Thursday, July 20, 2017

SpaceX drops plans for powered Dragon landings

WASHINGTON — SpaceX no longer plans to have the next version of its Dragon spacecraft be capable of powered landings, a move that has implications for the company’s long-term Mars plans.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference here July 19, confirmed recent rumors that the version of the Dragon spacecraft under development for NASA’s commercial crew program will not have the ability to land on land using SuperDraco thrusters that will be incorporated into the spacecraft primarily as a launch abort system.

“It was a tough decision,” he said when asked about propulsive landing capability during a question-and-answer session. “Technically it still is, although you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield.”

SpaceX planned to transition from splashdowns, which is how the current cargo version of the Dragon returns to Earth, to “propulsive” landings at a pad at some point after the vehicle’s introduction. Certification issues, he said, for propulsive landings led him to cancel those plans.

“It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” he said.

Another reason for the change, he said, is that SpaceX had reconsidered what is the best way to land large spacecraft on the surface of Mars in support of the company’s long-term goals to establish a human presence there.

“There was a time that I thought the Dragon approach to landing Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars,” he said. “Now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way and there’s a far better approach.”

He didn’t describe that alternative approach, but said that “the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft” will use that different landing technique. In a later tweet, though, Musk clarified that the alternative approach will also use a version of propulsive landing.

“It doesn’t seem like the right way of applying resources right now,” he said of the original propulsive landing technique.

Abandoning that propulsion landing technique would also appear to put into jeopardy SpaceX’s planned Red Dragon spacecraft, which would have landed a Dragon 2 spacecraft on the Martian surface. SpaceX announced plans for Red Dragon last year for launch in 2018, but SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in February that the launch had slipped to 2020 as the company focused on its commercial crew program and a return to flight of the Falcon 9 after a September 2016 pad explosion.

More recently, there were rumors that SpaceX had either further delayed that first Red Dragon mission or cancelled it entirely. Musk did not directly address the status of Red Dragon in his talk, but the lack of propulsion landing systems, particularly legs, would appear to rule out such missions.

Musk also confirmed in the interview that SpaceX is developing a revised version of the overall Mars exploration architecture that he unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September 2016. That plan involved the development of giant reusable launch vehicles, called the Interplanetary Transport System, for sending spacecraft to the surface of Mars or elsewhere in the solar system.

“It’s evolved quite a bit since the last talk,” Musk said of the Mars architecture. “The key thing that I’ve figured out is how to pay for this whole system to go to Mars. It’s super expensive.”

That alternative approach, he said, involves decreasing the size of the vehicles somewhat. “You make it capable of doing Earth orbit activity as well as Mars activity,” he said. “Maybe we can pay for it by using it for Earth orbit activity. That’s one of the key elements of the new architecture.”

“I think this one’s got a shot of being real on the economic front,” he said. That update, he said, may be presented at this year’s IAC in September in Adelaide, Australia.

Falcon Heavy and commercial crew

In the near term, though, Musk said SpaceX is primarily focused on completing development of the crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft. “Overall I think it’s going really well,” he said, with plans in place to start test flights of the vehicle around the middle of 2018.

That timeline is well behind the original schedule for the program, which called for the vehicle to be certified by NASA by the end of 2017. “It’s been way more difficult than cargo, to be sure,” he said of commercial crew development. “As soon as people enter the picture, it’s really giant step up in making sure things go right.”

Musk said NASA oversight was “much tougher” than on the commercial cargo program, but that disagreements were limited to “small technical bones of contention” with the agency. He didn’t given examples of those issues, beyond calling them “esoteric.”

“Overall, I’m confident that it’s going to be a system that NASA feels good about and SpaceX feels good about,” he said.

Also coming up is the first flight of the long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, now planned for late this year. Musk repeated earlier comments that development of the rocket, years behind schedule, was much more difficult than originally anticipated.

Musk also appeared to lower expectations about the success of that first launch. He said that liftoff requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 engines: nine engines in each of the three booster cores. “There’s a lot that could go wrong there,” he said, also citing the dynamical environment of the Falcon Heavy in flight that is difficult to test on the ground.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with the Falcon Heavy,” he said. “There’s a real good chance that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure and set expectations accordingly.”

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” Musk said. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”


SpaceX's Big New Rocket May Crash on 1st Flight, Elon Musk Says

There's a "real good chance" the vehicle won't make it to orbit during the liftoff, Musk said Wednesday (July 19) at the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development (ISSR&D) conference in Washington, D.C. That launch is expected to take place later this year from Florida's Space Coast.

"I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest," Musk told NASA ISS program manager Kirk Shireman, who interviewed the SpaceX CEO onstage at the meeting. "Major pucker factor, really; that's, like, the only way to describe it."

The two-stage Falcon Heavy is based on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which has been ferrying payloads to space since 2010. The Heavy's first stage consists of two Falcon 9 first stages strapped to a central "core," which is itself a modified Falcon 9 booster.

Like the Falcon 9, the Heavy is designed to be reusable.

When the 230-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon Heavy is up and running, it will be capable of lofting up to 60 tons (54 metric tons) to low-Earth orbit and 24 tons (22 metric tons) to geostationary transfer orbit, making it the most powerful rocket since NASA's famous Apollo-era Saturn V launcher, SpaceX representatives have said.

SpaceX has been developing the Falcon Heavy for years. The work has proven to be "way, way more difficult" than SpaceX originally expected, Musk said.

"At first, it sounds really easy: Just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be?" he said. "But then everything changes. All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change, you've tripled the vibration and acoustics."

The loads imparted on the center core during Falcon Heavy launches will be "crazy," Musk said, "so we had to redesign the whole center-core airframe. It's not like the Falcon 9, because it's got to take so much load."

In addition, it's impossible to fully test many aspects of the vehicle on the ground, he said.

So, while Musk stressed that he thinks the Falcon Heavy will prove to be "a great vehicle," the initial liftoff could be rocky.

"I encourage people to come down to the cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission," he said, referring to Florida's Cape Canaveral. "It's guaranteed to be exciting."

SpaceX has not yet announced an official date for the launch. Musk recently suggested on Twitter, however, that the liftoff may happen in September or October.


Monday, July 17, 2017

4 private spaceflight companies you need to know about

Almost any space nerd will tell you that the future of the space industry hinges upon private spaceflight.

Of course, almost anyone with an interest in tech and space knows about Elon Musk's SpaceX or Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, two heavy-hitters in the commercial spaceflight industry.

But what about the other, less known, less accomplished, yet still important companies out there hoping to leave their marks on spaceflight?

Here are a few of the space companies you should be keeping a close eye on in the future.

Moon Express

What do they want to do? In short, Moon Express wants to mine the moon.

The company, which has been around since 2010, just unveiled its plan to launch a mission to the moon by 2020 that will harvest material from the moon and bring it back to Earth.

Before that mission, however, Moon Express plans to launch multiple other missions to the lunar surface in preparation for its prospecting future.

The company's Lunar Scout mission is designed, in part, to compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, to be given to the first private team to land a spacecraft on the moon and perform a series of tasks.

Can they do it? They certainly could! Moon Express has been consistently working toward its lunar goals for years, and they seem to have money and even some government support for their missions. The company has also already won milestone prizes as part of the X Prize competition.

Why haven't you heard of them? While Moon Express's mission is pretty sexy, they haven't yet launched a spacecraft, so coverage of their work tends to be more sporadic.

Relativity Space

What do they want to do? Relatively Space hopes to one day create rockets that will reduce the cost of launching payloads to space.

That goal sounds familiar — *cough* SpaceX, *cough* Blue Origin — but Relativity's co-founders learned from those two spaceflight giants, taking what they know to a company of their own making.

We got a little more information about Relativity this week when CEO Tim Ellis testified before the Senate science committee.

"We are creating a new launch service for orbital payloads enabled by never-seen-before technologies, allowing for a high degree of launch schedule certainty at significantly reduced cost," Ellis said in prepared remarks.

"The ability to get back and forth from space inexpensively and on a reliable launch schedule will unleash not only economic opportunities on Earth and beyond, but also push forward humankind’s desire to explore the heavens we have gazed at in wonder for thousands of years."

Relativity is pretty short on details at the moment, but at some point in the not-too-distant future, expect an announcement about what it is they really want to do.

Can they do it? Who knows! Maybe? We need a little more information about what they want to do before we make a call on that.

Why haven't you heard of them? Relativity is still in "stealth mode" at the moment, so don't expect to hear much more about the rocket company until they come out from the shadows.

Virgin Orbit

What do they want to do? It's good to think of Virgin Orbit as Virgin Galactic's cool cousin with something to prove.

The company — which was spun off from Virgin Galactic earlier this year — is planning to start launching small satellites for space for companies in the coming years.

Virgin Orbit plans to use their 747-400 carrier aircraft named Cosmic Girl to launch satellites.

"Cosmic Girl will carry LauncherOne to at an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet before release for its rocket-powered flight to orbit," Virgin Orbit says on its website.

"Starting each mission with an airplane rather than a traditional ground-based launch pad offers performance benefits in terms of payload capacity, but more importantly, air-launch offers an unparalleled level of flexibility."

Can they do it? Probably! Many industry watchers think that small satellites are the future of commercial spaceflight, so this is a good market to enter into. It all hinges upon whether Virgin Orbit will be able to make its plane-flown launcher work.

Why haven't you heard of them? Because Virgin Orbit is a pretty new part of Virgin, it makes sense that you haven't heard much about them yet. Keep an eye out in the future though, they could be going places.

Rocket Lab

What do they want to do? Rocket Lab is another company set on launching small payloads to space for a variety of customers around the world.

The company's Electron rocket has already flown its first test flight, and while it wasn't a total success, it did help mission controllers gather more data about what they can do to make it all work perfectly next time.

Rocket Lab already has some high-profile launch customers on the books, including Moon Express, which hopes to use the Electron to launch its first mission to the moon later this year.

Can they do it? Only time will tell. Rocket Lab has a lot of support in the industry, and its focus on small satellites could play to its advantage.

Why haven't you heard of them? Rocket Lab is relatively new to the launch game, and because it hasn't yet sent a payload to space for a customer, the company is still flying a bit under the radar.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

SPACE WARNING: Death star heading towards Earth will end life with hail of space rocks

A GIANT death star is heading Earth’s way which could wipe out life on the planet, scientists have warned.

The star known as HIP 85605 is one of 14 stars that are heading towards Earth, and experts have given it a 90 per cent chance of reaching the edge of our solar system.

Once it is there in what is known as the Oort cloud, which is full of of asteroids, it could fling all of the space rocks our way, wiping out life on Earth.

Swinburn University astrophysicist Alan Duffy told Australia's Herald Sun: "Objects hardly ever meet in space — the distances are so huge — but the gravitational influence of a star is enormous, even something a lightyear away can rattle the loosely held Oort Cloud objects.

“But there's no doubt that nearby stars in the past have nudged Oort objects into falling towards the inner solar system.”

The study author, Dr Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), said stars have already had a huge impact on Earth.

He wrote on his MPIA page: "I am interested in the history of the Earth and astronomical phenomena have clearly played a role in this. 

“But what role precisely, how significant, and what can we expect to happen in the future?"

The star will be about three light years from Earth, according to the study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, but experts say that it is unlikely to come for another 240,000 years.

The study reads: "The closest encounter appears to be Hip 85605, a K or M star, which has a 90 per cent probability of coming between 0.04 and 0.20 parsecs [8,000 AU] between 240,000 and 470,000 years from now (90 per cent Bayesian confidence interval).

"However, its astrometry may be incorrect, in which case the closest encounter found is the K7 dwarf GL 710, which has a 90 per cent probability of coming within 0.10-0.44 per cent in about 1.3 million years."

Friday, July 14, 2017

House spending bill increases NASA planetary science, cuts NOAA weather satellite program

A fiscal year 2018 spending bill that will be marked up by the House Appropriations Committee July 13 includes record funding levels for NASA’s planetary science program, but severely cuts a NOAA weather satellite program.

The committee released July 12 the report accompanying the commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill, which its CJS subcommittee approved on a voice vote June 29. At that time, the committee had released only a draft of the bill, with limited details about how the nearly $19.9 billion provided to NASA would be allocated.

In NASA’s science account, planetary science emerges as a big winner, with the report allocating $2.12 billion, a record level. That amount is $191 million above the White House request and $275 million above what Congress provided in 2017.

Some of that additional funding will go to missions to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, thought to have a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could sustain life. It provides $495 million for both the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and a follow-on Europa Lander, to be launched by 2022 and 2024, respectively. The administration’s budget request sought $425 million, devoted solely to Europa Clipper.

The report also provides additional funding for Mars exploration, including $62 million for a proposed 2022 orbiter mission. NASA sought just $2.9 million for studies of future Mars missions, raising worries among scientists that NASA would not be able to get an orbiter, with telecommunications and reconnaissance capabilities, ready in time for the 2022 launch opportunity.

Another Mars mission concept, a small helicopter that would fly with the Mars 2020 rover mission, would get $12 million in the House bill. That technology demonstration concept has been studied for some time as a possible complement to the rover, but NASA has not made a formal decision about including it on the mission.

The report includes broad support for other planetary programs, including $60 million for near Earth asteroid searches and development of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft. That spacecraft would collide with the moon of one such asteroid to measure the ability to deflect potentially hazardous objects.

The report also directs NASA to work with industry on a report “on the utilization of asteroid-based natural resources to support U.S. government and commercial space exploration missions and timeframes for when such resource extraction could possibly occur.”

While the report provides additional funding, and direction, for planetary science, it cuts funding for NASA’s Earth science program. It gives that program a little more than $1.7 billion, $50 million below the request and more than $200 million below what it received in 2017.

The report does not address plans by the administration, in its 2018 budget request, to terminate five planned or ongoing Earth science missions. It does support full funding of the Landsat-9 spacecraft under development as well as a joint mission with the Indian space agency ISRO to fly a synthetic aperture radar spacecraft.

NASA’s astrophysics program received $822 million in the report, $5.3 million above the administration’s request and $72 million above 2017 levels. That includes $126.6 million, as requested, for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, but with language expressing concern “about potential cost growth in this program.”

Later in the report, the committee directs NASA to ensure WFIRST is compatible with a proposed future “starshade” that could allow the space telescope to directly image exoplanets. NASA officials said earlier this year they have yet to decide whether to incorporate that compatibility into WFIRST, and will likely defer that decision until at least late this year.

The James Webb Space Telescope would get $533.7 million in the bill, the same as requested, while NASA’s heliophysics program would get $677.9 million, also in line with the administration’s request.

The report also specifies funding for several space technology and exploration programs. Under space technology, nuclear propulsion work would receive $35 million, including a requirement for a report on budgets and milestones needed “in order to conduct a nuclear thermal demonstration project by 2020.” NASA’s exploration program includes $150 million for its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) in order to develop a habitat that can be tested in low Earth orbit in 2020.

The Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST), which includes partnerships with industry to develop commercial lunar landers, would get $30 million. Among the companies involved in the Lunar CATALYST program is Moon Express, which released plans July 12 for a series of commercial lunar lander and sample return missions.

Weather satellite funding

Besides NASA, the CJS bill also funds NOAA and its weather satellite programs. The agency’s two major current programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), would receive the requested amounts of $518.5 million and $775.8 million, respectively.

However, the report severely cuts funding for the Polar Follow-On program, which supports development of the third and fourth JPSS satellites. The program received $328.9 million in 2017 and was projected, from the 2017 request, to receive $586 million in 2018. However, the administration requested only $180 million for the program, citing plans to potentially stretch out the schedule for launching those missions.

The committee, in the report, was disappointed with the lack of details about those plans. “The request proposes a dramatic and incipient re-plan of this program. Yet the request fails to assess the purported new mission design’s impacts on constellation availability, or to provide an updated gap analysis, or new annual or lifecycle cost estimates,” it states, providing just $50 million for Polar Follow-On.

The committee was more generous with the Solar Weather Follow-On mission, also known as Solar Weather Forward Observatory. The administration requested just $500,000 for the program, which received $5 million in 2017, stating that it wanted to study alternative approaches to replace existing space weather monitoring spacecraft in the early 2020s.

The report provides $8.5 million for the program in 2018, which is still far less than what NOAA projected spending in 2018 in last year’s budget request. The committee directed NOAA “to refine the Space Weather Follow-On concept and develop mission requirements for a cost-effective capable space system.”

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill, with the potential for amendments, July 13. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not started work on its version of a spending bill.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Moon Express reveals plans for private exploration of the moon

Private company Moon Express has announced via its website its plans for exploring the moon—plans that include sending three craft to the moon over the next three years. Officials with the company have also been speaking with the press regarding their ambitions.

As noted on the website, to date, just three entities have sent working craft to the surface of the moon, all of them big governmental operations (U.S., U.S.S.R. and China). The aim of the team at Moon Express is to change that by giving some degree of moon access to non-governmental people. To that end, the company has three missions planned. The first involves sending a probe to the moon's surface; the second will seek to set a working research apparatus on the moon's south pole. The third and most ambitious mission will involve sending a vehicle to the surface of the moon that will be capable of mining moon dust and then bringing it back to Earth. Officials at Moon Express are promising to make samples of moon dust and/or rocks available to ordinary people upon its return—though it is assumed the samples will be auctioned to the highest bidders to help pay for the program.

At the core of the initiative by Moon Express is the idea that sending vehicles to the moon can be done without spending billions, which makes sense for them, because they are also claiming to be self-funded.

The plan is to use the same modular design for all three missions (and others in the future), which, of course, means reduced cost. The first vehicle is called the MX-1E and it is billed as a high-performance craft that is both eco-friendly and technically advanced. It is slated to launch atop a rocket made by Rocket Lab. The second mission will utilize the MX-1E Scout Classic—it will carry a host of scientific equipment for placement at the south pole—a location that allows for solar-powered instruments and also for constant communications with the Earth. For the third mission, the company plans to send an MX-2 to the moon, use it to retrieve surface samples, and then send part of it back to the Earth carrying the samples.

The company also has plans for larger MX-5 and MX-9 vehicles to be sent to the moon in the future, each capable of carrying more equipment or return lunar material to Earth for sale.

Read more at: