News from SpaceX: the Dragon V2 and SuperDraco

spaceX_elonmuskSpaceX 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.

superdraco-testThe 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.

MarsOneOther 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.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeEight 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.

spaceX_dragon_v2But 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.

spaceX_dragon_v2_1For 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!

SuperDraco Test Firing:


SpaceX Dragon V2 Unveiling:


Sources: gizmag.com, (2), fool.com

News From Space: Cold War Chill Returning to Space

Space_race1[2]It’s no secret that relations between the US and Russia have been strained due to the latter’s recent military activities in Crimea. And now, it appears that Russia is using their space program as leverage in their ongoing fight over sanctions. Back in April, NASA announced that collaboration with Roscosmos – Russia’s Federal Space Agency – had ended for the time being. Since then, an escalating war of words and restrictions have followed.

For instance, in the past months, the U.S. has restricted communication between some American scientists and their Russian colleagues as part of their protest against Crimea. In response, Dmitry Rogozin – Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission – said on his Twitter feed that he is restricting the export to the US of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines, for uses that do not involve the U.S. military – a move which has temporarily grounded all US military satellites from being deployed into orbit.

NASA_trampolineMr. Rogozin also posted an image of a trampoline with a big NASA logo in the centre, saying that after 2020 it is the technology U.S. astronauts will need to use get to the International Space Station. One week later and in response, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos on the International Space Station hadn’t changed “one iota” in recent years, and has withstood the increasingly frosty atmosphere between Washington and Moscow over the events in the Crimea and Ukraine.

Still, Bolden indicated that if for one reason or other a country should drop out of the project, the others would seek to continue. But in the meantime, this would means the US would lose its capacity to put its own spy and military satellites into orbit, the future of the International Space Station (ISS) would be uncertain. In addition to the US, Japan, Europe and Canada are also members of the ISS and all currently depend on Russian Soyuz capsules to take astronauts to the space station since NASA retired its shuttle fleet.

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441All in all, it is a sad state of affairs, and not just because of the repercussions to space exploration and scientific research. As a product of post-Cold War co-operation, the ISS cost $100 billion to create and was arguably the most expensive multinational peacetime undertaking in history. Now, it is being threatened because the two nations that came together to make it a reality are regressing into a state of Cold War detente. And though the Russians currently feel that they have the upper hand, the long-term reality is far different.

Back in the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russian space programs were floundering. The Russian program was running broke because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was operating a space shuttle program that was proving to be more expensive than promised. The Americans were also having difficulty finding support for their Freedom space station project, which had a budget that was also ballooning upwards, and the Russian’s weren’t sure how much longer Mir would remain in operation.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)Both countries agreed the only way to keep their space programs alive and build a large space station was to share the costs and technology, which also allowed other countries from Europe, as well as Japan and Canada, to participate. In the 13 years since it has been occupied, the International Space Station has literally known no borders, as astronauts from dozens of nations have participated in missions that have had wide-ranging benefits.

And in the process, Russia has benefited greatly in financial terms as the US has paid tens of millions of dollars to have American astronauts fly aboard the former space station Mir and ride along on their Soyuz rockets. If this friendly arrangement breaks down, it will cost both countries dearly. Russia will lose all that income from the sale of its space technology, and the U.S. will have to accelerate the development of its own space capsules and rockets to launch people and satellites into space from American soil.

dream_chaserStanding on the sidelines are individuals and private companies like Elon Musk and SpaceX, the Texas company that already builds its own low-cost rockets, along with space capsules that have been delivering supplies to the Space Station. In addition, Sierra Nevada, a private aerospace contractor, is working with NASA to produce the Dream Chaser as part of the agency’s reusable vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing (VTHL) program.

Between SpaceX already delivering capsules to the ISS, its successful reusable rocket demonstrations, and the multiple proposals NASA has for a new era of space vehicles, the US space program may not be grounded for much longer. And there is something to be said about competition spurring innovation. However, one cannot deny that it is unfortunate that the US and Russia may be once again moving forward as competitors instead of companions, as that is likely to cost all sides far more.

But of course, there is still plenty of time for a diplomatic solution to tensions in the east, and plenty of reasons for all sides to avoid regressive to a Cold War footing. We’ve come too far at this point to turn back. And considering how much of our future depends on space travel and exploration going ahead unimpeded, we can’t afford to either!

Sources: cbc.ca, phys.org

News From Space: Robotnaut Gets a Pair of Legs!

robotnaut_movementSpaceX’s latest delivery to the International Space Station – which was itself pretty newsworthy – contained some rather interesting cargo: the legs for NASA’s robot space station helper. Robotics enthusiasts know this being as Robonaut 2 (R2), a humanoid robot NASA placed on the space station to automate tasks such as cleaning and routine maintenance. Since its arrival at the station in February 2011, R2 has performed a series of tasks to demonstrate its functionality in microgravity.

Until now, Robonaut navigated around the ISS on wheels. But thanks to a brand-new pair of springy, bendy legs, the space station’s helper robot will now be able to walk, climb, and perform a variety of new chores. These new legs, funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, will provide R2 the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The goal is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research.

robonaut1NASA says that the new seven-jointed legs are designed for climbing in zero gravity and offer a considerable nine-foot leg span. Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington, explained:

NASA has explored with robots for more than a decade, from the stalwart rovers on Mars to R2 on the station. Our investment in robotic technology development is helping us to bolster productivity by applying robotics technology and devices to fortify and enhance individual human capabilities, performance and safety in space.

Taking their design inspiration from the tethers astronauts use while spacewalking, the legs feature a series of “end effectors” – each f which has a built-in vision system designed to eventually automate each limb’s approaching and grasping – rather than feet. These allow the legs to grapple onto handrails and sockets located both inside the space station and, eventually, on the ISS’s exterior. Naturally, these legs don’t come cheap -costing $6 million to develop and an additional $8 million to construct and test for spaceflight.

robonaut_legsRobonaut was developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in collaboration with General Motors and off-shore oil field robotics firm Oceaneering. All that corporate involvement isn’t accidental; Robonaut isn’t designed to simply do chores around the space station. NASA is also using R2 to showcase a range of patented technologies that private companies can license from Johnson Space Center.

The humanoid, task-performing robot is also a NASA technology showcase. In a webcast, the space agency advertised its potential uses in logistics warehouses, medical and industrial robotics, and in toxic or hazardous environments. As NASA dryly puts it:

R2 shares senses similar to humans: the ability to touch and see. These senses allow it to perform in ways that are not typical for robots today.

robonaut_legs2In addition to these legs, this latest supply drop – performed by a SpaceX Dragon capsule – included a laser communication system for astronauts and an outer space farming system designed to grow lettuce and other salad crops in orbit. We can expect that the Robotnaut 2 will be assisting in their use and upkeep in the coming months and years. So expect to hear more about this automated astronaut in the near future!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this cool video of the R2 robotic legs in action:


Sources:
fastcompany.com, nasa.gov

The Future of Solar: The Space-Based Solar Farm

space-solar-headThe nation of Japan has long been regarded as being at the forefront of emerging technology. And when it comes to solar energy, they are nothing if not far-sighted and innovative. Whereas most nations are looking at building ground-based solar farms in the next few years, the Japanese are looking at the construction of vast Lunar and space-based solar projects that would take place over the course of the next few decades.

The latest proposal comes from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which recently unveiled a series of pilot projects which, if successful, should culminate in a 1-gigawatt space-based solar power generator within just 25 years. Relying on two massive orbital mirrors that are articulated to dynamically bounce sunlight onto a solar panel-studded satellite, the energy harvested would then be beamed wirelessly to Earth using microwaves, collected Earth-side by rectifying antennas at sea, and then passed on to land.

lunaringJAXA has long been the world’s biggest booster of space-based solar power technology, making significant investments in research and rallying international support for early test projects. And in this respect, they are joined by private industries such as the Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm that recently proposed building a massive array of solar cells on the moon – aka. the “Lunar Ring” – that could beam up to 13,000 terawatts (roughly two-thirds of global power consumption) to Earth around the clock.

Considering that Japan has over 120 million residents packed onto an island that is roughly the size of Montana, this far-sighted tendency should not come as a surprise.  And even before the Fukushima disaster took place, Japan knew it needed to look to alternative sources of electricity if it was going to meet future demands. And considering the possibilities offered by space-based solar power, it should also come as no surprise that Japan – which has very few natural resources – would look skyward for the answer.

solar_array1Beyond Japan, solar power is considered the of front runner of alternative energy, at least until s fusion power comes of age. But Until such time as a fusion reaction can be triggered that produces substantially more energy than is required to initiate it, solar will remain the only green technology that could even theoretically provide for our global power demands. And in this respect, going into space is seen as the only way of circumventing the problems associated with it.

Despite solar power being in incredible abundance – the Earth’s deserts absorb more energy in a day than the human race uses in an entire year – the issue of harnessing that power and getting it to where it is needed remain as stumbling blocks. Setting up vast arrays in the Earth’s deserts would certainly deal with the former, but transmitting it to the urban centers of the world (which are far removed from it’s deserts) would be both expensive and impractical.

space-based-solarpowerLuckily, putting arrays into orbit solves both of these issues. Above the Earth’s atmosphere, they would avoid most forms of wear, the ground-based day/night cycle, and all occluding weather formations. And assuming the mirrors themselves are able to reorient to be perpetually aimed at the sun (or have mirrors to reflect the light onto them), the more optimistic estimates say that a well-designed space array could bring in more than 40 times the energy of a conventional one.

The only remaining issue lies in beaming all that energy back to Earth. Though space-based arrays can easily collect more power above the atmosphere than below it, that fact becomes meaningless if the gain is immediately lost to inefficiency during transmission. For some time, lasers were assumed to be the best solution, but more recent studies point to microwaves as the most viable solution. While lasers can be effectively aimed, they quickly lose focus when traveling through atmosphere.

spaceX_solararrayHowever, this and other plans involving space-based solar arrays (and a Space Elevator, for that matter) assume that certain advances over the next 20 years or so – ranging from light-weight materials to increased solar efficiency. By far the biggest challenge though, or the one that looks to be giving the least ground to researchers, is power transmission. With an estimated final mass of 10,000 tonnes, a gigawatt space solar array will require significant work from other scientists to improve things like the cost-per-kilogram of launch to orbit.

It currently costs around $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). Luckily, a number of recent developments have been encouraging, such as SpaceX’s most recent tests of their Falcon 9R reusable rocket system or NASA’s proposed Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). These and similar proposals are due to bring the costs of sending materials into orbit down significantly – Elon Musk hopes to bring it down to $1100 per kilogram.

So while much still needs to happen to make SBSP and other major undertakings a reality, the trends are encouraging, and few of their estimates for research timelines seem all that pie-eyed or optimistic anymore.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2)

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.


Source: 
space.IO9.com, (2)

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).

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424

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:


Source:
extremetech.com

 

News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back:


Sources:
technologyreview.com, extremetech.com

News from Space: Crimean Crisis Highlights US Dependence

crimean_crisis3The crisis in the Crimea continues, with Russia and the Ukraine threatening military action and the US and its western allies threatening sanctions. In addition to anxieties about the likelihood of war and the conflict spilling over into other regions, the crisis has served to highlight other possible global repercussions. And interestingly enough, some of them have to do with the current balance of space exploration and research.

In essence, every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – is highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry. Thus, all of the US space exploration and launches are potentially at risk amidst the current crisis.

SoyuzCompared to the possibility of an outbreak of war that could engulf the Eurasian triangle, this hardly seems terribly consequential. But alas, quite a few people stand to suffer from seeing all rockets grounded in the Ukraine and Russia as a result of the current climate. Consider the ISS, which is entirely dependent on Earth-based rockets for resupply and personnel rotation.

As it stands, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) ride to space and back on regularly scheduled launches, and each new rocket carried fresh supplies of food and equipment. The Atlas V and Antares rockets, plus critical U.S. spy satellites that provide vital, real time intelligence, are just some of the programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate, or worse yet, spin out of control.

ISSThe threat to intelligence gathering operations would be especially critical, since it would hamper efforts to monitor the crisis. In short, the Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.

But the consequences of escalating tensions would hardly be felt by only one side. Despite what some may think, the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent, and all would suffer if anything were to shut it down. For instance, some 15 nations maintain participation and funding to keep the ISS and its programs running.

ISS_crewAnd since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America has been dependent on Russia for its human spaceflight capability. ISS missions are most often crewed by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. And under the most recent contract, the US pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat, and both they and the Ukraine’s space programs are dependent on this ongoing level of investment.

The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. But until such time as long-term funding can be guaranteed, the current arrangement will persist.

maven_launchWhen NASA Administrator Chales Bolden was asked about contingencies at a briefing yesterday, March 4, he responded that everything is OK for now:

Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians. Missions up and down are on target… People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises… I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the same time, he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays:

Let me be clear about one thing. The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424At a US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense, which was held yesterday to address national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:

In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.

So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And given that Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions of its own against the West, the likelihood that space exploration will suffer is likely.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War. Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

The Future of Transport: High-Speed MagLev’s

hyperloopThis past summer, Elon Musk once again impressed the world with his futuristic design for a high-speed transit tube that could take passengers from Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes. It’s known as the Hyperloop, a “fifth form” of transportation that would utilize linear electric motors, solar panels, and air cushions to achieve speeds of up to 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph).

Unfortunately, Musk also indicated that with his current, busy schedule, it would be many years before a working demonstration could be produced. What’s more, he was unclear on what role, if any, he would play in its creation. The project was unveiled as an open-source venture, and he called upon business investors to take up the role of making it happen.

hyperloop1However, some investors have come forward to do just that. Gathering around the entrepreneurial collaboration platform known as JumpStartFund, these enthusiasts have come together to create a corporation that will see Musk’s concept through to development. This is no small task, seeing as how the price-tag (according to Musk) would be between 6 and 10 billion dollars.

JumpStartFund launched on August 22, and aims to give entrepreneurs a network through which to both seek funding and support as well as crowdsource the idea and collaborate with others to refine it. The Hyperloop concept, put up on the site by the JumpStart team, became the platform’s flagship project within its first week of launch.

hyperloop2Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and co-founder of JumpStartFund, said in an interview back in September:

We want to be the ones that actually make things happen. So of course we need to create a corporation. Whoever decides to dedicate more time to this than just logging onto the platform deserves to be part of this company.

Because Ahlborn and his co-founders have connections with SpaceX, they were able to talk over the idea with the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, and get the green light to feature it on the platform. Joining them are engineers Marco Villa and Patricia Galloway, who worked for SpaceX and the US National Science Board respectively and even held directorial and vice chair positions.

hyperloop3JumpStartFund is also accepting applications from members of the site to work full-time on the Hyperloop project in exchange for equity in the company. Ahlborn has also indicated that even naming the company will be a crowdsourced effort:

We want to find a way to give everyone the ability to be a part of this project. The whole concept is always going to be on the platform. Everything is going to be very transparent, and we intend to reserve a percent of future revenues for people that work with us on the platform.

And the Hyperloop is hardly alone when it comes to the future of mass transit. On the opposite side of the US, along the Northeast Corridor, The Northeast Maglev (TNEM) company is looking to create a superconducting magnetic railway that could take passengers from New York to Washington D.C. in 60 minutes, and from Baltimore to D.C. is just 15.

scmaglev-rendering-marylandAt present, this American company – which is backed by a Japanese government bank – is testing a maglev route in Japan that runs from Nagoya to Tokyo in Japan and is planned to be completed by 2027. In the US, their efforts are aimed at replacing the nation’s aging transit infrastructure, which is unable to cope with modern demand.

As Northeast Maglev CEO and chairman Wayne Rogers said in a recent interview with Co.Exist:

What’s happening is we’re operating on 1940s and 1950s infrastructure and drowning in congestion. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology. This is something that you could fly to Tokyo, sit on a train, and actually ride a train that goes 311 miles per hour.

Much like the Hyperloop, the train would run on a bed of air, levitated by a series of electromagnetic coils located on the track. While similar magnetic levitation projects along the corridor have been considered in the past, they repeatedly failed due to curves that would slow down the transit process, and passengers projections were consistently too low.

scmaglev-rendering-new-jersey-high-trafficThe current maglev project plans on using tunnels to bypass the curves, and train ridership is at an all-time high. However, the realization of the project will still require significant funds. As Rogers himself projects, the first leg of the route – from D.C. to Baltimore – will cost some $10 billion. As such, the company imagines it will require some additional federal support.

The company does have some high-profile support working in its favor, though. Its advisory board includes two former transportation secretaries, former majority leader Tom Daschle, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, former Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland, and George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman, and Ed Rendell – the former governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

scmaglev-rendering-washington-stationAnd ultimately, Rogers and his company are hopeful, citing recent changes and the enthusiasm garnered by the Hyperloop project:

[T]he concept is different, the sponsorship is different, the routing is different, and the technology is different. I think one of the things [the Hyperloop] has done – without commenting on the feasibility of the Hyperloop or not – is it’s brought people’s attention to the problem and brings America back to the things it’s good at, which is thinking big things and implementing cutting-edge technologies on terrific projects.

Who knows? In a few decades times, we could be looking at a world where high-speed maglev trains crisscross every continent, carrying people between all major cities faster than jet planes, and at a fraction of the cost. Meanwhile, intercontinental transit could be taking the form of aerospace travel, jets that fly into the lower atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. It’s important to dream big!

And in the meantime, enjoy this promotional video from The Northeast Maglev company:


Sources: news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com