News from Aerospace: XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane

northrop-grumman-xs-1-spaceplaneThe race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.

Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).

XS-1_1Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.

In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.

Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:

Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.

space_elevator2Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.

Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!


News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.


News from SpaceX: More Tests and the Coming Launch

spaceX_elonmuskElon Musk just can’t get enough of the spotlight lately! But that’s the price you pay for being a billionaire, innovator, genius-type person! And barely a week after announcing his idea for the Hyperloop high-speed train, it now seems that SpaceX is once again making the news, thanks to its latest test of the Grasshopper reusable rocket system as well as their planned launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

For those unfamiliar with the Grasshopper, this is a proposed reusable rocket system that Musk and SpaceX created with the hopes of bringing the costs associated with space launches down considerably. Since September 2012, the rocket has been put through successive tests, reaching higher and higher altitudes and safely making it back to the ground.

grasshopper_lateraldivertIn this latest test, the rocket successfully performed a “lateral divert test”. In all previous tests, the rocket lifted off vertically from a launch pad and then used its Merlin-1D engine to ease itself back down to the pad. However, in actual launch situations, the rocket wont simply be traveling up and down. When it comes time to land, a considerable amount of lateral steering will be necessary to line it back up with the launch site.

This is what the test, which took place on Tuesday, August 13th, amounted to. It began with the Grasshopper reaching its previously-achieved altitude of 250 meters, but then continued with the rocket moving an additional 100 m (328 ft) to one side. It was subsequently still able to land safely back at the center of the launch pad, compensating for its lateral diversion.

According to SpaceX: “The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.” What’s more, it places the company that much closer to the realization of a truly reusable rocket system, something which will drastically cut costs for future space missions.

And of course, they were sure to catch the entire test on video:

But equally important for this rising company that seeks to privatize space travel was the announcement that they have are moving ahead with plans to launch their Falcon Heavy rocket system by late 2013 or early 2014. At present, the Falcon is the most power rocket system in the world, overshadowed only by the now retired – but soon to be reserviced – Saturn V booster that put the Apollo astronauts into space and on the Moon.

spaceX-falcon9As Musk himself said of the rocket:

Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.

Fully loaded, the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry payloads of 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds or 53,070 kg) into orbit, and is made up of two engine stages. The first stage consists of a Falcon 9 rocket, with a nine-engine cores, followed by two additional nine-engine cores attached to either side. In addition, the Merlin engines have been upgraded to handle the additional weight, and are being tested at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas.

flacon-heavy-3At liftoff the 69.2m (227 ft) long Falcon Heavy will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the thrust of fifteen Boeing 747’s taking off at the same time. SpaceX claims that this gives the Falcon Heavy more than twice the performance of the next most powerful vehicle – the Delta IV Heavy operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX also says that with more than twice the payload of the Delta IV but at one third the cost, the Falcon Heavy sets a new world record in terms of economy at approximately US$1,000 per pound to orbit. This is in keeping with Musk’s promise to bring the associated costs of space travel and exploration down, hopefully one day to his goal of $500 per pound.


spaceX_solararrayWith the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft to orbit, SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy on the commercial market for US$80–$125 million, which compares to the $435 million per launch the U.S. Air Force has budgeted for four launches in 2012. So in effect, Musk’s company is offering a money-saving alternative to both the public and private sector.

For those fascinated by the long-term potential of space travel, this is certainly exciting news. By cutting the costs of placing satellites, supplies and people in orbit, many things are being made feasible that were previously impossible. This includes conducting more research in orbit, the ability to create space-based solar arrays (a very cool solution to our current power problems and the limitations of Earth-based solar power) and perhaps even begin work on a Moon settlement.

solar_system1Beyond that, there are the growing possibilities of commercial space travel, space tourism, and even setting our sights father afield with manned missions to the Moon, prospecting missions to the asteroid belt, and surveying probes to Jupiter’s Moons and to the very edge of the Solar System. Possibly even beyond…

Exciting times we live in, when the impossible is slowly becoming possible!

Sources:, (2),


NASA’s Vision: Robots to Help Mine Asteroids

asteroid_mining_robotIn a recent study, NASA shared a vision that sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Basically, the plan calls for the creation of robots that could be sent to a nearby asteroid, assemble itself, and then begin mining the asteroid itself. The scientists behind this study say that not only will this be possible within a few generations of robotics, but will also pay for itself – a major concern when it comes to space travel.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, according to the researchers. One, private industry is willing and able to get involved, as attested to by Golden Spike, SpaceX and Planetary Resources. Second, advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible, which can be seen with plans to manufacture a Moon base and “sintering”.

asteroidsBut also, humanity’s surveys of space resources – namely those located in the asteroid belt – have revealed that the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery are there in abundance. NASA proposes that a robotic flotilla could mine these nearby space rocks, process the goods, and then ship them back to Earth.

Best of all, the pods being sent out would save on weight (and hence costs) by procuring all the resources and constructing the robots there. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks. As the agency stated in their research report:

Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost…

asteroid_belt1Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study, went on to explain how the process is multi-tiered and would encompass several generations of progress:

Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters… The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

asteroid_foundryAt least two startups are likely to be on board with this optimistic appraisal. For example, Deep Space Industries and Planetary, both commercial space companies, have proposed asteroid mining ideas within the past year. And since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope, in part for surveying work and the sake of prospecting asteroids.

And this latest research report just takes thing a step farther. In addition to setting up autonomous 3D manufacturing operations on asteroids, these operations would be capable of setting themselves up and potentially upgrading themselves as time went on. And in the meantime, we could look forward to a growing and increasingly complex supply of manufactured products here on Earth.


News From Mars: Revelations on Radiation

mars_astronauts1As the projected date for a manned mission to the Red Planet approaches, the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity team continue to conduct vital research into what a human team of explorers can expect to find. Unfortunately, earlier last month, that research led to a discouraging announcement which may force NASA and a number of private companies to rethink their plans for manned missions.

Earlier in May, a number of scientists, NASA officials, private space company representatives and other members of the spaceflight community gathered in Washington D.C. for a three day meeting known as the Humans to Mars (H2M) conference. Hosted by the spaceflight advocacy group Explore Mars, the attendees met to discuss all the challenges that a 2030 manned mission would likely encounter.

mars_astronautsFor starters, the human race currently lacks the technology to get people to Mars and back. An interplanetary mission of that scale would likely be one of the most expensive and difficult engineering challenges of the 21st century. Currently, we don’t have the means to properly store enough fuel to make the trip, or a vehicle capable of landing people on the Martian surface. Last, and most importantly, we aren’t entirely sure that a ship will keep the astronauts alive long enough to get there.

This last issue was raised thanks to a recent confirmation made by the Curiosity rover, which finished calculating the number of high-energy particles that struck it during its eight month journey to Mars. Based on this data, NASA says that a human traveling to and from Mars could well be exposed to a radiation dose that is beyond current safety limits.

NASAsolar_radiationThis was performed with the rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument, which switched on inside as the cruise vessel began its 253-day, 560-million-km journey. The particles of concern fall into two categories – those that are accelerated away from our Sun and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) – those that arrive at high velocity from outside of the Solar System. This latter category is especially dangerous since they impart a lot of energy when they strike the human body, can cause damage to DNA and are hard to shield against.

What’s more, this calculation does not even include time spent on the planet’s surface. Although Curiosity has already determined that planetary levels were within human tolerances, the combined dosage would surely lead to a fatal case of cancer for any career astronaut looking to take part in an “Ares Mission”. Cary Zeitlin from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues reported the Curiosity findings in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They claim that engineers will have to give careful consideration to the type of shielding that will need to be built into a Mars-bound crew ship. However, they concede that for some of the most damaging radiation particles, there may be little that can be done, beyond delivering them to Mars as quickly as possible. This presents an even greater challenge, which calls for the development of something better than existing propulsion technology. Using chemical propellants, Curiosity made the trip in eight months.

spaceX_elonmusk However, the good news is that at this juncture, nothing is technologically impossible about a manned Mars mission. It’s just a matter of determining what the priorities are and putting the time and money into developing the necessary tools. Right now NASA, other space agencies, and private companies are working to bring Mars within reach. And with time and further developments, who knows what will be possible by the time the 2020’s roll around?

Some alternatives include plasma and nuclear thermal rockets, which are in development and could bring the journey time down to a number of weeks. What’s more, SpaceX and other agencies are working on cheaper deliver systems, such as the grasshopper reusable rocket, to make sending ships into space that much more affordable. In addition, concepts for improving radiation shielding – like Inspiration Mars’ idea of using human waste – are being considered to cut down on the irradiation factor.

So despite the concerns, it seems that we are still on track for a Mars mission in 2030. And even if there are delays in the implementation, it seems as though a manned mission is just a matter of time at this point. Red Planet, here we come!