It was just over 2 years ago that Felix Baumgartner leapt from the Red Bull Stratos capsule from a height of 39KMs above the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking a record that had stood for over 50 years. The amount of effort that went into creating that project left many, including myself, thinking that Baumgartner’s record would stand for a pretty long time as few have the resources and desire to do something of that nature. However as it turns out one of Google’s Senior Vice Presidents, Alan Eustace, had been working on breaking that record in secret for the past 3 years and on Friday last week he descended to Earth from a height of 135,890 feet (41.4KM), shattering Baumgartner’s record by an incredible 7,000 feet.
The 2 jumps could not be more different, both technically and generally. For starters the Red Bull Stratos project was primarily a marketing exercise for Red Bull, the science that happened on the side was just a benefit for the rest of us. Eustace’s project on the other hand was done primarily in secret, with him eschewing any help from Google in order to avoid it becoming a marketing event. Indeed I don’t think anyone bar those working on the project knew that this was coming and the fact that they managed to achieve what Stratos did with a fraction of the funding speaks volumes to the team Eustace created to achieve this.
Looking at the above picture, which shows Eustace dangling from a tenuous tether as he ascends upwards, it’s plain to see that their approach was radically different to Stratos. Instead of building a capsule to transport Eustace, like Stratos and Kittinger’s project both did, they instead went for a direct tether to his pressure suit. This meant he spent the long journey skywards dangling face down which, whilst being nightmare material for some, would’ve given him an unparalleled view of the Earth disappearing from him. It also means that the load the balloon needed to carry was greatly reduced by comparison which likely allowed him to ascend much quicker.
Indeed the whole set up is incredibly bare bones with Eustace’s suit lacking many of the ancillary systems that Baumgartner’s had. One that amazed me was the lack of any kind of cooling system, something which meant that any heat he generated would stick around for an uncomfortably long period of time. To get around this he essentially remained motionless for the entire ascent, responding to ground control by moving one of this legs which they could monitor on camera. They did include a specially developed kind of parachute though, called Saber, which ensured that he didn’t suffer from the same control issues that Baumgartner did during his descent.
It’s simply astounding how Eustace and his team managed to achieve this, given their short time frame and comparatively limited budget. I’m also wildly impressed that they managed to keep this whole thing a secret for that period of time too as it would’ve been very easy for them to overshadow the Stratos project, especially given some of the issues they encountered. Whilst we might not all be doing high altitude jumps any time soon the technology behind this could find its way into safety systems in the coming generation of private space flight vehicles, something they will all need in no short order.
It’s been a long time since I wrote about the X-37B, originally NASA’s but now the Department of Defense’s secretive space plane, and that’s mostly because there’s not been a whole lot to report.The secret nature of its mission means that no details about its payload are readily available and unlike the first time it was launched it’s been behaving itself, staying within its own orbit. Still that didn’t stop the Internet from going on a rampage of speculation, the highlight of it being the ludicrous idea that it was spying on China’s efforts in space. However over the weekend it returned from its orbit around the earth after a staggering 2 years on orbit.
Now 2 years might not sound like a long time, especially when the Voyager satellites are pushing 35+ years, however for a craft of this type such a record is a pretty significant advancement. Most capsules and spacecraft that had downrange capacity (I.E. they can bring stuff back) usually have endurances of a couple weeks. Even the venerable shuttle could only last a couple weeks in orbit before things started to get hairy, even if it was docked to the International Space Station. With the X-37B able to achieve an endurance of 2 years without too much of a struggle is a pretty impressive achievement and raises some interesting questions about what its true purpose might be.
The official stance is that it’s a test platform for a whole host of new space technologies like navigational systems, autonomous flight and so on. Indeed from what we’ve seen of the craft it certainly contains a lot of these features as it was able to land itself without human intervention just last week. It’s small payload bay nods towards some other potential purposes (the favourite speculation is satellite retrieval) but it’s most likely just used to house special equipment that will be tested over the duration of the flight. There’s potential for it to house some observational equipment but the DoD already has multiple in-orbit satellites for that purpose and unlike spy satellites of the past (which used film) there’s no real need for downrange capabilities in them any more.
Unfortunately any technological innovations contained within the X-37B are likely to stay there as NASA hasn’t been involved in the X-37B project since it handed it over. It’s disappointing really considering that the DoD has a budget for space activities that equals NASA’s entire budget and there’s definitely a lot of tech in there that they could make use of. Thankfully the private space industry is developing a lot of tech along similar lines so hopefully NASA and its compatriots will have access to similar capabilities in the not too distant future.
Maybe one day we’ll find out the true purpose of the X-37B much like we did with Hexagon. Whilst the story might be of the mundane the technology powering things like Hexagon never ceases to amaze me. If the X-37B is truly a test platform for new kinds of space tech then there’s likely things on there that are a generation ahead of where we are today. We may never know, but it’s always interesting to let your mind wonder about these things.
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.