Putting things into space isn’t an easy thing to do. The amount of energy required to reach orbital speeds means that we really only have one option available to us: strapping whatever it is to a giant barrel of explosives and setting light to it. Whilst the science of this is now well understood it doesn’t mean that we’re immune from mistakes, especially those which arise from the inherently complex systems that these rockets have become. Indeed just last week we saw the even a long time space contractor, one with numerous launches under its belt, can suffer a catastrophic accident without any indication that things were going to go wrong. Unfortunately tragedy has struck another private space venture with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashing, killing one of the test pilots.
This unfortunately isn’t the first tragedy to befall this project. Back in 2007, shortly after their X-prize winning journey and subsequent partnership with Virgin, Scaled Composites had a fatal accident that killed 3 of their engineers. Whilst this wasn’t a flight accident, it was a catastrophic failure of the nitrous oxide tank that the ship uses, it did make many people question just how safe this kind of craft could be made. To their credit the subsequent 7 years were incident free with the prototype undergoing numerous tests both in the air and back down on the ground. Last week however that streak was broken when the VSS Enterprise broke up over the desert in California, killing one of the pilots and destroying the craft.
Initial reports centred on the fact that SpaceShipTwo was testing a new fuel mixture which could have potentially exploded causing the craft to fail. For a motor like the one in SpaceShipTwo, namely a hybrid rocket engine, this is highly unlikely as the fuel doesn’t have the same capability to combust explosively as its liquid cousins do. Had the changes been with the oxidizer or tank design then I’d be more inclined to blame them for failure. Indeed current reports have shown that the motor has been found fully intact at the crash site, indicating that a mid air explosion was not the cause of the crash.
Investigators are now focusing on the events leading up to the crash, including the possibility that the wings were unlocked too early into their flight. SpaceShipTwo has an unique system for its re-entry, it’s wings fold up in a process called feathering that ensures it comes back down belly-first. Engaging this system is a 2 stage process, requiring the pilots to first unlock the wings and then engage the feathering process. Initial reports have suggested that the wings were unlocked during powered ascent although it’s still too early to say if that was the cause of the crash or not.
To his credit Richard Branson has committed himself to the project even in the face of this disaster which means we’ll still be seeing SpaceShipTwo make flights into space sometime in the future. This will definitely set them back but I’m sure that the new versions of the ship will ensure that an event of this nature cannot happen again. It’s an unfortunate reminder that things like this still carry some form of risk with them and those who dare to be on the frontiers like this really are risking their lives for our greater good.
Getting off the rock which we’re gravitationally bound to is an expensive endeavor, so much so that doing it has well been out of the reach of anyone but the super-governments of the world for almost half a century. We’re in the middle of a space revolution with private companies popping up everywhere promising to reduce the cost of access to space with many of them delivering on their promises. Still even with so many revolutions happening in the private space industry the cost of doing so is still well out of the reach of the vast majority of people in the world, even though they’ve come down by an order of magnitude in the past decade.
Still there are people working on extremely novel solutions to this problem and they’re starting to show some very promising results. Late last year I wrote about Copenhagen Suborbitals a volunteer team that is working on a single person rocket using only donated funds. Back then they were gearing up to launch their first test rocket called HEAT from their sea launch platform that was propelled by a submarine that one of its creators built. Unfortunately they did not manage to launch as the cryogenic valve for the liquefied oxygen had frozen shut (thanks to the hair dryer they used as a heater draining the batteries on the sub) preventing the rocket from igniting. They were determined to launch it however and just recently they gave it another attempt.
The upgraded rocket, dubbed HEAT-1X, has a few improvements over its previous incarnation. The sea launch platform is now a fully enclosed unit, no longer requiring external propulsion from a submarine to get it into position. HEAT-1X now uses a polyurethane rubber mix instead of the previously used paraffin wax which was found to not vaporize completely which caused a reduction in the resulting amount of thrust. With these improvements in mind they attempted launching again back on the 3rd of June, and the results speak for themselves:
The launch, whilst undoubtedly a success for all involved, wasn’t without its share of problems. HEAT-1X did manage to achieve supersonic speed however it deviated from its direct vertical flight path considerably. Even though they were out in the ocean mission control decided to shut down the engine after 21 seconds of flight. The craft still managed to achieve a height of approximately 2.8KM in that time and covered over 8KM in ground distance. There was successful separation of the booster and craft stages however the parachute on the booster was torn free due to the high drag it experienced. The space craft’s parachutes didn’t unfurl properly either causing it to receive significant damage upon landing. Unfortunately the booster was lost to the Baltic Sea but the capsule was recovered successfully.
Despite those problems the HEAT-1X flight represents a tremendous step forward for the Copenhagen Suborbitals team and shows that they are quite capable of building a craft capable of delivering people into suborbital space. They’re still a long way from putting a person in one of their crafts (3~5 years is their estimate) but this launch validates much of the work they have done to this point. I really can’t wait to see them achieve their vision of getting someone into space on a shoestring budget and should they succeed they will make Denmark the fourth nation ever to launch a man into space (Russia, USA and China were ahead of them, if you were wondering). Considering that it will all be done with volunteer time and donations make the achievement even more incredible and I’m sure they’re inspiring many of their younger Danes to pursue a life in the sciences and engineering.
Even though I only discovered a real driving passion for space a couple years ago I’ve always been fascinated with the night sky and the beauty that it holds. I spent many nights out on my parents farm just staring up at the sky that was littered with stars and punctuated by our celestial sister, the moon. Being an avid science fiction fan for as long as I can remember the thought of journeying into space was always something I dreamed about, hoping one day to visit alien worlds and maybe one day venturing to other stars.
My real passion was sparked by the idea that sometime very soon anyone who wanted to could travel to the final frontier. Suddenly my boyhood dreams of floating weightlessly out in the cold void of space were no longer a thing of fantasy, they were tangibly real. I spent hours upon hours researching the technology wanting to know every detail of how they did it. I found myself lost in a world that I had ignored for so long, a place where science fiction was becoming science fact right before my eyes. I then resolved myself to becoming a part of this anyway I could and all my actions since then have been focused towards supporting my end goal of escaping the earth’s gravity well.
However I never once thought that anything short of a large enterprise would be able to accomplish such a task that first inspired me down this path. The idea wasn’t foreign to me though as I’d always held the somewhat romantic idea of building my own spacecraft to get into orbit. I squarely place all the blame for this idea on my first ever encounter with Star Trek, which was in the form of the movie First Contact. Still it seems some people were far more inspired than I was by similar ideas and they’ve gone ahead and built their own spaceship:
Copenhagen Suborbital’s HEAT rocket and Tycho Brahe capsule ready to launch. Credit: Copenhagen SuborbitalIt’s something like the movie “Astronaut Farmer,” but this is for real. And it’s in Danish. Copenhagen Suborbitals,headed by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, hope to launch the world’s first amateur-built rocket for human spacetravel. As of this writing, the launch countdown clock on the Copenhagen Suborbitals’ website reads 7 days and 12 hours, which would put the launch on August 30 at about 1300 GMT. This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future. They have a sea-launch site on the Baltic Sea near Bornholm, Denmark, and their HEAT 1-X rocket is ready to go.
The team has been building their rocket since about 2004. Copenhagen Suborbitals is a non-profitendeavor, based entirely on sponsors and volunteers. Their mission: launch a human being into space. If they are successful, Denmark would become only the fourth nation to send a human into space. But this project is completely private – no national funds have been used. “We are working fulltime to develop a series of suborbital space vehicles – designed to pave the way for manned space flighton a micro size spacecraft,” said Madsen and von Bengtson on their website.
It’s this kind of endeavour that just leaves me gobsmacked at the ingenuity and dedication that we humans are capable of. Running the entire operation on donations and volunteer time would make you think that such a project would never get the legs needed to actually design, build and test a rocket capable of carrying someone into space. They’ve done what I had considered to be firmly out of the reach of the everyman but their work shows that we’ve really transitioned into the space age, where those with the drive to do so can build their very own space ship.
The craft itself is something to marvel at. Looking like a tiny version of many of the larger launch systems available they take the interesting option of having the single passenger of the craft standing up. All human carrying spacecraft to date have had their passengers sitting down or laying supine. This is because the forces acting on you as you launch can be quite hefty and the human body can take a lot more force when it’s strapped down than when you’re standing up. However for Copenhagen Suborbitals the choice to have the passenger stand up means the rocket can be quite a lot slimmer. This does mean that the thrust of the rocket had to be scaled back so that the forces on the passenger were reduced, but they’ll still be pulling a hefty 4Gs.
For propulsion they use a hybrid rocket motorsimilar to the ones found in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. These are arguably the defacto choice for cheap and small space endeavours as they have many of the characteristics of more expensive engines (restartable, throttling) at a fraction of the cost. Copenhagen’s engine differs from Virgins in that its oxidizer is liquid oxygen rather than nitrous oxide which is interesting as LOX requires cryogenic storage, far more complicated than N20. Still LOX would provide a better specific impulse so the choice was probably made for performance reasons (I can’t seem to find the reasoning behind the switch on their site).
With the launch scheduled for just a few days from now I can’t wait to see how this rocket performs and I wish them all the best in the first full test. It’s projects like these that reaffirm my passion for space and inspire me to chase my dreams, however ambitious they may seem. With such talented people working on these problems and solving them in such interesting and varied ways I know we’re already well into the space age and the next decade will only see things get better.
Damn it’s a good time to be alive