There was a long running joke that the International Space Station existed only as a place for the shuttle to go. Whilst that joke ignores the fact that the ISS wasn’t just an American creation it was true that the Shuttle really only had a single destination for the last decade or so of its life. Still it was pretty damn good at its job, both in terms of delivering payloads and its ability to ferry large crews and its retirement left a large hole in launch capabilities that is still yet to be filled. There have been many alternatives popping up however and the second fully privately funded one, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, made its launch debut last week.
In terms of capabilities the Cygnus is very similar to the Russian Progress craft with the initial versions able to deliver a payload of 2,000kg to the ISS. This is scheduled to be bumped up to 2,700kg after the first 3 vehicles as the craft and its associated launcher will be upgraded, giving it more significantly more interior volume as well. Much like all the other ISS cargo craft it does not have an automated docking capability and needs to be captured by CANADARM2 before being guided to one of the station’s ports. Additionally the Cygnus does not have any capability to reboost the ISS whilst it is docked, something which seems to be uniquely confined to the ATV (although the Progress can do it if required), and does not have any down range capability meaning it burns up on re-entry.
The first Cygnus craft launched late last week after a technical glitch caused a one day delay whilst a fix was developed. The launch itself was trouble free and it spent the weekend catching up to the ISS for a scheduled rendezvous today. Unfortunately whilst the Cygnus was attempting to establish a direct data link with the ISS another glitch was encountered forcing it to abort the current docking attempt. This will delay any further attempts for another couple days due to the orbital mechanics involved but this will give Orbital Sciences enough time to create and test a fix so that the next attempt should be successful.
Just like SpaceX before it Orbital Sciences has a pretty aggressive schedule for successive flights with the next flight lined up for December this year and 3 to follow in 2014. Considering their pedigree with multiple launch systems under their belt this is somewhat expected but it’s still quite amazing to see just how quickly these private companies can move when compared to previous governmental based efforts. It will be interesting to see if they ever adapt the Cygnus to be a human rated craft as whilst they’ve never launched people before they’ve got much of the expertise needed to do so.
It’s great to see that NASA’s COTS program is doing so well, producing results that many believed would be impossible. Whilst they still haven’t bridged the launch capability gap that the Shuttle has left behind they’ve already demonstrated one major part of it and I know it won’t be long before the crewed capability is restored. I’m hopeful that this will enable NASA to continue focusing on the real envelope pushing ideas to further our capabilities in space, leaving the more rudimentary aspects of it to the private market. The future of private space travel is looking brighter by the day and I’m glad Orbital Sciences, with their incredible pedigree of delivering on space projects, has come along for the ride.
It’s hard for me to hide my fan boy nature when it comes to private space flight. Whilst all credit must go to Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic for getting me inspired about all things space they have unfortunately taken a second seat to my current space crush. Not-so-long time readers will know that I’m talking about SpaceX, a company that has shown time and time again that they’re capable of not only developing technology that no private entity had previously but also delivering on their patently crazy promises. However I’m not in favour of monopolies/single points of failure (stemming from my capitalistic/engineering nature respectively) and the more options we have available to us for putting things in space the better.
Today it appears we have another contender: the Orbital Science’s Antares rocket.
Now I’ve only mentioned Orbital Sciences briefly in the past, noting that they won a contract to provide launch capabilities to NASA alongside SpaceX as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, but their legacy stretches back quite a long way. Founded in 1982 they’ve developed several different launch platforms in tandem with NASA and have also been involved in numerous high profile scientific missions. Most recently they developed the Dawn craft which is currently in the asteroid belt transiting from the asteroid Vesta to the dwarf planet Ceres. Needless to say if anyone has the chops to develop their own launch system it’s orbital sciences and the Antares rocket is their first such system.
On paper it looks to be somewhere between the Falcon 1 and 9 with a total payload to LEO of around 5000kg. The two first stage engines are curious little beasts, originally designed to form the basis of the Russian N-1 rocket that was bound for the moon. Considering that launch system was a dismal failure you’d then have to wonder about them using the engines from it but N-1’s issues were mostly process/design based rather than stemming from issues from one particular component. It also has a slightly wider payload fairing than the Falcon 9 at 3.9m in diameter which could come in handy for certain mission profiles.
The first launch of the Antares (dubbed A-ONE) was scheduled to happen in the middle of last week however some minor technical issues delayed the launch. The rocket itself was fine however one of the umbilical cables disconnected 12 minutes prior to launch, far too early when it usually happens right before lift off. Thankfully this didn’t require the rocket to be stood down and they were able to reschedule it for a couple days later. Unfortunately high winds on the second launch day caused them to issue a no-go due to weather and it was rescheduled for today. Thankfully conditions improved and they were able to launch, making the Antares rocket the second fully private rocket to make it to orbit.
Apart from that it’s still notable for many reasons. If the picture above looks a little unfamiliar to you it’s because the Antares wasn’t launched from the iconic Cape Canaveral. Instead it was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia, a place that doesn’t usually see rockets of this size. Indeed the Antares rocket is the largest rocket to ever be launched from this facility and will likely become the defacto launch site for the rocket in the future thanks to its much less crowded launch schedule. If all goes to plan this site could see another 2 launches of the Antares rocket this year which would be on par with SpaceX’s rapid turnaround times.
Today marks a great achievement for Orbital Sciences and the greater space industry as it shows that not only is the private space industry viable, it can likely support several competing players. This will only help spur innovation forward as companies look to outpace each other on every aspect. Whilst SpaceX might be the current starlet Orbital Sciences has decades of experience behind them and I can’t imagine them being in the backseat for very long. As always this means that the cost to launch will trend downwards and from there it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the commodity level.
And that, my friends, is really exciting.
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.
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.
The twilight years of any space program are usually filled with extremely interesting times. For the most part you’re either gearing up for the next biggest thing or getting ready to plunge your craft back down to earth in a spectacular fireworks show. STS-129, which launched at around 6:30am AEST, is the former as it brings with it a truckload of spare parts, many experiments and something that has got me all flustered about the future of the International Space Station. There’s the usual media coverage as well as a NASA tweetup giving blow by blow accounts of mission as it goes ahead. Of course there’s a lovely 10 minute video of the launch and trip into orbit.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfMbPOZMaAs
The first part of the payload is 2 ExPRESS Logistics Carriers which combined weigh a total of around 13 tons. These are primarily filled with spares and other equipment necessary to ensure that the station can function properly. As the shuttle is one of only 2 craft (the other being the Japanese HTV as I mentioned previously) that can bring up large sized cargo it makes sense that they’ve crammed 2 of these things into its payload bay. They’ll spend most of their life attached to the main truss segments, only being accessed when the parts are needed. They are in essence, giant supply crates.
Another payload they are bringing up is a Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) carrier which is an experiment designed to see how certain materials and coatings hold up in space. They’ve flown a few of these before with the ones being sent up now having the designation of MISSE 7A and 7B respectively. Back before the days of the International Space Station they did similar experiments to these on a much larger scale. The Long Duration Exposure Facility was a school bus sized version of MISSE that flew on STS-32. It was initially envisioned as a one year project being repeated multiple times but due to budget constraints and the tragic Challenger disaster its retrieval was postponed indefinitely. It was eventually retrieved however after almost 6 years in orbit after STS-41C launched a communications satellite for the navy. The launch of this expriment made for quite an impressive picture to:
There’s a couple other minor things flying as well, like a S-band Antenna Sub-Assembly which is being flown up as a spare. The mission’s experiments consist of a microbe experiment (to see how they grow in microgravity), some butterfly larvae which will hatch on the station and be studied alongside their cousins which have been raised by school kids from over 100 schools across the US and finally a plant experiment to see how microgravity affects their growth. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s not what’s got me so excited.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) UHF communication unit is being flown up with STS-129. For those of you in the know the COTS program is a NASA initiative focused on encouraging private industry to develop launch capabilities that NASA can then purchase from them. This particular piece of equipment is developed by none other than my space crush company SpaceX, and will facilitate communication between the ISS and the future manned space capsule called Dragon. It’s a tantalizingly real step towards a fully private institution providing transportation to the ISS, something which has never been done before. It also shows that all of SpaceX’s work is very real and they’re extremely serious about making sure that once the shuttle retires that NASA will have a local alternative to get their astronauts up into space. Back a few years ago it was hard to judge whether or not SpaceX would be able to provide such capability to NASA. Today it is a guarantee.
So whilst this isn’t the most sexy mission (that still belongs to the Hubble servicing mission that just oozed cool) it is definitely a big step forward for the future of space. The ISS is being geared up for the shuttle’s retirement by stocking it up with all the goods it will need for a long time whilst SpaceX continues to push the envelope in terms of its capability. Next year’s test launch of the Falcon-9 rocket really can’t come soon enough and I know it won’t be long before the Dragon meets the ISS.
Blog fodder doesn’t get much better than this 😉