Posts Tagged‘spacex’

Space Launch System Configurations

NASA Approves SLS, Probably Shouldn’t Have.

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.

Space Launch System Configurations

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 Dragon V2 Capsule

SpaceX’s Dragon V2 is Just Incredible.

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.

SpaceX 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.

Mars One Colony

The Race for Mars is Heating Up.

Bar our own planet Mars is by far the most studied planet in the solar system. Despite the fact that almost half the missions sent to Mars have ended in disaster we’ve still managed to do a whole lot of science  there and our most recent mission, the Curiosity rover, has managed to capture the attention of millions worldwide. The next logical step would then be to send ourselves over there as whilst robotic explorers are great at specific tasks there’s a whole host of other things we could do if we had a few pairs of boots over there. Such a mission has been on everyone’s minds ever since we first set foot on the Moon over 4 decades ago but progress towards achieving it has been slow, verging on non-existent.

This is not to say that there isn’t interest in doing this. NASA currently has a mandate set by the Obama government to reach Mars by 2030 a goal which they’re actively working towards with the Space Launch System. SpaceX has also expressed a keen interest in doing something similar, albeit without help from NASA, in a much more aggressive time frame. Russia has also alluded to a revamp in their space program, primarily aimed at modernizing their current fleet, which could see them establishing a moon base and possibly flying a mission to Mars. However none of these have created the stir that the fully private Mars One mission and that’s probably for good reason.

Mars One Colony

For the uninitiated Mars One is a non-profit organisation that has the extremely ambitious goal of landing 4 people on the surface of Mars by 2023. They believe they can do this at a total cost of about $6 billion for the first 4 ($4 billion for the second lot) and plan to raise a chunk of that change through making a reality TV show based around the recruitment process. This is where it gets interesting/controversial as the application process is open to anyone and has already garnered 78,000 applications from around the world. In case you’re wondering no, I’m not one of them because I’m quite sceptical that they, or anyone really, could pull off this feat with the budget they’re claiming. I’d do a detailed breakdown of why this is so but I came across this article this morning that does a far better job of explaining it than I’d do.

At the same time Buzz Aldrin has just released his new book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration which is the culmination of his many decades of experience and ideas for getting us humans to our red sister. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to read it I do know of many of the things he’ll be discussing in it (like the Aldrin Cycler) and they’re solid, realistic goals that could be achieved by NASA in the time frames he sets out. If you’re doubting his credentials Buzz has a Phd in astronautics and has done a lot of work for NASA that’s still in use today. Whether or not NASA, or any other space faring nation for that matter, takes his advice under wing will remain to be seen but I’m sure the book will make great reading regardless.

All that being said I do get the feeling that we’re starting to see the beginnings of a mini-space race, one that’s taking place between the private space industry and the super power governments of the world. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge the victor from this but I’m just thankful that there are multiple entities all driving towards the same goal as the more players we have in the field the more likely it is to happen. I’m sceptical that we’ll see humans on Mars within the next decade but we’re likely to push the boundaries of human exploration further than has ever been done before, fixing us firmly on a path to our celestial sister.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-2

SpaceX’s CRS-2 Arrives At ISS, Proves It’s Not an One Shot Deal.

It’s hard to believe that it was only 5 months ago that SpaceX launched its very first Dragon capsule that was part of the  Commercial Resupply Services contract they had with NASA. It was an unqualified success with everything from the launch to capture and finally to docking going as smoothly as you could possibly expect. Even more impressive was the fact that they accomplished this feat no more than 5 months after their previous ISS rendezvous attempt aptly demonstrating that they are very capable of meeting their aggressive timelines, something which many hardened arm chair space nuts like myself were initially sceptical of.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-2

Today brings news of another successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, dubbed CRS-2, which has just docked at the International Space Station. Just like previous missions it’s been loaded quite lightly carrying 677KGs of playload which is about 10% of its total combined (pressurized and unpressurised) capacity. The vast majority of this is taken up with science experiments with crew supplies and replacement parts making up the lesser half. This is also the first time that the unpressurised section of the Dragon capsule has been used which is where the spare station parts were contained. These will be unloaded during an EVA whilst the Dragon is docked at the ISS.

CRS-2′s flight up wasn’t without some significant drama that threatened to send it plummeting back to earth. Whilst the initial launch was fine and second stage separation was completed (an area in which SpaceX has had troubles in the past) 3 of the 4 rocket pods contained on the Dragon craft reported insufficient pressurization in their oxidizer system. This in turn triggered another safety system which stopped the solar panels from deploying, a safety mechanism designed to protect the craft in an unsuccessful booster stage separation scenario. In this state the Dragon would not be able to berth with the ISS and would likely end up plummeting back to earth in a most ungraceful fashion.

The Dragon’s internal systems were then overridden and the rocket pods were allowed to continue pressurizing. Shortly afterwards 2 rocket pods were deemed active and the solar panels were deployed. Not long after that all 4 rocket pods were reporting proper pressurization and were brought back online. Whilst not a catastrophic failure it did push back the schedule by a day meaning CRS-2 didn’t dock until early this morning.

With this most recent launch SpaceX has shown just how reliable they can be as they’ve hit a launch every 5 months for almost a year. It might not sound like much but comparing that to any other launch system demonstrates just how far SpaceX has come in the comparatively short time they’ve been a company. With this all in mind it’s looking pretty good that they’ll be able to make their 2015 deadline of putting people into orbit which, considering that the replacement from NASA is a long way off, is extremely impressive.

 

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.

SpaceX: 10 Years Old and So Much To Show For It.

Ah SpaceX, the one company that I simply can’t get tired of talking about. I think it’s because they’re just so different from the traditional way of launching things into space. Where the current players lavish billions of dollars and thousands of people at single projects SpaceX works on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. Where launch issues would cause others to delay by a day or more SpaceX can turn everything around in under an hour. They really are the embodiment of the start up thrust into the world of launching things into space and the entire industry is better off for having them around.

Last week saw SpaceX celebrate their 10th birthday. Now this isn’t news to many of us but it does put into perspective the kind of work these guys have been doing and how long they’ve been doing it for. In 10 years they’ve managed to design, build and successfully launch 2 different rocket systems, one of which has been launched multiple times. They’ve secured contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and, should they be able to do that, they’ll push the envelope even further by being the first private space company to deliver astronauts to there as well.

The last week has also seen a swath of announcements from the now decade old space company. After several delays from NASA there’s finally a solid date for the first dock of one of their Dragon capsules, set for April 30th. The original (rather optimistic date) was in November last year but this time around it seems like all systems are go for this launch date. The launch window is small, only 4 days by my count, but with SpaceX’s track record of rapid fixes on launch days this window should be more than enough for them to get the Dragon capsule off the ground and on the way to the ISS.

SpaceX has also begun showing off the interior of the manned version of the Dragon capsule that can seat up to 7 astronauts at a time. For a capsule craft that’s pretty impressive as the Space Shuttle was only capable of carrying 1 more (albeit with a payload over 4 times that of an unmanned Dragon cargo craft) and the Russian Soyuz craft can only fit 3 in, and it’s still quite a squeeze in there. The Dragon by comparison looks to have quite a bit of room to it, indeed it’s quite comparable to the Apollo command module. It’s not specifically designed for a Lunar mission however, but there is another place that the manned Dragon capsule is well suited for.

That place is Mars.

The last, and probably most exciting, piece of news to come out of SpaceX this week is that the CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he’d be able to do a round trip to Mars for around $500,000. The actual specifics of how they’ll achieve this are remaining a secret for now but Musk alluded to the fact that he has a plan for being able to refuel the craft on Mars, saving a major cost of having to truck all the fuel over there along with the payload. Whether he plans to do this with multiple launches (like launching another dragon ahead of them with the required fuel), some kind of fuel production plant on Mars or something else entirely though remains to be seen. The idea of doing a return trip to the red planet for that much though is really quite exciting and definitely something I’d consider ponying up the cash for.

SpaceX just seems to keep going from strength to strength as time goes on and this year will be no exception. The last 10 years have seen them grow from the start up that no one knew about to the new face of the private space industry. This year is looking to be a milestone year for them and I simply can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in store.

Stratolaunch1

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.

Orbital Refueling Stations: The Key To Unlocking Our Solar System.

Space travel is on the rough end of the stick when it comes to physics. To get ourselves out of the massive gravity well that keeps us from travelling to the stars we have to expend vast amounts of energy, usually in the form of a chemical rocket. It’s a tried and true system however with chemical rockets powering every single mission that has left the confines of earth. There has been talk of many other forms of propulsion that could potentially perform a lot better than our trusty chemical companions but thanks to their fuel being of the nuclear variety they’ve never made it past the theoretical stage. Still for all their successes chemical rockets still have their draw backs, not least of which is the ungodly amount of fuel they use.

Take a look at any rocket and you’ll notice that the vast majority of it is taken up by a single component, the fuel tank. Whilst the actual cost of the fuel is a rounding error when compared to the cost of developing the rocket itself the fuel still makes up the vast majority of the wet mass of the craft, usually 85% or more. To put in in perspective the biggest rocket ever built, the Saturn V, weighed in at a massive 3 million kg when it was on the launch pad but only delivered 120,000 kg to low earth orbit (with 45,000kg eventually reaching the moon). A mere 4% of the total launch weight made it out of earth’s gravity, a truly staggering figure. This is more commonly referred to as the mass ratio.

It should come as no surprise then that the limiting factor for many space missions is weight related. As payloads get bigger so does the rockets and the amount of fuel required to lift them into orbit. This puts an upper limit on how big rockets can get before the amount of fuel required becomes unmanageable and instead many missions will favor multiple, smaller launches in order to get the required payload launched. The International Space Station is a good example of this as its current mass, some 420,000 kg, would have required a rocket of unimaginable size to launch all once. Instead it has been assembled in numerous smaller flights each adding around 20,000 kg each time. Most missions do not have this kind of luxury however and their designs represent a trade off between capabilities and the maximum launch weight they can have.

Most notably this affects missions that want to reach further than earth orbits, such as missions to other planets. Since they have to carry all the fuel required to get into orbit and to get them started towards their destination the payloads they can deliver are far smaller than they could be. Whilst we’ve still been able to do an amazing amount of science and exploration with such vehicles it’s still one of the most limiting factors that keeps more ambitious missions (read: ones with us humans in them) from being realized. There is however one ingenious solution to this problem, and that’s refueling in orbit.

Whilst the notion of flying just fuel up into orbit might seem like a strange idea it’s one that will enable subsequent missions to be far more capable. Indeed the cost of carrying several tons of fuel for pushing out past earth’s orbit adds many times that in launch mass. Thus craft that can refuel once in orbit can be significantly heavier at launch (since they’re not carrying the fuel) and can then fuel up for their trip beyond earth. The idea originally started to get traction back when Obama announced his plan for space exploration back in early 2010 and it seems that it’s finally going to become a reality:

Space explorers who need to top off the fuel tanks on the way to the moon or Mars may soon get their orbital refueling stations. NASA has put out the call for a $200 million mission to show how to store and transfer rocket propellants in space.

NASA wants to look specifically at liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, which have powered the main engines of the space shuttle and several commercial rockets. Its proposal calls for “zero boil-off storage” of liquid oxygen, and at least “minimal boil-off storage” of liquid hydrogen.

The proposal comes with the promise of $200 million for the company who wins the opportunity to build the station with an additional $100 million should they be able to demonstrate significant benefits for the additional investment. Whilst there are already companies working on these sorts of ideas NASA’s proposal goes far beyond what they’re currently capable of and is being built with the vision for larger missions beyond earth rather than refueling satellite’s station keeping fuel reserves. The proposal could also have flow on benefits to companies like the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX who could design future crafts around the idea of being able to refuel on orbit.

If we want to get serious about extending our presence beyond our home world (and we’re too afraid to use nuclear rockets) then orbital refueling stations are the key to realizing that vision. We’ve started to make the first steps to commoditizing space travel and the next logical step is to start unlocking access to other parts of our solar system, both for science and the simple prospect of exploring the unknown. Whilst this idea might not be realized tomorrow its a helluva lot more real today than it was yesterday and humanity is one step closer to taking our rightful place amongst the stars.