Is the Merlin engine the workhorse of future spaceflight?

The engine looks good to Stewart Money at Space Review.

“Those Merlin engines are fantastic,” offers Tony Stark to Elon Musk in a cameo for the summer movie Iron Man 2. The brief exchange, occurring as it does in the Monte Carlo Hotel de Paris prior to the Monaco Grand Prix, invites the space enthusiast in all of us to draw an analogy between the two industrialists—and for those inclined to stretch a cameo further than anyone should, between the aforementioned Merlin engines and the Formula 1 racers about to take to the track.

The Space Review: The Falcon 9 flies

Jeff Foust at Space Review has the best coverage I’ve seen of the successful first flight of Falcon 9. Jeff wraps up the article with these notes on the future:

(…) The path ahead for SpaceX

With the Falcon 9 demonstration launch a success, the company is now planning to move ahead with the first of three planned missions that are part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop a capability to service the ISS. The first of those launches, a demonstration flight of a full-fledged Dragon spacecraft but one that does not visit the ISS, is on track for later this summer, Musk said. The Falcon 9 rocket for that mission has been built and is ready to ship to Cape Canaveral, while the Dragon spacecraft is undergoing final reviews.

The second COTS flight, planned for the second quarter of next year, will launch a Dragon that is currently planned to approach the ISS, but not berth with the station. However, Musk said prior to Friday’s launch that the company has been in discussions with NASA about adding that capability to the mission, which under the original plan would take place on the third and final COTS demonstration flight. “Our aspirational goal is to deliver cargo on COTS flight 2,” he said. “This makes COTS flight 3 effectively a backup flight to COTS 2.”

“This bodes very well for the Obama plan,” Musk said after the launch. “It really helps vindicate the approach that he’s taking.”

SpaceX remains interested in human spaceflight as well, with Musk reiterating past statements that the company would be ready to fly people within three years of contract award (including one year of schedule contingency) to develop a crewed version of Dragon. They key aspect of that development would be a launch escape system. Musk said they have “a very exciting new architecture” for that system: rather than an escape tower mounted on top of the capsule that would pull it away, as was done on previous capsules and was being developed for Orion, the escape thrusters would be built into the sidewalls of the capsule and be available through all phases of the launch. In addition, he said, those engines could be used to allow a Dragon spacecraft to make a return on land, rather than splashdown in the ocean. “I think that’s really the right way to land a spaceship,” he said.

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Approaching space object 'artificial, not asteroid' says NASA

NASA boffins report that an unknown object approaching the Earth from deep space is almost certainly artificial in origin rather than being an asteroid

Object 2010 KQ was detected by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona earlier this month, and subsequently tracked by NASA’s asteroid-watching service, the Near-Earth Object Program headquartered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

According to the NASA experts:

Observations by astronomer S J Bus, using the NASA-sponsored Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, indicate that 2010 KQ’s spectral characteristics do not match any of the known asteroid types, and the object’s absolute magnitude (28.9) suggests it is only a few meters in size.

The mysterious artificial object has apparently made a close pass by the Earth, coming in almost to the distance of the Moon’s orbit, and is now headed away again into the interplanetary void. The object has used no propulsion during the time NASA has had it under observation. However the spacewatch boffins believe that it must have moved under its own power at some point, given its position and velocity.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 achieves orbit on maiden flight

SpaceX Falcon 9 on its launch pad

Falcon 9 on its Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad

Good reportage from The Register on the huge success of Elon Musk’s maiden launch. First launches of rockets have a poor success rate (for obvious engineering reasons).

(…) The SpaceX Falcon 9 launched on its maiden flight on Friday at 11:45pm Pacific Daylight Time, 15 minutes short of the end of its four-hour launch window.…

Shortly afterward, The Reg received a SpaceX email that quoted founder Elon Musk as saying: “Nominal shutdown and orbit was almost exactly 250km. Telemetry showed essentially a bullseye: ~0.2% on perigee and ~1% on apogee.”

Bullseye, indeed. Musk had earlier said that merely achieving orbit on the Falcon 9’s first flight would be “100 per cent success” — and his two-stage, 54.9m (180ft), liquid oxygen and RP-1–fueled rocket’s payload, what Musk described as “structural test article of ourDragon spacecraft,” is at this moment zipping merrily about the globe, enjoying that success.

And success on a maiden voyage is unusual. According to a BBC report on the Falcon’s feat, two-third of rockets introduced in the past 20 years have had unsuccessful first flights.


Big congratulations to the whole SpaceX team. Please continue reading The Register coverage.

Space systems and missile defense in 2010

I recommend the status report on ballistic missile defense systems being developed around the world – by Taylor Dinerman.

Yet, as BMD systems proliferate, these satellites will be used principally to detect, track, and target ballistic missiles. This distances them from the world of intelligence and a Cold War-type nuclear exchange and makes them instruments of a new kind of missile warfare. Within a decade we could see war plans that depend on the early elimination of missile tracking satellites in order to degrade the enemy’s BMD capability. Defensive plans will be made to counter these attacks.

This may be what Chinese Air Force Commander General Xu Qilang was thinking of in an interview last November when he said, “As far as the revolution in military affairs is concerned, the competition between military forces is moving towards outer space… this is a historical inevitability and cannot be turned back.”

In the absence of space-based BMD weapons such as the old “Brilliant Pebbles” infrared-guided LEO based satellites, missile defense and space war are intimately linked. To imagine that an attacker is going to ignore space-based sensors and allow the target nation or force to employ its defense system at maximum efficiency is to ignore the lessons of history.

Eoin Colfer interview: on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

And another thing…, otherwise known as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy volume 6 is out. This could be bigger than the Tablet iPhone! Here’s excerpts from an interview with author Eoin Colfer:

(…) “Nothing can really prepare the reader for the experience of reading [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy]. Imagine trying to describe to a five year-old how it feels to be struck by lightning, using words of one syllable or less. You can give it a go, but you know before you start that, no matter how hard you try, when that five year-old finally does get hit by lightning he is going to be totally flabbergasted, and will probably use a few one-syllable words of his own.”

Colfer has not tried to ape Adams’s style, though, so while And Another Thing… takes up the quirky characters – reassembles them, in fact, after the Vogons left them in tiny bits at the end of Mostly Harmless – and sends them on a journey that takes full advantage of the Infinite Improbability Drive, the twisting sentences that are quintessentially Adamsian are missing.

From Colfer’s blog on the challenge of extending Douglas Adams:

I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide in my late teens when Ted Roche, a libertine friend of mine, pressed it into my sweaty palms and hissed at me with fanatical intensity that I must read it or be ridiculed forever by the school literati. Relax, dude, I remember saying with eighties’ insouciance. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

But I was scared. Petrified in fact. If one was not a sportsman, the only other circle to belong to was the readers’ circle. Places were limited and expulsions were swift and ruthless. If one had not read the livre du jour then one would not be offered book swapsies on Friday. If this happened, then a person might be forced to turn to his own siblings for conversation.

So, in this spirit of quasi-persecution I scuttled home after double chemistry and found a quiet bathroom where I could settle down and read what I was certain would be a thinly veiled version of Star Wars. Vogons destroy the Earth and a single hero survives. Please. I could almost write the rest myself.

Never have I been so happy to be proven wrong.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was like nothing I had read before, or since for that matter. If you have read it then you know exactly what I am talking about. If you haven’t then read it now, moron. The problem is the hyperbole puts people off. If it’s so popular then it must be middle of the road, brimming with clichés and easily digested on the sands of Ibiza.

All false assumptions. The Guide is a slice of satirical genius. A marvel of quantum tomfoolery. A dissection of the absurdities of our human condition. A space odyssey that forces us to face ourselves and collapse in hysterics. Imagine if Messrs. Hawking and Fry were locked in a room with the entire cast of Monty Python and forced to write a book which would subsequently be edited by Pink Floyd, then the result would need a lot of work before it could be cut from Douglas Adams’ first draft.

For the next couple of decades I followed the exploits of Arthur Dent and his intergalactic troupe as they stumbled through space and time befuddled and bereft, drinking tea in the face of impossible odds and generally failing to find enlightenment at every turn. It’s like a quest for the holy grail where the grail is neither holy nor grail-shaped. I travelled with Arthur Dent as he lost his planet, learned to fly, found love, made sandwiches, got to know his daughter, found his planet again briefly and finally got blown to atoms.

Blown to atoms! Surely not, but no need to panic, Douglas Adams would surely reassemble Arthur somehow in the next book.

Please continue reading…

BTW, BBC has released a full cast dramatization of Mostly Harmless on iTunes, and on (half price for members)

Colfer: I know Douglas said he was going to do a sixth book, so he had planned to bring it back. And that’s what Jane, Douglas’s widow, wants. It’s already working! Sales apparently have gone back up already, and they released the radio show out to iTunes now. So Hitchhiker’s has already been brought back a little bit by this, and I’m really hoping that when my book comes out people go back and check them all out. And they’re re-releasing the first one, I think, in a young adult edition. So we’re hoping that my book will bring Artemis Fowl readers into Hitchhiker’s, and that would be great.

Solar Power from Space: Moving Beyond Science Fiction

Yale Environment 360 has a useful survey of the current state of play in space-based solar power (SBSP). One tidbit new to me was this on Solaren

And last spring, the California-based Solaren Corporation signed a contract with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to provide 200 megawatts of power — about half the output of an average coal-fired power plant — by 2016 by launching solar arrays into space. Several other companies have announced their intentions to put up solar satellites of their own.

It is plausible that SBSP will become significant in the latter part of the 22nd century. For the next 50 years of zero carbon power we can only count on nuclear plus a small contribution from highly subsidized “renewables”.

Astrobotic Technology wins two lunar robot contracts…

“Red” Whittaker continues to make his mark on robotics. His Carnegie Mellon University spinoff Astrobotic has to be one of the top contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize. Here’s an excerpt of their press release which came to us via email today:

PITTSBURGH, PA – Nov. 23, 2009 – NASA today selected Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University for two contracts to study Moon excavation robots and methods to simulate the one-sixth lunar gravity on Earth.

Lightweight excavation robots are key to recovering the water and hydrocarbon deposits at the Moon’s poles, which will enable explorers to “live off the land” rather than hauling all their supplies from Earth at great expense. New results from NASA probes released last week show that the water content in the polar soil is 10 to 30 times richer than previously thought, and in easier-to-access places than the floors of deep craters.

“We intend our robots to be prospectors for water and hydrocarbon resources, and then to demonstrate how they can be turned into rocket propellant and life support supplies,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, founder of Astrobotic Technology and a research professor at the university’s Robotics Institute. “Creating propellant at the Moon will halve the cost of lunar exploration and advance the date when we can send human expeditions to Mars.”

Excavation is expected to be required to remove a top layer of dry soil covering ices deposited by comet and asteroid impacts.

The lunar gravity simulation study will examine the best ways to mimic the effects of the one-sixth lunar gravity via various active and passive gravity-offload mechanisms and ways to make the apparatus scaleable and transportable for field tests in challenging terrain.

A wild finish for the Lunar Lander Challenge

Jeff Foust at The Space Review covers the finals, won two challengers Amadillo and Masten:

(…) the final week of the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (NGLLC), a competition that is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program to develop vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicles like those that one day may touch down on the Moon. For those who were paying attention, the event provided arguablt far more drama and excitement—and even controversy—than the Ares 1-X launch. And, in the long run, the outcome might prove to be as significant, if not more so, than that single launch from the Cape.

Down to the wire

Entering the last week of October—also the last week of the 2009 competition—two teams had already qualified for prizes: Armadillo Aerospace in Level Two (see “Playing the waiting (and winning) game”, The Space Review, September 14, 2009) and Masten Space Systems in Level One, after an earlier flight attempt short (see “A Xombie over Mojave”, The Space Review, September 21, 2009). But they couldn’t claim the prizes until that hectic last week, with three teams—BonNova, Masten, and Unreasonable Rocket—planning flight attempts in Levels One and Two.

Going into the final week Armadillo’s Level Two flight seemed to be the more secure of the two: after all, no one had successfully flown even a Level One flight before Armadillo made its successful Level Two attempt on September 12. Level Two has twice the flight time (180 seconds per leg) of Level One, and also requires a landing on simulated lunar terrain. Masten’s successful Level One flight, with its highly accurate landings, though provided an opening, as landing accuracy serves as the tiebreaker. Masten’s own Level One flight, though, could be bumped from second place (Armadillo claimed first place last year) if another team could perform an even more accurate landing.

(…) Masten’s Level Two success means that all the remaining prize money in the $2-million competition has now been claimed: Masten won $1 million for first place in Level Two and $150,000 for second place in Level One, while Armadillo won $500,000 for second place in Level Two, on top of the $350,000 they got last year for winning Level One. NASA and the X PRIZE Foundation honored the teams in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.

“We now have enough cash to get to regular revenue from doing suborbital flights, and possibly even profitability,” Masten said.

The end of the NGLLC leaves two companies, Armadillo and Masten, in good position to move ahead with suborbital vehicle development efforts. (…)

Splash! NASA moon crash struck lots of water

This is very good news. Any serious space exploration effort is much less costly if the moon can be used as a base — outside the earth’s deep gravity well. We can mine many of the required metals on the moon, but the cost of ferrying liquid water from earth is staggering.googlemoon.jpg

Suddenly, the moon looks exciting again. It has lots of water, scientists said Friday — a thrilling discovery that sent a ripple of hope for a future astronaut outpost in a place that has always seemed barren and inhospitable.

Experts have long suspected there was water on the moon. Confirmation came from data churned up by two NASA spacecraft that intentionally slammed into a lunar crater last month.

“Indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn’t find just a little bit. We found a significant amount,” said Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist for the mission, holding up a white water bucket for emphasis.

The lunar crash kicked up at least 25 gallons and that’s only what scientists could see from the plumes of the impact, Colaprete said.

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