Based on the range of uncertainties that are inherent in the calculations of the Drake Equation, they claimed, it is quite likely that humanity is alone in the observable Universe. Hence why we have failed to find evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) yet. In response, Musk posted that this conclusion made it all the more important for humanity to explore and colonize the known universe.
WELL! As you can imagine, everything that Musk says and does becomes news. Shortly after he posted his responses to this article, a number of news sources picked up the story and ran with it. The first that came to my attention (thanks for my friend and colleague Paco) was Business Insider, which quoted Musk and mentioned the original study. I immediately told my boss, who said that countless media outlets were reporting on this. He started sending me thinks. They included…
I’m sure there are others, but I got tired of my boss posting links and I felt he had made his point. And while NONE of the publications happened to mention then original article, Universe Today, or the author (i.e. ME!), they did draw attention to the original research and the questions it raised. As for the rest, they focused strictly on Musk himself. Damn famous people, getting all the attention!
Needless to say, I wrote to Musk on Twitter and thanked him for taking an interest. He didn’t respond, but that was to be expected to. He’s a busy man and thousands of people were posting about the article. In the end, its okay to catch a ray of sunshine as it shines on someone else!
As part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.
As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).
One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.
These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.
And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.
And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival.
And as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).
During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.
When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.
In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.
Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.
Good news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.
As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.
For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!
Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.
Universe Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.
If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!
Last week, during a test flight in McGregor Texas, a new space SpaceX Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle 1 (F9R Dev 1) exploded in midair. This three-engine variant of the F9 is the latest in SpaceX’s arsenal of vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rockets designed to allow for easy recovery and reuse. Previously, Grasshopper had only used a single Merlin rocket engine; but for this test, a three-engine version of the vehicle was being used.
The F9R Dev 1 is a second-generation test vehicle rocket based on the SpaceX Grasshopper. Built as part of SpaceX’s program to develop a fully reusable launcher system and spacecraft with all components capable of a powered landing, the F9R has lighter, retractable landing legs and is 50 percent longer than the Grasshopper. It made its first flight last April and is capable of flight operations up to 3,000 m (10,000 ft).
This marks the first major failure for SpaceX’s commercial space launch program, and in a statement, SpaceX says the initiated its self-destruct sequence automatically after detecting an anomaly. Nearby residents saw the fireball and local television station KXXV caught the incident on video. From the footage (seen below), the new test rocket is seen going up, turning 90 degrees to horizontal, and then detonating with a rather neat fireball.
Mercifully, no one was harmed (including the local livestock). Following the incident, Elon Musk tweeted that the vehicle “auto-terminated,” but there were no injuries or near-injuries, and that “Rockets are tricky …” SpaceX also released the following statement saying:
Earlier today, in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX conducted a test flight of a three engine version of the F9R test vehicle (successor to Grasshopper). During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission.
Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area. There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times.
With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program. Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.
SpaceX will provide another update when the flight data has been fully analyzed.
In short, SpaceX was attempting something new and exciting and it didn’t quite go as planned. And although it cost them millions of dollars, rocket scientists know from experience that a controlled detonation in the air is far better than an uncontrolled one on the ground. Should a rocket lose control and crash into the Earth, it will detonate all of its unspent fuel and can cause extensive damage and loss of life.
At this point it’s impossible to say what kind of anomaly was experienced by the rocket, but SpaceX is poring over the gigabytes of flight telemetry data to try and find out what went wrong. In the meantime, space enthusiasts are hoping people will remember that mishaps are part of the development process, and that we’ve come very far since the early days of NASA and Project Mercury, where mistakes and deaths were far more common.
And if SpaceX wants to create the world’s first reusable space launch system, and crack the cheap, commercial space travel market wide open, there are going to be a few fireballs along the way. But as long as it’s just the test launches that explode, we should count our blessings. And in the meantime, be sure to check out the footage obtained by KXXV of the failed test flight:
This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.
Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.
It’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.
To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.
A few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.
As he told Fast Company in the interview:
I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.
Similarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.
At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.
Such ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…
With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.
In the new age of space travel and exploration, commercial space companies are not only boasting immense growth and innovation, but are reaching out to fill niche markets as well. In addition to launchers that can send orbiters and payloads into space, there are also new breeds of commercial satellites, new engines, and a slew of other concepts that promise to make the industry more promising and cost effective.
A case in point is the small satellite launch company Firefly Space Systems, which recently unveiled its planned Alpha launcher. Aimed at the small satellite launch market, it’s designed to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and Sun-synchronous orbits for broadband communication using an unconventional aerospike engine, it is also the first orbital launcher to use methane as fuel.
The Firefly Alpha is a specialized design to launch light satellites at low cost into low Earth Designed to carry payloads of up to 400 kg (880 lb), the Alpha features carbon composite construction and uses the same basic design for both of its two stages to keep down costs and simplify assembly. Methane was chosen because it’s cheap, plentiful, clean-burning and (unlike more conventional fuels) self-pressurizing, so it doesn’t require a second pressurization system.
But the really interesting thing about the two-stage rocket assembly is that the base of the engine is ringed with rocket burners rather than the usual cluster of rocket engines. That’s because, while the second stage uses conventional rocket engines, the first stage uses a more exotic plug-cluster aerospike engine that puts out some 400.3 kN (or 40,800 kg/90,000 lb) of thrust.
Aerospike engines have been under development since the 1960s, but until now they’ve never gotten past the design phase. The idea behind them is that rockets with conventional bell-shaped nozzles are extremely efficient, but only at a particular altitude. Since rockets are generally used to make things go up, this means that an engine that works best at sea level will become less and less efficient as it rises.
The plug aerospike is basically a bell-shaped rocket nozzle that’s been cut in half, then stretched to form a ring with the half-nozzle forming the profile of a plug. This means that the open side of the rocket engine is replaced with the air around it. As the rocket fires, the air pressure keeps the hot gases confined on that side, and as the craft rises, the change in air pressure alters the shape of the “nozzle;” keeping the engine working efficiently.
The result of this arrangement is a lighter rocket engine that works well across a range of altitudes. Because the second stage operates in a near vacuum, it uses conventional rocket nozzles. As Firefly CEO Thomas Markusic put it:
What used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars is rapidly becoming available in the single digit millions. We are offering small satellite customers the launch they need for a fraction of that, around US$8 or 9 million – the lowest cost in the world. It’s far cheaper than the alternatives, without the headaches of a multi manifest launch.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has been making headlines with its latest rounds of launches and tests. About a week ago, the company successfully launched six ORBCOMM advanced telecommunications satellites into orbit to upgrade the speed and capacity of their existing data relay network. The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida had been delayed or scrubbed several times since the original launch date in May due to varying problems.
However, the launch went off without a hitch on Monday, July 14th, and ORBCOMM reports that all six satellites have been successfully deployed in orbit. SpaceX also used this launch opportunity to try and test the reusability of the Falcon 9′s first stage and its landing system while splashing down in the ocean. However, the booster did not survive the splashdown.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted about the event, saying that the:
Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)… Detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam.
SpaceX wanted to test the “flyback” ability to the rocket, slowing down the descent of the rocket with thrusters and deploying the landing legs for future launches so the first stage can be re-used. These tests have the booster “landing” in the ocean. The previous test of the landing system was successful, but the choppy seas destroyed the stage and prevented recovery. Today’s “kaboom” makes recovery of even pieces of this booster unlikely.
This is certainly not good news for a company who’s proposal for a reusable rocket system promises to cut costs exponentially and make a whole range of things possible. However, the company is extremely close to making this a full-fledged reality. The take-off, descent, and landing have all been done successfully; but at present, recovery still remains elusive.
But such is the nature of space flight. What begins with conceptions, planning, research and development inevitably ends with trial and error. And much like with the Mercury and Apollo program, those involved have to keep on trying until they get it right. Speaking of which, today marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 reaching the Moon. You can keep track of the updates that recreate the mission in “real-time” over @ReliveApollo11.
As of the writing of this article, the Lunar module is beginning it’s descent to the Moon’s surface. Stay tuned for the historic spacewalk!
Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are a pretty interesting couple. Like most, they plan trips together to new and exciting destinations. But unlike most, they plan to go to Mars, and they just might see their dream come true. Twenty years ago, they founded the private space company Paragon Space Development Corporation, with the aim of finding the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet.
And now, after many years of planning, they may finally get to see it come to fruition. The only problem is, the window for this launch – in 2021 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment – is fast approaching. And a number of technical and logistical issues (i.e. how to shield themselves against deadly radiation, how to store their waste, how much food, water, and air to bring) still need to be resolved.
The mission – called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito – is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings.
But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars. They believe that sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators. Beyond that, and in advance of NASA’s proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, it might just inspire a full-scale colonization effort.
The couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome near Tuscon, Arizona called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. For two years (between 1991 and 1993), eight people – including Poynter and MacCallum – lived inside this dome as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments.
This included a jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside. All went relatively smoothly until, 16 months into the experiment, crew members began suffering from severe fatigue and sleep apnea.
They discovered that the dome’s oxygen content had substantially dropped and, when one member fell into a state of confusion in which he could not add simple numbers, decided to refill the dome with oxygen, breaking the simulation of space-colony self-sufficiency. The project was deemed a failure by many, with Time Magazine going as far as to name it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century.
But the crew persisted for their full two-year trial and, if nothing else, emerged intimately aware of the mental traumas of prolonged isolation—crucial wisdom for anyone seriously considering traveling to another planet. As Poynter described it, the challenges were numerous and varied:
Some of the easier ones to get your head around are things like depression and mood swings—that’s kind of obvious. Weird things are things like food stealing and hoarding.
The more severe symptoms were similar to the delusions reported by early 20th century explorers who hallucinated while trekking for months through the featureless white expanse of Antarctica. She describes one instance in which she was standing in the sweet potato field about to harvest greens to feed the Biosphere 2 goats when she suddenly felt as if she had stepped through a time machine:
I came out the other side and was embroiled in a very fervent argument with my much older brother. And what was so disconcerting about it was that it really was hallucinatory. It was like I could smell it, feel it. It was very weird.
Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars.
MacCallum blogged about these plans while still living inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon. After Biosphere 2 project, both began working with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR.
Then in December 2012, Paragon teamed up with another commercial space flight company named Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.
In short, Poynter and MacCallum have their fingers in just about every commercial space venture currently on the table outside of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, of course. Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today. Their focus is on creative teamwork, hoping to foster the kind of innovative spirit needed to make space missions possible.
Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to send a human couple to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones is one such person, who said in an interview with WIRED that he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.
Originally, Dennis Tito hoped to finance the project entirely independently, using crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy. The original goal was also to get the project off the ground by 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017.
They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support. According to McCallum:
There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.
During recent hearings with NASA, Tito explained that he would need roughly $1 billion over the next four or five years to develop the space launch system and other aspects of the mission. NASA was not readily willing to agree to this and they put the issue on hold. But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space.
All of this would be great for NASA, which is beholden to public opinion and still looking to Congress to allocate the money needed to new infrastructure and fund future missions. Ergo, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground. Or as he put it:
I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.
At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars and did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system – all the things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission.
And MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators, much as the Apollo missions inspired the current generation of innovators and astronauts. McCallum turned five on July 20th, 1969 – the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and credits that historic event for inspiring him to take an interest in space and enter the Biosphere 2 project.
And though they hadn’t originally intended to be the couple that would take part in the Inspiration Mars mission, they have indicated that they would be willing to throw their hats into the ring. After all, they meet the basic requirements for the mission, being a physically fit middle-aged couple, and the Biosphere 2 project lent them some experience living in isolation.
But most important to the couple is the idea of being able to call back to students on Earth and describe the experience. As he described it, watching footage of the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet’s drift closer would be the most amazing thing ever for a child to behold:
That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler. And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.
Of that, I have little doubt. And even if Inspiration Mars does not get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), it has hardly the only private space venture currently in the works. For example, Elon Musk and his commercial space firm SpaceX has made incredibly progress with the development of the reusable-rocket system. And Mars One, another crowdfunded venture, is still in the works and aiming to send volunteers on a one-way trip by 2024.
No telling how and when the first human beings will walk on the Red Planet. But at this juncture, it seems like a foregone conclusion that not only will it be happening, but within our lifetimes. And while we’re waiting, be sure to check out the Inspiration Mars video below. I can attest to it being quite… inspiring 😉
Elon Musk is at it again, this time with clean, renewable energy. Just yesterday, he announced that Solar City (the solar installation company that he chairs) plans to acquire a startup called Silevo. This producer of high-efficiency panels was acquired for $200 million (plus up to $150 million more if the company meets certain goals), and Musk now plans to build a huge factory to produce their panels as part of a strategy that will make solar power “way cheaper” than power from fossil fuels.
Solar City is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing solar installers, largely as a result of its innovative business model. Conceived by Musk as another cost-reducing gesture, the company allows homeowners and businesses to avoid any up-front cost. If its plans pan out, it will also become a major manufacturer of solar panels, with by far the largest factory in the U.S.
The acquisition makes sense given that Silevo’s technology has the potential to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, Solar City’s main business. But the decision to build a huge factory in the U.S. seems daring – especially given the recent failures of other U.S.-based solar manufacturers in the face of competition from Asia. Ultimately, however, Solar City may have little choice, since it needs to find ways to reduce costs to keep growing.
Silevo produces solar panels that are roughly 15 to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones thanks to the use of thin films of silicon – which increase efficiency by helping electrons flow more freely out of the material – and copper rather than silver electrodes to save costs. Higher efficiency can yield big savings on installation costs, which often exceed the cost of the panels themselves, because fewer panels are needed to generate a given amount of power.
Silevo isn’t the only company to produce high-efficiency solar cells. A version made by Panasonic is just as efficient, and SunPower makes ones that are significantly more so. But Silevo claims that its panels could be made as cheaply as conventional ones if they could scale their production capacity up from their current 32 megawatts to the factory Musk has planned, which is expected to produce 1,000 megawatts or more.
The factory plan mirrors an idea Musk introduced at one of his other companies, Tesla Motors, which is building a huge “gigafactory” that he says will reduce the cost of batteries for electric cars. The proposed plant would have more lithium-ion battery capacity than all current factories combined. And combined with Musk’s release of the patents, which he hopes will speed development, it is clear Musk has both eyes on making clean technology cheaper.
Not sure, but I think it’s fair to say Musk just became my hero! Not only is he all about the development of grand ideas, he is clearly willing to sacrifice profit and a monopolistic grasp on technologies in order to see them come to fruition.
It’s official: all of Tesla’s electric car technology is now available for anyone to use. Yes, after hinting that he might be willing to do so last weekend, Musk announced this week that his companies patents are now open source. In a blog post on the Tesla website, Musk explained his reasoning. Initially, Musk wrote, Tesla created patents because of a concern that large car companies would copy the company’s electric vehicle technology and squash the smaller start-up.
This was certainly reasonable, as auto giants like General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagon have far more capital and a much larger share of the market than his start-up did. But in time, Musk demonstrated that there was a viable market for affortable, clean-running vehicles. This arsenal of patents appeared to many to be the only barrier between the larger companies crushing his start-up before it became a viable competitor.
But that turned out to be an unnecessary worry, as carmakers have by and large decided to downplay the viability and relevance of EV technology while continuing to focus on gasoline-powered vehicles. At this point, he thinks that opening things up to other developers will speed up electric car development. And after all, there’s something to be said about competition driving innovation.
As Musk stated on his blog:
Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day…
We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.
And the move should come as no surprise. As the Hyperloop demonstrated, Musk is not above making grandiose gestures and allowing others to run with ideas he knows will be profitable. And as Musk himself pointed in a webcast made after the announcement, his sister-company SpaceX – which deals with the development of reusable space transports – has virtually no patents.
In addition, Musk stated that he thinks patents are a “weak thing” for companies. He also suggested that opening up patents for Tesla’s supercharging technology (which essentially allows for super-fast EV charging) could help create a common industry platform. But regardless of Musk’s own take on things, one thing remains clear: Tesla Motors needs competitors, and it needs them now.
As it stands, auto emissions account for a large and growing share of greenhouse gas emissions. For decades now, the technology has been in development and the principles have all been known. However, whether it has been due to denial, intransigence, complacency, or all of the above, no major moves have been made to effect a transition in the auto industry towards non-fossil fuel-using cars.
Many would cite the lack of infrastructure that is in place to support the wide scale use of electronic cars. But major cities and even entire nations are making changes in that direction with the adoption of electric vehicle networks. These include regular stations along the Trans Canada Highway, the Chargepoint grid in Melbourne to Brisbane, Germany’s many major city networks, and the US’s city and statewide EV charging stations.
Also, as the technology is adopted and developed further, the incentive to expand electric vehicle networks farther will be a no brainer. And given the fact that we no longer live in a peak oil economy, any moves towards fossil fuel-free transportation should be seen as an absolutely necessary one.
SpaceX has been providing a seemingly endless stream of publicity lately. After months of rocket testing and sending payloads to the International Space Station, they are now unveiling the latest in some pretty impressive designs. This included the SuperDraco, a new attitude-control thruster; and the new Dragon V2 – a larger, more powerful, and manned version of the reusable Dragon capsule. These unveilings came within a short space of each other, largely because these two developments will be working together.
The first unveiling began back in February, when SpaceX announced the successful qualification testing of its SuperDraco rocket engine. Designed to replace the Draco engines used for attitude control on the Dragon orbital spacecraft, the SuperDraco will act as the Dragon’s launch emergency escape system, as well as giving it the ability to make a powered landings. Since that time, the company has announced that it will be added to the new Dragon capsule, which was unveiled just days ago.
The SuperDraco differs from most rocket engines in that its combustion chamber is 3D printed by direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), where complex metal structures are printed by using a laser to build the object out of metal powders one thin layer at a time. The regeneratively-cooled combustion chamber is made of inconel; a family of nickel-chromium alloy that’s notable for its high strength and toughness, and is also used in the Falcon 9’s Merlin engine.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s Chief Designer and CEO, had this say about the innovation behind the new rocket:
Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.
Other notable features include the propellent, which is a pair of non-cryogenic liquids – monomethyl hydrazine for the fuel and nitrogen tetroxide for the oxidizer. These are hypergolic, meaning that they ignite on contact with one another, which helps the SuperDraco to restart multiple times. It’s also built to be deep throttled, and can go from ignition to full throttle in 100 ms. But what really sets the SuperDraco apart is that is has 200 times the power of the Draco engine, which works out to 7,440 kg (16,400 lbs) of thrust.
The SuperDraco’s main purpose is to provide attitude control for the Dragon capsule in orbit and during reentry, as well as acting as the craft’s launch escape system. Unlike previous US manned space capsules of the 1960s and ‘70s, the next version of the Dragon won’t use a tower equipped with rocket motors to carry the capsule away in case of a launch accident. The SuperDraco can be used at any point in the launch from pad to orbit, not just during the first minutes of launch, as the towers were.
Eight engines firing for five seconds are enough to carry the capsule safely away from the booster with 120,000 lb of axial thrust. In addition, the eight engines also provide a high degree of redundancy should one or more engines fail. But what’s really ambitious about the SuperDraco is that, like the Falcon 9 booster, the Dragon is designed to ultimately return to its spaceport under its own power and land with the precision of a helicopter, and it’s the power and control of the SuperDraco that makes this possible.
SpaceX is even looking beyond that by planning to use the SuperDraco engine for its Red Dragon Mars lander; an unmanned modification of the Dragon designed for exploring the Red Planet. The SuperDraco will make its first flight on a pad abort test later this year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. Using 3D printing to cut the cost of production is in keeping with Musk’s vision of reducing the associated costs of spaceflight and putting rockets into orbit.
But equally impressive was the unveiling of the Dragon V2 manned space capsule, which took place at a brief media event at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters at the end of May. This larger, more powerful version of the reusable Dragon capsule will one day carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return to Earth to land under its own power. This latest development brings the company one step closer towards its ultimate goal of a fully reusable manned capsule capable of making a powered landing.
Billed as a “step-change in spacecraft technology,” the Dragon V2 that Musk unveiled is larger and more streamlined than the first Dragon, with a cabin large enough to accommodate up to seven astronauts for several days in orbit comfortably. The interior is outfitted with touchscreen control panels and a more sophisticated piloting system, so it can dock with the space station autonomously or under the control of the pilot instead of relying on one of the ISS’s robotic arms.
For returning to Earth, the Dragon V2 has the third version of the PICA-X heatshield, which is SpaceX’s improvement on NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield. Another nod to reusability, this shield is about to carry out more flights before needing a refit since it ablates less than previous versions. And of course, the capsule will be outfitted with eight SuperDraco engines, which give it a combined thrust of almost 60,000 kgs (131,200 lbs).
However, Musk points out that Dragon V2 still carries a parachute, but that’s only a backup system, similar to the analog joystick and manual controls that are available in the cockpit. Like these, the parachute is only meant for use in the event of a malfunction of the SuperDraco engines, which can still make a landing if two of the eight engines fail. If the landing is successful, Musk says that all the Dragon V2 needs to fly again is refueling.
And the arrival of these new machines couldn’t have been more timely, given the termination of NASA’s cooperation with Roscosmos – Russia’s federal space agency. With reusable craft that are produced by the US and that can be launched from US soil, Russia’s aging Soyuz rockets will no longer be necessary. So much for the trampoline idea!
And of course, there are videos of the rocket test and the unveiling. Enjoy!