Latest Articles Over At Universe Today!

center_universe2As the title would suggest, my third and fourth articles have just been published over at Universe Today. First off, let me assure people that I plan to post a link to UT in the near future so I don’t feel the need to do this every time a new article comes out. But since this is still a new experience to me, I naturally feel the need to share whenever a new one is published.

The first of the two, which was published on Monday, deals with a recent determination made about the source of the Moon’s water. This is based on research conducted by scientists over at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Back in 2009, India’s Chandrayaa-1 probe conducted a near-infrared survey of the Moon during a flyby that showed signs of surface water.

moon_waterAfter years of speculation that claimed that the surface water – which exists strictly in icy form – was deposited there by meteors and comets, the National Museum team concluded that its actually formed by solar wind interacting with oxygen in the Moon’s surface dust. Quite the odd little occurrence; but then again, even Mercury appears to have icy spots on it’s molten surface.

The second is about a recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. While the latter was testing their Falcon 9 rockets, NASA filmed the performance using Infrared cameras. The information gleamed from this is helping SpaceX to develop their reusable rocket, but will also help NASA to figure out how they will land habitats and heavy equipment on the surface of Mars.

NASA_thermal1Sort of a win-win scenario, one that shows how the public and private sector are working together like never before to make the future of space exploration happen. And it’s another indication of just how serious NASA and its partners are in making a mission to Mars a reality.

Feel free to check them out, and stay tuned for the next subject of interest: Dark Matter Emanating From The Sun!

News from Space: Dream Chaser Airframe Unveiled

dream-chaser-dockedWith the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, and the termination of NASA’s operations with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), NASA has been pushing ahead with several programs designed to restore their access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). One such program is the Dream Chaser, a joint venture between the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin that aims to create a winged mini-shuttle.

Earlier this month, the program reached an important milestone when the composite airframe structure was unveiled at a joint press conference by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin at the Fort Worth facility. The assembly of the airframe took place at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, where Lockheed Martin is busy fabricating the structural components for the composite structure.

Dream Chaser at autoclave FP141497 07_31_14From here, the completed components are shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth, Texas for integration into the airframe and assembly. Designed to be launched into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and then fly back and land on its power, the Dream Chaser will carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS before landing on commercial runways anywhere in the world.

According to Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, the company chose to partner with Lockheed Martin because of its long history in the development of commercial aerospace technology:

As a valued strategic partner on SNC’s Dream Chaser Dream Team, Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture Dream Chaser orbital structure airframes… We competitively chose Lockheed Martin because they are a world leader in composite manufacturing, have the infrastructure, resources and quality control needed to support the needs of an orbital vehicle and have a proven track record of leading our nation’s top aviation and aerospace programs. Lockheed Martin’s diverse heritage coupled with their current work on the Orion program adds an extra element of depth and expertise to our program. SNC and Lockheed Martin continue to expand and develop a strong multi-faceted relationship.

dream-chaser-test1Dream Chaser measures about 9 meters (29 feet) long with a 7 meter (23 foot) wide wing span, and is about one third the size of the Space Shuttle Endeavor and all other NASA orbiters – which were retired beginning in 2011. Upon completion of the airframe manufacturing at Ft Worth, it will be transported to SNC’s Louisville, Colorado, facility for final integration and assembly.

SNC announced in July that they successfully completed and passed a series of risk reduction milestone tests on key flight hardware systems that brought the private reusable spacecraft closer to its critical design review (CDR) and first flight. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is now moving ahead with plans for the Dream Chaser’s first launch and unmanned orbital test flight in November of 2016, which will take place atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

dream_chaserDream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

These include the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’, which are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around September 2014. Between a reusable mini-shuttle, a reusable space capsule, and reusable rockets, NASA not only hopes to restore indigenous space capability, but to drastically cut costs on future space missions.



News from Space: Latest Tests and New Players

Apollo11_earthIn 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.

firefly-alphaThe 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.

firefly-alpha-4Aerospike 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.

firefly-alpha-2The 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.

spacex_rocketHowever, 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.

sceenshot-falcon9-580x281This 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!



News From SpaceX: Falcon 9 Completes Second Test Flight

falcon-9-reusable-test2In yet another impressive feat from Elon Musk’s private space company, the Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket completed it’s second test on Friday April 2nd, 2014. In this latest test of the reusable rocket system, the Falcon 9 effectively quadrupled its height from its last test. Having reached 250 meters during its last test flight, the rocket now reached a full kilometer and then descended safely back to Earth and achieving a soft landing.

This comes just two weeks after SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9’s on a supply mission to the ISS, which included the soft landing of its stage one rocket. Unfortunately, high sea waves prevented a boat from meeting the rocket on its ocean-based pad. And so, the rocket landed in the ocean, hovering for a few seconds before toppling into the sea. Still, the fact that the rocket was able to make it back to just above sea level was good news, and confirms that SpaceX is that much closer to the dream of reusability.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeIn the coming months, SpaceX plans to conduct more tests. In addition to reaching higher altitudes, they will also be testing the rocket’s retractable landing legs, and working more with unpowered guidance. According to the description that came with the recently-released video of the 1000m test:

F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.

This is also good news for NASA, which officially announced the cessation of cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency in early April. While their inability to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into orbit (and bring them home) has allowed NASA to apply greater pressure on the federal government to fund its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system. However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had a more mocking suggestion.

NASA_trampolineAfter initially joking that American astronauts would be left stranded on the ISS, he also recommended that NASA try using a trampoline to reach orbit. The joke was naturally irrelevant, since day-to-day operations involving the ISS are not going to be affected by these sanctions. Still, the inability to rely on Russian Soyuz’s in the near future will mean that US satellites – which are used for everything from GPS to spying – will be undeployable for the time being.

It also means that orbit conducted in Low-Earth Orbit will be complicated. As such, a reusable rocket system, be it NASA’s own or an external contractor’s (in this case, SpaceX) will give the US sanctions against Russia additional weight. It will also ensure that the dream of cost-effective space travel, which is intrinsic to everything from colonizing the Moon and Mars to establishing a Space Elevator and asteroid mining, will be become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

The sky is no longer the limit, people! And be sure to enjoy this video of the F9R 1000 meter test flight.

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News from SpaceX: Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket Test

falcon-9-reusable-test-640x353For over two years now, Elon Musk and his private space company (SpaceX) have been working towards the creation of a reusable rocket system. Known as the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle (F9R Dev) – or “Grasshopper” – this system  may prove to be the greatest development in space travel since the invention of the multistage rocket. After multiple tests that reached greater and greater altitudes, the latest attempt at a takeoff and soft landing took place this past month.

Timed to coincide with SpaceX’s launch to the International Space Station (which took place on Friday April, 18th) the landing was apparently a success. Several days after the launch, Elon Musk tweeted that the “[d]ata upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good!” This update came on April 22nd, and as of yet, no definitive data of whether the first stage landed correctly, or whether it was still in one piece by the time the recovery boats got to it.

falcon-9-crs-3-retractable-legsPresumably SpaceX will provide another update in due course. In the meantime, they took the opportunity to release a rather awesome video of what the Falcon 9 Reusable should look like when successfully performing a vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL). The video has accumulated an astonishing 3,598,143 views in the last two weeks, which is indicative of the level of interest this project and its impications have garnered over the past few years.

Meanwhile, the resupply mission went off without a hitch. Officially designated as CRS-3, this mission was even more significant due to the fact that its Falcon 9 launch vehicle featured the same retractable landing legs and the ability to soft land as the Grasshopper test rocket. However, in the case of the ISS mission, it was the first time where a Falcon 9 was tested in a real-world scenario where the rocket would return to Earth after reaching Low Earth Orbit (LEO).


Though the rocket was successfully picked up by the ISS, the jury is still out on whether or not the soft landing was a success or not. To minimize any risk, the first stage of the Falcon 9 attempted to “soft land” in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, according to Elon Musk, due to “13- to 20-foot waves… It’s unlikely that the rocket was able to splash down successfully.” Using telemetry data gathered from a SpaceX spotter plane, it appears that everything else went to plan, though.

Because of the rough seas, though, the retrieval boats couldn’t make it to the landing site, and thus the rocket is unlikely to be recovered. In the meantime, SpaceX will spend the following days and weeks analyzing more detailed data from the launch, and then update the Falcon 9 design and launch protocol accordingly. However, it is clear at this point that these latest tests are not being considered a failure, or reason to cease in their efforts.

falcon-9-r-580x386As Musk himself explained in a series of public statements and interviews after the launch:

I would consider it a success in the sense that we were able to control the boost stage to a zero roll rate, which is previously what has destroyed the stage — an uncontrolled roll… I think we’re really starting to connect the dots of what’s needed [to bring the rocket back to the launch site]. I think that we’ve got a decent chance of bringing a stage back this year, which would be wonderful.

Considering the benefits of cheap, reusable rockets, and all the things they will make possible – space-based solar power, the construction of a Moon settlement, missions to Mars, the construction of a Space Elevator – there’s simply no way that a single unsuccessful rocket recovery will deter them. In the meantime, be sure to check out this video of what a successful Falcon 9 VTVL test looks like. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a real-world example of this happening soon:



News From Space…X!

spaceX_elonmuskForgive the pun, but it was just too easy! Yes, SpaceX is once again making news with its Grasshopper reusable rocket system, which set the record for highest altitude ascended. On its sixth jump, which took place on June 14th, the rocket made it to a height of 325 meters (1066 feet) above the Earth and remained airborne for a minute and 8 seconds.

With each jump and new record set, Grasshopper and its inventors are bringing the age of affordable, commercial space flight that much closer. Seeing as how the goal is to send a rocket into orbit it and bring it back in one piece, this latest milestone might sound modest. But a quick look at each successive jump clearly shows that the Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket is making serious progress, and in a short stretch of time.

spacex_grasshopperConsider the first jump which took place in September of 2012, where the rocket reached a height of 1.8 meters (6 feet) and remained aloft for three seconds. Sounds pretty meager, no? But less than two months later, the rocket was able to remain in the air for 8 seconds and reached a height of 5.4 meters (17.7 feet).

On its third run, performed in December of 2012, the rocket got 40 meters (131 feet) into the air, remained there for 29 seconds, and happened to be the first test flight where a cowboy mannequin was strapped to the rocket. On the fourth and fifth try, which were performed in March and April of this year, the rocket reached a height of 80 and then 250 meters (262 and 820 feet), remaining airborne for 34 and then 61 seconds.

Grasshopper-rocketThis not only confirms that the rocket’s progress is exponential when it comes to height, but that its thrust-to-weight ratio has been improving vastly. Another big milestone here was the fact that for the first time, the rocket made use of its full navigation sensor suite with the F9-R closed loop control flight algorithms.

In previous tests, the rocket relied on other rocket sensors which were not as accurate, but this time around, SpaceX was directly controlling the rocket based on these new sensor readings, a move which has increased the level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground.

To quote Nietzsche: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk.” At this rate, averaging for the total rate of increase, I’d say the Grasshopper should be reaching Low-Earth Orbit (2000 km above sea level) by its 11th or 12th jump. And using the same figures, I figure the jump will be taking place sometime in May 2014. Somebody ought to be organizing a pool!


News From Space: SpaceXs Reusable “Grasshopper” Rocket

spaceX_elonmuskThe concept of commercial spaceflight has been growing considerably in recent years. Basically, the idea is that it would be private aerospace companies that would responsible for ferrying people to and from space and putting commercial satellites in orbit, thus leaving space agencies free to conduct more crucial research and deep space exploration missions.

Intrinsic to this dream is the creation of a cheaper, reusable rocket system, something that can be deployed, landed, and redeployed. This will not only save the companies responsible for this new age of space travel billions of dollars, it will make a whole series of projects possible – like Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) arrays, commercial trips to the Moon, and bigger, more elaborate space stations in orbit.

spacex_grasshopperAnd that’s precisely what SpaceX founder Elon Musk is working on with his “Grasshopper” rocket system. Designed to be reusable, the company has been running the Grasshopper through an ongoing series of tests to make sure it can take off, achieve orbit, and then successfully return to the Earth and land in one piece. In the latest test, the Grasshopper achieved its highest flight yet – reaching 80 meters (263 feet) – before sticking its landing.

The flight took place on March 7th, and it was the fourth of its kind to be conducted at the SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. And though the flight was unmanned, the crews placed a dummy dressed like Johnny Cash into the side, which might explain why the footage of the test featured the song “Ring of Fire” in the background.

spacex-grasshopper-highest-leapWhile this achievement might seem modest to some, its necessary to keep in mind that this is a very new concept. In addition, with each successive flight, the altitudes achieved have increased exponentially. In its first test flight in September of last year, the Grasshopper reached a height of only 2.5 meters (8.2 feet). In the two following tests in November and December, the rocket reached a height of 5.4 meters (17.7 feet) and 40 meters (131 feet) respectively.

With this latest flight, SpaceX believes it is getting close to their goal of a reusable rocket and its ultimate goal of making space travel cheaper and easier. Upon completion of this latest test, the company had positive things to say about the new rocket system:

With Grasshopper, SpaceX engineers are testing the technology that would enable a launched rocket to land intact, rather than burning up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Who knows? Given a few more tests, they might just be able to break atmo and land successfully. Then, all SpaceX has to do is sit back and watch their stock price jump by about a million points. At which time, I’m thinking missions will pour in for the deployment of just about any bit of space gear imaginable! Welcome to the era of renewed space exploration, my friends!

And be sure to check out this video of the Grasshopper makings its most recent jump!