on one of the legs. Looking at the video above you can see which one of those legs is the culprit as you can see it sliding forward and ultimately collapsing underneath. The current thinking is that the failure was due to icing caused by heavy fog at liftoff although a detailed analysis has not yet been conducted. Thankfully this time around the pieces they have to look at are a little bigger than last times rather catastrophic explosion.

Whilst it might seem like landing on a drone ship is always doomed to failure we have to remember that this is what the early stages of NASA and other space programmes looked like. Keeping a rocket like that upright under its own strength, on a moving barge no less, is a difficult endeavour and the fact that they’ve managed to successfully land twice (but fail to remain upright) shows that they’re most of the way there. I’m definitely looking forward to their next attempt as there’s a very high likelihood of that one finally succeeding.

The payload it launched is part of the Ocean Surface Topography from Space mission which aims to map the height of the earth’s oceans over time. It joins one of its predecessors (Jason-2) and combined they will be able to map approximately 95% of the ice-free oceans in the world every 10 days. This allows researchers to study climate effects, providing forecasting for cyclones and even tracking animals. Jason-3 will enable much more high resolution data to be captured and paves the way for a future, single mission that will be planned to replace both of the current Jason series satellites.

SpaceX is rapidly decreasing the access costs to space and once they perfect the first stage landing on both sea and land they’ll be able to push it down even further. Hopefully they’ll extend this technology to their larger family of boosters, once of which is scheduled to be test flown later this year. That particular rocket will reduce launch costs by a factor of 4, getting us dangerously close to the $1,000/KG limit that, when achieved, will be the start of a new era of space access for all.

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SpaceX Falcon-9 Sticks the Landing.

An efficient, cost effective reusable launch system has been the holy grail for all those seeking access to space. There have been numerous attempts, the most notable of which being the venerable Space Shuttle, however even that failed to achieve its goals of drastically reducing the cost of putting things into orbit. SpaceX has made significant headway into making orbital access cheaper however their lofty goals of a reusable system have eluded them thus far. However, just yesterday, they managed to hit a critical milestone: the first stage of their V1.1 Falcon-9 making a successful vertical landing at their site at Cape Canaveral.

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The mission was set to launch the day previous however it was delayed in order to increase the chance of a successful recovery landing by another 10% (which also gave us a spectacular night launch, depicted above). The payload aboard the Falcon-9 was 11 ORBCOMM satellites which are low earth orbit communications satellites designed for Machine to Machine communications (essentially tracking and sensor data primarily). After a successful launch into orbit the first stage begun preparations to bring itself back down to earth. Then, only 10 minutes after the initial launch, it landed successfully back on earth to much fanfare from the ground control crew at SpaceX.

Unlike previous first stage recovery attempts this one used an area of flat land rather than the sea based drone ship. This is something of a simpler challenge, since you’re not trying to track a moving target, however those initial tests provided significant risk mitigation should something have gone wrong. Whilst this is the first successful demonstration of the technology at an orbital scale it’s definitely not the first time SpaceX have managed to successfully land a rocket vertically (despite what Jeff Bezo’s tweet about it would lead you to believe). That achievement is held by SpaceX’s Grasshopper demonstration rocket which has been in operation for some years now.

This achievement allows SpaceX to continue development on their reusable launch system program. Whilst the rocket has made it successfully back to Earth it’s certainly worse for wear, showing significant discolouration along its entire fuselage. The challenge SpaceX faces now is how to refurbish the rocket in order to make it flight worthy again, something which has proved to be quite costly for other reusable systems. However SpaceX has said it is confident that the recovery process will make their Falcon-9 rocket either cheaper or more performant (or both, they hope). Whilst they’ve long since abandoned any plans to make the Falcon-9 fully reusable (the second stage is considered unrecoverable, for now) it will be very interesting to see how the first stage recovery affects the service SpaceX can provide.

This is an incredible achievement for SpaceX, demonstrating that they’re quite capable of pushing the envelope in launch system technology. It’s these kinds of improvements that help drive down the cost of access to space and will hopefully pave the way for NASA and other space faring nations to focus on what they do best.

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Hitting a Bullseye From Orbit: SpaceX’s Automated Landing System.

Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.

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Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge  that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.

Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.

The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.

It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.

SpaceX Dragon Capsule Launch Prep

SpaceX CRS-1 Docks At The International Space Station.

Cast your mind back 5 months, where were you then? I can remember where I was quite clearly: I was in a hotel room in a city called Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. With nothing much else to do in town apart from drink coffee and swelter in the unrelenting heat I had made myself comfortable on the bed with my laptop and tenuous Internet connection so that I could witness history in the making. It was there that I saw SpaceX’s Dragon capsule being captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station and brought to dock with the ISS, becoming the first ever private craft to do so.

SpaceX, not wanting to falter with their goal of being able to rapidly turn around craft, has today achieved the same feat again and the very first of their official missions, dubbed CRS-1 (Commercial Resupply Service), has just docked at the ISS. Just like its predecessor the payload its taking up isn’t anything to get excited about being mostly crew supplies, materials for new and current experiments as well as hardware for ongoing maintenance of the station itself. Just like its predecessor it will also be bringing back some payload back with it once its completed its 2 week mission attached to the ISS, something which is still a unique capability of the Dragon capsule.

Whilst the mission might be fairly rudimentary its launch has been anything but. Those of us who tuned into the launch live stream on Monday were treated to a pretty spectacular show due to the launch happening at night. There was also a curious incident where one of the engines appeared to suffer some kind of failure with many news outlets reporting that one of the engines on the Falcon 9 had exploded during the first stage. The failure didn’t appear to affect the launch however with the comms chatter saying everything was nominal and with the Dragon arriving successfully you can’t really fault them.

In fact the “explosion” was actually part of a system designed to relieve pressure in the engine bay when an engine out occurred. The system was triggered as the control systems aboard the Falcon 9 detected a loss of pressure in engine 1 and shut down the engine which lead to those panels being ejected in a rather spectacular fashion. To put this all in perspective the Falcon 9 can make it into orbit with 2 of its engines failing in this fashion and for many of the previous missions it has actually throttled down 2 of its engines because the additional thrust isn’t required. Thus whilst this was unexpected it was not a situation that they hadn’t accounted for and it was actually a great demonstration of the Falcon 9’s engine out capability, something which is currently unique to it (other launchers, which are no longer flying, have had this functionality).

A separate payload that wasn’t part of the CRS-1 mission is the prototype satellite for Orbcomm which was released once the Falcon 9 entered its second stage of flight. Whilst the payload was successfully released it was unfortunately dropped into the wrong orbit, much lower than the one required. Officials have stated that this was due to the engine out causing the other 8 engines to compensate, making them burn for longer than what was originally calculated for. Whilst they might be able to salvage it using the onboard propellant (which will reduce the useful life of the craft significantly) it’s still something of a faux pas on SpaceX’s part. I’m sure that for the next lot of flights it won’t be an issue as SpaceX has a phenomenal track record for fixing this problems as soon as they become apparent.

Despite these issues it’s still a great achievement for SpaceX to go from first dock to the ISS to being an official re-supplier all within the space of 5 months. Whilst they won’t make the deadlines that they originally had planned for this year (CRS-2 has slipped to be no earlier than January 2013) they’re still moving at a blistering pace compared to nearly all other players in the space industry. For now they’ll be slipping into the routine of launching cargo missions but it won’t be long before they start sending people up alongside the cargo and that’s an incredibly exciting prospect.

SpaceX’s Dragon Docks, Makes History.

It was late Friday night. My companions and I had just finished up work as we stumbled out into the hot, humid air that surrounded us here in Brunei. After a nearly 12 hour day we had our sights fixed on grabbibng some dinner and then an early night as we would have to come in the next day to finish the job. As we chatted over our meals a curious image appeared on the television, one that I recognized very clearly as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that was launched no more than a couple days earlier. At the time it appeared that they were performing some last manuevers before the docking would occur. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it staring intently at the capsule that was driftly serenely across the beautiful backdrop of our earth.

The time came for us to make our departure and we headed back to the hotel. I hit up Facebook to see what was going on when I saw a message from a long time friend: “I hope you’re not missing this http://on.msnbc.com/JxfRMS“.

I assured him I wasn’t.

I was fixated on the craft watching it intently from 2 different streams so that I’d never be out of the loop. I monitored Twitter like a hawk, soaking in the excitement that my fellow space nuts shared. I almost shed a tear when Houston gave SpaceX the go to make the final docking approach as, for some unknown reason, that was when it all became real: the very first private space craft was about to dock with the International Space Station. At 13:56 UTC on May 25th, 2012 the SpaceX Dragon became the first private space craft to be captured by the International Space Station and not 6 minutes later it was birthed on the earth side docking port of the American Harmony module.

It’s an incredible achievement for SpaceX and proves just how capable they are. This is only the second launch of both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule which demonstrates just how well engineered they are. Most of the credit here can go to the modularity of the Falcon series systems meaning that most of the launch stack has already seen a fair bit of flight testing thanks to the previous Falcon 1 launches. The design is paying off in spades for them now as with this kind of track record it won’t be long before we see them shipping humans up atop their Falcon rockets, and that’s extremely exciting.

The payload of the COTS Demo Flight 2 Dragon capsule is nothing remarkable being mostly food, water and spare computing parts and small experiments designed by students. What’s really special about the Dragon though is its ability to bring cargo back to earth (commonly referred to as downrange capability) something that no other craft currently offers. The ATV, HTV and Progress crafts all burn up upon re-entry meaning that the only way to get experiements back from the ISS now will be aboard the Dragon capsule. Considering that we now lack the enormous payload bay of the Space Shuttle this might be cause for some concern but I think SpaceX has that problem already solved.

Looking over the scheduled flights it would appear that SpaceX is looking to make good on their promise to make the launches frequent in order to take advantage of the economies of scale that will come along with that. If the current schedule is anything to go by there will be another 2 Dragon missions before the year is out and the pace appears to be rapidly increasing from there. So much so that 2015 could see 5 launches of the Dragon system rivalling the frequency at which the Soyuz/Progress capsules currently arrive at the ISS. It’s clear that SpaceX has a lot of faith in their launch system and that confidence means they can attempt such aggressive scheduling.

I have to congratulate SpaceX once again on their phenomenal achievement. For a company that’s only just a decade old to have achieved something that no one else has done before is simply incredible and I’m sure that SpaceX will continue to push the envelope of what is possible for decades to come. I’m more excited than ever now to see the next Dragon launch as each step brings us a little closer to the ultimate goal: restoring the capability that was lost with the Space Shuttle. I’ve made a promise to myself to be there to see it launch and I simply can’t wait to see when it will be.

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Stratolaunch Systems: What You Get When You Cross SpaceX, Scaled Composites and Dynetics.

The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.

It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:

Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.

Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.

Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.

For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.

Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.

I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.

SpaceX Set To Make History Before The Year Is Out.

Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the sorry state of government funded space programs overseas I don’t have to look much further than SpaceX to feel inspired once again. From their humble beginnings back in 2002 they have shown they are capable of designing, building and launching rockets on a fraction of the budget that is currently required. Their ambition also seems to have no bounds with their CEO, Elon Musk, eyeing off a trip to Mars with the intent of retiring there. SpaceX is also the USA’s only launch system provider who’s got a roadmap for delivering humans to the International Space Station, a real necessity now that the shuttle fleet has retired.

You can then imagine how exciting it is to hear that SpaceX has received in principle approval from NASA to combine the next 2 Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) demonstration flights into one. That might not sound like much on the surface but it means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could be docking with the ISS this year:

Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.

NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.

That’s right, if everything stays on schedule (which, I’ll admit, isn’t very likely) then we’ll see a Dragon capsule docking with the ISS and the first time in history that a private company has docked with a space station. The mission will test all of the fligh avionics, communication systems and docking procedures that SpaceX have designed for the Dragon capsule. Whilst the Dragon going up there doesn’t appear to have a cargo manifest it will be bringing cargo back down from the ISS, which will be a good test to see if their current design has any flaws in it that can be rectified for future missions.

The current docking procedure for the Dragon capsule is surprisingly similar to that of JAXA’s HTV. For the COTS Demonstration 2 flight at least the Dragon capsule will fly very close to the ISS where it will then be captured by CANADARM2 which will guide it into a docking port. It’s interesting because from the past few missions I had assumed that the Dragon was capable of automated docking, especially with (what seemed to be) rather advanced DragonEye sensor being tested on previous shuttle flights. Still automated docking is quite a challenge and the captured route is a lot safer, both for SpaceX and the astronauts aboard the ISS.

The announcement also comes hand in hand with some improvements that SpaceX has made to their launch stack. They’ve installed new liquid oxygen pumps that now allow them to fully fill the Falcon 9 in under 30 minutes, a third of the time it use to require. This means that SpaceX could roll out, fuel and launch a Falcon 9 in under an hour something that hasn’t been possible with liquid fueled rockets in the past. They’re also ramping up their production facilities with an eye to have up to 16 launches per year, a phenomenal amount by any measure.

SpaceX continues to show that the private sector is quite capable of providing services that were for the longest time considered to be too expensive for anyone but the super power governments of the world. The announcement that a Dragon capsule could be visiting the ISS this year shows how much confidence NASA has in their capabilities and I’m sure that SpaceX will not fail to disappoint. We’re on the verge of a revolution in the space travel game and SpaceX are the pioneers who will lead us there.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Creates Orbital Dragon and History Once Again.

6 months ago I wrote about SpaceX’s historic flight of their Falcon 9 rocket and how much it meant to us space romantics. Their tentative schedule had me all aflutter with the possibility of seeing not one, but two more flights of their flagship rocket within this year. It was looking entirely possible too as just on a month later they were already building the next rocket and there was even a hint that I might get to see it take off on my trip through America. Whilst I may not have gotten to see the launch for myself SpaceX is not one to disappoint with them launching their second Falcon 9 rocket earlier this morning carrying a fully fledged version of their crew and cargo capsule, the Dragon.

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The launch itself didn’t go by without a hitch though with some bad telemetry data causing the initial launch to be scrubbed and rescheduled for about an hour later. However once they were past that minor hurdle they were able to continue with launch preparations and launch without incident. This is testament to their ability to rapidly troubleshoot and resolve problems that would likely cost anyone else at least a day to recover from. Elon Musk is definitely onto something when he thought about running a launcher company as a startup, rather than a traditional organisation.

The mission profile was a relatively simple one although it represents a giant leap forward in capability for SpaceX. The previous launch of the Falcon 9 carried with it a Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, basically just a shell of a full Dragon capsule designed to be little more than a weight on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. That capsule lacked the ability to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 it was attached to and was also designed to burn up on re-entry. The payload for this mission however was a fully functional Dragon capsule with the full suite of avionics, support systems and the ability to return to earth from orbit. It was also carrying a small fleet of government owned CubeSats that were launched shortly after they achieved orbit. Approximately 3 hours after the Falcon 9’s launch the Dragon capsule returned safely to earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

I, along with every other space nut out there, are incredibly excited about what this means for the future of space. Not only has SpaceX managed to successfully launch a brand new rocket twice in 6 months they’ve done so with an almost flawless record. The pace at which they’re progressing is really quite astonishing considering how small they are compared to those who’ve achieved the same goals previously. The team that Elon Musk has assembled really deserves all the credit that they get and I now I wait with baited breath at their next launch as that will be the first private spacecraft ever to visit the International Space Station.

It’s really quite exciting to see progress like this in an area that was once considered only accessible by the world’s superpower governments. Whilst we’re still a long, long way from such technology becoming an everyday part of our lives like commercial air travel has the progress that SpaceX has made shows that the current cost to orbit can and will come down over time. This also gives NASA the opportunity to stop focusing on the more rudimentary aspects of flight that SpaceX is now capable of handling, leaving them to return to what they were once known best for: pushing the envelope of what the human race is capable of in space. So whilst we won’t be seeing another Falcon 9 launch this year as I had hoped all those months ago this perfect flight of the first fully functional Dragon capsule signals that the future of space travel for us humans is not just bright, it’s positively blinding.

It’s Been a Great Week For Space.

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 😉

Falcon 9 Soars Into The History Books.

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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:

Demo Target Date Duration Objectives
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.