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!

apollo11_descent

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com

New Anthology Sample!

gliese 581Hi folks. Life has been pretty busy and distracting of late, but after a few busy weeks I find myself with some time on my hands once again the freedom with which to write. And so I have, specifically on my second contribution to the Yuva Anthology – the Prologue known as “The Torch”. Though the story is not yet complete, I am finally reaching the climax of the tale, where the main character Magid Muktari is arriving to meet his benefactor and the man who intends to make sure his dream of exoplanet colonization becomes a reality.

But of course, there is still the question of terms to consider, some details that need to be ironed out, and an explanation or two as to why this is all happening. But I won’t bore you with a big summation. Instead, I present you with the latest installments in the story where Muktari takes his first commercial flight into space and doesn’t much enjoy it! Relying on research I’ve been doing on Virgin Galactic, the “Skylon” engine, and other sources, this is basically my take on what commercial space flight will look like in the near future.

What’s more, the chapter includes some ideas on the subject of orbital living pods, habitation complexes, and private space stations which may also become a reality in a few decades. Yes, as the technology improves and more and more people find themselves going into space, to the Moon, and beyond, Earth’s orbit could become the new international waters, where just about anything is legal, people do their “off-world banking”, and the rich live and play in low-gravity environments. Enjoy the chapter and please feel free to offer any and all constructive criticisms or comments…

skylon

“Treat” was hardly the word Muktari would have used. After a strenuous take off, the plane pulled into a sharp ascent, engaged its hypersonic engines, and was soon breaking the sound barrier several times over. Thus far, the trip was conforming to his expectations, which could only mean things would get worse before they got better. For the duration of their ascent, he had only one thought on his mind.

Why am I doing this? Was entertaining a possible job offer really this important to him? Would a few years in Oslo and the North Atlantic be so bad by comparison? Of course it would, but that didn’t make this personal first any more pleasant.

Of course, it was obvious why Harding had such a place available to him. More and more, one heard of corporate offices being placed in orbit, where the laws were laxer and off world authority was still being established. Most financiers found that they had at least another few decades before the law caught up to them and some interplanetary body would be created that could monitor their floating financial holdings or havens.

Nevertheless, the idea of breaking orbit and enduring near-weightlessness was not something he thought too highly of. Heights had been known to give him vertigo. How would standing above an entire planet feel in comparison?

Things did not improve until they hit atmo, at which point, weightlessness returned all of the blood which had been pooling in his legs to his head . He grunted loudly as the transition hit him, making his headache feel all the more noticeable.

“Don’t drink much do you?” asked Natalia, seated across from him.

“No,” he replied heavily. “Ironically, I think I could use a drink right now.”

She smiled. Pressed the button on the side of her seat. “What can we get you? This flight comes with a full refreshment service.”

“Nothing, please. I doubt I could keep it down right now.” He raised his hand as he said this. The effort to bring it to face height was incredibly easy, and he began to stare at it and everything around him as the ship coasted into the upper atmosphere. Everything that wasn’t anchored in place seemed to be floating carelessly, as if underwater. The sight of it seemed ethereal, almost entirely incorporeal.

He looked out the cabin window and spotted the thin blue layer of the upper atmosphere that was slowly pulling away from them. He had heard of the effect of seeing the great blue marble from orbit, but had imagined it would feel somewhat differently. Looking down at it all, he did not feel particularly grandiose or tiny, as he’d been told to expect. He mainly felt empty, as if some sense of pathos was struggling to be realized within him. He didn’t understand why, nor did he particularly want to think about what it meant…

“Folks, we’re about to engage the third stage drive. Please hang on and remain seated.”

“Oh dear,” Muktari breathed, tightening his grip on the arm rests. Natalia raised her voice to be heard over the sound of the gentle warning bell that began to fill the cabin with its chimes.

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing like breaking orbit. You’ll barely feel it at all.”

She was right too. It was marginally better. As soon as the noise died down, they felt a push that pushed Muktari into his seat and pulled Natalia against her restraints. But the force was relatively calm compared to the concerted effort it took to get them from the ground into the lower atmosphere. It almost felt soothing by comparison, and ended quicker too.

When the engine cut out, they began to coast again and things once again seemed to float everywhere. Muktari leaned back once more and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Better?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I love the irony of it too.”

“Irony? What irony?”

He opened his eyes, saw the look of genuine confusion on her face. He considered explaining it to her, how the very man who seemed to be proposing that some segment of humanity break the bonds of Earth and travel to the stars was terrified of doing it himself. That in itself seemed like irony enough, but the deeper implications of that were not something he felt like discussing. It was not simply a joyous experiment, he knew, but a possible necessity.

Mankind would either slip the bonds of Earth forever, or risk perishing below as it became less and less hospitable.  How could he explain that to one such as her, someone still young and from all outward appearances, happy to be alive in her time?

“Never mind,” he said. “It’s a moot point. All that matters is, you’re father wants to see me and I’m obliging him. As I imagine all people do.”

“He does seem to have that effect on people.”

Muktari hummed thoughtfully. “And does he make them all go through the effort of coming topside to see him or does he deign to travel to meet them from time to time?”

Her eyes grew distant and she looked away as she answered. “Not for some time now.”

It was Muktari’s turn to look confused, but nothing more seemed forthcoming and he didn’t feel like asking. He was sure all things would be made plain enough once they reached Harding’s particular module. Then he could marvel over the engineering achievement of such a thing and stroke Harding’s ego by telling him he had never seen one up close. He was sure he would find that flattering enough, and might even choose to intrigue Muktari by describing it’s construction in detail to him. He was sure he would find any discussion of a module’s internal ecology quite interesting to.

After a moment of strained silence, Natalia smiled to him again and retrieved her Flexpad. For the duration of the flight, they said nothing more to each other. Only the occasional corrective burst from the retro rockets seemed to break the smooth monotony of their course. Earth disappeared out the port side window too and all he could see after that was a background of stars. Looking at the rotating star field was likely to trigger vertigo, so he simply closed his eyes and tried to rest until they arrived.

It wasn’t until sunlight broke through the window that he chose to open them again.

“Oh! Oh my!” he said, shielding them from the harsh light. Once more, he was suffering terribly from the effects of a single night of irresponsibility.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, just let me know when the window’s adjusted.”

He heard her giggle. “It already has, so you’re safe. And you really should look. You can see it from here.”

“See what?”

“Curiosity,” she said plainly. That brought his eyes open. Anything with such an abstract name was something he had to see. Straining to adjust his eyes, he looked out the tinted window and waited for something other than the glowing ball in the background to become apparent to him.

And then it came to him. Twinkling in the night, it’s solar arrays stretching to the side like long, shining filaments, the small satellite hung before them. He could make out the hub in the center of it, discernible by its flashing status lights. As they neared, this bulbous middle section elongated and became a cylindrical structure, the lights flashing on it surface indicating that it was rotating. Only a small band at the very center of it remained steady, where the long arrays were mounted.

Towards the bottom end, where they seemed to be heading, a large aperture loomed. Bright lights shined out from within, and more blinking lights moved before his eyes as the doors on which they were mounted seemed to be sliding open to admit them.

Some more corrective bursts, and the entire thing shifted towards the nose of their craft. Slowly, Earth filled the window again and its yellow and green continents and shimmering skies were all that they could see. Another burst pushed him forwards against his restraints, and he felt them slowing.

And then, his window went grey. A long wall overtook them, metal, lighting and composite materials swallowing their ship and closing in behind them. More bursts, more corrective movements, and then a loud clang reverberated through the hall and he felt them come to a stop.

He felt blood trickle back into his feet and was struck by a slight dizziness. He lifted his arm again and noted the return of gravity, albeit just by a fraction. Clearly, the station was simulating barely a quarter g, if that much at all. He would find walking quite disorienting at first, then perhaps a bit adventurous. He would have to be careful.

Natalia’s voice was like a trumpeter call when she announced that it was time.

“Come on. I’ve arranged a short tour before we see my father. You’ll be quite interested to see what Curiosity has to offer.”

Muktari’s ears registered her voice like a harsh disturbance. At the moment, they were attuned to every noise in the ship, every din coming through the walls from the outside.  He could hear the sound of buzzing and whirring at work, coming through the walls fro somewhere to their fore. No doubt, a docking collar was extending from somewhere inside the bay and was busy mounting itself on the ship’s hatch.

“Are you coming?” she said, getting to her feet.

He very carefully undid his restraints, raised himself to his feet, and then sat back down.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I think I’ll wait. Don’t want to exit too soon. Decompression and all that.”

She didn’t laugh or giggle this time. After dealing with all his other hang ups, she appeared to be getting just the slightest bit tired of him. She extended her hand and addressed him the way a mother might address a child.

“I assure you, Doctor. No one is going to let you step off before the collar is fully fixed and pressurized. No one has ever died or suffered from asphyxiation while in my father’s care.”

She imbued his title with some degree of emphasis, he noticed. Perhaps she was seeking to remind him he was a man of science and such behaviors were supposed to be beneath him.

He shook his head. “Even so…”

She sighed once more and took hold of his hand. “Don’t worry,” she said calmly, but firmly. “I’ll be there with you in case anything bad happens. But I promise you, nothing will.”

He looked down at her hand, touching his, then to her face. Her eyes were insistent, but still soft and charming. And her hand felt warm against his, quite warm. Suddenly, he forgot about his dizzy spell and the remote chance he might die as he stepped off the craft. Even his headache seemed a distant memory right now…