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 😉