An efficient, cost effective reusable launch system has been the holy grail for all those seeking access to space. There have been numerous attempts, the most notable of which being the venerable Space Shuttle, however even that failed to achieve its goals of drastically reducing the cost of putting things into orbit. SpaceX has made significant headway into making orbital access cheaper however their lofty goals of a reusable system have eluded them thus far. However, just yesterday, they managed to hit a critical milestone: the first stage of their V1.1 Falcon-9 making a successful vertical landing at their site at Cape Canaveral.
The mission was set to launch the day previous however it was delayed in order to increase the chance of a successful recovery landing by another 10% (which also gave us a spectacular night launch, depicted above). The payload aboard the Falcon-9 was 11 ORBCOMM satellites which are low earth orbit communications satellites designed for Machine to Machine communications (essentially tracking and sensor data primarily). After a successful launch into orbit the first stage begun preparations to bring itself back down to earth. Then, only 10 minutes after the initial launch, it landed successfully back on earth to much fanfare from the ground control crew at SpaceX.
Unlike previous first stage recovery attempts this one used an area of flat land rather than the sea based drone ship. This is something of a simpler challenge, since you’re not trying to track a moving target, however those initial tests provided significant risk mitigation should something have gone wrong. Whilst this is the first successful demonstration of the technology at an orbital scale it’s definitely not the first time SpaceX have managed to successfully land a rocket vertically (despite what Jeff Bezo’s tweet about it would lead you to believe). That achievement is held by SpaceX’s Grasshopper demonstration rocket which has been in operation for some years now.
This achievement allows SpaceX to continue development on their reusable launch system program. Whilst the rocket has made it successfully back to Earth it’s certainly worse for wear, showing significant discolouration along its entire fuselage. The challenge SpaceX faces now is how to refurbish the rocket in order to make it flight worthy again, something which has proved to be quite costly for other reusable systems. However SpaceX has said it is confident that the recovery process will make their Falcon-9 rocket either cheaper or more performant (or both, they hope). Whilst they’ve long since abandoned any plans to make the Falcon-9 fully reusable (the second stage is considered unrecoverable, for now) it will be very interesting to see how the first stage recovery affects the service SpaceX can provide.
This is an incredible achievement for SpaceX, demonstrating that they’re quite capable of pushing the envelope in launch system technology. It’s these kinds of improvements that help drive down the cost of access to space and will hopefully pave the way for NASA and other space faring nations to focus on what they do best.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had founded a private space company. Blue Origin, as it’s known, isn’t one for the spotlight as whilst it was founded in 2000 (2 years before SpaceX) it wasn’t revealed publicly until some years later. The company has had a handful of successful test launches however, focusing primarily on the suborbital space with Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) capable rockets. Indeed their latest test vehicle, the New Shepard, was successfully launched at the beginning of this year. Outside of that though you’d be hard pressed to find out much more about Blue Origin however today they have announced that they will be launching from Cape Canaveral, using the SLC-36 complex which used to be used for the Atlas launch system.
It might not sound like the biggest deal however the press conference held for the announcement provided us some insight into the typically secretive company. For starters Blue Origins efforts have thus far been focused on space tourism, much like Virgin Galactic was. Indeed all their previous craft, including the latest New Shepard design, were suborbital craft designed to take people to the edge of space and back. This new launch site however is designed with much larger rockets in mind, ones that will be able to carry both humans and robotic craft alike into Earth’s orbit, putting them in direct competition with SpaceX and other private launch companies.
The new rocket, called Very Big Brother (pictured above), is slated to be Blue Origin’s first entry into the market. Whilst raw specifications aren’t yet forthcoming we do know that it will be based off Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine which is being co-developed with United Launch Alliance. This engine is slated to be the replacement for the RD-180 which is currently used as part of the Atlas-V launch vehicle. Comparatively speaking the engine is about half as powerful when compared to the RD-180, meaning that if the craft is similarly designed to the Atlas-V it’s payload will be somewhere in the 4.5 to 9 tonne range to LEO. Of course this could be wildly different to what they’re planning and we likely won’t know much more until the first craft launches.
Interestingly the craft is going to retain the VTVL capability that its predecessors had. This is interesting because no sizeable craft has that capability. SpaceX has been trying very hard to get it to work with the first stages of their Falcon-9 however they have yet to have a successful landing yet. Blue Origin likely won’t beat SpaceX to the punch on this however but it’s still interesting to see other companies adopting similar strategies in order to make their rockets reusable.
Also of note is the propellant that the rocket will use for the BE-4 engine. Unlike most rockets, which either run on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxeygen or RP-1(kerosene)/liquid oxygen the BE-4 will use natural gas and liquid oxygen. Indeed it has only been recently that methane has been considered as a viable propellant as I could not find an example of a mission that has flown using the fuel. However there must be something to it as SpaceX is going to use it for their forthcoming Raptor engines.
I’m starting to get the feeling that Blue Origin and SpaceX are sharing a coffee shop.
It’s good to finally get some more information out of Blue Origin, especially since we now know their ambitions are far beyond that of suborbital pleasure junkets. They’re entering a market that’s now swarming with competition however they’ve got both the capital and strategic relationships to at least have a good go at it. I’m very interested to see what they do at SLC-36 as more competition in this space is a good thing for all concerned.
It seemed like last year was the year of the space shysters with a fair few questionable companies coming out of no where and making large claims about putting people into space. I launched a volley of blogtastic skepticism at a few of the more vocal ones who have consequently not reared their heads again since their initial press flurry. Still there was a lot of progress since then with SpaceShipTwo making its debut and SpaceX successfully launching its Falcon 1 twice into orbit around earth. This year however hasn’t seen anyone else attempt to make a splash in the private space market, that was until now.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the majority of people reading this blog will be familiar with the name John Carmack. For those who aren’t he’s somewhat of a game industry legend having being involved in the computer games industry for well over 20 years and his fame was made with such classic titles as Commander Keen, Doom and Quake. He’s well respected as being extremely talented and dedicated to the games that he produces, something that seems to have disappeared from so many game companies once they hit the big time. About 10 years ago after getting tired of turbo charging Ferraris¹ he set up a company called Armadillo Aerospace and set about developing rocket technologies in much the same fashion as he did developing game. He also went up against Scaled Composites for the Ansari X-Prize, albeit with about 10% of their budget.
For the most part though they’ve kept from making any broad media statements and have spent much of their time developing their lunar lander vehicles. The past 2 years have seen them win 2 prizes in the Nothrop Gruman Lunar Lander Challenge and they’ve been heavily involved in the new extreme sport called the Rocket Racing League. You’d then be forgiven for thinking that they’d given up on the aspirations that they once held when they were competing for the X-prize competition because really, nothing they’ve said or done thus far has shown any progress towards putting people into space.
You can then imagine my surprised when this little gem turned up in my feed reader:
Space Adventures is going to use an Armadillo Technologies rocket to launch amateur astronauts 62 miles into the sky. Nothing new, except that they will do it for half the price of Virgin Galactic‘s ticket, and in a real rocket!
Yes, an actual rocket launching vertically, not a glorified spaceplane like SpaceShipTwo. A real rocket, launched vertically. Clear the tower, godspeed, and all that. You know, like the real astronauts with the right stuff in the right places. And then, five minutes on the edge of space, and down you go. Almost like Alan Shepard in his Freedom 7—but hopefully with a lot less Gs—instead of playing a snob version of Chuck Yeager in Rutan’s spaceplane.
Before I rip into Diaz for being an ignorant jerk I just want to say how awesome this development is. If you take a look at some of the videos of the Armadillo craft in action (aaahhhh ignore this one) you’ll see why it will be so impressive to have these guys lifting people into space. Their crafts are very well designed and you can see the control software at work, vectoring the thrust ever so slightly to keep the entire craft upright and level. It’s akin to balancing a broomstick on your hand, except on the other end of the broom there’s about a ton of spacecraft and enough explosives to make even the most recluse pyromaniacs giddy.
There’s also the design of the craft to consider, it’s a Vertical Take Vertical Landing (VTVL) craft. For those who’ve gone into space there’s usually only 2 ways to get back down: you glide back ala SpaceShipOne and the Shuttle or you plummet like a rock with a special set of parachutes to stop you, landing either at sea (much more comfortable) or on land. Armadillo’s craft however will use its rockets² to do what’s called a soft landing, firing them several times to slow down and then using them to hover slowly down for landing. Using rockets to land really hasn’t been done on Earth because well, the lovely thick atmosphere that we have is quite apt at slowing you down. Additionally if you’re going to soft land you need to carry the required fuel to land with you up into orbit. As well all know weight is king in space endeavours and the less weight you can take up with you the better.
Then there’s the price, $102,000. Whilst that’s being spruiked as half the cost of a flight on SpaceShipTwo it neatly ignores the fact that both of those are intial prices. Branson and Rutan have both said on numerous occasions that those prices would come down over time and their target price was somewhere in the $10~20,000 region. Of course that price won’t be met for quite a long time but after the initial round of 200 flights they stated the cost would come down to $100,000, equivalent to Armadillo’s price. The good news is that with 2 very serious competitors vying for the sub-orbital space tourism industry us as the consumers will ultimately win out with cheaper prices, bringing a trip into space into the realm of the everyman.
Don’t think I forgot about you Diaz. What, pray tell, do you think are the requirements for something to be a rocket? Because for both SpaceShipOne and the Armadillo craft both of them are rockets, no question. The only difference between them is the propellant they use with one being nitrous oxide and rubber and the other some liquid (probably LOX/kerosene). Is the difference then that you’re launched from the ground rather than a captive carry plane? Pffft don’t get me started, since the current American space program owes its success to the X-15 experiments which were done in almost exactly the same way as SpaceShipOne. It doesn’t matter how you cross that line in the sand that we’ve called space, you won’t really be an astronaut on either (you’ll be a spaceflight participant), unless of course you’re the one actually flying it (doubt it buddy).You might think that SpaceShipOne is a snob spacecraft but the facts remains, it’s a rocket and it pays more homage to the true roots of space travel than you care to be aware of.
If there’s something that gets me excited it’s when talented people, like those at Armadillo Aerospace, announce that they’re going to do something as ambitious as putting people into space. It speaks volumes that despite the economic disasters that plagued our world that the current generation of space pioneers have not lost sight of their end goals. The next decade is going to be one of a revolution in the realm of private space activities and every piece of news like this just makes me ever more confident that one day space travel will become as common for the everyman as taking a plane.
Of course we’ll have to have spaceport security then, but I’d be willing to put up with that after spending a glorious few minutes floating above our beautiful earth 🙂
¹I don’t have a link for this quote but I can distinctly remember an interview where he said he needed something more exciting than buying a Ferrari and turbo charging it. At the time I hated him for the statement (young and jealous at the time!) but if I was in the same situation I’d be doing pretty much the same thing.
² I’m trying to find an official source for the VTVL capability of this craft but I’m coming up blank. Looking at the design it’s pretty clear that this thing is designed to land “ass first” and there doesn’t seem to be anyone saying that it will use parachutes to come back to earth. The closest I have so far is this Slashdot comment, but I’d be much happier if I could get some official word on how their craft plans to land on terra firma.