Friday, May 27, 2005

Drink Up And Go Up

7-Up is offering a free ride to space to one lucky winner between now an September 15th. The grand prize is a flight into space on the successor to SpaceShipOne. All you need to do is enter a 15-digit code at the 7-up website and you might be the lucky winner. Check the official rules for details

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Voyager 1 At The Edge Of The Solar System

Launched nearly 30 years ago, Voyager 1 has now officially reached the edge of the solar system. It has officially crossed the termination shock, where the solar wind drops abruptly drops in speed from supersonic to subsonic, and has now entered the heliosheath that divides our solar system from interstellar space.

The event was witnessed by a 2.5 times increase in the measured magnetic field indicating the drop in the speed of the solar wind and a concomitant increase in cosmic rays from interstellar space.

Voyager's Radio-isotope Thermal Generators should provide enough power for the craft to last until 2020 which NASA hopes will be enough time for the craft to pass beyond the heliopause into interstellar space.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

James Webb Space Telescope May Have To Be Scaled Back

Facing soaring budget overruns and launch delays, the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, is coming under review and may experience some cutbacks. With current estimates putting the price tag at $3.5bil by 2012 not including the launch cost, NASA is looking at what needs to be done to get its financial house in order.

Orbiting the sun at the Earth-Sun L2 point approximately 1.5mil km from Earth, Webb will have an ideal vantage point to observe star birth and the formation of the universes earliest galaxies.

NASA is going to the astrophysical community in mid-July to decide where the cuts will be either in Webb or in other projects.

1 in 200 Chance of Catastrophic Impact By Space Debris With ISS

A NASA study released earlier this year projects a 1 in 200 chance of catastrophic impact of space debris with the International Space Station. Currently the US Space Command tracks 13,000 objects in orbit larger than a baseball, but it estimate that there are as many as 200k additional object larger than a marble that they are unable to track.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Cosmos 1 Solar Sail To Be Launched June 21

The Cosmos 1 solar sail has completed its testing and is on its way to the launch facility at Severomorsk, Russia to be loaded in to a converted ICBM. Once in orbit, the craft will deploy its 20m diameter sails and attempt to use them under controlled flight.

If successfully, Cosmos 1 will point the way for launching vehicles and probes capable of exploring not just the solar system but also of traveling the vast distances to nearby stars.

The project is sponsored by The Planetary Society which has stuck with it despite a disappointing deployment failure in an earlier suborbital test in July of 2001.

The project also has its own website with animations depicting the mission.

ESA May Help Back Russian Kliper

The Guardian this weekend quoted Daniel Sacotte, the ESA's director of human space flight, as saying "I am fairly confident they will say yes" to the question of involvement in the Kliper program.

"It's not just that Kliper is a good political deal or that it provides us with a powerful piece of technology. It will give us a vision, a scientific goal that young Europeans badly need today."

The cost of investing in the program is a true bargain at only 100m Euros per year.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Virgin Galactic Announces Ambitious Plans For Space Tourism

At last Saturday's National Space Society's International Space Development Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Virgin Galactic representatives spoke about their plans to kick off the age of commercial spaceflight. With more than 30,000 individuals registering on their website interest in taking a suborbital flight, the company is selecting a group of 100 "founders" who will pay the $200k fee to be the first to go when they begin operation in 2008.

The craft that will take them there, SpaceShipTwo, will be a descendent of SpaceShipOne which pioneered the field last Fall with the successful completion of the X-Prize. While sharing the feathered tail and hybrid motor used by its predecessor, SpaceShipTwo will "not look like SpaceShipOne," according to Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipTwo will fly to a peak altitude between 360k and 400k feet giving passengers about six minutes of weightlessness.

The company is planning to take about 450 people into space during 2008, roughly the same number that have flown into space since the dawn of the space age 4 decades ago. The company plans to double that number to about 1000 in 2009.

Once the operations achieves profitability, projected to be around 2013, the company will begin work on an orbital system. Prices are expected to drop to $50k for flights after 5 years and $25k after 9 years.

But to Virgin this is about more than profit, "I'm a firm believer that this will provide the foundation for the actual colonization of space," Whitehorn said. "That is really what this project is all about to us."

Falcon 1 Being Prepared For August Launch

SpaceX is planning an August date for the initial launch of its Falcon 1 rocket. Slated to lift-off from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying TacSat-1, built by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

It also sounds like Pay-Pal Founder Elon Musk has bigger plans for his venture, "We’ll be announcing something fairly significant later this year as far as much more capability than is currently represented. But we’d like to have one launch before making any big announcement in that direction. But you can expect that…expect that from a strategy standpoint. Call it the 7/11 strategy. We’re going small, medium, large and extra-large, or big gulp, or whatever it is."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Rutan Takes NASA To Task

In his acceptance speech for the Von Braun Award from the National Space Society, Burt Rutan has harsh words for NASA.

"We have regressed. Do you know of any technology that gets over the decades more dangerous?"

"The public is not excited about spending money to fund a trip to Mars run by an agency that doesn't have the courage to go back to the Hubble Telescope...We're not excited about spending billions to do a small amount of science on the space station."

About NASA Administrator Michael Griffin Rutan said, "I'm very impressed by him. I don't know if he can get through the bureaucracy."

Rutan is very hopeful about the future of private spaceflight, "In 15 years, every kid will know he can go in his lifetime."

NASA May Have To Abandon Space Station

Due to a law which bars the U.S. from purchasing flights on Russian spacecraft, NASA may not be able to keep personnel on the station when the shuttle is not docked after April 2006. An exception for 11 flights runs out after the launch of a module this September which is schedule to return in April 2006.

The law was enacted by Congress to punish Russia for alleged weapons technology transfers to Iran and bans NASA from purchasing flights from Russia unless the President certifies that Russia has taken steps to prevent the transfers. NASA and administration officials are said to be considering options for overcoming the ban.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Griffin Contemplates Shifting Resources From Space Station to CEV

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is described as "lukewarm" on the future of the International Space Station and is contemplating shifting funds from experiments planned for there to the development of the Crew Exploratory Vehicle(CEV) planned to replace the Shuttle. Projects would be either delayed or canceled in a review of program priorities. Griffin has pledged to move up the time frame for replacement of the aging Shuttle fleet.

This is definitely a positive development. The main purpose for the ISS has always been to provide a purpose for the shuttle. Little scientific work of real value can be completed there and industry has shown little interest in funding research. Completing the terms of our agreements for the station, and shifting focus to establishing Lunar bases and exploring Mars will allow us return to operating a real space program.

Air Force Seeks Presidential Approval For Space Based Weapons

The U.S. Air Force has requested a Presidential directive to allow it to deploy space based weapons capable of striking any place in the globe within minutes. Several systems have been under development.

Global Strike would utilize a weapon called the common aero vehicle which strike anywhere in the world within 45 minutes. Another system would use dense rods dropped from space and impacting the surface at more than 7200km/h. The kinetic energy imparted would be comparable to the that released by a small nuclear weapon. Space base laser and anti-satellite systems are also part of the equation.

If implemented, this plan could kick off a global arms race. Coupled with the conversion to robotic arms, this technology may unbalance the equation which has held back the use of military force on a larger scale.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

60 Years of Manned Missions to Mars

Encylcopedia Astronautica reviews the plans for all the manned missions to Mars from the last 60 years from Von Braun's 1952 armada of ten vessels to Gorshkov's 2000 Marpost mission. It's a fascinating and frustrating history. As they note Mars is only 20 years away and always has been.

EADS Cancels 12-ton Ariane

Citing a lack of demand, European Aeronautic Defence and Space(EADS) has decided to scrap plans for a 12-ton version of its Ariane rocket. The current generation Ariane 5 can carry up to a 10-ton payload. Instead the company is considering developing a unmanned space glider to enter operation in the 2015-2020. Of course, wouldn't a space glider be even less useful.

I suspect that since it is a glider, they intend to make it reusable since wings have no utility in space. Reusability has only been shown to increase costs and increase them dramatically. Between the additional augmentation and weight such crafts need and the extensive refurbishment which occurs between each mission, reusable spacecrafts are an incredibly bad deal.

Aerospace Legend Burt Rutan and the New Space Age

CNN is running has posted an interview with SpaceShipOne Designer and Aerospace legend Burt Rutan about the future of private spaceflight. Interesting quotes:

"...within the next decade, after getting a good start of flying thousands of people outside the atmosphere, we'll have solutions to move in the direction of orbital flight."

"I think mankind does need to move away from where we are to explore somewhere else. The only way we've been able to survive is because we've reached out and we've taken risks to go where we didn't live before. That's our insurance against a local catastrophe wiping out our species. Certainly in the long run I think we do need to leave the earth and have settlements elsewhere."

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Russia Moves Ahead With Soyuz Replacement

In April the Russian government announced support for moving ahead with the Kliper project. The craft id designed to land either with wings on an air strip or with a parachute on land. (Why again can't the U.S. do this?) The craft is composed of two parts, the piloted component will be reusable up to 25 times, but the hardware component would be replaced after each mission. It would be capable of carrying up to six passengers, and it is claimed that could be used for missions to the moon and beyond. The Kliper may enter service within five years.

Information about the announcement is available at MosNews and SpaceDaily.

More diagrams of the Kliper and its launch configuration are available here.

The Russians seem to be taking a common sense approach to the Kliper, building upon tested-reliable technologies. For instance, the two part design of the Kliper is nearly identical to that of the Soyuz. They plan to used existing boosters. And the Kliper is designed to simply move people from Earth to space and back again and do it well, rather than the everything and the kitchen sink syndrome the US space program seems to keep falling victim to.

Friday, May 13, 2005

SpaceDev Proposing Orbital Launch System

SpaceDev, the makers of the hybrid rocket engine which propelled SpaceShipOne to last year's completion of the X-Prize challenge, are nearing completion of an initial study for NASA that lays out plans for a 6 person reusable spacecraft capable of reaching low Earth orbit.

The plan calls for a number of sub-orbital flights by 2008 and a orbital flight by 2010.

Space Shuttle Disaster Claims More Victims

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin submitted a revised 2005 budget to Congress which cuts funding for Project Prometheus, a number of IIS research studies and postpones two advanced space telescopes and a Mars lander slated for 2009.

The costs were needed to cover budget holes opened up by a higher than expected tab for duct-taping the shuttles together and to cover the cost of a manned expedition to the Hubble space telescope, in defiance of the Columbia Accident Review Board's recommendations. Other costs include covering $400m in Congressional pork.

While the Hubble provides pretty pictures, it would be better to move and deploy replacement telescopes launched from unmanned rockets. These would provide higher quality images at a fraction of the cost and none of the danger.

The IIS is a great white elephant meant to justify the existence of the Shuttle. Little science of value is likely to come out of it especially with the station as undermanned as it is. The acclaimed commercial research has failed to materialize.

Griffin seems to know where his bread is buttered (Congress) and is playing the odds that returning the Shuttle to flight and patching Hubble will improve the program's tarnished image. In the long run, however, this is a Faustian bargain securing NASA decline for the foreseeable future.

Canadian Arrow Team Returns With Ambitious Plan For Space Tourism

Next week the Canadian Arrow team plans to announce its name change to PlanetSpace as part of a new endeavor with MirCorp co-founder, Chirinjeev Kathuria. MirCorp pioneered space tourism leasing space on Mir and then arranging for Dennis Tito's flight to the IIS. The details of the new venture will be revealed on May 18th.

Last week the company achieved a milestone by successfully test firing its booster generating 45,000 lbs of thrust. Another test firing is planned later this month which is planned to achieve the 57,000 lbs of thrust needed to take the Arrow to 70,000 feet.

This sort of energy is what humanity needs if we are ever to truly become a spacefaring civilization.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

NASA Restructures CEV Project, Moves Up Timeline

It looks like Michael Griffin is moving in the right direction after all. Not wanting the U.S. to be out of the manned-space business for four years he's moved up the date for first launch of the Crew Exploration Vehicle(CEV) from 2014 to 2010. That will close the 2010-2014 gap with the retirement of the shuttle fleet which the CEV is meant to replace.

Originally the program was slated to select two contractors this year to submit further designs with a final contractor selected in 2008. NASA notified Congress last week that it will select a single contractor in 2006 and set the launch date at 2010.

This may open the door for a consortium of smaller companies including Scaled Composite's Burt Rutan. Their proposal is for their consortium to create a small,reusable capsule for sending and returning humans from LEO. The larger companies would then build the CEV which would remain permanently in space, removing the need for heat shielding and other equipment. The consortium claims that their 4-person vehicle could be flight-ready by 2008.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Space Daily Details Failure of CEV Project

An opinion piece by Jeffrey Bell up on Space Daily details what went wrong in the CEV project and in particular what's wrong with Lockheed Martin's submission.

Choice quote:
"The current system of designing hardware when the basic goals and structure of the program are still in flux is a prescription for disaster. The results can only be further delay, confusion, wasted effort, and a spacecraft in the classic battlestar style – unworkably complex, heavy, and too expensive to fly more than once every year or two."

DARPA Demonstrates Dramatic MicroThruster Breakthrough

Despite a thrust chamber only 4mm on a side the new microthrusters are capable of generating 40 milli-Newton seconds of impulse by combusting 35 milligrams of propellant, primarily composed of black powder. The new microthruster were developed by Tanner Research of Pasadena, CA with funding from DARPA. They are designed for use in small satellites, micro air vehicles and guided munitions.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

NASA Researchers Propose Flying Probe For Venus

NASA researcher Geoffrey Landis has proposed a mission involving an autonomous solar power aircraft that fly in the dense atmosphere of Venus. The planet's slow 117 rotation period and air density of 90 times that of Earth make for ideal conditions for such an approach. Flying at an altitude of 50km, the craft could also be used as the brains for a ground mission isolating delicate electronics needed to control the rover from the harsh conditions on the surface.

Nuclear Rockets Will Take Us There

Why is it so hard, so dangerous, and so expensive to get into space? It's because we rely on huge semi-controlled explosions to take us there. Who in there right mind would ever strap themselves above tens of thousands of pounds of explosives and press ignite? But that is what we ask our astronauts to do every time we send them to space. But this isn't the way it has to be.

As you guessed, I'm talking about nuclear power. But isn't that dangerous, isn't Nuclear scary? Nuclear power in general has gotten a bad rap (Nuclear power as it is practiced in the U.S. deserve that reputation, but that a topic of another post). With modern nuclear technology there is no risk of meltdown, fuel and equipment are recycled and overall radiation levels are reduced.

A nuclear rocket would emit NO radiation. The technical term for such a device is a nuclear Thermal Rocket. A nuclear core is used to heat hydrogen gas to extreme temperatures and expel it out the rear of the rocket. The hydrogen fuel it uses cannot pickup radiation from the core. The Gas Core Nuclear Rocket design uses a Uranium hexafluoride core spun into a vortex with a fused-silica shield used to separate the hydrogen from the radioactive gas. Approximately 10 pounds of gas would be needed. For details about the concept and the issues involved, read Anthony Tate's excellent article on the subject.

These engines would finally allow the ability to easily leave the surface of the planet and reenter again safely. Imagine simply slowing down enough in space using a nuclear rocket, eliminating entirely the need for much of the heat shielding used on current missions. With a combination of nuclear thermal and nuclear electric powered ion engines, the entire Solar system would be at our feet.

Most of the technology for nuclear rocket engines was developed in the 1960s in Project NERVA by NASA for use on a manned mission to Mars. When it was canceled in 1969 when it was apparent the Soviets were not going to launch their own manned Lunar and Mars missions, the project has already conducted test firings of a nuclear rocket engine which showed how effective and powerful the system would be.

Nuclear rocketry is seeing a recent reemergence in NASA's Project Prometheus which received funding this year of $430m. For more information about Project Prometheus read the article from 2003.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Indian Rocket Launches Two Satellites

In a demonstration of India's growing abilities in space, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched two satellites, the 1.5ton CartoSat-1 mapping satellite and the 94 pound HamSat for Amateur Radio Operators.

India has an ambitious plan to launch a lunar satellite by 2007 or 2008.

The rapid emergence of India and China as spacefaring nations in the last few years is going to help keep the pressure on the big players. The new space race is just getting started.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Griffin Torpedoes US Space Program

NASA's new administrator, Michael Griffin, discussed plans to radically change the design requirements for the new CEV system. In an interview with SpaceRef, Mr. Griffin is proposing increasing the launch weight requirements by 50% and mandating use of the current shuttle system for launches instead of looking to other alternatives.

"As NASA administrator, I already own a heavy lifter [in] the space shuttle stack," said Griffin. "I will not give that up lightly and in fact can't responsibly do so because any other solution for getting 100 tons into orbit is going to be more expensive than efficiently utilizing what we already own."

The whole point of the CEV was to reduce launch costs and improve safety by moving away from the Shuttle system. Additionally, modules would be launched from unmanned rockets and assembled in space, rather the with a single monolithic launch. This retrograde movement will not only set program back a year or more as the different bidding teams return to the drawing board, it will also eliminate the entire point of the effort and likely doom it to failure as with NASA last few Shuttle replacement programs.

SpaceX Awarded $100m Contract By USAF

In a major boost for the independent U.S. space industry, the USAF has awarded SpaceX a $100mil contract for use of their Falcon 1 launch vehicle. SpaceX expects the maiden launch to occur in late summer. Launches with the Falcon 1 are projected to cost about $6m each.

SpaceX is working on a larger rocket dubbed the Falcon 5 which they hope will be able to carry manned payloads to orbit. Bigelow Aerospace has licensed the Falcon 5 to launch a test system dubbed Genesis Pathfinder to test inflatable modules for the company's orbital hotels. Falcon 5 launches are projected by SpaceX to cost $12m each.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lockheed Martin Submits Design for Crew Exploration Vehicle

Lockheed Martin's submission is based around a lifting body design which the company argues would allow for more down range control than a capsule, facilitating land touchdown in addition to water sites. This of course ignores the fact that the Russian Soyuz capsules always touch down on land without incident. They also claim that a lifting body would help minimize the g-forces associated with Moon and Mars missions. Of course this makes no sense. For such missions, the craft could be shaped like a giant horse in space and the g-forces would be the same. To give them the benefit of the doubt, statements could be a misunderstanding on the part of the author of the article.

I still have my suspicions about Lockheed Martin's ability in light of the 1999 Mars Climate Observer foul-up. To be fair I am a CalTech grad, so I may be a bit biased.

Actually, I think this is tremendously good start. I hope that NASA has the sense to go ahead and end manned Shuttle flights and focus it's energies on getting the CEV in place as soon as possible.

Opportunity Still Stuck

The Opportunity rover continues to be stuck in a ripple of sand in Meridiani Planum since Sol 446. All four corner wheels are dug in by more than their radius in the sand of the dune. Operators are conducting tests using a copy of the rover located at JPL to determine the best course of action.

Mars Express to begin Water Survey

The ESA's Mars Express orbiter is poised to deploy the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument. While the discoveries made in last year by both Mars Express and the two NASA rovers have already confirmed the existence of large water deposits on Mars, the radar system will be able to map the deposits revealing the presence of water even a few kilometers beneath the surface.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Towards The Solar Sail

ATK Space Systems, based in California, is testing a material similar to Mylar for use in solar sails. Using a huge vacuum chamber a 100 feet in diameter and 122 feet high at the Cleveland NASA Glenn Research Center's Plum Brook Station, ATK is testing an array of four 70-foot long triangular pieces of sail stretched across boom arms. The team is examining how the sails will deploy in operate in the vacuum of space at various temperatures.

via Wired