Showing posts with label spaceflight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spaceflight. Show all posts

25 November 2013

Reusable launchers

If Falcon 9 launches the SES-8 communications satellite successfully, this will be a doubly historic day in the life of SpaceX and for spaceflight in general. It is SpaceX's first attempt at a geostationary transfer orbit, and it's the second flight of their new partly reusable rocket.


The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
Today is a very special day. SpaceX plans to launch its first mission to put a commercial satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

This is what all launcher companies aspire to, and it's the core of their business.

From GTO a communications satellite can make its own way to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), the place it needs to be if it's a TV relay or a weather satellite.

Today's projected launch is for a satellite called SES-8, flying to provide communications links for South-East Asia.

A new, reusable rocket - This is also the second launch for SpaceX's Falcon 9 1.1, a new and more powerful design that has replaced the original version of Falcon 9. Uniquely among current launch vehicles, Falcon 9 1.1 is designed to be reusable; after stage separation and ignition of the second stage and the payload, all other first stages simply re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, break up under aerodynamic stresses, and crash into the sea.

But Falcon 9 1.1 is intended to rotate, fire three of its nine engines to slow and control its descent, and finally use a single engine to land back at the launch pad. The cost savings will be immense if first stages can be re-used.

SpaceX will not attempt a return this time, though on the first flight they did so [Tweet it!] (and almost succeeded). The idea was to simulate a landing on the sea's surface and then ditch the stage.

But early next year, SpaceX would like to try again using a Falcon 9 1.1 equipped with deployable landing legs. Eventual success will transform the space launch industry very dramatically.

Watch this space! (No pun intended.)

Questions:

  • Reusable rockets would greatly reduce costs to orbit (think in terms of around one tenth the cost or less) What might cheaper access to space make possible?
  • Do you think humans will one day live in places other than the Earth? (See, for example, Mars One.)

See also: 

07 May 2013

Photos of the Earth

Chris Hadfield has a better view from his window than most of us. He has been living and working on the International Space Station and has been active with a camera in his spare time. This recent example is typically stunning. Enjoy!

The Moon rising above Earth at night
Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut, soon to end his command of the International Space Station (ISS).

During his tour of duty he's been an active photographer, taking and publishing dozens of stunning images of the Earth.

Here is a recent image showing city lights in the south-eastern part of the USA with the Moon rising above a small slice of blue sky on the horizon.

Chris has a good eye for composition and every picture he publishes has been excellent and breath-taking. He's been publishing these images from the ISS using his Twitter account. Isn't it amazing how 'normal' life in orbit has become?

Another favourite activity for Chris has been making videos demonstrating the effects of weightlessness in response to requests from people back on Earth.

Questions:

  • If orbital flight was cheap, would you enjoy a holiday in space?
  • If you could take just one photo on your space holiday, what would it be?

See also:

27 April 2013

We need a new approach

SpaceX is solving a fundamental blocking problem in spaceflight. This is a great example for the church where a similar blocking problem needs to be addressed. As with all such problems we need a new approach, a new way to see the problem and find a solution.

Grasshopper landing, 5th test flight
Sometimes good examples help us to see our situation in a new light, and great examples can even encourage us to do something about it.

Here is a truly great example from SpaceX, the Californian commercial spaceflight company owned and run by Elon Musk.

First the example, then we'll take a look at how we might apply it to the church.

Spaceflight? Church? There seems to be a disconnect, perhaps. Well no, actually. But more on that later.

Spaceflight is expensive - Here's the situation as Elon found it. Spaceflight is extremely expensive; launch costs for placing a large communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) are typically £150 million or so.

This is what I call a blocking problem. It blocks further progress. Spaceflight cannot become routine on a large scale with launch costs of this order. For decades these high costs have been regarded as unavoidable. What might be done to reduce them?

By carefully designing the company's Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets to be as efficient as possible, both in terms of manufacture and deployment, Elon Musk has been able to trim the launch cost considerably. But it's still too high, much too high.

Not being one to give up easily, he realised that the fuel costs are less than 1% of the cost of the rocket, so if a rocket could be reused over and over again (like an aircraft) the cost per launch could fall very dramatically.

Grasshopper - So this is what SpaceX has been attempting with its 'Grasshopper' project. Grasshopper is a test version of the company's standard Falcon 9. It has flown five times so far, higher each time. The recent flight to 250 m is amazing to watch. It goes up, it hovers for a while, and then it returns to the launch pad and lands!

Watch Grasshopper do it's stuff in this SpaceX video. Don't miss it. It's truly astonishing!

On the next cargo flight of Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX intends to 'land' the first stage on the sea as a trial run. They don't expect to succeed on the first attempt (though I suspect they may do better than most people think). But they will persevere and when they are comfortable with the process they will eventually return an intact first stage to the launch pad.

And then they'll work on minimising the refurbishment and refuelling so that the same rocket can be flown several times a week, perhaps even several times a day. And they plan to work on returning the second stage as well.

I'm sure you can see how this will change everything. Space launches will become far cheaper and new markets for launch services will develop as a direct result.

And the church? - Ah, the church! You see the church has a similar problem, something that has been taken for granted like high launch costs in the rocket business. Church in the West has seen falling numbers, falling influence, falling relevance to ordinary people.

All sorts of programmes have been organised involving better music, excellent teaching, novel forms of meeting, cafe church, simple church, exciting children's programmes, house church and more. None of these things in themselves has made a fundamental difference.

Like Elon Musk and SpaceX we need a new way of thinking.

And we already have one! Alan Hirsch has put his able mind to work and has identified six key elements that are essential but sufficient for explosive and continuing growth. Taken together (and he makes it clear that they must be taken together to be effective) these six elements can make a dramatic difference.

The first key element is 'Jesus is Lord' and that should surprise none of us. But what are the other five?

You'll have to wait for a later post to find out. But if you can't wait, get a copy of Alan's book, 'The Forgotten Ways' and start reading. It's excellent stuff, illuminating, exciting, and carrying a real hope for the future of the church in the West.

Questions:

  • Does it seem to you that church in the western world is advancing or retreating?
  • Why is the western church not growing explosively like the church in China or India?
  • Have you heard Alan Hirsch speak, or read any of his books?
  • Is Jesus truly at the very centre of all you do and say and think?

See also:

24 April 2013

Space, a new era

A new age is beginning in space commerce. After a little history this article considers where things may go next in timescales of ten, twenty and a hundred years. This is no longer purely science fiction, it is becoming technological fact. It's possible to foresee voyages to the stars a hundred years from now.

Apollo 4 on the pad
Yes, we really are at the beginning of a new era in spaceflight. Until recently almost all efforts in space were the preserve of governments or multinational bodies like the European Space Agency (ESA).

In a few areas private companies were able to play a role, but the funding was mostly government based.

The only real exception has been for communications satellites, and even these had to be flown on rockets designed and built for governments.

In this article we'll look at how the situation has been changing, especially over the last five years.

Early history - I was nine-years-old when Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957. I remember hearing its bleeping tone on the radio and noticing how anxious Mum and Dad seemed that the Russians rather than the Americans had achieved this feat of engineering.

Of course, America wasn't far behind; though early European cooperation in rocketry failed.

In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin flew on Vostok 1 and before long orbital trips seemed almost routine. The Americans landed Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969. Today we can add many more nations, an international organisation (ESA), and even a private company (SpaceX) to the list.

Commercial satellites - Commercial space businesses began with government contracts to construct rockets and build satellites. But the first businesses to make a profit from space were broadcasting and telecommunications companies.

Since then direct broadcast TV, weather satellites, earth resources, mapping, messaging, delivery tracking and global positioning (GPS) have become mainstream commercial applications. And military satellites, although not commercial in nature, are widely deployed and used by many national governments.

The space launch industry - With so many commercial satellite operators, it was clear that there was a  market for a commercial space launch industry.

Until recently those launchers have been funded and specified by governments, but now SpaceX, a number of other companies and some cooperative ventures such as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are looking to make a profit by selling launch services. This includes provision of the launch vehicles, payload integration, fuelling, pad infrastructure, and managing the launch itself.

Virgin Galactic - Virgin is close to providing sub-orbital short hops into space. They plan to cater for space tourism as well as offering research flights. For the first time scientists and engineers will be able to fly with their experiments regularly and return them reliably. This service may replace throw-away sounding rockets.

Other companies are working on sub-orbital flight too, but Virgin are very close. Their spacecraft (SpaceShipTwo) is about to begin powered test flights.

SpaceX - Elon Musk's company already offers two sizes of commercial launcher (Falcon 1e and Falcon 9) and is close to testing Falcon Heavy for even larger payloads. They are also using their Dragon cargo ship to fly regularly to the International Space Station (ISS), are working hard on a crewed version of Dragon.

DragonLab is a free-flying commercial venture to provide a weightless platform for science and technology. Any organisation can book space on DragonLab knowing that their payload can be recovered and flown again as often as required.

A further project (Grasshopper) is developing the technology to safely land and re-use Falcon 9 rocket stages. And in the more distant future SpaceX has ambitions to see a viable human colony established on Mars.

Bigelow - Bigelow Aerospace has two prototype inflatable space habitat modules in orbit, is planning to attach one to the ISS for testing by NASA, and plans to offer orbital accommodation for science as well as for tourism.

Mars OneMars One is a non-profit foundation based in the Netherlands. They hope to colonise Mars and pay for it by a combination of donations, sponsorship and TV contracts. The plan is to send four people to Mars in 2023 with four more arriving every two years after that. These are one way trips. Mars One is now open for applicants and is signing contracts for initial design studies.

Asteroid mining - At least two companies have been created recently with a view to the commercial exploitation of asteroidal materials. Asteroids are rich in rare and precious metals as well as volatiles in the form of ices.

Where is it all leading? - This really is a special time in spaceflight. We are progressing from state funded and controlled projects at relatively small scale and high cost, towards commercial operations taking humankind and our machines further and doing so profitably.

The immediate future offers the prospect of short hops into space for anyone with £20 000 to £30 000 to spare, a reusable Falcon 9 first stage substantially reducing the cost to orbit, and commercial access to low Earth orbit (LEO) for both crewed and uncrewed spacecraft. This is likely to include small capsules like SpaceX's Dragon and much larger volumes such as the Bigelow inflatable modules. Much of this will happen in the next ten years.

In the longer term we can expect commercial operations to develop raw material supplies from Asteroids, as well as small colonies on Mars and perhaps the Moon too. For this we may be looking at a twenty year timescale.

But make no mistake, once this process has begun there will be no stopping it. We are probably heading for a Solar System wide civilisation within the next century. Children born today will find it quite normal to watch and read material created on a different planet or in orbit elsewhere around our local star.

And once the outer planets have been reached it will be only a matter of time before our descendants start to consider how best to reach other stars. Perhaps they will send out self-sufficient colonies based on and inside modified asteroids.

Questions:

  • If humans colonise space, how will that affect society, faith, and the future?
  • Are you going to sign up for Mars One's one way trip to Mars? (I'm not!)
  • How would you feel if your children or grandchildren were living on Mars?
  • If the cost comes down enough, would you fancy a sub-orbital hop into space?

See also:




27 September 2012

Grasshopper at SpaceX

Reusing spacecraft instead of throwing them away after each launch would massively reduce costs per launch and costs per kilogram of payload. The Space Shuttle was largely reusable, but the work involved in making that possible was costly and safety was jeopardised.

SpaceX's Grasshopper
SpaceX have a number of projects going on in parallel. Perhaps they are best known for launching their Dragon spacecraft in May, successfully docking with the International Space Station (ISS), delivering cargo, and bringing a return cargo safely back to Earth. They plan to fly their first contracted operational flight to the ISS for NASA on 7th October.

But one of their objectives is to further reduce the cost of launching spacecraft. Their Falcon range of launchers are already cheap enough to take launch contracts from other operators, including Ariane. But to make a further reduction in costs SpaceX have always expressed the importance of making Falcon stages reusable.

Normally, the launcher stages plunge back to earth and are destroyed on impact with the ocean. The one exception to this in the past was the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters that descended by parachute and were refurbished, refilled with solid fuel, and restacked for another launch.

SpaceX is working on returning Falcon stages under rocket power (the 'Grasshopper' project) and the first test last week involved lifting a first stage tank structure to a height of just six feet and landing again. The test was a success and will lead to higher and longer flights attempting a return to the launch area.



If they can develop a commercial version of this powered recovery technique with the first stage (and it will be a major challenge), the company will then focus on techniques to recover the second stage of the launcher.

This will be a far greater challenge as the speeds, altitudes and horizontal distances involved will all be much larger.


27 April 2012

SpaceX takes another step

SpaceX plans to send its Dragon spacecraft to dock with the space station, perhaps as soon as Monday 7th May. If successful this will be a major step forward for the comapny.

Dragon at the ISS (artist's impression)I've been following the development of SpaceX's launcher and spacecraft hardware with great interest. On Monday 7th May, unless there's a further schedule change, the privately owned company will make its first attempt to fly a Dragon spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station (ISS).

The launcher - Falcon 9 has flown only twice so far, both launches were successful. On its first flight the rocket carried a dummy Dragon to orbit. On the second flight a fully functioning Dragon was orbited and made a successful splashdown and recovery off the Californian coast.

Two successes out of two attempts is a great performance, but tells us almost nothing about levels of reliability. A third success would boost confidence, a failure would be a serious setback.

Falcon 9 (and the smaller Falcon 1) both have commercial orders booked for the satellite launch business. In the case of Falcon 9 those bookings alrready represent a considerable part of the worldwide launch business. If the launcher continues to fly successfully it will quickly become proven as flight frequency ratchets up. At least four further launches are planned in 2012, both for freight delivery to ISS and for commercial customers.

The spacecraft - Dragon has flown once before, this time it needs to repeat the success, navigate to the ISS, and automatically fly to within a few metres of the station. If it manages this, the station's remote manipulator arm will dock it to one of the modules and the ISS astronauts will open it, unload the cargo, and load Dragon with experimental material for return to Earth.

Finally, SpaceX will fly the craft back to splashdown in the Pacific and the capsule and its cargo will be recovered.

A difficult mission - We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties faced by SpaceX. The mission is complex and much of it goes further than the company has ever gone before. It will not be suprising if the mission fails in some or all of its objectives. Nevertheless I think the chances of success are quite good, and I wish SpaceX well with the mission.

What next? - If the flight is a success, NASA has a contract with SpaceX for further cargo flights to the ISS. This would involve two or more flights annually for several years. As mentioned above, there are also contracts with other companies and organisations to fly a variety of other spacecraft. Furthermore, SpaceX is offering commercial Dragon flights (DragonLab) for science and technology payloads for return to Earth.

Expect to see a new version of Dragon for crewed NASA flights to the ISS (or indeed for other organisations). SpaceX is already well along in developing the necessary hardware for this.

And there is a much larger launcher in the pipeline too, Falcon Heavy. This is scheduled for its first test flight later this year, though it may slip to 2013.

For more on SpaceX and their plans see their Google+ page.

03 October 2011

TECHNOLOGY - Reusable rockets

SpaceX is an innovative space launch company with a number of impressive 'firsts' to their name and a large order book of reservations for satellite launches on their Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles.

The planet MarsThe company was founded by Elon Musk using capital earned by his earlier IT businesses, particularly PayPal which was sold in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk's share was more than 10% enabling him to start SpaceX as well as the electric car company, Tesla.

In September 2008 Falcon 1 achieved earth orbit, the first time a privately owned company had orbited a liquid fuelled rocket. All previous successes were by the government programs of a variety of nations.

In June 2010 Falcon 9, a much larger vehicle, also flew successfully to orbit. And in December 2010 Falcon 9 flew again, this time carrying a Dragon capsule which completed two orbits, successfully re-entered, splashed down and was recovered. This was another first for a private company.



A heavy rocket is planned (Falcon 9 Heavy) and a demonstration flight to dock Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) is due in 2012.

But now, SpaceX has announced plans for full reusability. If they can pull this off it will be an utter game-changer, reducing the cost to orbit by perhaps 100 times.

Elon's recent presentation to the US National Press Club explains the reason for the attempt to operate a reusable rocket. His long term goal is nothing less than to colonise Mars. This might sound crazy, but he has a track record of doing things that were thought to be impossible. So maybe he will succeed. If anyone can, Elon and SpaceX can!

18 September 2011

TECHNOLOGY - A trip on the ISS

How amazing to watch the earth as the International Space Station whizzes past. This video was made by James Drake from a long series of still images. You can see land, ocean, clouds, cities, and thunderstorms as well as the edge of the atmosphere and a brilliant sunrise.


For best results view the video in HD at YouTube. Visit the item on James Drake's blog for more information. But meanwhile consider just what you've been seeing...

The Space Station (ISS) orbits up to 16 times daily at a height of 280 to 450 km and typically travels at 27 700 km/hr. The stars, city lights, and thunderstorms cannot be seen in the brightness of full daylight. The general illumination in the video is probably moonlight.

The forward looking camera is fixed so the structure of the station doesn't move in the video; and the earth rolls past beneath (although it's really the ISS that is moving). The track here is north to south, covering almost half way around the globe beginning over Canada and finishing neat Antarctica. At normal speed the video would last around forty minutes, but it's been speeded up.

Seeing this left me quite stunned. The beauty of the night-time earth and the brilliance of the arrival of day are so beautiful. And just think of all the people living their lives down below. Both North and South America pass below during this one brief video.

09 December 2010

TECHNOLOGY - SpaceX, another first

It was a privilege to be able to watch SpaceX's live webcast of the launch of their first Dragon capsule. This is a unique achievement, it's the first time a private company has put a spacecraft into orbit and safely returned it to earth.

Launch of Falcon 9 and Dragon, 8th December 2010The icing on the cake is that they also manoevered Dragon while in orbit, testing some of the moves that will be required to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). But why is all this such a great thing?

Let me explain. The human race undoubtedly has a built-in urge to explore and try out new things. We might have different views on the reason for this, and some might argue that space exploration is far too expensive to justify. But for whatever reason people have a built-in desire to explore beyond the boundaries, to go further than before, to see and understand new things.

SpaceX have done something amazing. They are a small company working on a small budget, in just eight years they have developed two launcher families and a spacecraft and have won a NASA COTS contract to resupply the ISS and return cargo to Earth. In the past only nations and groups of nations have returned a spacecraft from orbit. The Soviet Union and the United States achieved this in the early 1960s, and later China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency (ESA) have done so too.

SpaceX was founded and is managed by Elon Musk, reinvesting some of his personal fortune earned by creating PayPal. Elon and SpaceX are determined to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of spaceflight tenfold and they have now demonstrated a realistic chance of doing so. Not only did they fly Dragon to orbit and return it intact, the spacecraft and (potentially) the first stage of Falcon 9 are reusable for multiple flights.

They have built all the hardware themselves, including the rocket engines. The designs are deliberately simple and the propulsion systems are modular and include a great deal of built-in redundancy.

Finally, Dragon and Falcon 9 were both designed with a view to launching crews to low Earth orbit. This is expected to take a further two to three years and Dragon will accomodate up to seven astronauts.

SpaceX deserve a huge round of applause for an outstanding achievement. As a recent aerospace start-up company what they have done is truly game-changing.

See all articles about SpaceX.

05 October 2010

TECHNOLOGY - Dragon readies for launch

Most people are aware that the American Space Shuttle fleet is being retired. The last flight is currently scheduled for next year, 2011. After that, the only way Americans will be able to travel to orbit and dock at the International Space Station (ISS) will be to buy seats from the Russians.

SpaceX's Dragon capsuleThe Constellation Program that was intended to replace the Shuttle has been cut and modified several times and is unlikely to provide a crewed launch facility soon or, perhaps, ever. China has a crewed vehicle, and Europe and Japan both have operational cargo craft from which crewed vehicles might be developed. India is planning and building a crewed launch system.

What the USA does have however is something quite unique. It has several businesses designing and building crewed spacecraft as commercial ventures.

One of these is SpaceX, based in California. They launched the first of their Falcon 9 rockets carrying a dummy Dragon capsule in June 2010. In November they plan to launch another Falcon 9 with a fully functioning Dragon cargo capsule to test the re-entry and landing systems. If all goes well, next year they will be in a position to begin carrying and returning cargo for the ISS - and they already have a full order book from NASA and other clients around the world.

Dragon was designed from the ground up to be capable of carrying seven astronauts in place of cargo. SpaceX is hoping that once Dragon is proven as a reliable cargo system NASA will decide to fund its upgrade and testing as a crewed vehicle.

I wish SpaceX well and hope the mission in November will be a complete success.

(For full details and more photos visit the SpaceX Updates page.)

See also: Up, up, and away

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