News from Aerospace: XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


The Future of Flight: VR Fighter Pilot Training

f-35sThe latest breeds of military aircraft are naturally smarter, faster, and more stealthy than their predecessors. Known as Fifth Generation craft, they are designed to incorporate numerous technological advances – like Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), supersonically launched guided missiles, a wealth of sensors, highly-integrated computer systems that provide full situational awareness, and automated targeting.

The problem is, these planes are too powerful to be trusted to the untrained. This creates a paradoxical situation where  recruits have to learn how to fly them before they can be allowed to fly them. This is especially so during Red Flag training, where pilots take part in advanced aerial combat exercises intended to prepare roughly 27,000 pilots and engineers for warfare every year.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye memorial service in HawaiiThe solution, according to General Mike Hostage, is to train pilots in virtual reality in every facet of fifth generation fighter jet technology. It’s what is known as “Live Virtual Constructive” (LVC) training, which the military is increasingly turning to because it is a major cost saver.  Every branch is feeling the financial squeeze, and simulated training is a popular idea since it cuts down on the time it takes to get a pilot airborne and the cost of launching a jet.

As Hostage explained during an Air Force Association speech back in July:

The fifth generation brought us capabilities and lethalities that are straining my abilities at Red Flag to produce that same realistic combat environment. I can’t turn on every bell and whistle on my new fifth-generation platforms because a) they’re too destructive, and b) I don’t want the bad guys to know what I’m able to do… I will still do Red Flags, I will still do live training in live platform. But the place where I will be able to take the gloves off, the place where I can turn on all the bells and whistles and get full capability is going to be in the virtual constructive arena.

AFAMSIn addition to the cost-saving benefits, the US Air Force has embraces the technology thanks in no small part to the new head of the Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation (AFAMS), where much of the research into virtual reality training is being done. Colonel Franz Plescha, who was instituted as the agency’s new commander back in July, is a committed futurist who believes there is great potential in warfighting simulation technology.

A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy in 1987, Plescha’s most recent assignment (from July 2010 to June 2013) was as the Commander of the Warrior Preparation Center of the Einsiedlerhof Air Station in Germany. Here, he became intimately familiar with the kind of software and simulations that are designed to help commanders simulate the conduct of combat operations without ever having to put lives in danger.

F-22A_Raptor_-03-4058As he made clear, upon taking the helm at AFAMS, he refuses to waste any time on making the integration happen:

I personally believe the differences between live and simulation will continue to blur. Live or simulation? What’s the difference? What we call simulation today will become so real, it may actually influence our enemies in the future. Just imagine how that could change combat in the future.

But of course, one has to wonder if this vision is not already here, since digitally-assisted situational awareness, unmanned drones and cyber warfare are already present in militaries the world over. And as all other aspects of combat training become increasingly digitized, the distinction between simulation and warfare are themselves likely to become increasingly blurred.


The Future is Here: The Pilotless Fighter Jet

QF-16sGoogle may be developing driverless robot cars, but Boeing already has a small fleet a fighter jets that do not require a human pilot. These retired and refurbished QF-16s were turned into special drone craft for use by the US Air Force. But before anyone gets nervous, it should be noted that these specialized drones are strictly flying targets that are meant to assist with aerial combat training.

The test flight of one of the QF-16s took place last week and included an auto-take off and landing as well as an array of aerial maneuvers. The highlights of this test flight were a barrel roll while pulling 7 G’s, climbing to an altitude of 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) and accelerating to a speed of Mach 1.47. All the while, the plane was controlled by two Air Force test pilots on the ground.

drone-strikeIncorporating the latest in unmanned controls, these fighter jets will act as more realistic targets than the older generation of QF-4 unmanned aircraft – which are refurbished F-4 Phantoms. Whereas these Vietnam-era fighter craft are incapable of keeping up with modern designs, F-16s are capable of supersonic speeds and 9-G performance, which should help hone pilots for real-world combat missions.

While this is in many ways is just an upgrade on existing methods, it also represents a big step forward in terms of automation and drone warfare. With greater refinements in the technology and a more effective range, it may be possible to remotely pilot any and all combat aircraft in the not-too-distant future. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may come to mean all aircraft, and not just Reapers and Predators (pictured above).

And of course, Boeing has produced a video of the QF-16s test flight. Enjoy!


Eyes on the Sky: The X-51A Goes Hypersonic!

x-51aWhen it comes to high-tech flight, hypersonic is the undisputed way of the future. Not only is it the next logical step in the long chain from the Wright Brothers to supersonic flight (which humanity achieved in 1947), it is sort of a prerequisite in order for commercial space travel to take place. And on May 1st, the US Air Force tested its latest concept vehicle for going hypersonic, known as the X-51A Waverider.

The test took place at Edwards Air Force Base in California, when a B-52H Stratofortress carried the scramjet to a height of 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and then released it. A solid rocket booster then kicked in and brought the X-51A to a speed of Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds. The solid rocket booster then separated and the X-51A’s air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet – or scramjet – engine pushed it up the rest of the way to Mach 5.1 and up to an altitude of 18,300 meters (60,000 feet).

x-51a_specsFour minutes later, its fuel supply was spent and the scramjet nosed down, finally crashing (as planned) into the Pacific Ocean. The previous air speed record for manned flight is just under Mach 3, making this a rather large leap forward. In addition, in just over six minutes, the scramjet traveled over 425 kilometers (264 miles), making it the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever.

In addition to being record-breaking, it also tested out an important concept which may soon get more of us here on Earth into orbit. Considering the cost of sending a single rocket into space, concepts for a reusable space craft that could break the Earth’s gravitational pull, fly itself into high-earth orbit, and then land again have been under review for some time. All that was missing was an engine that could accomplish the kind’s of speeds needed without relying on criminally-fuel efficient rockets.

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesNeedless to say, this is a difficult task, since maintaining airspeed above mach 2 is a serious challenge. This is due to the fact that at these speeds, its very difficult for jet engines to continue to intake air. What makes the X-51A special is the fact that it has no moving parts. Whereas scramjets of the past used hydrogen fuel which would be injected into a combustion chamber and mixed with incoming air, the X-51A differs in that it uses a hydrocarbon fuel as sort of a pilot light, effectively“lighting a match in a hurricane.”

This apparently makes more sense logistically, and therefore could allow the technology to be applied on a broader scale. As it stands, this test involved the last of four X-51As to be constructed, the previous tests having taken place between 2004 and 2012. No plans exist for the construction of future X-51A vehicles, perhaps because the program cost a staggering $300 million. Nevertheless, Air Force officials indicated that the Waverider has left a valuable legacy.

And certainly think so! Not only has the Waverider established a new air speed record, and set a hypersonic distance record, it has also taken an important step as far as the next generation of space flight is concerned. In time, and perhaps in conjunction with rocket boosters, we could be seeing commercial spacecraft capable of breaking the atmosphere very soon.

Think of it, aerospace flights making deliveries to the ISS, and perhaps even beyond… Also, check out the video of the X-51A below making it’s historic, record-breaking flight:


The Most Ambitious Skydive in History

Skydiving is something that just about everyone contemplates at some point in their existence, but few of us really get around to. In fact, I’d wager that just about every “Bucket List” that has ever been made has skydiving on it, most likely in the top ten. However, just about all of these “controlled descents” involve a tandem jump with an instructor, and rarely exceed ten to fifteen thousand feet.

But imagine, if you will, that a certain extreme athlete named Felix Baumgartner sought to attempt the most ambitious skydive in history by jumping from a staggering 120,000 feet. That would place him at the very edge of space, making it an stratospheric HALO jump and the longest freefall in human history to boot. As the culmination of Red Bull Stratos Project, the jump will involve a balloon, a space suit, and a chute which will not be deployed until he is well withing Earth’s atmosphere.

Already, Felix has performed his test flight, jumping from a staggering 96,000 feet to test out his suit, the ascension balloon, and all the assorted equipment that is making this jump possible. However, the 120,000 feet will be distinguished by being the jump that breaks not one, but four world records.The first three were all set by a U.S. Air Force Captain named Joe Kittinger, who accomplished the highest skydive, manned balloon flight, and longest freefall in human history back in 1960.

However, Felix’s jump will also accomplish something which no human being has ever accomplished. In the course of his jump, his body will accelerate to to supersonic speeds, making him the first human who has ever broken the speed of sound without the use of an aircraft. Even NASA scientists say that they have no idea what effect this will have on a human body, though it is assumed that his spacesuit will protect him from the worst effects of it. And by the time he reaches the lower atmosphere, wind resistance should slow him down enough that by the time he pulls his chute, his organs won’t be turned to pulp from the sudden deceleration.

The big jump was scheduled for this morning; unfortunately, the jump was aborted at the last minute due to weather. For this jump to be successful, Felix must be jumping into conditions where there can be no clouds, storms, and wind speed closest to the ground are no more than 3.2 km/hour. Seems kind of finicky for a man risking life and limb to break so many records, but what do I know? I’m not an extreme sport, HALO jumping daredevil!

Check out the footage from Felix’s test jump below, and stay tuned for more updates on this historic jump: