No Minister

Posts Tagged ‘Space Exploration

Some Hurricane

leave a comment »

Specifically it’s a hurricane on the planet Jupiter.

As space and science writer Robert Zimmerman notes:

I don’t have a scale, but I would guess that this storm is at least a thousand miles across. The depth is harder to measure, but we looking down into a deep whirlpool for sure.

Written by Tom Hunter

April 19, 2022 at 11:07 am

Posted in Science, Space

Tagged with ,

A string of bright pearls in heaven

By a sheer fluke I was outside on the deck last night just after 10pm when I saw not one bright moving light in the sky but an entire string of them, rising in the North West and passing almost directly over head before vanishing to the SouthEast. There may be another such pass tonight (Jan 30) at around 9pm.

I knew what it was of course. SpaceX has been launching their Starlink satellites for a couple of years now and I’d wondered when I’d get the chance to see such a sight. It happens only in the first couple of days after a launch before the satellites climb to their working orbits around 330km altitude and vanish from sight.

It actually made the NZ news, very briefly of course, since few people are interested, and I see they had to throw the word “UFO” into the headline as extra click-bait, even though the article immediately explains what’s going on.

The picture supplied in the Herald does not do justice to the spectacle; we’re so used to seeing satellites that it takes something bright like the ISS to catch our attention, and to see a string of bright moving lights stretching from horizon to horizon does. Each launch releases about sixty of the machines, each weighing about 250kg. They look like a flat panel with a solar “sail” sticking out the side to supply power. The clever little beasties can even adjust their orbits autonomously, which they have to do to work with each other.

Musk’s idea is to blanket the Earth with these things to allow high-speed Internet access with nothing more than a specialised satellite dish, eliminating the need for fibre-optic cables or Microwave towers. Download speeds of 60Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second) are already available, with 150Mbps expected in the future. You can be a Beta user here in NZ.

Of course to do this requires thousands of the things to orbit the Earth. Starlink currently has about 1700 and in the future it will be tens of thousands. The technology of sending and receiving information to such rapidly moving objects is complex but in principle no different than a cellphone switching between towers as you drive along in a car.

Astronomers are concerned about such vast numbers of the things screwing up their observations of the heavens so Starlink is working to try and darken the machines, even though they vanish from sight in their orbits anyhow.

Others are concerned about the “space junk” problem. It was already bad enough with thousands of things whizzing around at tens of thousands of km/h, ranging in size from bolts and specs of paint and foil to dead satellites (and ones blown up in anti-satellite tests). Adding tens of thousands of 1/4 tonne machines sounds like a recipe for a disaster. But orbital space is big and in the low orbits used there’s not much else, plus the fact that being so low means that failed Spacelink satellites burn up quickly. As with the rest of SpaceX, Musk is aiming for mass production of a standard design, so such turnover is accepted as part of the business model, as opposed to the huge, expensive geosynchronous, telecoms satellites that take years to build and replace. Spacelink is currently building six per day.

On that front I saw an interesting article showing how the cost of getting into space has dropped since the dawn of the space age, with SpaceX having had a massive impact.

Every time I see that Shuttle cost I’m reminded of how the concept of “reusability”, like other ideas, can actually be counter-productive: look at the cost/kg versus that of the “throwaway” Saturn V that sent men to the Moon. As I pointed out a couple of years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing:

When the Shuttle program itself ended in 2011 the NASA Administrator set a team of accountants to work up the lifetime cost, adjusting for inflation. They found that each Shuttle flight ended up costing more than each Apollo flight. In other words, rather than flopping around in LEO for three decades, the USA could have continued to send two teams to explore the moon each year, every year, from 1973 to 2003, for less money. Even that ignores the possibilities that would have been enabled by the ever-reducing costs of production line Saturn V’s. The Russians still use fifty year old designs for their rockets.

Looking at SpaceX, that number is what the Space Shuttle program was supposed to achieve: it may be ambitious but looking at his progress to date I would not bet against Musk on this issue.

Finally as a fun note is this piece of silliness for spaceflight.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 30, 2022 at 6:00 pm

NASA is dead

So I’m sitting on the upper deck this morning, looking at a clear blue sky, and there it is: a waning half Moon, as clear as crystal in the sky, and I sigh and wonder how much longer I have to wait to see a part of my childhood relived with men standing on the surface of Lunar.

And then I see this from space buff Robert Zimmerman, NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25.

Plus this bonus, courtesy of the latest Inspector General Report (pdf)

We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV (p 4).

I knew things were bad with NASA’s Artemis program.

But not this bad.

… although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost (p. 4 of the report (pdf)).

Perhaps they intend to hand the work over to Nigerian princes?

The cost of the Apollo program was about $156 billion in 2019 dollars, $172 billion if you add in the preceding Gemini program, which you should because it was essential to Apollo’s success. Taking into account all the test and operational flights in both programs, plus four flights of surplus Apollo gear from cancelled Moon missions that was used for the Skylab program, I figure that at about $5.6 billion per flight.

Except that this was for an effort starting from scratch that did the job in less than ten years.

By contrast Artemis has come only to this point after seventeen years of developing the system, starting with its predecessor, the Constellation Program in 2005, which was little different. That’s one of the killer aspects of this failure; it was built on previous developments that should have saved time and money. The Aries V rocket became the SLS, which itself extends rocketry used for the Space Shuttle since the 1980’s; the Orion spacecraft is the same, plus new spacesuits (the report points to them for delaying the landing to 2025), and changes to the launchpad, LC-39B, first developed for Apollo more than half a century ago. As Robert Zimmerman says of the schedule:

NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

The final kick in the guts is that the IG report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

This crap is already having flow-on effects, although they will be positive if the objective is the human exploration of the Solar System. Scientists have already been given the green light by Congress that one space probe, the Europa Clipper (to study a very important moon of Jupiter, Europa) , can launch on a commercial rocket, after years of insisting it had to be launched on the SLS, a sign that Congress has finally (and quietly) realised the terrible truth. Zimmerman has tracked down another obscure “White Paper” where scientists effectively told NASA that its way of doing things can’t work any longer in the face of SpaceX:

With Starship, missions to the Moon and Mars will no longer be very constrained in terms of weight. Nor will launch schedules be slow and far between. Rather than plan a few billion dollar NASA unmanned missions taking a decade to plan and launch, using Starship NASA could have many planetary missions launching fast and for relatively little cost, with far greater capabilities.

The scientists recognize this, and wrote their paper in an effort to make NASA’s hide-bound management recognize it as well.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the scientists will eventually bypass NASA entirely. Because of the lowered cost provided by Starship, they will find other funding sources, many private, to finance planetary missions. Those other sources will also be much more capable than NASA for reacting quickly to Starship’s fast timetable and gigantic capabilities.

Why bust your gut over sending a 1 tonne rover to Mars every couple of years when you can dump a dozen on the planet in one go? The Earth-based logistics of building and supporting them is another question, but scientists would likely regard this as a happy problem.

One last note that’s not about NASA but a SpaceX competitor, Blue Origin. Their proposal to NASA for a lunar landing vehicle was rejected (along with others) in favour of a modified SpaceX Starship vehicle, so they lodged a complaint with the Government Audit Office (GAO). When they lost that appeal they took it to the US Court of Federal Claims, who announced their decision a couple of weeks ago:

The Court finds that Blue Origin does not have standing because it did not have a substantial chance of award but for the alleged evaluation errors. Its proposal was priced well above NASA’s available funding and was itself noncompliant. Blue Origin argues that it would have submitted an alternative proposal, but the Court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record. The Court also finds that several of Blue Origin’s objections are waived.

Even if Blue Origin had standing and its objections were not waived, the Court finds that it would lose on the merits. Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law. NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals, and NASA’s conduct throughout the procurement process was not contrary to law.

Ouch. It doesn’t get worse than that. The synopsis is that Blue Origin submitted a weak, overpriced bid, and when it lost on the merits, whinged and said it would have done something different if only had it known. What bullshit.

Still, the silver lining of this failure is that it may spur Bezos to STFU and start building the space capabilities he’s been taking about for a decade.


See also my 2020 post, Wanderers. Here’s the video.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

Tagged with , , ,

Dodging bullets

You might think it difficult to dodge a bullet that’s traveling at 18,000 mph!

But it’s a lot easier when you’re also traveling at that speed.

The International Space Station (ISS) has had to change its orbit quite a few times over the last twenty years to avoid a collision with some piece of space junk, and it did so again a few days ago:

Earlier this week, the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to maneuver out of the way of a potential collision with space junk. With a crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board, this required an urgent change of orbit on November 11.

Over the station’s 23-year orbital lifetime, there have been about 30 close encounters with orbital debris requiring evasive action. Three of these near-misses occurred in 2020.

That last is a key point. As the article points out, things are getting more crowded in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and it’s not helped by what the Chinese did a few years ago:

This week’s incident involved a piece of debris from the defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test. The satellite exploded into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting. Many have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.

At these speeds even tiny particles can be lethal (Energy = Mass x Velocity2). In May this year the ISS was hit: a tiny piece of space junk punched a 5mm hole in the ISS’s Canadian-built robot arm, the junk was probably less than 1mm in size.

ISS over New Zealand

You would think people would learn. Even Hollywood has. In the 2013 SF thriller movie Gravity, the Space Shuttle, while servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, gets hit by debris created by the Russians testing an anti-satellite weapon against one of their own satellites, leaving Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character as the sole survivor who has to try and get back to Earth. It’s a 90 minute thrill ride of a movie, so long as you ignore things like orbital mechanics which would make it impossible to get from the Hubble orbit to the ISS with just a jetpack device!

Which brings us to the latest news, Russian anti-satellite missile test endangers space station crew:

An anti-satellite missile test Russia conducted on Monday generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit that endangered the International Space Station and will pose a hazard to space activities for years, U.S. officials said.

The seven-member space station crew – four U.S. astronauts, a German astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts – were directed to take shelter in their docked spaceship capsules for two hours after the test as a precaution to allow for a quick getaway had it been necessary, NASA said.

I would think the two Russian cosmonauts may have a few choice words for their military compatriots when they return to Earth at the end of their mission.

It seems like a crazy thing for Russia to do, which has lead people to wonder if it’s connected with dodging bullets on Earth:

Satellite images released Nov. 8 showed an estimated 90,000 Russian troops gathered at the Ukrainian border, prompting House Republicans to petition President Biden to deploy troops to the region.

Belarus has been bringing illegal immigrants to Minsk and then sending them to the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Turkey has shut down their airports for travelers from three Middle Eastern countries who want to travel to Belarus. NATO has condemned the situation.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 18, 2021 at 4:00 pm

Big Metal

One of the most basic things you learn in economics is the classic supply-and-demand graph, showing how the two things interact to produce the delicate balance that establishes the price of something, be it strawberries or cell phones.

What they don’t tell you is how useless that graph is in the practice of predicting what the price will be when demand or supply (or both) change. Behind that calculation sit super-computers and richly detailed software models, but the best they produce is a range, sometimes so broad as to be practically useless..

All one can say for certain is that supply exceeds demand the price will drop, and the greater it exceeds demand the greater the price drop will be. The supply does not even have to be in the marketplace to have an impact. For example, below is a graph of US prices for LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) over the last twenty years.

There are price spikes all the time, driven by all sorts of factors. But you’ll notice that there was a steady rise up 2005, followed by a steady drop to the present day. That’s the impact of the practice of fracking and horizontal drilling in gas fields, a technology that had been developing for decades but which only took off in the mid-2000’s. Fracking showed that the USA had vastly greater reserves of gas than had been predicted only a few years earlier. In fact, previous forecasts were that the nation would have to start importing LNG, which resulted in several giant terminals being built around the coast to unload the stuff from ships. Within a few short years that had been turned around, literally. The reserves “discovered” were so vast they amounted to hundreds of years of use and the terminals were re-configured to export the stuff.

Meanwhile the impact on the price was not just to greatly reduce it but to do so as far out into the future as could be seen, and another impact was that electrical generation companies switched large numbers of coal-fired power plants to being gas-fired. That, in turn, resulted in the USA reducing its CO2 emissions on such a scale that by 2020 it was beating the reduction targets of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, (which its Senate had rejected), and the 2009 Waxham-Markey bill (which never passed).

So if you like reducing GHG’s (Greenhouse Gases), hug a fracker and thank them.

It’s not so easy to pull the same stunt with other commodities. Metals in particular, since it’s hard to see any revolution in mining them – although there will be steady, incremental improvements, and the planet has been well searched over the centuries for sources.

But there is one potential source that could change things in the 21st century:

Astronomers have now identified two metal-rich asteroids in orbit near the Earth, with one having a precious metal content that likely exceeds the Earth’s entire reserves.

Asteroid 1986 DA is estimated to be about 1.7 miles across, based on radar data obtained during a close Earth fly-by in 2019. The second asteroid, 2016 ED85, appears to have a similar content from spectroscopy, but no radar data has as yet been obtained of it, so much less is known.

figure 13 from the paper, illustrates the amount of precious metals available in asteroid 1986 DA, compared to the world’s entire reserves (FE=iron, Ni=nickel, Co=cobalt, Cu=copper, PGM=platinum group metals, Au=gold). From this single metal asteroid a mining operation could literally double the metal that had been previously mined on Earth.

Sure, but the technology to mine those metals and transport them to Earth does not yet exist, although there have been plenty of ideas over the decades, and the basics are understood.

But even when it’s developed there’s going to be a question of cost versus revenue, which brings us right back to that supply-and-demand graph. What would happen to the price of all these metals if such a source could be mined and added to the world’s reserves? The paradox is that the price might fall so low as to make the whole effort uneconomic.

The authors of that paper actually do try to account for this price drop, but the simple fact is that it’s as much of a guess as predicting the price of strawberries when that market is flooded. You know it’ll go down but to precisely what value?

We estimated that the amounts of Fe, Ni, Co, and the PGM present in 1986 DA could exceed the reserves worldwide. Moreover, if 1986 DA is mined and the metals marketed over 50 yr, the annual value of precious metals for this object would be ∼$233 billion.

In any case, it may well be that the metals never get to Earth because heavy industry slowly moves off the planet and there will be human colonies established in space that will need the metals right there. Getting them from asteroids certainly makes more economic sense than digging them out of the Moon or another planet. That seems to be what Jeff Bezos is thinking as he pushes forward with his Blue Origin rocket company (To rouse the spirit of the Earth, and move the rolling stars):

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,” 

Written by Tom Hunter

November 1, 2021 at 6:53 am

A room with a view

There have been some nice shots of New Zealand from the ISS (International Space Station) over the years, but I can’t recall one that caught so much of our nation so well.

We’re entering the months of the year where the ISS is best seen when it orbits over the country, thanks to the tilt of the Earth exposing the ISS to more sunlight for longer. No matter how many times I’ve seen that bright light moving through our darkened skies it always fills me with a sense of beauty and longing.

If you’re interested in seeing it yourself here’s the tracking link that shows when it will be seen. You can alter the details of where you’re situated and when you click on the date of a sighting you get a skymap to show you where to look. There’s an excellent one coming up on Monday night.

And if you want something to watch instead of That Which Should Not Be Named today, you can watch a live streaming video of earth (or replays) from the ISS.

Written by Tom Hunter

October 16, 2021 at 1:54 pm

Posted in New Zealand, Space, Technology

Tagged with

To boldly go where many others have gone before

Well, by now a few hundred people anyway.

Space that is. The final frontier and all that.

Tomorrow in the USA, dreams will enter reality when probably the most famous spaceship commander – Captain James T. Kirk – will fly into space.

More precisely, the actor who portrayed him, William Shatner, will fly into space. For all of fifteen minutes of a fully automated, sub-orbital flight on the Blue Origin spacecraft and rocket.

Shatner will establish a couple of records. He’ll be the first actor to fly into space and the oldest person to do so at 90 years of age.

Of course this is all a publicity stunt for Blue Origin, which has badly lagged the likes of SpaceX in developing spacecraft and rockets, despite having the wealth and management nous of one of the planet’s richest men, Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, behind it.

But it’s still fun to think that the guy who played one of the most famous SF characters in history, starting in the 1960’s, will actually go into the realm where he has played out so many fictional stories.

Good luck Captain.

Just one aside: James Lilek’s long-time blog, The Bleat, has some fun with this story:

What if he doesn’t come back?

Oh perish the thought, you say, but it’s possible. First of all, there’s the dark comic angle: a warning light goes off, the ship bucks, and you know everyone will instinctively look at him for guidance.

I would.

But Shatner dying in space would be an utterly unique end to a career that no one could’ve predicted back in the late 60s.

No, actually, they could have. When the show went off the air we were still on track to keep exploring, right? A space station soon, a moon base by the late 80s. Why, of course it would have been plausible for Shatner to die in a moon-shuttle accident in 2021.

If I were Shatner, and I was toting up the odds, I’d think: what if? Could happen. Will there by time to say something? If so, what?

There are several things he could say on the last transmission.

Live long and prosper?

Written by Tom Hunter

October 13, 2021 at 7:06 am


While his competitors continue to fumble around with much delayed, modest successes like getting spaceships into sub-orbital flights, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation continues to power ahead with stuff that’s at least a decade in front of them, not to mention national space agencies like China’s and NASA.

Following the successful atmospheric test flight of Starship SN15 – after a few catastrophic landings for earlier models – the next test ship, SN16, was simply scrapped while work moved ahead on a sub-orbital / orbital test vehicle.

This is entirely in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative development process of rapid design-build-test prototyping.

Only a few days ago, it was observed that the Super Heavy Booster (formerly called the BFR), the 1st stage of the Starship system, had been moved to its launchpad in Texas.

But just the other day, it was seen that an actual Starship sub-orbital/orbital model, SN20, was lifted into place atop the SHB:

How big is this thing?

Bigger than the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. It’s also more than twice as powerful, punching out some 7200 tons of thrust compared to the Saturn V’s 3500 tons. One of the basic design decisions that still concerns me about the SHB is that it uses 29 Raptor engines to get this thrust, compared to the five J-1 engines of the Saturn. The more things you have, the more that can go wrong, even if computer control systems are many times better than in the 1960’s.

The Starship was later pulled off the SHB, effectively yet another test of how they will mate the things together and improvements that can be made to the process. With SpaceX it’s all about continuous process improvement, like any factory.

It gets even crazier. That launch tower in the pictures is also a capture tower; the idea is that the SHB will land vertically right beside the tower after each launch, and the tower will then latch on to it, ready for maintenance checks and refueling for the next launch. Personally I’d build two such towers at a minimum for redundancy, especially if a high flight rate is desired, and Musk is aiming for three launches a day.

However, it’s still testing time and this combo won’t be launched for a few months yet, but hopefully before the end of 2021. In that test flight both vehicles will simply be destroyed by allowing them to fall into the ocean, but in the case of Starship, not before it’s made at least one orbit of the Earth. Starship will land in the Northern Pacific Ocean, while the SHB will attempt a “soft-landing” (meaning a vertical landing with engines on) into the Gulf of Mexico, yet another example of squeezing every drop of learning possible from everything they do.

Incidentally, the decision by NASA to select Starship for lunar landings later this decade (see A Thousand Moons) – a decision challenged by Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin – has been confirmed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) after a review of several months. It’s not a surprise. Starship may only be partway through its testing process, let alone having a lunar-capable vehicle developed, but it’s still far ahead of Blue Origin and company, who still have only draft plans.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2021 at 12:33 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.


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