November 26, 2013
Remember those exciting new Earth-viewing satellites we told you about in our September issue? They’re starting to launch into space, as promised.
Last Thursday a Russian Dnepr rocket delivered 32 satellites to orbit, among them SkySat-1, the first of Skybox Imaging’s constellation of Earth cameras. On the same Dnepr were two of Planet Labs’ tiny cubesats, called Doves. The first operational “flock” of Doves is due to reach space in mid-December, on the same Antares rocket that carries the Cygnus 2 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station.
Yesterday, a Progress cargo vehicle blasted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, also bound for the space station. Onboard is an Earth-viewing camera built by Urthecast of Vancouver.
The age of near-real-time, low-cost Earth imagery from space is about to begin.
Here’s a video of the Dnepr launch:
September 20, 2013
Managers of NASA’s commercial cargo program must be feeling pretty good these days. They can’t fully relax until the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft launched on Wednesday completes its first demo mission — delivering 1,500 pounds of cargo to the space station (arrival is scheduled for Sunday morning), remaining safely docked for a month, then disposing of a load of trash after it leaves.
But assuming that happens, it will mark the successful end of the beginning of commercial spaceflight. More than seven years ago, NASA kicked off a program to turn over the routine delivery of space station cargo to the private sector. The agency funded two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to develop the needed rockets and cargo ships. SpaceX already has its supply service up and running, and this week’s Cygnus mission is meant to show that Orbital can do it, too. If everything goes well, the company’s first paid delivery job will be in December.
The space agency’s willingness to incubate this new industry — even with haters and doubters saying it wouldn’t work — should pay off. Building on its success with commercial cargo, NASA is funding several companies to develop transports for astronauts as well. Those who say the U.S. is out of the space business haven’t been paying attention. If the schedule holds, new American spaceships will be ferrying crews to and from the station just four years from now. By comparison, there was a six-year gap between the Apollo-Soyuz mission and the first space shuttle launch — six years when the United States had no means to launch astronauts. That’s the same downtime expected between the last shuttle launch in 2011 and the debut of this new breed of commercial spaceships. And this time, we’ll have more than one option when it comes to sending people into space.
July 8, 2013
Space X released a video last Friday of a test launch for its prototype rocket, the reusable Grasshopper. The 10-story tall rocket takes off and — most impressively — lands vertically. As the video description notes:
Previous Grasshopper tests relied on the other rocket sensors but for this test, an additional, higher accuracy sensor was in the control loop. In other words, SpaceX was directly controlling the vehicle based on new sensor readings, adding a new level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground, enabling a more precise landing.
Watching the rocket descend, perfectly stable, from more than 1,000 feet is impressive enough, but the video adds another nice whoa element, taken by a camera-equipped hexacopter hovering at just about the peak altitude Grasshopper reaches.
May 9, 2013
“We need to do something to get started.”
There was a subtext of desperation in Dennis Tito‘s plea at this week’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, considering he’d just spent the last few minutes dashing all hope that the U.S. government will send people to Mars any time soon.
But Tito doesn’t seem desperate. In fact, it’s amazing how cool and collected he and his fellow space pioneers sounded as they described two wildly ambitious, privately funded Mars missions: a 500-day round-trip for two (Tito’s Inspiration Mars), and an even more daring one-way trip to the surface for four pioneers (Mars One).
The backers admit that yes, they have their work cut out for them. They talk like sober space engineers, with data, viewgraphs, and a list of technical advisors. It’ll be tough, they say, but doable. And we’re meant to find that inspiring.
Well, you may say I’m not a dreamer — and I’m not the only one.
Consider Tito’s plan. They’ll need to launch in 2018 to hit the launch window for their particular mission design (a swingby with no landing). Elon Musk of SpaceX, maybe the most audacious engineer of our time, took 10 years to design, build and launch unmanned cargo ships to low Earth orbit. Judging from his experience alone, I’d say there’s almost no chance Inspiration Mars will be ready in just five years.
Mars One aims to launch in 2022, but will need to start sending technology demo missions in 2016, just three years from now. Again, I have to think it’s very, very unlikely.
Still, there’s something poignant about this business of passing the hat for space settlement. In the first two weeks of accepting applications (the registration fee varies according to country; Afghans pay just $5, while Qataris pay $73) the organization got 78,000 applicants. Some of the applicants’ videos can be seen here.
Mars One isn’t the first company to believe they can finance a multibillion dollar space mission by selling media rights. Others thought they could do the same with trips to the International Space Station and robots on the moon. None of it has come to pass.
The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing space, from Astronaut Abby to Uwingu, seems driven partly by the early success of commercial ventures like SpaceX, and partly by the explosive growth of social media. It has more to do with Twitter than Apollo, but in 2013, that’s where we’re at.
January 17, 2013
So we’ve come full circle. Bigelow Aerospace, who based their Genesis inflatable space module on a NASA research project, is now selling back to the space agency its own technology. That’s probably a win-win outcome, though, since the contract — to test a prototype “expandable” module on the International Space Station starting in 2015 — may help keep Bigelow going, and should cost the government less in the long run.
Robert T. Bigelow, who made his money in the hotel business, got the idea for inflatable space habitats from NASA’s Transhab project of the 1990s. In fact, it was reading our April/May 1999 story on Transhab (here’s a downloadable PDF) and other similar articles in the popular press that inspired him. Practically everyone at the time thought Transhab was cool, and potentially very useful. But it didn’t fit into NASA’s plans for the space station, and was abandoned. Bigelow was eccentric enough, or maybe visionary enough — we’ll see how it plays out — to pick up the concept and see it through to launch his twin Genesis modules.
Only one thing bothers me about yesterday’s announcement. Bigelow is often held out by the New Space faithful as a key player in a would-be private economy based in Earth orbit. SpaceX and others would provide the rides, and Bigelow would provide the hotel/lab space. Once again, though, the only one stepping forward with money to make things happen is the U.S. government. Bigelow seems to still have plans for a private orbital module, but so far it’s just that — plans.
By the way, NASA apparently doesn’t like using the word “inflatable” anymore, since it conjures images of party balloons and Jiffy Pop.
Whatever. You fill it up with air.
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