News From Space: “FedEx” to the Moon

fedex-to-moon-google-x-lunarThe Moon has been quite the source of news lately. From NASA’s and the ESA’s planned efforts to build a settlement, to NASA and Google planning to send vegetation there, and China’s recent deployment of the Jade Rabbit rover, it seems that all the major space agencies of the world are eying the lunar surface with plans for eventual colonization.

What’s more, numerous private interests are looking to get in on the action, plotting everything from space tourism to courier services. One such company is Moon Express, a space startup that is competing for the Google Lunar X prize to develop a spacecraft that would one day be able to land on the lunar surface, move 500 meters, and send back two messages.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraftTheir craft is known as the MX-1, the company’s first robotic lander that was designed with the intent to deliver payloads to the lunar surface by 2015 and be able to transport precious minerals back. The privately held company, which is backed by billionaire Naveen Jain, unveiled the robot at the Autodesk’s University conference in Las Vegas.

According to Moon Express CEO Bob Richards, the MX-1 is very compact and could “fit basically inside of an SUV” trunk. The craft is unmanned, solar-powered, and uses hydrogen peroxide as rocket propellant. The fuel tanks are strapped to the vehicle’s underside, and serve two purposes. As Richards explains:

When the tanks are empty, they now act as a bumper. People are used to seeing landing gear on a spacecraft, but we didn’t need landing gear–the fuel tanks are the structure. It looks like something you’d land on a beach actually.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraft1To get to space, the craft is launched via rocket, and once deployed can navigate all by itself to the moon. And though small, the MX-1 is capable of carrying roughly 60 kilograms of payload. For its early missions, the startup plans to take part in NASA’s goal of delivering plants to the moon, including basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis (a sort of mustard-seed plant).

Additionally, the MX-1 will carry a small, black-and-gold telescope for a private company, which plans to set up the device as a moon cam on its surface, streaming live video back to Earth for all to watch. So in addition to China’s Jade Rabbit rover, which will be providing footage of the lunar surface, we can expect video to be provided by private interests as well.

fedex-to-moon-picBut in the long run, the aim of MoonEx is far more entrepreneurial: it plans to mine resources from the moon, seeing it as an untapped and very lucrative target. The trick will be developing the MX-1 into a craft that can deliver payloads to-and-from the moon, at larger scales. As Richards put it:

What’s there? Probably more platinum than there is in all the reserves on Earth. Pick your spice: silver, nickel, everything that we mine here on Earth is on the moon.

However, Moon Express doesn’t expect to return with any payloads until at least its third mission. It plans to launch its first mission to the moon in 2015. And if they win Google’s Lunar X Prize, they just might have all the investment capital they need to make it happen.

Source: fastcoexist.com, googlelunarxprize.org

News From Space: XS-1 Reusable Spacecraft

sx-1_spaceplaneWhen it comes to the future of space exploration, the ongoing challenge has been to find a way to bring down the costs associated with getting things into orbit. In recent years, a number of solutions have been presented, many of which have been proposed by private companies like SpaceX and Reaction Engines. Not to be outdone, the US government has its own proposal, known as the XS-1.

Developed by DARPA, the XS-1 is the latest in a string of designs for a reusable spacecraft that would be capable of taking off and landing from an airfield. But unlike its predecessors, this craft would be a two-stage craft that has no pilot and is controlled much like a drone. By combining these two innovations, DARPA foresees an age where a “one day turnaround,” or daily launches into space, would be possible.

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesBasically, the XS-1 will work as a two-stage flyer, beginning as a regular high-altitude drone meant to fly as high as possible and reach hypersonic speed. Once this has been achieved, the payload will separate along with an expendable launch system with a small tank of rocket fuel which will then be automatically delivered to its final destination. The plane, meanwhile, will automatically return to base and begin prep for the next day’s mission.

In addition to being cheaper than rockets and space shuttles, an XS-1 space plane would also be much faster than NASA’s now-retired STS shuttles. Much like Reaction Engines Skylon concept, the ship is designed for hypersonic speeds, in this case up to Mach 10. While this might sound incredibly ambitious, NASA has already managed to achieve a top speed of Mach 9.8 with their X-43A experimental craft back in 2004 (albeit only for ten seconds).

x-43a The XS-1′s payload capacity should be around 2300 kilograms (5000 pounds) per mission, and DARPA estimates that a single launch would cost under $5 million. Currently, it costs about $20,000 to place a single kilo (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). So while DARPA’s requirements are certainly stringent, they would cut costs by a factor of ten and is within the realm of possibility.

As it stands, all ideas being forth are centered around reinventing the rocket to make launches cheaper. When it comes to long-term solutions, grander concepts like the space elevator, the slingatron, or space penetrators may become the norm. Regardless, many of the world’s greatest intellectual collectives have set their sights on finding a more affordable path into space. These advanced launch jets are just the first step of many.

Sources: extremetech.com, news.cnet.com

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!

Source: space.com

Wanted: Married Couple to go to Mars

tito-mars-mission-conceptSounds like the setup for a sci-fi romantic comedy doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s the basis for a planned Mars mission which is being hosted by space adventurist Dennis Tito. As the head of the non-profit organization known as Inspiration Mars, Tito has long believed that humanity must seize on the opportunity being provided by a new generation of space exploration, with the intention of becoming a truly “multi-planet species”.

The mission will consist of sending two professional crew members –  who will likely be a married couple – on a “fast, free-return” mission, passing within 160 kilometers of Mars before swinging back and safely returning to Earth. The spacecraft will likely be tinier than a small Winnebago recreational vehicle, and will be launched on Jan. 5, 2018 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment.

inspiration_marsTo make it happen, Inspiration Mars has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA – specifically the Ames Research Center (Ames) – to conduct thermal protection system and technology testing and evaluation, as well as tapping into NASA’s knowledge, experience and technologies. Tito emphasized during their initial meeting that his organization was not looking for money, but a partner to help them develop the required technologies.

The mission system will consist of a modified capsule launched out of Earth orbit using a single propulsive maneuver to achieve the Mars trajectory. An inflatable habitat module will be deployed after launch and detached prior to re-entry. Closed-loop life support and operational components will be located inside the vehicle, designed for simplicity and “hands-on” maintenance and repair.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014As already stated, the mission is a non-profit venture that is designed to inspire. As Tito himself put it:

“[the mission will engage] the best minds in industry, government and academia to develop and integrate the space flight systems and to design innovative research, education and outreach programs for the mission. This low-cost, collaborative, philanthropic approach to tackling this dynamic challenge will showcase U.S. innovation at its best and benefit all Americans in a variety of ways.”

What’s more, Tito believes that the time is right for this mission, and not only because of the orbital window of opportunity. “Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging at the right time to make this mission achievable,” he said.

The mission will last 501 days, and Tito has emphasized that it will be an American adventure, not an international one. Tito himself plans to fund the next two years of the mission, beyond that it will be funded primarily through private, charitable donations, as well as government partners that can provide expertise, access to infrastructure and other technical assistance. He also believes media rights will be a major part of things, since the mission will be an historic first and ought to be caught on tape!

mars_lifeAnd the reason they wanted a married couple to do the deed is quite simple. Jane Poyter, a member of Inspiration Mars explains:

“Imagine, it’s a really long road trip and you’re jammed into an RV and you can’t get out,” Poynter said. “There’s no microgravity … all you have to eat for over 500 days are 3,000 lbs of dehydrated food that they rehydrate with the same water over and over that will be recycled,” adding that the two crew will need the proven ability to be with each other for the long term.

Makes sense. After all, who but a couple already intimately familiar with each others foibles and used to spending an inordinate amount of time together could make it 501 days without killing each other? And as we all know, taking a trip together is the true test of a relationship’s mettle, especially when its a capsule smaller than an RV with no chance of escape!

And for Tito’s sake, I hope things work out. One thing is for sure, his dream of a public-private relationship to make space travel happen is already taking shape.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the promotional animation, showing the mission and the mechanics of the free return trajectory:

Source: www.universetoday.com, inspirationmars.com

Iran Launches Monkey Into Space (Apparently)

iran_rocketIn spite of years being under a trade embargo, Iran claims to be making some rather interesting breakthroughs. In addition to drones, long range missiles and stealth aircraft, they now claim to have sent a primate into space. According to the state news network, the successful flight involved a relatively small rocket that went straight up and down, and is a “prelude to sending humans.” Oh, and the monkey arrived safe and sound.

Whereas some defense analysts in the US and other nations worry that this was a demonstration of potential military might, others see it in different terms. For example, Jonathan McDowell – a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launches and space activity – claims that the exercise was merely a step towards Iran’s stated goal of developing rockets that could send human astronauts into space, a goal Tehran has repeated publicly for more than a year.

Alive, but not comfortable!
Alive, but not comfortable!

“It doesn’t demonstrate any militarily significant technology,” he said. “This is a tiny old rocket, and what’s on top is useful only for doing astronaut stuff.” Charles P. Vick, an expert on Iranian rockets at GlobalSecurity.org, went farther, stating that the report may have been a fabrication, seeing as how Iran tried and failed to perform the same launch operation back in 2011.
Naturally, there was also the propaganda value of the feet. James E. Oberg, a former NASA engineer and author of a dozen books on human spaceflight, claim that “to a large degree, it’s a fig leaf.” Apparently, such peaceful flights could take global attention off the nation’s military feats and ambitions, comparable to what North Korea does with much of its research and development programs.

In any case, the reportedly successful launch of the Kavoshgar-class rocket – which went by the name of Pishgam (trans: Pioneer) –  came amidst announcements by Iranian sources that stated they were developing a space capsule meant to hold human astronauts. “It’s based on Chinese technology,” Mr. Vick said, adding that Iran had nearly completed a large new launching pad big enough for powerful rockets that could loft warheads, satellites or people into space.

In short, we can expect little in the way of clarity and plenty in the way of worrying from western analysts over this latest development. And of course, as usual, the monkey always get forgotten in the mix! One thing that was not reported on was the brave little astronauts name. After all we’ve put them through for the sake of advances space travel, don’t the space monkeys deserve the same kind credit as human astronauts? Hell, even Russia put Laika on a commemorative stamp!

laika-stampSee? Guess you got to die if you’re an animal and want some recognition around here! Rest in peace Laika! Click on the links below to read more:

Source: The New York Times.com, Universtoday.com