December 6, 2012
Now we know SpaceX’s Elon Musk is anxious to establish the first city on Mars, population 80,000. He estimates that at this critical mass of colonists, it would cost about $500,000 per person — about what it costs to buy a home in California. Instead of a split-level ranch located at an equal driving distance to surfing and skiing, you’ll be buying a bunk in a bubble with scheduled rotations between the hydroponics garden and the air purification engine room, but, you know, on another planet.
But what if you could actually move to Mars and take your suburban cul-de-sac living with you? Real estate company Movado decided to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation (no doubt anxious themselves to tap into the interplanetary realty market). Click over to their infographic and enter the basic specs of your house to see how much it would cost to launch it into space. This city-living editor’s modest two-story rowhouse cost $384 million (just a smidge — times a few hundred million — more than it’s worth) to ship to Mars City. Movado calculates that at my house’s weight — over 300,000 pounds — it would take a SpaceX Falcon Heavy three trips to haul it all there; the graphic goes on to explain the data they use to get those numbers. I’m not sure how easily my 100-year-old house would break down into three loads… Movado might want to look into partnering with IKEA to corner the space colony flat-box shipping and assembly business.
October 8, 2012
A Dragon supply ship is now en route to the International Space Station, after launching last night on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Docking of the vehicle is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
In the video below, at about the 1:30 mark, you can see a problem develop with one of the engines, which immediately shuts down.Yet the rocket keeps going.
That’s the beauty of the Falcon design, which has 9 clustered engines. From our article on SpaceX that ran last January:
The choice of nine engines for the first stage was made with reliability in mind: From the moment of liftoff, Falcon 9 can suffer an engine shutdown and keep flying; after about 90 seconds, it can tolerate a second engine shutdown. Even if an engine explodes…the others will not be affected.
Update: SpaceX put out the following statement on Monday afternoon:
Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event….
Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V (which experienced engine loss on two flights) and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability.
It is worth noting that Falcon 9 shuts down two of its engines to limit acceleration to 5 g’s even on a fully nominal flight. The rocket could therefore have lost another engine and still completed its mission.
October 9 update: It also has become clear that, due to the first stage anomaly, the Falcon 9 sent a smaller secondary payload owned by Orbcomm into the wrong orbit. SpaceX wasn’t exactly forthcoming with this information, which trickled out on various space websites yesterday. As a private business, they’re not required to tell us anything, of course. But with all the uninformed criticism of “new space” ventures these days, companies like SpaceX might do themselves a favor by being open and upfront when something does go wrong. NASA always has been — and it’s one of the agency’s many strengths.
August 16, 2012
The rocketeers at Masten Space Systems (see p. 3) are pretty happy with the Xombie they’ve created. The vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle passed a big goal Tuesday: flying 750 meters downrange. As you can see in the video below, Xombie — which won Masten $150,000 from NASA and the X PRIZE for precision landing in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge — ascended over 475 meters before reorienting to travel to its destination at a little over 50 mph.
Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dave Masten said of the test, “I could not be happier.” As for Xombie’s next steps:
We are discussing going a bit faster and further downrange, but the real purpose of Xombie is to be useful as a testbed. Where we hope to go with this is enabling NASA, NASA contractors, and others to more effectively test their new technologies. Next for Xombie will be to fly similar trajectories but with new technologies to demonstrate that those technologies are ready for use in mission critical applications, such as landing on Mars.
JPL [one of Masten's clients for Xombie, among others] will be releasing their take on what they can do with Xombie in the near future and I don’t want to steal their thunder, so I won’t say much more along those lines.
Here’s another view of Xombie’s flight.
June 4, 2012
Making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to get things into orbit is the hot ticket right now. In our latest issue we cover the ongoing efforts by the Operationally Responsive Space office, working out of Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico, to make quick-launch spacecraft. DARPA’s also in that game: last week they awarded Boeing a $4.5 million contract to study airborne satellite launch systems. DARPA’s website explains:
The goal of [the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access] ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for routinely launching small satellites, with a goal of at least threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and US commercial launch costs. Currently, small satellite payloads cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch, and must share a launcher with other satellites. ALASA seeks to launch satellites on the order of 100 pounds for less than $1M total, including range support costs, to orbits that are selected specifically for each 100 pound payload.
They also note other disadvantages of fixed launch sites, like weather delays and limitations on the types of orbits available. Of course, the idea for aircraft-based launches goes back to NASA’s X-planes in the 1950s. Today, Orbital Sciences Corp. sends satellites into space with its Pegasus rocket that launches from a Lockheed-1101 Tri-Star (NASA’s NuSTAR spacecraft is scheduled for a June 13 airborne launch). And Stratolaunch Systems, the collaboration of Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and Dynetics, is in the works to take payloads up “affordably and responsibly” (and if successful, “mark the dawn of a new era of space transportation,” if they do say so themselves).
With ALASA, which has been in the works since November 2011, DARPA is looking for something a bit lighter-duty for smaller satellites — the Pegasus/Tri-Star can carry up to 1,000 pounds, while the Stratolaunch will likely be rated for payloads upwards of 100,000 pounds. And somehow, they want this launch system designed so that it requires “no recurring maintenance or support, and no specific integration to prepare for launch.” A pick-it-up-and-go system, indeed. We’ll be interested to see what Boeing comes up with by the end of their 18-month contract.
June 1, 2012
Now that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has returned triumphantly to Earth, the idea that young, relatively inexperienced companies can play in the space big leagues—with far less NASA oversight than usual—gains credibility. The coming year will be a busy one for New Space, with several companies rolling out vehicles or beginning test flights after years of behind-the-scenes development. Here’s the current state of play:
Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, designed to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, had a good week. The lifting body mini-shuttle completed its first captive carry test on Tuesday (see video below), and the following day passed a key NASA design review. Sierra Nevada plans to begin approach-and-landing tests late this summer at Edwards Air Force Base in California, using an air-crane helicopter to drop the vehicle for free flights at progressively higher altitudes and speeds. The first two drop tests will be unpiloted, but the third will have a crew of two onboard, just as NASA’s Enterprise proto-space shuttle did in 1977. Bet on former NASA chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, who heads Dream Chaser’s test flight program, to make the first flight. Sierra Nevada’s Mark Sirangelo says the Dream Chaser remains on track to reach orbit (on top of an Atlas V rocket) “within two to three years,” depending on NASA funds and timing.
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, the other commercial vehicle beside Dragon that NASA is counting on for near-term cargo deliveries to the space station, is running behind its competitor, but is expected to debut this fall. The first launch of the Antares (formerly called Taurus II) carrier rocket on which Cygnus will ride is planned for August from Wallops Island, Virginia. If that works, Cygnus would launch to the space station on the second Antares in October or November for a demo flight similar to the one that SpaceX just completed.
Virgin Galactic also reported news this week: Scaled Composites, builder of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, was granted a license from the FAA to conduct powered flight tests, which will begin, the company says in typically vague fashion, “toward the end of the year.” SpaceShipTwo has flown 16 unpowered free flights to date, and its engine has been test-fired 10 times—“safely and successfully,” according to Virgin Galactic.
Boeing has been busy testing the parachute landing system for its CST-100 crew capsule over a dry lake in Nevada. The vehicle’s software, meanwhile, passed a NASA design review last week. The Apollo-style capsule is one of the competitors vying to ferry NASA astronauts to the space station later this decade. Boeing has leased one of the space shuttle’s old hangars at Cape Canaveral to build the CST-100, which will be launched on top of an Atlas V rocket. Test flights begin in 2015 or 2016.
Another entrant in the suborbital tourism (and research) market is XCOR, with its two-seat Lynx spaceplane. XCOR says it is making good progress on the engines for the Lynx Mark 1 vehicle, which will reach altitudes up to 38 miles (the Mark 2 version will reach up to 62 miles). The company hopes to begin flight testing by the end of this year, and to begin commercial flights in late 2013 or early 2014.
NASA may have canceled its Ares/Constellation program, but the essential elements have been repackaged by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Astrium as a commercial launch service called Liberty, using a rocket based on the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and a capsule similar to the Orion vehicle Lockheed is building for NASA. According to ATK, “Liberty’s test flights are expected to begin in 2014, with a crewed mission anticipated in late 2015.”
Blue Origin, the space startup founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, is the most secretive of the new launch companies, but it, too, weighed in this week with an announcement of sorts: the company’s unorthodox vertical takeoff/ horizontal landing “Space Vehicle” (catchy name!) passed an early-stage NASA requirements review in mid-May. Since the vehicle is still in the design phase, there’s no word as to when we might see test flights.
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