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.
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.
The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are by far one the most successful mission we’ve ever had on another planet. Designed for a total mission time of only 90 days they have gone on to outlive that deadline numerous times over and if it weren’t for an insidious soil trap they’d both still be running today. Whilst Opportunity might still be running a good 7 years after it made planet fall that doesn’t mean that it’s capable of performing all the tasks we want to do and so NASA has been busy designing a replacement rover. It’s quite something to behold and it just recently hit a very important milestone.
The next rover’s official name (dubbed Curiosity in a contest to name it, much like its predecessors) is the Mars Science Laboratory and considering its payload that’s fairly apt. Compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers it’s quite the beast being 5 times more massive and carrying 10 times the scientific payload. To put that in perspective the MSL will be about the same size as the Mini Cooper, the MERs combined would only equal it in length. Such size does present some challenges for getting it down on Mars however, but the guys at NASA have devised a really ingenious way of making sure it arrives safely.
Many are familiar with the way that the MERs made their landing on Mars. They used a combination of aero-breaking (basically parachutes) combined with inflatable bags on the outside that allowed them to bounce over the surface until they landed safely. The MSL is just too heavy for that kind of landing to work so NASA has devised a multi-stage descent that utilizes aero-breaking, retrorockets and a crane system to drop it safely on the surface. I could try and explain it to you but its far more impressive to see in video:
Compared to the way the MERs landed this does seem like an extremely overcomplicated way of landing but given the constraints it’s the best option available. NASA is stepping into unknown territory here so until the landing is confirmed I can see everyone being on tenterhooks.
Keen observers would have noticed something different about the MSL when compared to its MER cousins, most notably the distinct lack of solar panels. The MSL gets all of its power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), the same device that’s powered Mars landers and the extremely long lived Voyager probes. These devices work by using the heat from radioactive decay of an element, usually enriched plutonium, and generating electricity via a thermocouple. The RTG on board Curiosity will generate around 125W of power when its launched, dropping to 100W only after 14 years in service. The mission time frame is slated for just under 2 earth years so the RTG is more than up to the job and there’s the tantalizing possibility that this particular rover could be working for a very long time to come.
The MSL’s payload is simply staggering so I won’t recreate it fully here but there are a few interesting pieces that I’d like to highlight. The first is the MastCam which is a high definition camera that will sit on top of Curosity’s mast. It’s able to take 1.92 megapixel images and 10fps 720p video in true colour, something that other rovers have had to fudge with their black and white cameras with colour filters. There’s also ChemCam which has an infrared laser capable of vaporizing rock at 7 meters then analysing the resulting plasma ball, which is just plain cool (lazers, IN SPACE!).
The milestone I was hinting at earlier was that the MSL has just been sealed up in its payload faring, ready for the trip to Mars:
With its launch window opening in less than two months, the Mars Science Laboratory was matched up with its heat shield at Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
The completed MSL rover, a.k.a. “Curiosity,” had already been fitted onto the “back shell powered descent vehicle” — a revolutionary landing mechanism that will first deploy parachutes to slow the capsule’s descent and then use rockets to hover above the Martian surface as it carefully lowers the one-ton rover down on cables before finally launching itself away to fall at a safe distance.
The launch is scheduled to happen between November 25th and December 18th this year with the rover reaching Mars sometime in August next year. After that it will begin its 1 martian year mission, which is just a hair under 700 earth days. With the rover being fitted into the fairing now it signals that NASA has quite a good shot at hitting that launch window, especially when they’re using the tried and true ATLAS V launch system.
Curiosity really is a testament to what NASA is capable of when they put their minds to it. Everything about the new rover is boundary pushing and I’m sure that much like its predecessors it’ll continue to serve NASA and humanity long after its initial mission is completed. It’s going to be agony waiting for the landing confirmation but we’ve got a year and a long trip through space before we have to start worrying about that.
The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.
STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.
Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.
Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.
Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.
There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.
The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.
Just under a year ago I wrote about the diminutive cousin of the soon to be retired space shuttle the X-37B. It’s been an unusually popular post on my blog, seeming to grab everyone’s attention every time someone makes a mention of the X-37B. Today was no exception and of course I had to why this secretive craft was causing such a ruckus again. The last couple times it was nothing more than it changing its orbit so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Turns out that 2 days ago the X-37B launched on its second mission into space atop an ATLAS-V rocket, its ultimate purpose still remaining a classified secret.
The launch was meant to take place on Friday but was delayed due to low clouds. Although I’ve mentioned in the past that launches can be delayed due to weather I’ve never properly explained why that is the case. You see back in the days of the American moonshot launches happened on schedule regardless of weather conditions. This led to Apollo 12 launching during a heavy rainstorm and although the craft was insulated against strikes (much like aircraft of the day were) it still triggered 2 lightning strikes that traveled the length of the craft and along the exhaust plume. The strike caused all 3 of the fuel cells to be disconnected and the only thing that kept the launch going was John Aaron‘s obscure call of “Try SCE to AUX” which only Alan Bean recognized. To avoid such problems in the future NASA now scrubs launches if there’s a significant chance of lightning strikes.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this mission since it’s all so hush-hush, but as far as the defense force is telling us it is testing equipment for future satellites. Undoubtedly all of those pieces of equipment have military purposes in mind leading many to speculate that the X-37B is the USA’s attempt at weaponizing space, which they have flatly denied. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were however as the Russians famously launched several space stations armed with varying levels of conventional weaponry. I’m more a fan of the X-37B being an orbital satellite capture device though as its payload bay is large enough to store one and bring it back to earth, as this infographic shows:
Credit: Karl Tate, space.com
The most interesting thing about this launch of the X-37B is the short turn around time it had from its last mission to its launch a couple days ago. After spending 224 days in space and returning in December last year its taken just under 3 months to get it flight ready and launched again. The shuttle by comparison takes much longer currently, usually upwards of 6 months (although the record stands at 8 weeks and the design was for a mere 2 weeks). This shows how smaller purpose built craft, even at the experimental stage, are far superior than jack-of-all-trades type crafts like the space shuttle is. Of course the shuttle was mired by strange military requirements that required it to do one orbit and return to earth, something which the X-37B doesn’t have to contend with.
Like its previous mission I’m sure the X-37B will provide amateur satellite trackers hours of fun over the course of the next 7 months or so. It will be interesting to see if it moves around in orbit as much as it did last time or if it delivers some payload into orbit (it certainly has the capability). The speculation is probably a lot more fun than the actual payload itself which is likely to be reconnaissance equipment since that’s really all the military does in space. Still if the military can see how well purpose built craft like the X-37B work then NASA can’t be far behind and hopefully their next generation of craft will reflect that.