November 28, 2012
NASA has published another one of their cool, interactive roadmaps, like the one from last February that we enjoyed. Be sure to click through to the interactive full-size version to learn where NASA is headed in technology fields ranging from space power to nanotechnology and, of course, new launch systems.
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.
May 2, 2011
Late in 2014, a radically different type of rocket propulsion is set to show up on the International Space station for a period of experimentation.
The technology is called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). It’s a rocket engine that uses electricity to ionize a gas such as argon, xenon, or hydrogen. Ionizing means that an electron gets knocked off of each atom in the gas, creating a plasma, which then gets energized in another section of the engine by radio wave antennas. This superheats the plasma until it is 200 times hotter than the surface of the sun. The plasma shoots out the back of the rocket through a system of magnets that align it properly to create highly efficient thrust. Read more about it here.
While not able to provide the explosive power of a chemical rocket for getting loads off the launch pad, VASIMR can create a steady stream of thrust for days or weeks and continually accelerate a spaceship away from Earth. It still looks plenty explosive in this 2009 max-power test:
The company that created it, Ad Astra, was founded by 7-time space shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz. He claims that VASIMR could get astronauts to Mars in 39 days instead of the six-to-nine months needed with chemical rockets. Ad Astra is located in Webster, Texas, not far from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. A VASIMR rocket on the ISS would have many uses, one of which would be to reboost the station to higher altitudes. With the looming retirement of the space shuttle, which used to handle that job, NASA likes the idea. Ad Astra claims that a VASIMR rocket could do this work for about 1/10th the current cost of $210 million a year. Other tasks that VASIMR could eventually handle include propulsion to enable satellite refueling, repair, and disposal, payload delivery to the moon, Earth departure stages for deep space probes, and various uses as a space tug for future vehicles in Earth orbit or beyond.
So how’s the VASIMR going to get up there? Chang Díaz writes to us that he never intended for it to actually go to the station on the shuttle. “I knew that program would soon end,” he says. “We always planned to go on one of the CRS [NASA's Commercial Resupply Services] vehicles, Falcon or Taurus II. We are still on that plan and do not have to down select the carrier until next year, so we are carefully watching the evolution of the CRS program.” When the engine finally gets there, it will be the culmination of literally decades of work.
Chang Díaz is excited about the outlook for VASIMR. In March he signed his fourth support agreement with NASA to collaborate on research, analysis and development tasks on space-based cryogenic magnetic operations and electric propulsion systems. In particular, the support agreement means that Ad Astra will provide NASA with an assessment of VASIMR’s high-power, low-thrust trajectories over a number of mission scenarios ranging from near Earth to deep space, while NASA will support Ad Astra’s efforts to mature the design of their 200-kilowatt VF-200 demonstration engine planned for the ISS, including use of specialized NASA facilities and equipment for the testing.
Chang Díaz emailed us from the country of his birth, Costa Rica, where Ad Astra has a second location, and said he was headed to Europe. “There is a strong current of interest in VASIMR developing in the old world as well, mainly Germany and Italy,” he says.
Here’s a neat video of a VASIMR payload delivery to the moon, which shows the advantages of the technology over traditional, chemical rockets.
December 13, 2010
Engineers with the Office of Naval Research set a new world record on Friday by firing an electromagnetic railgun “cannon” with an energy of 33 megajoules, or 33 million joules. That would be enough, in an operational system, to shoot a projectile 110 miles from a ship, at speeds up to Mach 5.
Here’s what the shot, which took place at the Navy’s Dahlgren research center in Virginia, looked like:
Railguns have been suggested for years as a way to launch cargo into space. People couldn’t be cannon-fired to the space station, of course, but railguns might be used for bulk materials, even water, which could withstand the high accelerations.
We’re still a long way from a railgun space launcher, though. According to this 2003 paper, you need a minimum of 10 gigajoules to reach orbit, or 300 times the energy of the Dahlgren test. Oh well. At least NASA is thinking about it, and not leaving all the fun to the Navy.