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Archive for the ‘Aerospace’ Category

The undergraduate NRO

A couple of decades ago I read a SF story that had – as basically a throwaway commentary – a section on the future of private-sector Earth Observation satellites and national military security.

The concept was that in this future the planet was surrounded by so many such satellites generating vast quantities of imagery, that millions of people had taken up the hobby of scanning through the stuff looking for things that interested them, and that this included large numbers of people who simply loved looking to see what national militaries were up to around the globe.

The upshot was that in this future, national military forces found themselves more hemmed in than they had been in the days of military spying by the likes of the National Reconnaissance Office and their famous series of “KeyHole” spy satellites (plus whatever they have today).

That future is here now.

News recently broke that the Chinese were building new ICBM launch sites, adding to their nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades. While that was important news I just assumed that it had been discovered via the usual means of spy satellites and other intelligence gathering.

Not exactly:

The silos were spotted by Decker Eveleth, an undergrad at Reed College. He spent weeks poking around on satellite imagery until he happened upon the silos’ distinctive inflatable dome coverings. (Which, in turn, has led some people to describe them as “bouncy houses of death.”)

The reason he had something to “poke around” in was exactly as that old SF story described:

Planet Labs, however, created a new kind of small, low-cost imaging satellite and put up so many of them that it can take multiple pictures of every spot on Earth, every day. In this case, Planet had years’ worth of pictures of the area in question, and Eveleth was ready, willing and able to scour them pixel-by-pixel.

Moroever, once he had spotted this, he was able to get more detail:

Eveleth contacted Planet to see if they could use a larger breed of their satellites to take even higher-resolution pictures of the area with the domes. Planet could.

Lewis and Eveleth were able to log in to Planet’s service and see not just the domes but also trenches, for communications cables, leading out from underground facilities where the military likely has its launch operations. 

Naturally the Chinese denied the story, claiming it was a wind farm, until further evidence from Lewis and others shut down that propaganda. The US State Department said such a development was “concerning”. That comment made me wonder if they, the NRO and the US military and government already knew about this – given their spying capabilities and general interest in monitoring China’s military, you’d think they would – but had chosen to say nothing?

There’s more detail at the link, including a reference to New Zealand’s very own Rocket Lab company and the micro-satellite launches it has been doing. That last, in turn, brought me to this article; Rocket Lab launches secret payload from New Zealand:

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

That is just the latest of several such launches, which probably makes the Mahia peninsula a military target, as Paul Buchanan pointed out a couple of years ago in very interesting article on that subject, Launching Into Trouble?:

If the contract to deliver military payloads is solely and exclusively with the US, then Rocket Lab has painted a target on Launch Complex 1 in the event that the US becomes embroiled in a large-scale conflict with a major power. Even if it allows nations other than the US to launch military payloads on Electron boosters, Rocket Lab has made the Mahia Peninsula a target whether or not weapons satellites are launched from there. After all, the main use of smallsats is for surveillance, tracking, mapping and telecommunications, all of which are essential for the successful prosecution of contemporary wars. So even if smallsats launched from the Mahia Peninsula do not carry weapons on them, the site becomes a potential target.

In fact he questioned whether this was even legal under the Space Laws written up to allow RocketLabs to operate in the first place (New Zealand had no such laws because…. well, we’re NZ).

The question is whether there is a legal basis to permit or prohibit foreign military satellites, especially weaponised satellites, being launched from NZ soil with NZ technologies. I am unsure if that is the case one way or another and have heard of no parliamentary or ministerial discussion of the matter.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 20, 2021 at 12:52 pm

The 21st Century Space Race

The news on April 16 that NASA has selected the SpaceX Starship design for two missions to the Moon was stunning enough on its own, but the last few months have seen some other important events that show that space exploration, including human exploration, is starting to rapidly increase its tempo.

April was an especially busy month.

There have been two spectacular robotic missions to Mars. The third SpaceX crew mission to the ISS was launched. Another four astronauts returned in their original SpaceX Dragon craft. The Chinese have launched the first module of their new space station into orbit, sent Taikonauts to it and landed their first Mars probe.

MARS

Yes, that is a drone helicopter on Mars.

What you are looking at in these pictures is the first flying machine on another planet. This is the spacecraft, Ingenuity, a little helicopter weighing only a couple of kilograms, and these pictures are from its 4th test flight, conducted on April 29. The first was April 19.

It was only expected to fly a few missions as a pure test vehicle, starting with a simple up-and-down flight, followed by moving around the landscape, returning to where it started and so forth.

However, like many other American robots of recent years, it has proved far more durable than expected, and since it provides the ability to scout ahead of the rover Perseverance (its “mother ship” that landed on February 18) the JPL team has decided to use it for that until it eventually fails.

Planning the route that such rovers have to drive is a slow and careful process; some years ago one of the solar-powered rovers, Opportunity, got stuck in an unseen sand trap. Ingenuity is a huge help in preventing that.

That map plan was from the 9th planned flight, which was completed a couple of days ago, with the machine flying a distance of 2,051 feet (625 meters) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remaining airborne for approximately 2 minutes, 47 seconds. They’re really pushing the little beast beyond its limits:

The onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah. 

You can keep track of the flights at Robert Zimmerman’s Behind The Black blog.

However, the USA has finally been matched in the Mars Rover department when, on May 14, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft landed and on May 22 sent its Zhurong rover trundling onto the surface. With its solar panels it looks awfully similar to the Opportunity and Spirit rovers (see An Everlasting Itch For Things Remote) sent to Mars by NASA in the 2000’s. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as long as they did.

SpaceX and the ISS

On April 23rd SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS in the company’s second such mission, called Crew-2. The key mission first was that both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were reused machines. The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour, had flown the historic Demo-2 mission (their first crewed flight) and the Falcon 9 rocket had pushed the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS last year, in the first operational flight.

They crossed paths with the Crew-1 team which also consisted of four astronauts, making things rather crowded on the ISS for a few days before they returned to Earth on May 2nd. As you can see from the link, these splashdowns are rather more casual than the days of Apollo when countless US Navy ships were deployed far out in the Pacific. Here, they’re only just offshore from the Florida coast, and SpaceX kept the exact landing spot quiet this time so that they would not be surrounded by rubber-necking boaties as happened for the return of Demo-2.

Space X is contracted for four more crewed missions but will likely get more than that as the ISS is expected to be up there for a few more years: 2024 has been discussed as a shutdown date, with the Russians perhaps quitting then. However, new modules continue to be launched, the station is working well and since there’s no replacement it seems silly to abandon it even if its equipment is starting to get aged and obsolete.

As a side note, one continuing disappointment has been Boeing’s CST 100 Starliner spacecraft – pictured on the right – which was supposed to have been on the same schedule as SpaceX’s Dragon so that NASA could have a backup. Instead it’s fallen badly behind schedule but will attempt another uncrewed test flight at the end of July.

China’s space station and Russia

Another reason the USA and ESA may hang on to the ISS for longer than planned, is that on April 29, just days after its Mars probe landing, China launched the first module of its new Taingong space station, followed by three “Taikonauts” on June 20.

Since then they’ve been busy conducting spacewalks, readying everything for the next modules to be sent up. The plan is to have it finished by the end of 2022. It will be about 1/5 the size of the ISS, comparable to the old Russian Mir space station.

By the time Mir crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2001, Russia had already been hard at work for a decade with NASA on the ISS, just one part of the whole post Cold War effort by the USA to shovel money into Russian technology centres to keep their scientists and engineers in-country and not working with the likes of North Korea.

But the world has changed. Between losing the lucrative ISS passenger business to SpaceX and with their announced plan to stop using the ISS by 2024, Russia was clearly removing itself somewhat. Still, the US is proceeding into its post-ISS future with the Artemis programme to land astronauts on the Moon and establish a base there by the end of this decade and Russia could well have been expected to join that. So it came as a bit of shock in March when Russia announced an agreement with China to build a lunar base together, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). No schedule has been announced but Russia clearly feels more comfortable in China’s orbit than in the US’s.

The US Military and SpaceX

A few weeks ago the US Air Force released a 462-page report detailing how it intends to spend its $200 billion budget. Such is routine bureaucracy, but on page 305, under the heading of “Rocket Cargo” was a very interesting section:

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,

Although no company or vehicle was mentioned by name, there is only one vehicle even on the drawing boards that has that capability.

It will likely be a decade before this comes to fruition, as the USAF will want to see a lot of successful Starship cargo flights, including sub-orbital hops around the Earth, before it will start laying contracts to buy flights and possibly even order Starship variants to its specifications. In this it would be following in the wake of the Boeing 747, which was built with military as well as commercial use in mind.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 12, 2021 at 6:00 am

To rouse the spirit of the Earth, and move the rolling stars

Much of recent spaceflight has focused on the highly successful achievements of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. They’ve had incredible breakthroughs in developing reusable rockets and spacecraft, dramatically lowering launch costs and pushing ahead with cargo flights to the ISS, followed by crewed flights, and now with ambitious, even outrageous, plans for sending people to Mars.

It’s therefore easy to forget that there are other private groups involved in space, trailing behind for years now, but with possible successes coming in just the next couple of weeks.

By the end of July both a Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic spaceship will have made their first operational flights – and their respective founders, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, intend to be astronauts aboard them. Meanwhile Bezos has made it clear where he wants Blue Origin company to go, and it’s not the same place as Elon Musk and SpaceX.

Virgin Galactic – July 11

SpaceShipOne – 2004

It’s been a long, painful development road for Richard Branson’s baby to achieve his dream of regular, sub-orbital flight by a spaceplane. Way back in 2004, Burt Rutan’s craft SpaceShipOne, won the Ansari X-Prize for being the first reusable crewed spacecraft to fly to space twice within two weeks.

It was an amazing achievement and Branson immediately partnered with Rutan to build a passenger spaceplane that could do the same. At that point it seemed entirely possible that they’d get it done in just a few years, far ahead of any other private sector group. Mere scaling up being all that was required. Even today the latest craft, VSS Unity, looks startlingly similar to the original X-Prize winner.

VSS Unity – 2021
Richard Branson

However the development of the passenger craft became cursed with test failures, including rocket explosions that killed people and in 2014, the crash of the test vehicle, VSS Enterprise, that killed one of the test pilots.

More than a decade went by and at times people questioned whether it might be abandoned, even with a starry-eyed billionaire like Branson behind it.

But they seem to have finally made it, with the first commercial flight planned for July 11, and with the rather amazing news that Branson himself will be on board the first flight, “Unity 22.”, with four so-called “mission specialists” and the two pilots.

They’ll likely fly to an altitude of 90 kilometres at a speed of Mach 3 and experience about four minutes of weightlessness: a sub-orbital flight much like the X-15 tests in the 1960’s. Even the launch will be like that of an X-15, with the VSS Unity lifted by a specialist “mothership” plane to an altitude of 15km before it lights its rocket motor.

The next flights will have paying passengers at $250,000 a pop. Branson’s ambitions in space seem to extend no further than this.

Blue Origin – July 20

If Branson’s flight is successful he will beat another billionaire who has also determined to go into space at the first opportunity, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin has also seen its share of problems over the years since its founding by Bezos in 2000. Like SpaceX it has been determined to develop reusable rockets and spacecraft.

New Shepard Flight 1

While not experiencing the dramatic and lethal problems that Virgin Galactic has, and even though it has had a number of successful test launches of its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft (named after Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut), Blue Origin simply has not hit its target dates.

They’ve clearly been trying to copy SpaceX’s development approach of rapid prototyping – a quickly repeated cycle of iterative design, build, and test, with building of successive prototypes before previous ones have been fully tested.

But it hasn’t worked. Even as the New Shepard tests continued for sub-orbital flight, Blue Origin started development of a reusable orbital rocket, the New Glenn (named after John Glenn, America’s first man in orbit) and have struck problems with the new, more powerful motors needed for orbital flight.

They’ve also missed out on several billion dollars worth of commercial contracts, although they’ve announced some wins.

All this may be the reason that Bezos recently stepped down as CEO of Amazon, announcing that he was going to apply himself more to Blue Origin and one or two of his other “passions”. Given what he has so often talked about in the past I have no doubt Blue Origin will be his major area of focus.

As part of that new hands-on, Musk style, Bezos announced that he will fly on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, on July 20. The system is autonomous, needing no pilot, and in a sign of confidence – following 15 successful uncrewed test flights – he’s taking his brother with him, plus another passenger who won an auction for a seat with a bid of $28 million.

Because this flight uses a vertical rocket launcher and capsule craft, like the original Mercury-Redstone flights it will follow a similar sub-orbital path, almost certainly above the 100km Karman line that marks the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, thus making Bezos and company true astronauts, although it should be noted that the US Air Force definition of an astronaut is a person who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 km).

Bezos must be hoping that this confidence and energy will spill over into the rest of the company and enable them to start catching up with SpaceX.

But Bezos has also made it clear that he has different long-term goals for space exploration than his great rival, Musk. Those boil down to two fundamentally different approaches that have been debated for several decades.

The first approach is the traditional one. As described in hundreds of SF books, TV shows and movies, humanity should leave Earth and reach for the planets to explore and colonise them, starting with the Moon and Mars.

Some, like Robert Zubrin, have even argued for skipping the Moon and going straight for Mars.

The second approach is much more recent, basically dating from the 1970’s and whose most well known advocate was American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill.

He and others made the logical argument that, having spent so much energy escaping the Earth’s gravity well, it was insane to jump down another one. Instead, once in space why not try living there by using the resources of asteroids and the Sun’s energy to build huge, slowly spinning, cylindrical, “spacecraft” some 32km long and 8km wide.

They came to be called “O’Neill Colonies” and inside them humans could have gravity and sunlight, as well capturing huge amounts of solar energy and using the colony as a base from which they could make low-energy moves around the solar system to obtain resources.

He can be seen making the argument in this long-lost 1975 TV interview, alongside famous SF author Issac Asimov who supported it.

In SF, by contrast with planets, the idea has seen only limited exposure, in movies like the recent Interstellar (check out the scene), TV series like The Expanse (Amazon Prime natch) and Arthur C Clarke’s famous book, Rendezvous With Rama.

I first came across the concept as a child via the latter novel, but that was an alien, interplanetary spacecraft, a “Cosmic Ark” that had been discussed before. It was not until I saw an edition of a famous American counter-culture magazine, Whole Earth Catalog, that I saw the concept turned into one for humans in our solar system. I was blown away by the idea.

Given that the magazine spilled out of the hippie era and thus pushed themes of ecology, self-sufficiency, DIY, a back-to-the-land movement, and the Small Is Beautiful economics of E. F. Schumacher, it sounds like the last place where you would find in-depth analysis of space colonies, but the WEC was a wild place of ideas, as Steve Jobs noted in 2005:

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation … It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Bezos may have also encountered the idea in the same place, or perhaps he read O’Neill’s 1976 book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.

In any case it’s clear that he still holds it as an inspiration, as he outlined in a presentation for Blue Origin in 2019 and in a little more detail in 2016:

During last weekend’s Pathfinder Awards banquet at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Bezos referred to his long-term goal of having millions of people living and working in space, as well as his enabling goal of creating the “heavy lefting infrastructure” to make that happen.

In Bezos’ view, dramatically reducing the cost of access to space is a key step toward those goals.

“Then we get to see Gerard O’Neill’s ideas start to come to life…

“I predict that in the next few hundred years, all heavy industry will move off planet. It will be just way more convenient to do it in space, where you have better access to resources, better access to 24/7 solar power,” 

The picture at the start of this post is a vision of what one such colony could look like, re-creating old earth cities.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 8, 2021 at 6:00 am

Posted in Aerospace, Space, Technology, USA

Tagged with

Brave? More like fracking suicidal

Written by Tom Hunter

May 28, 2021 at 4:25 pm

A Thousand Moons

Beautiful isn’t it?

As the photographer explains here:

This image of the Moon is the result of combining approximately 1000 exposures taken with my telescope during different phases to show the full depth of its mountains and craters. One of my most detailed images yet!

There’s also this compilation of forty eight different colours of the moon photographed in a time span of ten years.

I thought of these images the other day when news broke that NASA has made a very big decision regarding its planned lunar exploration:

[NASA decided] a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.

That’s a hell of a vote of confidence in SpaceX given that they’re still developing Starship, but by now they’ve got a track record I don’t think anyone should be denying. The Starship HLS (Human Landing System) will be a variation on the standard Starship model.

The thing that strikes me about this decision is that it could be the death knell of the huge Space Launch System, which NASA has been developing for over a decade now and which has still not had even one test flight compared to what Space X has done in less time.

The SLS

NASA finally has at least hauled the first SLS stage from its test site in Mississippi to Florida where they’ll start assembling the whole thing for a uncrewed flight to the Moon later this year as part of the Artemis Programme.

The first crewed mission might happen in 2023.

Also, just like the good old Apollo programme fifty years ago, everything but the Orion spacecraft on top will be thrown away. Each SLS flight will cost about $2 billion. NASA and its contractors can only build one per year.

By contrast Starship and its Heavy Lifter (the BFR) are designed to be fully reusable. The two Starship flights will cost about $1.4 billion each, but following the SpaceX business model of Falcon 9, more flights would rapidly lower that cost and they’re already building one test-model Starship a month.

Both vehicles will lift about the same amount of mass to LEO (Low Earth Orbit).

This is all even sadder when you consider that the SLS is basically the same rocket as the Ares that started development under the Constellation Programme of the Bush Administration, as is the Orion spacecraft. That programme was begun in 2005 to replace the Space Shuttles, following the loss of a second Shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, and was supposed to have got to the Moon by 2020. Constellation was cancelled in 2011 when it became obvious that it wasn’t working.

Bush’s NASA administrator, an actual rocket scientist, never helped matters when he cringingly described the whole system as “Apollo on steroids”. Ugh! Not exactly the bold leap into the 21st century one would expect of NASA.

More like Apollo on Xanax.

So NASA has basically failed twice in a row. No wonder they’ve gone for SpaceX.

For these reasons the SLS has been nicknamed the Senate Launch System. Getting that NASA money spread around the states by such politicians was how LBJ set the whole thing up to protect the Apollo project, and like similar schemes that LBJ created it has survived to produce things like this that aren’t fit for purpose. But Senator Shelby (R-Ala) has announced his retirement, he was one of the biggest backers of the SLS and his seniority made him the head of the Senate Committee dealing with NASA, so he had a lot of sway. His retirement is another blow to the SLS.

Artists rendition of Starship HLS

Supposedly there will be an SLS lunar landing in 2024. Clearly NASA has now bet that Starship will be ready by then to do the same thing, even if that huge spacecraft is overkill for the task. And if it does then you could see the SLS finally cancelled. The Orion spacecraft may linger on but to what end?

Naturally, because this is America, a couple of the losing contenders have filed legal challenges to NASA’s decision. Undoubtedly they’ve plugged tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars into their design for lunar landers, but NASA clearly thought they couldn’t make it. However the contract will be on hold until the GAO (Government Accountability Office) makes a ruling on those claims.

The underlying message here may be that the days of NASA feeding private contractors cost-plus contracts is over. If they want to land on the Moon they’ll negotiate a contract with SpaceX, exactly as they do for the ISS cargo and crew services.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 3, 2021 at 6:00 am

Candy Bombing without Reindeer

It’s not exactly Santa Claus overflying children and dropping sweet goodies but to the kids of West Berlin in 1948 it must have seemed like it.

The story began with Stalin’s decision to try and lock the Western WWII Allies, France, Britain and the USA, out of the city of Berlin, which lay well inside the domain of East Germany, controlled by the USSR. Stalin’s idea was to starve Berlin into submission by cutting off all road and rail access from West Germany.

But he could not close the skies, and had apparently not realised that the gigantic air fleets of the West were not yet in the scrapyard. Thus was born the Berlin Airlift, which, when it started on June 26, 1948, aimed to bring in 3,475 tones of supplies each day to keep the city alive. By the Spring of 1949 it was bringing in 12,941 tons per day.

Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1948

The Soviets gave up the blockade on May 12, but just in case they were playing a trick the Allies kept the air lift going until September 30, 1949:

The US Air Force had delivered 1,783,573 tons (76.40% of total) and the RAF 541,937 tons (23.30% of total), totalling 2,334,374 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin.

The C-47s and C-54s together flew over 92,000,000 miles (148,000,000 km) in the process, almost the distance from the Earth to the Sun. At the height of the Airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds.

One of those pilots was Gail S. “Hal” Halvorsen, and the other day he turned 100 years old.

Halvorsen was 27 years old and a WWII vet. During one of his many, early trips to Berlin he’d got to recognise some of the local kids who would crowd the American pilots seeking candy and cigarettes.

But their access to the airport and the pilots was limited so Halvorsen made a deal with them. On his approach he told them he’d wiggle his wings — a sign that he and his crew were about to throw several small parachutes from his plane filled with chocolate and gum. He did not ask for permission because he knew US Army bureaucracy. But those wheels grind slowly and so came the day…

On his return from Berlin, he was told that Col. James R. Haun, the commanding officer of Rhein-Main Airbase, wanted to see him in his office.

Here, Halvorsen, sitting in his Provo backyard and wearing the same uniform he wore back then, picks up the narrative.

“‘Halvorsen,’ the colonel asked when I came in his office, ‘What in the world have you been doing?’

“‘Flying like mad, sir,’ I told him.

“‘I’m not stupid. What else have you been doing?’”

Here, Halvorsen pauses for effect.

“That’s when I knew they knew. I got chewed out real good,” he says before flashing his trademark smile. “But at the end, the colonel said, ‘That’s a good idea. Keep doing it. But keep me informed.’”

In the space of a year Halvorsen and others dropped about 21 tons of candy to the kids around Tempelhof Airport.

Asked for the secret to living a long time, he says he’s not sure what that is. He has more to say about the keys to a happy life, however. “Always have something to do,” the Candy Bomber advises. “And watch for things you can do that make a difference.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 23, 2020 at 11:16 am

Posted in Aerospace, History, USA

Tagged with ,

The Lady of the Skies

The other day Qantas joined Air New Zealand and other airlines in retiring the last of its Boeing 747’s.

Probably the most famous commercial airliner in the world today and one of the most famous in history, the big four-engined bird had simply run into the reality of technological obsolescence and economics, hardly surprising for a plane that first flew over fifty years ago in the late 1960’s.

Advances in jet engines meant that two-engined planes were now reliable over the vast distances that were formerly only entrusted to the four engined 747. It’s been an incremental transfer, with the trans-Atlantic flights being taken first almost two decades ago, but eventually even the longest flights in the world – such as the Auckland-Doha flight I took last year on Qatar Airways (14,500km, 17 hours) – were mastered by the likes of the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350.

In addition to having four engines, its design age and military crossover capabilities that resulted in a heavy, rugged airframe, meant that the 747 just could not cut it anymore in terms of fuel efficiency, the No.1 cost of airlines. Upgrade tweaks, such as the wingtip airfoils added two decades ago, had also reached their end.

The first manufactured 747 on the Seattle factory floor, 1968

Probably half the trips I’ve done have been on the 747, including the classic Air New Zealand, London-Auckland flight. Funnily enough the first time I ever flew one was on a domestic flight from Christchurch to Auckland! Having flown to the USA a couple of times on them even my two oldest kids expressed a little regret when Air NZ announced they were retiring the planes a few years ago.

And I’m going to miss them as well. There was just something about the 747. Its iconic look evolved from the 707; that bulbous top where sat Business and First Class passengers; the sheer feeling of extra safety derived from having four engines, as well as its safety history, including surviving incidents that would have blown lesser planes out of the sky.

The last 747 flight Qantas decided to send out was a freight flight, which is what they’ll be used for over the next couple of decades until wear and tear condemns the last of them to the scrapyards. But Qantas decided to exit with some flair for the old girl, even if it was only visible to the watchers of sites like FlightAware.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 30, 2020 at 10:13 am

Posted in Aerospace

Tagged with ,

Iron Man goes Full Martian

In the article, Not Iron Man Yet, I reviewed the brief history of SpaceX, looking at its success since its founding in 2004 in developing and flying commercial rockets more cheaply and with a lower fail rate than anybody else in the world – particularly nation-state space agencies that have been around for more than half a century.

 

But the company has more surprises in store, having started three more projects:
  • A new rocket engine called the Raptor, that is twice as powerful as the Merlin engines.
  • An even larger rocket called the BFR, that will loft 100+ tonnes to LEO: Note that this is still short of the Saturn V that could push 140 tonnes into LEO and send 50 tonnes to the Moon, but the BFR will be upgraded as the Falcon’s were until it reaches 150T to LEO.  BFR officially stands for Big Falcon Rocket, but everybody knows that Musk, with his usual sense of humour initially called it the “Big Fucking Rocket“.  This thing will have 37 Raptor rocket engines, which seems scarily close to being unmanageable.
The BFR
“Starship”
  • A huge spaceship to fly on that rocket: 50m long, 9m wide with 1000 m3 of cargo space that can be converted to carry 100 people into Earth orbit and beyond. Naturally it’s called Starship. It can be a cargo vessel, fuel tanker or crewed vessel and SpaceX wants each one to last 20-30 years.
Stacking and launching something like this is going to be a challenge, not to mention the vertical landings back on Earth.

 

L->R Saturn V. Starship/BFR. Falcon 9

But almost all the features of the system have been played out by earlier SpaceX rockets and spacecraft: fully reusable; vertical landings, automated docking. And Musk intends this system to make Falcon 9 and even the Falcon Heavy obsolete as soon as possible.

But it gets even crazier. Musk has made it clear that this is an Interplanetary Transport System. With orbital refuelling it can reach the Moon and Mars, and possibly beyond them in later versions. And it’s designed to enter a planet’s atmosphere like the Space Shuttle, getting rid of 99% of the velocity via aerodynamics, but then landing vertically.

Those planets include Earth and Mars. Moreover the Raptor engine burns methane and oxygen, all of which can be produced on Mars. The first Starships help build that refuelling capacity: the later ones will use that to refuel and take off again.

It was at this stage, as all these aspects were seen together, that it became obvious that Musk had been deadly serious all along about his seemingly insane, long-term plans of colonising Mars, and that all the money the company made was being used to that end.

Back in mid-2017, Musk said that the Starship architecture could potentially allow a million-person city to rise on Mars within 50 to 100 years. This goal of making humanity a multi-planet species is obviously close to his heart. There’s no reason to do any of this without that goal.

Cargo Starship releasing a large payload into LEO.

In a recent interview with ArsTechnica, he ran the numbers:

“…what kind of tonnage do you need to make it self-sustaining? It’s probably not less than a million tons.

And how can you get a million tons to Mars? You need a fleet of 1000 Starships. And you need it in a decade. That’s why SpaceX is designing its factory to build one Starship per week, and then ramping that up to one every 72 hours. They’re building a machine to build machines.

“That’s fucking insane,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” Musk replied.
“I mean, it really is.”
“Yeah, it’s nuts.”
“As I look across the aerospace landscape, nobody is doing anything remotely like this,” I said.
“No, it’s absolutely mad, I agree,” Musk said

Much as I admire what he’s done with SpaceX I find this all a bit too much. Too many moving parts (perhaps literally) pushing too far and too fast.

But that’s what he’s always done, so I wouldn’t bet against him.

NASA’s Orion spaceship heading for the Moon

Besides, it looks pretty good next to the traditional alternative of NASA, where they’re still plodding along with their huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft after more than a decade of development. The Apollo Program this is not.

Artists’s view of SLS & Orion

In an effort to re-create Kennedy’s spur for that program, the Trump Administration challenged NASA to land on the moon by 2024 rather than the original target of 2028, but given the history of the SLS’s blown budgets and deadlines I doubt they’ll make it. The giant rocket is sarcastically known as the “Senate Launch System” because it has only survived due to the votes of key Senators to whose states the funding flows.

Musk may make it to Mars before NASA gets back to the Moon, and there’s no reason his Starship can’t land on the Moon as well.

And even if that doesn’t happen, what Musk has achieved already is a rebuttal of the grim prediction made back in 2011 by some hack called Gwynne Dwyer, who hit the roof when Obama cancelled the Constellation program to get to the Moon by 2020, writing an article titled Why The First Man on Mars will probably be Chinese, which included these choice lines:

In the real world, the United States of America is giving up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. 

… for the next decade, at least, the United States will be an also-ran in space, while the new space powers forge rapidly ahead. 

And even if some subsequent administration should decide it wants to get back in the race, it will find it almost impossible to catch up. 

And that is why the first man on Mars will be probably Chinese or Indian, not American.

And his reasoning behind this was very simple; the private sector could not possibly do what NASA could and the whole thing was a “charade“:

Obama suggests this embarrassment will be avoided because private enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can at least deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a while. And he’s going to invest US$6 billion in these private companies over the next five years. 

These entrepreneurs are mainly people who made a pile of money in the dotcom boom or in computer game design, and want to do something really interesting with some of it.  

People like Amazon president Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, programmer of Doom and Quake, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and Richard Branson of Virgin Everything.
“Our success is vital to the success of the US space programme,” Musk said recently.
 

No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient shuttles into a comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat my hat.

I made a point at the time about Dwyer’s article:

You’ve really got to love the anti-capitalist and anti-American snark that Dwyer always brings to the table. Narrative: the dotcom boom was a massive exercise in capitalist excess and waste, and computer games like Doom are for kiddies, ergo…….these nuts will be just as useless in space.

 

Written by Tom Hunter

June 17, 2020 at 12:33 am

Not Iron Man Yet

For NASA the first half of each year is always sad in terms of history, with a series of disasters to remember.

Jan 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 fire, killing three astronauts.
Jan 28, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger destroyed after launch, killing all seven astronauts.
Feb 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
 
If you work at NASA you might start to look at late January/early February the way financial traders look at September/October.
 
But that’s NASA history. SpaceX and other private sector companies are the future.

 

Earlier this year I discussed SpaceX’s abort testing on its new Crew Dragon spacecraft, using its own Falcon 9 rocket to fly two NASA astronauts to the ISS. After one weather-driven abort, that launch and docking went without a hitch the other day and while re-entry will be a month or more away there’s no reason to think that won’t be successful as well.

This will lead to certification of Dragon by NASA and the start of regular flights from the USA to the ISS and LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Hopefully joining SpaceX later this year will be the Boeing ST-100 Starliner, flying to the ISS on commercial Atlas V rockets, although Boeing has been having a very bad couple of years.

Elon Musk with Mind Expanding Device

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, for $1.5 billion in 2002. He then announced that he was going to invest some of the money into a privately funded, startup space company, a sum reported to be $100 million.

People thought he was insane. At the time the biggest concern of the space industry was how America was going to compete with the European Space Agency (ESA), China and Russia in the launch game, all of whom seemed to be producing better, cheaper services. There was much talk of the US government providing more support to the behemoths of the industry to help them survive: Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between the two), and others

For SpaceX it’s been a long, slow road for a company that likes to move fast.

Falcon 1 launches from Kwajalein Atoll, 2008

In 2006 NASA provided them with a small contract of $278 million as part of the COTS program (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services). That was a mark of respect for a company that had only existed since 2004. Other such firms fell away but the people who had pushed COTS figured that would be the case.

One interesting aspect is that early on, SpaceX asked NASA to run their expert rulers across its plans for the worlds first fully private-sector, liquid-fueled rocket – the Falcon 1.

NASA bluntly told Musk that it was just not possible to build such a rocket in the proposed timeframe for their proposed cost. They said it would take twice as long and cost several times more than SpaceX’s plan and budget allowed. Still, NASA also effectively said, “Hey, knock yourself out, this is what these little seed contracts are for“.

SpaceX thanked NASA for its advice – and then ignored it. Falcon 1 had three test failures before a success in 2008. As Musk told his staff at the time of the fourth test, they had no more parts or money for another.

With the Falcon 1 success SpaceX began to make money by launching small satellites (670kg). But those profits allowed them move on to their real, medium-term objective – building a rocket big enough to lift heavy cargo and passenger spaceships to the ISS as NASA wanted.

More years and failures followed with the Falcon 9 rocket series, which they’d already been working on in parallel with the Falcon 1, the result of Musk’s overall development approach:

  • Parallel development of vehicles, leveraging knowledge from one to the other.
  • In-house build with minimal out-sourcing.
  • Fast turn-around through design, build and test; an interative process lifted from his experience in the software industry.
  • Emphasis on reusability of rockets and spacecraft to reduce spaceflight costs, again with fast turnaround like commercial planes.

As such the Falcon 9 was expected to fly in 2008/09 but did not until 2010, and it had problems. But it could put 13 tonnes into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) amd in 2012 it finally lifted a Dragon cargo ship to the ISS. It should be noted that when the space station was developed in the 1980s and ’90s private spaceflight hadn’t even been considered.

 
Falcon 9 Launch

Within just a couple more years Falcon 9 had established records for successful flights, while also undercutting the price of every other rocket launch system in the world. Every competitor, including nation-states like China, is now scrambling to just match what SpaceX is doing now.

They charge $62 million per flight: the nearest US competitor is $73 million for a smaller payload. The Falcon 9 has also been steadily upgraded and can now push 23 tonnes to LEO and even 4 tonnes to Mars if called upon.

But SpaceX did not stand still and started going much further than they needed to for the NASA contract. In short-order they did the following:

  • Began building a version of the Dragon spacecraft that could carry humans and pitched for the NASA contract to fly people to and from the ISS. Since NASA became entirely dependent on Russia to do that job it was costing them $75 million per astronaut – briefly touching $82 million in 2015. SpaceX will do the job for $58 million.
  • Made the Falcon 9 even more reusable by landing it back at its launch site on land or at a mobile platform at sea. The response to this was eye-rolling and scoffing. The Shuttle SRB’s (Shuttle Rocket Booster) was reusable but had splashed down in the Atlantic, from where it was recovered followed by months of refurbishment.
  • Started development on a larger rocket called the Falcon Heavy that could loft 64 tonnes into space and be fully reusable. As yet another example of SpaceX learning, the first test flight was almost a total success, with only the centre stage failing to land back on earth. The two booster rockets – basically Falcon 9’s – landed together in Florida in what truly looked like a scene from a Science Fiction movie.
Space Tesla: Falcon Heavy’s test flight cargo
As of writing the Falcon 9 has flown 85 rockets, with 46 landings, and 31 of the rockets being used multiple times.

 

The Falcon Heavy successfully launched in February 2018 and costs about $90 million per launch. 

 
One aspect that really surprised me about the Falcon Heavy was the number of rocket engines involved. The more you have the tougher it is to control them all in perfect synchronisation. That was the main reason the USSR’s Moon rocket, the N1, failed in 1969; its 1st stage had 30 engines. The Falcon Heavy has 27 of the company’s Merlin engines, but then computer and physical control technology has come a long way.
And that sophistication is going to be needed considering the plans Musk has made for the future of SpaceX, and humanity, which are far greater and possibly more insane than just starting a private-sector space company.

 

Written by Tom Hunter

June 11, 2020 at 11:00 pm

America is back in space

After two weeks on the road catching up on various jobs, I got back home yesterday to find I was so bloody tired that I slept for ten hours and missed SpaceX’s second attempt at launching astronauts to the ISS, which happened at about 7am this morning NZ Time.

 
And it all went swimmingly. After nine long years, America is back in space, and thanks to spreading the load beyond NASA to private companies, I don’t think we’re going to see another gap like that in US launching ever again.
 
In my previous article on this I made the point that the names for the ship-type and mission were a bit lame, but it seems the two astronauts on the flight decided to give their spacecraft a specific name, in line with the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
 
They’ve named it Endeavour, after Captain Cook’s famous vessel of exploration, and also because of Space Shuttle’s Endeavour. Like those ships, this one is intended to be used multiple times.
 
You can watch 14 minutes of launch highlights here on the following YouTube clip, which runs from 24 seconds before launch to the separation of the second stage at 200km altitude and 27,000km/h.
.

 
 
After that, the Dragon is headed for the ISS, where it will dock at 10.27amEDT tomorrow morning (2:27am NZ time). If they keep to that schedule it means the docking will happen only ten minutes before the ISS and Dragon fly over NZ, though they will not be visible.
 
You can continue to watch the flight live here at SpaceX’s website, as the Dragon chases after the ISS, steadily raising their altitude until they’re ready to dock. The diagram below shows the overall approach.
 
 
And the next diagram shows all the little maneuvers they’ll use in the final approach:
 
 
Amazing the things America can do even in the middle of a pandemic.
 

Written by Tom Hunter

May 31, 2020 at 1:32 am