It seems somewhat trite to say it but rocket science is hard. Ask anyone who lived near a NASA testing site back in the heydays of the space program and they’ll regale you with stories of numerous rockets thundering skyward only to meet their fate shortly after. There is no universal reason behind rockets exploding as there are so many things in which a failure leads to a rapid, unplanned deconstruction event. The only universal truth behind sending things into orbit atop a giant continuous explosion is that one day one of your rockets will end up blowing itself to bits. Today that has happened to SpaceX.
The CRS-7 mission was SpaceX’s 7th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station with its primary payload consisting of around 1800kgs of supplies and equipment. The most important piece of cargo it was carrying was the International Docking Adapter (IDA-1) which would have been used to convert one of the current Pressurized Mating Adapters to the new NASA Docking System. This would have allowed resupply craft such as the Dragon capsule to dock directly with the ISS rather than being grappled and attached, which is currently not the preferred method for coupling craft (especially for crew egress in emergency). Other payloads included things like the Meteor Shower Camera which was actually a backup camera as the primary was lost in the Antares rocket explosion of last year.
Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the incident that the cause appears to be an overpressure event in the upper stage LOX tank. Watching the video you can see what he’s alluding to here as shortly after take off there appears to be a rupture in the upper tank which leads to the massive cloud of gas enveloping the rocket. The event happened shortly after the rocket reached max-q, the point at which the aerodynamic stresses on the craft have reached their maximum. It’s possible that the combination of a high pressure event coinciding with max-q was enough to rupture the tank which then led to its demise. SpaceX is still continuing its investigation however and we’ll have a full picture once they conduct a full fault analysis.
A few keen observers have noted that unlike other rocket failures, which usually end in a rather spectacular fireball, it appears that the payload capsule may have survived. The press conference held shortly after made mention of telemetry data being received for some time after the explosion had occurred which would indicate that the capsule did manage to survive. However it’s unlikely that the payload would be retrievable as no one has mentioned seeing parachutes after the explosion happened. It would be a great boon to the few secondary payloads if they were able to be recovered but I’m certain none of them are holding their breath.
This marks the first failed launch out of 18 for SpaceX’s Falcon-9 program, a milestone I’m sure none were hoping they’d mark. Putting that in perspective though this is a 13 year old space company who’s managed to do things that took their competitors decades to do. I’m sure the investigations that are currently underway will identify the cause in short order and future flights will not suffer the same fate. My heart goes out to all the engineers at SpaceX during this time as it cannot be easy picking through the debris of your flagship rocket.
The problem that most renewables face is that they don’t generate power constantly, requiring some kind of energy storage medium to provide power when its not generating. Batteries are the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when looking for such a device however the ones used for most home power applications aren’t anymore advanced than your typical car battery. Other methods of storing power, like pumped hydro or compressed air, are woefully inefficient shedding much of the generated power away in waste heat or in the process of converting it back to electricity when its needed. Many have tried to revolutionize this industry but few have made meaningful progress, that was until Tesla announced the Powerwall.
The Powerwall is an interesting device, essentially a 7KW (or 10KW, depending on your application) battery that mounts to your wall that can provide power to your house. Unlike traditional systems which were required to be constructed outside, due to the batteries producing hydrogen gas, the Powerwall can be mounted anywhere on your house. In a grid-connected scenario the Powerwall can store power during off-peak times and then release it during peak usage thereby reducing the cost of your energy consumption. The ideal scenario for it however is to be connected to a solar array on the roof, storing that energy for use later. All of this comes at the incredibly low price point of $3,000 for the 7KW model with the larger variant a mere $500 more. Suffice to say this product has the potential for some really revolutionary applications, not least of which is reducing our reliance on fossil fuel generated power.
The solar incentives that many countries have brought in over the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of houses with domestic solar arrays. This, in turn, has brought down the cost of getting solar installed to ridiculously low levels, even less than $1/watt installed in some cases. However with the end of the feed-in tariffs these panels are usually not economical with the feed-in rates usually below that of the retail rate. Using a Tesla Powerwall however would mean that this energy, which would otherwise be sold at a comparative loss, could be used when its needed. This would reduce the load on the grid whilst also improve the ROI of the panels and the Powerwall system, a win-win in anyone’s books.
It would be one thing if Tesla was just making another product however it seems that Elon Musk has a vision that extends far beyond just ripping the battery out of its cars and selling them as grid connected devices. The keynote speech he gave a few days ago is evidence of that and is worth the watch if you have the time:
In its current incarnation the Tesla Powerwall is a great device, one that will make energy storage feasible to a much wider consumer base. However I can’t help but feel that this is just Tesla’s beachhead into a much larger vision and that future revisions of the Powerwall product will likely bring even larger capacities for similar or lower prices. Indeed this is all coming to us before Tesla has completed their Gigafactory-1 which is predicted to reduce the cost of the batteries by some 30% with further iterations driving it down even more. Suffice to say I’m excited about this as it makes a fully renewable future not only inevitable, but tantalizingly close to reality.
The Tesla Model S as we know it today is quite an impressive car. Whilst it’s not exactly within the everyman’s price range yet (getting one landed in Australia likely won’t see much change from $100K) it’s gone a long way to making a high performing electric vehicle available to the masses, especially considering Tesla stance on their patents. Before that electric cars were more of a niche product for the ultra environmentally conscious, combining tiny engines with small frames that would have just enough power to get you to work and back. Now they’re far more easily compared to high end luxury cars and with the new things that Elon announced last week electric cars are heading into a class all of their own.
Elon teased last week that he was going to unveil the D soon (and seemingly forgot how much of a dirty mind the entire Internet has) and “something else”. The D was for their new drive train system that incorporates 2 motors, making the Tesla Model S one of the few fully electric all wheel drive cars. The something else turned out to be the debut of their autopilot system, a sort of cut down version of the Google self-driving car. Whilst the D version of the Model S won’t be available for another couple months (although you can order one today) all Model S cars built within the last couple weeks shipped with the autopilot hardware. Suffice to say both these announcements are pretty exciting although the latter probably more so.
The dual motors is an interesting upgrade for the Model S as it’s a pretty common feature among higher end luxury cars, something which it has been lacking. Of particular note is how the dual motor upgrade affects the various aspects of the car, like slashing 0.8 seconds off the 0-100 time (3.2 seconds) and increasing range by about 3.5%, all whilst granting the benefits that all wheel drive provides. Typically you’d be taking a decent hit to range and efficiency due to the increased weight and power requirements but the Model S has managed to come out on top in all respects. Should those figures hold up in real world testing then it’ll speak volumes to the engineering team that Tesla has managed to cultivate.
However the most interesting part for me was the debut of Tesla’s autopilot system. Elon Musk had always been of the mind that a self driving car didn’t need to be an all encompassing thing, instead they should aim to do the majority of tasks first before looking to take the next leap into full automation. Tesla’s autopilot system is the embodiment of that philosophy, taking some of the technology that’s currently available (emergency braking, lane keeping, collision avoidance) and combining it into one seamless package. It won’t get you from point A to point B without human intervention but it’ll happy take over on the highway, park itself in the garage and even meet you at a certain location. It might not be as comprehensive at what Google is looking to create but it’s available today and does almost everything you’d need it to.
I really shouldn’t be surprised that a Musk created company is managing to innovate so quickly in an industry that has long been one of the slowest movers but honestly these two announcements blew me away. The dual motors might not exactly be a revolutionary piece of technology but the way Telsa has done it speaks volumes to the calibre of people that they have working there. The introduction of autopilot in just over a year since they first talked about it really is quite amazing and whilst it might not be the all encompassing system that Google is seeking it will likely be the standard for many years to come. I can’t wait to see what Tesla has in store for us next as they don’t seem to have any intentions of stopping their brisk innovating pace any time soon.
Ever since Elon Musk uttered the words Hyperloop in the middle of last year the tech world has been abuzz with speculation as to what it might actually be. Whilst it was known to be some kind of tube based transportation system the amount of specifics given out were incredibly slim which, of course, led to an incredible amount of hype over it. If anyone else had said something like this it would be easy to dismiss them but Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, seems to have a knack for bringing seemingly crazy ideas to life. After a year of anticipation, teasing and rampant speculation Musk finally released the first iteration of his Hyperloop design and it’s quite impressive.
So it seems that the best speculators out there have got the design mostly right, it’s a low pressure tube system that could conceivably work both above and under ground and utilizes linear accelerators (I.E. railguns) to get them up to the required speed. The really interesting part of it however is the pod design as they’re what makes the whole system viable. You see in an a column of air like that contained within a hyperloop you’ll eventually end up pushing the entire column of air in front of you, not so great if you want to achieve high speeds. Hyperloop overcomes this by mounting an intake at the front that drives a compressor, effectively shunting all that air out of the way. At the same time the air being taken in is used to power the air bearings at the bottom of the craft.Additionally the pods get reboosted every 70 miles by linear actuators, reducing the power capacity required to power the compressors during travel.
What is quite impressive is the rather low power requirements for the passenger only version of the capsule needing only 100KW to keep it trucking along. That’s comparable to a typical 2 door hatchback engine which, as anyone who’s driven in one can attest to, struggles under the weight of 4+ passengers and cargo. However the combination of a low pressure environment, leading face intake and air bearings seems to be enough to reduce the total power requirements for staying at high subsonic levels dramatically. The variant with a vehicle compartment seems to up the power requirements dramatically however, requiring some 285KW to accomplish the same task.
The Hyperloop design also includes a whole bunch of other little innovations that make it quite appealing. Whilst it might be able to be done underground I can imagine doing so would be rather costly as digging tunnels is never cheap. However the above ground design looks like it could accomplish the same goal without requiring massive amounts of construction, even less than that of your typical highway. This is due to its monorail like construction utilizing pillars to elevate it above the ground. Such a system could then run along side established highways and any detours easily accommodated. The top surface of it could then have solar panels mounted on it providing the majority of the energy required to power the system making Hyperloop a very environmentally friendly transportation system.
Of course it’s still very much a theoretical system, albeit a thoroughly thought out it. Whilst I doubt it’ll end up replacing the high speed train link that Musk wants it to (even though he claims it would be cheaper and faster) once there’s a demonstration link up I can see people taking it very seriously. Heck we’ve been talking about high speed rail in Australia for decades and it’s always been killed because of the cost. Hyperloop could be the solution to that and we could finally get that MEL-CBR-SYD-BNE link everyone’s been wanting and not have the project go down in flames long before ground gets broken.
And yes I want that for almost entirely selfish reasons, flying to Sydney is almost not worth the effort 😉
Elon Musk is quite the business magnate. Long time readers will know that he’s the CEO of SpaceX the current darling of the private space industry which has done as much innovation in a decade as others have done in half a century. However that’s not Musk’s only endeavor having started out by working in the payments industry, famously being PayPal’s largest stock holder when it was eventually acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. That allowed him to create 2 companies of his own: SpaceX and Tesla Motors whilst being heavily involved in a third, SolarCity. The success of all these companies can’t be denied but it wasn’t always all roses for all these companies, especially Tesla, and indeed Musk himself.
Building a car manufacturer, especially one that eschews the traditional internal combustion engine for full electric, is fraught with risk and requires massive amounts of capital to pull off. Whilst Tesla’s end goal has been affordable electric cars for everyone it didn’t start off trying to service this market, instead focusing on building a high performance electric roadster that had a very limited production run. Of course this also drew skepticism from potential investors as they couldn’t be sure that Tesla would be anything more than a niche sports car producer and so many steered clear. However Musk was undeterred and in 2008 announced the Model S and hinted towards further models that would use the same power train, effectively creating a platform for the rest of Tesla’s fleet.
To say that the rest of the world was skeptical that they could pull this off would be putting it lightly. Indeed even though they managed to secure a $451.8 million dollar loan from the Department of Energy to help set them up investors still continued to short their stock heavily, to the point where it was one of the most shorted stocks on the NASDAQ. Some went as far as to say that Tesla was only profitable due to the American tax payers, words which would soon be served right back to them with a serve of humble pie when Tesla paid the loan back in full at the start of this year, 9 years before it was due. Since then Tesla’s stocks have continued to climb and it’s not just because people are looking for a pump ‘n’ dump.
The Tesla Model S won car of the year from Motor Trends and Automobile Magazine last year rocketing it from being a toy for the technical/green crowd to being a well known brand. Whilst it’s still not in the realm of the everyman with the base model still being some $65,000 it has still proved to be quite a popular car snagging 8% of the luxury car market in the USA. To put that into perspective that means the Model S has beaten the sales of both the BMW 7 series and the Audi A8, cars which have a pretty loyal following and have been around for decades. They’re only just beginning to ramp up production as well with the current 400 or so produced per week expected to double by years end making them one of the largest producers of purely electric vehicles.
Tesla has not only shown that fully electrical vehicles are possible today they’re also, in fact, great business too. Whilst the investors might be skeptical other car companies aren’t with the number of EVs available exploding as each manufacturer tries to carve out their own section of this market. Most of them are focusing on the low end now however and it’s highly likely that Tesla will eat their lunch when the eventual $30,000 model debuts sometime in the future. Still the more competition in this space the better as it means the products we get as consumers get that much better and, of course, cheaper.
Now all we have to do is hope that the Australia Tax doesn’t hit the Model S as that’d put the kibosh on my enthusiasm a little bit.
There are only a few private space companies that I have any semblance of faith in these days, most notably Armadillo Aerospace (founded by programming genius John Carmack, creator of DOOM) and my current space idol SpaceX. The former’s achievements have been quite impressive with their technology progressing steadily over the past decade. SpaceX has shown everyone that the realm of space is not just for the super-governments of the world, successfully launching multiple rockets and landing numerous contracts for their services. If there’s anyone that can commoditize access to space it will be SpaceX.
Whilst their current plans of reducing the cost of access to space is clear their direction past that has always been something of a mystery. Last year they announced some plans for a number of rockets that had some mightily impressive specifications, rivalling that of rockets of decades past. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he wants to retire on Mars (and his wife is on board too) but those dreams had always been met with scepticism as we haven’t been past low earth orbit for the better part of 4 decades. Reports are starting to come in though that shows Musk is quite serious about his future retirement plans:
“We’ll probably put a first man in space in about three years,” Elon Musk told the Wall Street Journal Saturday. “We’re going all the way to Mars, I think… best case 10 years, worst case 15 to 20 years.”
“Our goal is to facilitate the transfer of people and cargo to other planets, and then it will be up to people if they want to go,” said Musk, who also runs the Tesla company which develops electric cars.
Putting that in perspective that could mean we’d have people on Mars by 2021 or at latest 2031. Comparing that to George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration which had us returning to the moon in 2020 you’d be forgiven for being sceptical of it since if a government couldn’t do it with a lead time of 15+ years and a comparatively large budget what chance would SpaceX have? However SpaceX has shown that they are quite capable of creating aggressive schedules, meeting them and doing it all on a fraction of the budget that has traditionally been used to accomplish such feats. Indeed the recent announcement of the Falcon Heavy saw many people speculating about missions like a Mars sample return mission that has not been feasible due to the launch weight required but was well within the capabilities of SpaceX’s new rocket.
SpaceX has also been making strides with its Dragon capsule, putting the finish touches on it to make it 100% compatible with NASA’s human rating standards. The planned additions to the craft would see the launch abort system, traditionally a large spike on top of the craft that’s discarded once the launch is successful, put on the side of the craft. This would give the Dragon capsule an unprecedented amount of accuracy when it came to landing the craft, enabling it to soft land at a precise location rather than requiring a splash down in the ocean. Consequently a Dragon capsule could very well be used to land on the surface of other planets, including SpaceX’s goal of Mars.
You’d think by now nothing that SpaceX could do would surprise me, but it seems at every turn they manage to pull off another feat that puts their wild claims firmly in reality. Whilst we may still be a decade away from seeing any real progress on this front it still feels a million times closer than it ever did when the same goal was held by a government agency. Even if they don’t meet their aggressive 2021 target there will be a whole host of progress made between now and then, enough so we’ll have a clear picture of when we’ll be exploring our diminutive red cousin.
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.
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.