Category Archives: Space

Space launch trends

Robert Zimmerman posts stats and commentary on launch industry trends going back to 1998. I’m not going to swipe his chart but it is interesting. He breaks U.S. launches down to government, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, and then leaves blanks for forthcoming Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab and Neptune. Then he lists other countries’ steadily increasing numbers of launches.

(Note: United Launch Alliance (ULA) is Lockheed Martin’s and Boeing’s combined effort. Orbital ATK does the aircraft-launched satellites mentioned last month.)

The initial impression you get from the chart is that U.S. launches have dropped, but not just us. Even the Russians have had their issues lately, although theirs are temporary. Here, Zimmerman adds context:

Had there not been launch failures for both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Russia’s Proton in 2016 we easily could have seen another two dozen launches, bringing the total above 100 for the year, the first time that would have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Then, after a few caveats, he says:

And most important, the shift in the U.S. from a government-controlled space program to a wildly competitive and chaotic private sector launch industry is fueling this boom. There is now money to be made in space, and there is freedom to pursue those profits without waiting for NASA and the government to lay out a program.

Space could be a bit like the Kindle book-writing revolution, but for billionaires.

Air-launched spacecraft

Pegasus XL under L-1011 "Stargazer"

Pegasus XL under L-1011 “Stargazer”

I’ve been looking at the launch schedule, which covers public and international spacecraft launches, and noticed the December 12 launch of a Pegasus XL.

Pegasus XL is a rocket, of course, and it’s taking off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but it is doing so from the underside of a Lockheed L-1011 airplane named Stargazer. They’ve been doing this particular spacecraft model since 1990, first with other aircraft, and then with the L-1011 a few years later.

It says something about all the work going on in space that we don’t notice, partly because it was just unmanned satellites, but also because it had become more-or-less routine.

The Stargazer boost aircraft is named after the USS Stargazer, which was Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s previous ship in the Star Trek universe. No kidding. It got the name informally at first, and then it stuck. Another interesting thing about Stargazer is that the company flying it bought it used.

Update: December 15, 2016

After the initial December 12 launch attempt was scrubbed, they had a successful launch today, December 15th:

Destination Mars, date still to be determined

There’s a story in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles called “The Third Expedition” with astronauts landing on Mars. One nice thing about the stories in this book is that they all have dates listed. The first story in the book happens in 1999. This one takes place in April 2000.

(Yes, you might have noticed that I do keep track of dates.)

When the book was republished in 1997, they changed all the dates to thirty years later — as though that would fool anyone.

But it’s not the first time the dates were changed. That story was originally published in 1948 as “Mars Is Heaven!.”

A funny thing about this 1948 version is that Bradbury originally had men landing on Mars, not in 2000, but in 1960.

Where am I going with this?

It’s easy to laugh at thinking we’d be on Mars by 1960 (while weeping that we’re not there yet in 2015). You need to think about what made people so optimistic. When Bradbury wrote that, the U.S. Army was testing V-2s in New Mexico. They also had the Me-163 Komet rocket plane. It must have seemed simple back then to just imagine making them bigger and adding more fuel.

But it wasn’t so simple after all. This is a lot like how military historians say amateurs talk tactics, and professionals study logistics. (Well, amateurs now say that, too.)

Getting into orbit requires an awful lot more fuel. And even that’s not the biggest issue. Multi-stage rockets could get us into space. The biggest issue was cost. It was bad enough that they cost millions of dollars. None of the early SF writers ever imagined that rockets would be single-use vehicles. That makes the cost utterly enormous.

But that’s ending. Monday night’s launch and landing puts us a little bit closer to the possibilities that Bradbury imagined, and that’s a wonderful thing. Elon Musk thinks he’ll get there by the 2030s. I think he’s got a shot.

Falcon 9 landing

SpaceX successfully landed a first-stage rocket after returning from space. The full video is here (14:30) if you’d like to see the entire flight of the first stage — from launch to landing.

The press kit is here.

Night launches are usually great when you’re watching from far away, but the visibility isn’t all that great on the video. There’s a flight test here if you’d like to see one in daylight. But that was just a short hop. What happened today is history.

Next day addendum: Rand Simberg links to Bob Zimmerman on the coming bright age:

The success of SpaceX yesterday to vertically land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket while also successfully putting eleven smallsat satellites in orbit however that gives me hope that a dark age is not coming. Despite living in a time when freedom is denigrated, when free speech is squelched, and when oppressive regulation and government control is the answer to every problem, the enduring spirit of the human soul still pushed through to do an amazing thing.

SpaceX’s success is only the beginning. The ability to reuse the engines and first stage will allow them to lower their launch costs significantly, meaning that access to space will now be possible for hundreds if not thousands of new entrepeneurs who previously had ideas about developing the resources of the solar system but could not achieve them because the launch costs were too high. In fact, the launch of Orbcomm’s smallsat constellation by this Falcon 9 demonstrated this. Not only is this company proving the efficiency of smallsats, they now have a launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, that they can afford to use. In the past Orbcomm would have been hard-pressed to finance its satellite constellation using the expensive rockets of older less innovative launch companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

That could sound like he’s making too big a deal of this. But he’s not. (Well, maybe the “dark age” talk was a bit grim, but you really should read the whole thing.) What happened last night is big.

The only caveat I would add is that we still need to see how fast they can get this back up again. People like to talk about aircraft only in terms of performance. Maintenance and turnaround time is essential. But even if Falcon 9 had landed as an unusable wreck, this would still be a milestone. It just wouldn’t be that big of one.

Pluto now in the rear-view mirror

We’re only now, after almost sixty years of the space age, finally getting an up-close view of Pluto. It’s not quite as dramatic as seeing the first images of Mars that the Mariner missions gave us, which redrew the maps we thought we had of Mars. But it’s the last major stop within the solar system. Everything from here on is either a whistle stop, or too far away for mere rockets.

Rand Simberg gives his general rundown here. I thought this was interesting:

It’s several light-hours away from earth, so the initial data won’t arrive until later today. The data won’t even start its journey back to earth until the spacecraft has departed the system because, while it can point at Pluto to take pictures, or point at earth to transmit the data, it can’t do both at once. Also, because of the distance from the sun, the only way to power the system was with a nuclear “battery,” and its transmitter has only a few watts of power. So even with the giant dishes of the Deep Space Network at Goldstone in California, and other locations, the data rate will be very slow, and we won’t have all of it for months to come.

So, it’s not merely the speed-of-light lag we’re waiting for. The engineers needed to account for every watt of power when they planned the mission. If you’ve seen the movie, or read the book, Apollo 13, you may remember how much thought had to go into measuring the amount of power they had to work with.

Update Sept-10-2015: The First Pluto Photos From New Horizons’ Massive Data Dump. “The probe is so far away that it can only send data at a rate of around 1 to 4 kilobits per second.” Fortunately, computers can be patient.

RV Neil Armstrong and RV Sally Ride

Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride
Writer and former P-3 aviator J.L. Curtis (“OldNFO”) has a post connecting space and the Navy that is worthy of note.

Two new Oceanographic Research vessels are under construction or development: RV Neil Armstrong (AGOR-27) and RV Sally Ride (AGOR-28). These paintings are the “commissioning lithos.”

Neither one of these names needs an introduction, but I will say that Armstrong was a former Navy test pilot.

Science fiction writers, always on the hunt for names for future ships, will now have to note that these names are taken for the next few decades, and they won’t be getting the “USS” designation. “RV” stands for Research Vessel. It’s a safe bet that more than a few sci-fi novels already have ships named after these two.

Antares rocket explosion

Stephen Clark has the story at Spaceflight Now — via Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial:

Interesting to know:

Drivers granted access to view an Atlas, Delta or Falcon rocket launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are typically asked to park their cars facing a road, allowing spectators to quickly leave the scene if something goes wrong.

At Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana — where Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets take off — reporters and VIPs are issued gas masks and trained how to use them before entering a restricted viewing site a few miles from the launch pad.

If you’re at Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center for a launch, expect to be handed a hard hat and arm band — for identification purposes after a catastrophe — in the final minutes of a countdown.

Most of us have already seen the video. It’s all worth reading.

Elon Musk and Mars

Aeon speaks with Elon Musk about colonizing Mars (via Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial).

Great migrations are often a matter of timing, of waiting for a strait to freeze, a sea to part, or a planet to draw near. The distance between Earth and Mars fluctuates widely as the two worlds whirl around in their orbits. At its furthest, Mars is a thousand times further than the Moon. But every 26 months they align, when the faster moving Earth swings into position between Mars and the Sun. When this alignment occurs where their orbits are tightest, Mars can come within 36 million miles, only 150 times further than the Moon. The next such window is only four years away, too soon to send a crewed ship. But in the mid-2030s, Mars will once again burn bright and orange in our sky, and by then Musk might be ready to send his first flurry of missions, to seed a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.

‘SpaceX is only 12 years old now,’ he told me. ‘Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.’

Heavy traffic in Mars orbit

Mars atmosphere
You know it’s the 21st century when you have two space probes reaching Mars orbit in the same week: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) a.k.a. “Mangalyaan.”

(I mentioned MAVEN last year.)

PC Magazine notes that India paid $74 million, while the U.S. paid $671 million. Although that’s funny to think about, it’s not entirely fair.        Mangalyaan’s payload only weighs 15 kg while MAVEN’s is 65 kg. That’s a pretty good indicator of differences in mission objectives.

Solar sailing in the 21st century

I was preparing a post apologizing for my absence (and that apology gets harder to write the longer I take) when I saw this news of another solar sail project.

It’s from The Planetary Society. There is a video of their launch announcement here.

This is not just a solar sail for the sake of a solar sail. They intend to use these to deploy relatively cheap satellites called CubeSats.

To round out the 21st centuryness, it’s supported by crowdfunding that accepts BitCoin.