The mini-ship, built by Mojave-based Xcor Aerospace and designed to fly to the edge of space, is expected to be ready for test flights by 2010, around the time Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic hopes to send its much larger spaceship on its maiden voyage.
More than half a dozen other companies -- most, unlike Xcor, bankrolled by wealthy businessmen, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal -- are building rockets and spacecraft that they hope will capture the imagination of space travelers.
Looks like wealthy people in Silicon Valley have decided to compete with each other for status by starting space launch companies. Is NASA becoming irrelevant for near Earth orbit launches?
Here's an animation of the Xcor aircraft from YouTube.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon is funding Blue Origin. Elon Musk is funding Space X. Other companies attempting to build spacecraft include Space Adventures. Most (all?) of these companies appear to be aiming at suborbital space tourism as a first step. The step from suborbital to orbital flight isn't easy because reentry involves high temperature deceleration.
While the suborbital tourism project will provide a way for millionaires to buy a thrill I question whether it will play a significant role in a human migration into space. This method of getting into space does not avoid the high energy costs or high risks of space launch as a way to achieve orbit. To cut the energy costs and risks we might need a carbon nanotube space elevator.
A 6000 kilometer area between the two Van Allen belts was previously thought to be a "safe zone" where lighter, smaller, cheaper, and less heavily shielded satellites could operate. But a discovery with a research satellite has found that during severe solar storms high energy particles spill into the zone where it was hoped that cheap satellites with little shielding could operate.
A region of space around the Earth that was previously thought to be free of radiation actually teems with high-energy charged particles during solar storms. The news may dash scientists' hopes of sending up ultra-cheap, lightweight satellites that do not carry much protection against radiation.
Read the full article for the details.
Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution argues in a Tech Central Station article that commercial spacecraft safe enough to enable a large commercial space tourism industry are still a very distant prospect.
Since 1980 the United States has launched some 440 orbital launch rockets (not including the Space Shuttle). Nearly five percent of those rockets have experienced total failure, either blowing up or wandering so far from course as to be useless. The space shuttle has a slightly better record of safety -- it was destroyed in two of 113 flights. There are lots of millionaires willing to spend one or two million dollars for a flight into space but how many will risk a two to five percent chance of death?
It is true that we have been "learning by doing" or in this case by learning by exploding. In the 1960s the risk of failure was a stunning 12%. As in other industries, learning by doing reduced the failure rate dramatically over the first units but more slowly thereafter. In the 1970s the failure rate dropped to 5.2% but nearly thirty years later the failure rate for rockets still hovers between four and five percent. We can expect similar slow and steady improvements in the future but there is little reason to expect dramatic improvements in rocket technology.
If progress continues at the same rate as it has over the past 30 years how long will it take to achieve a level of safety of say a 1 in 10,000 chance of failure? Note that in comparison to other means of travel this is very, very dangerous. Commercial airlines, for example, have a fatality rate of .2 fatalities per 1,000,000 departures or a 1 in 5 million chance.
Projecting from the historical rate of progress in improving rocket launch safety Alex shows that if that rate of improvement continues then even in the 22nd century space launch will not become as safe as air flight is today.
Some space enthusiasts argue that space flight safety improvements are retracing the same pattern that aviation safety improvements followed,. However, I've done my comparison of aircraft and spacecraft safety records. By my estimation airplanes in 1938 were orders of magnitude safer than spacecraft today.
But let's go back even further to look at aircraft safety in 1938. That's when some US government agency was created that started tracking aircraft safety. It is not clear from the table what kind of fatal accident rate measure they were using. But compare the 1938 rate of 11.9 to the 1950 rate of 5.0 and the year 2000 rate of 1.1. The 1938 rate of fatal accidents was about an order of magnitude higher than it is now. But its still more than two orders of magnitude lower than the fatal accident rate of the Space Shuttle.
1938 was 35 years after the first aircraft flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk North Carolina. Manned space travel began on April 12, 1961 when a Soviet air force pilot, Major Yuri A. Gagarin, made an orbit of the Earth. So manned space travel is over 40 years old. Space travel into Earth's orbit is orders of magnitude more dangerous after 40 years than aircraft travel was when it was only 35 years old.
Note that comparisons between airplanes and spacecraft using the data I cited are difficult becuase a lot of airplace safety statistics are in accident rates per million miles flown. This is not useful for spacecraft that get up into orbit and then go around the Earth many times without and ending up where they started each time. Also, Alex's use of fatalities per departures is a more useful measure. However, even there it is not clear to me whether the 1,000,000 departures are departures of humans or departures of aircraft. So I'm not sure if he is doing an apples to apples comparison with rocket and space shuttle launches.
Cronaca blogger David Nishimura points out that the death rate for climbing Mount Everest is comparable to the death rate from rocket launches. Rand Simberg responds that SpaceShipOne supposedly changed the rate of rocket launch technology advance. Alex is having none of this argument. Alex says that refinements in existing approaches using existing state of the art in materials and design just can not begin to close the gap in space flight safety as compared to aircraft safety.
I admire Rutan and I have little doubt that he has made significant advances in rocket design but what I showed in my article was that safety could have improved by a factor of ten or even 100 and rockets would still be too unsafe to support a large tourism industry.
What's so great about space tourism anyway? Even though an increase in rocket safety of a factor of ten is not much when considering the safety of large numbers of people it is very significant when thinking about satellite launches or temporary low-orbit launches. A reduction of risk of this amount means much lower insurance costs that will open up space to new private development.
I am with Alex on this point. Newer rockets have been designed in recent years and have unexpectedly blown up on launch. Rutan's accomplishment is not as radical as some media reprots present it for a number of reasons. First of all, whether he has designed a safer spaceship is will not be proven unless and until it has flown hundreds and even thousands of times without mishap. Also, and very importantly, SpaceShipOne does not do that much. It can not achieve orbital velocity or decelerate from orbital velocity. In my view the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne flight was important because it demonstrated the potential for prizes to spur innovation. It also opens up the possibility that dangerous orbital spacecraft can be designed and built for much lower costs than NASA and big aerospace companies typically spend.
So then will there be little space tourism in the 21st century? Will you never be a space tourist? Nanotechnological advances may provide new materials that will allow very safe spacecraft or an even safer space elevator to be built. However, even if the answer to the first question remains "No" for most or all of the 21st century and even if you decide you do not want to risk travelling to space in spacecraft that are less safe than today's jumbo jets that does not mean you will never travel into space. If you want to live long enough to travel into space your best bet is to support the development of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Donations to the Methuselah Mouse Prize will increase your odds of living long enough to still be around when space flight becomes cheap and very safe. If you want to be able to do more in your life support rejuvenation for life extension. My guess is that life extension will become possible long before space flight becomes as safe as commercial aviation is today.
NASA's X-43A research vehicle screamed into the record books again Tuesday, demonstrating an air-breathing engine can fly at nearly 10 times the speed of sound. Preliminary data from the scramjet-powered research vehicle show its revolutionary engine worked successfully at nearly Mach 9.8, or 7,000 mph, as it flew at about 110,000 feet.
The high-risk, high-payoff flight, originally scheduled for Nov. 15, took place in restricted airspace over the Pacific Ocean northwest of Los Angeles. The flight was the last and fastest of three unpiloted flight tests in NASA's Hyper-X Program. The program's purpose is to explore an alternative to rocket power for space access vehicles.
"This flight is a key milestone and a major step toward the future possibilities for producing boosters for sending large and critical payloads into space in a reliable, safe, inexpensive manner," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. "These developments will also help us advance the Vision for Space Exploration, while helping to advance commercial aviation technology," Administrator O'Keefe said.
Supersonic combustion ramjets (scramjets) promise more airplane-like operations for increased affordability, flexibility and safety in ultra high-speed flights within the atmosphere and for the first stage to Earth orbit. The scramjet advantage is once it is accelerated to about Mach 4 by a conventional jet engine or booster rocket, it can fly at hypersonic speeds, possibly as fast as Mach 15, without carrying heavy oxygen tanks, as rockets must.
The design of the engine, which has no moving parts, compresses the air passing through it, so combustion can occur. Another advantage is scramjets can be throttled back and flown more like an airplane, unlike rockets, which tend to produce full thrust all the time.
Before the flight NASA was predicting an 11 second burn. The 10 second burn might be the reason they didn't break Mach 10.
The scramjet burned fuel for about 10 seconds off the southern California coast, US, to reach a speed of about Mach 9.6 (11,500 km per hour). It then glided for 10 minutes before diving into the Pacific Ocean.
A Nasa programme to build a larger scramjet vehicle, the X-43C, has been cancelled amid the drive to produce a vehicle capable of returning to the Moon and journeying to Mars in order to fulfil President Bush's vision for space exploration.
Human stunt trips are not as important for spaceflight as technological advances in spacecraft design. But stunt trips make for better politics apparently.
For all the details on this aircraft see my previous post on the X-43A. Also, go here for links to QuickTime movies of the launch.
To reiterate my attitude toward this kind of flight: This is what NASA ought to be doing but with orders of magnitude greater efforts. NASA ought cancel the Space Shuttle, stop manned flight for several years, and spend all that money pushing the envelope to develop radically more advanced technologies for space launch and space flight.
The final flight of NASA's X-43A hypersonic research aircraft is still on schedule for Monday afternoon, Nov. 15, weather permitting. The mission is intended to flight-validate the operation of the X-43A's supersonic-combustion ramjet - or scramjet - engine at a record airspeed of almost Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound. The X-43A and its modified Pegasus booster rocket was mated to NASA's B-52B launch aircraft on Thursday, Nov. 11. Pre-flight checks of the X-43A and the booster are occurring Friday and Saturday, with final closeouts and fueling slated for Sunday, Nov. 14th. Takeoff on Nov. 15 is tentatively scheduled for about 1 p.m. Pacific time, with launch about an hour later over the Pacific test range off the coast of Southern California.
As with the first two flights, the third X-43A will be carried aloft by NASA's B-52B launch aircraft from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base. The B-52B "mothership" will release the combined X-43A and Pegasus booster stack at 40,000 feet altitude off the coast of Southern California. The booster will then accelerate the experimental vehicle to nearly Mach 10, or almost 7,000 mph, at approximately 110,000 feet altitude. At booster burnout, the 2,800-pound, wedge-shaped X-43A will separate, and fly briefly on a preprogrammed path, performing a set of tasks and maneuvers before splashdown in the ocean.
The last X-43A vehicle has additional thermal protection for the Mach 10 flight, since it will experience heating roughly twice that of the Mach 7 vehicle. Reinforced carbon-carbon composite material has been added to the leading edges of the vehicle's vertical fins to handle the higher temperatures.
For the Mach 10 flight, which equates to approximately 7,000 mph, the booster rocket will launch the X-43A to 110,000 feet before it separates and the X-43A operates its scramjet. The research vehicle will travel about 850 miles before splashing into the ocean. As with the previous X-43A vehicles, it will not be recovered.
...A scramjet (supersonic-combustion ramjet) is a ramjet engine in which the airflow through the whole engine remains supersonic. It is thought that a scramjet can operate from Mach 5-6 up to at least Mach 15.
The scramjet concept is simple: Accelerate the vehicle to about Mach 4 by a conventional jet engine, then start the scramjet engine (which has few or no moving parts) by introducing fuel and mixing it with oxygen obtained from the air and compressed for combustion. The air is naturally compressed by the forward speed of the vehicle and the shape of the inlet, similar to what turbines or pistons do in slower-moving airplanes and cars.
While the concept is simple, proving the concept has not been simple. At operational speeds, flow through the scramjet engine is supersonic - or faster than the speed of sound. At that speed, ignition and combustion take place in a matter of milliseconds. This is one reason it has taken researchers decades to demonstrate scramjet technologies, first in wind tunnels and computer simulations, and only recently in experimental flight tests.
The previous X-43A flight set a record at Mach 7.
In the process of demonstrating a scramjet-powered airplane in flight for the first time, the March 2004 flight set a world speed record for an "air breathing" (jet-powered) vehicle. It flew at nearly Mach 7, or 5,000 mph. It easily surpassed the previous record set by the military's now-retired SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which flew at about Mach 3.2.
To prepare for the Mach 10 flight, the third scramjet was upgraded slightly. A thicker layer of thermal insulation was added to the engine, wing edges, tail and nose. The nose is expected to reach about 2000°C - roughly 600 degrees hotter than the previous Mach 7 flight.
Reasons not to get too excited: The aircraft is unmanned. It is a throw-away that will not be recovered when it crashes into the Pacific Ocean. NASA has no follow-on money allocated to build on this design with a better hypersonic scramjet aircraft design. The whole Hyper-X project that produced three X-43A vehicles (this is the third and final) cost $230 million. But orders of magnitude larger sums must be spent operating the obsolete Space Shuttle to go visit the white elephant International Space Station to accomplish very little real science or technological advance.
Still, useful lessons will be learned from the X-43A. Some day a new effort that pushes the envelope of scramjet operation even further may build upon what was learned in this effort.
A new means of propelling spacecraft being developed at the University of Washington could dramatically cut the time needed for astronauts to travel to and from Mars and could make humans a permanent fixture in space.
In fact, with magnetized-beam plasma propulsion, or mag-beam, quick trips to distant parts of the solar system could become routine, said Robert Winglee, a UW Earth and space sciences professor who is leading the project.
Currently, using conventional technology and adjusting for the orbits of both the Earth and Mars around the sun, it would take astronauts about 2.5 years to travel to Mars, conduct their scientific mission and return.
"We're trying to get to Mars and back in 90 days," Winglee said. "Our philosophy is that, if it's going to take two-and-a-half years, the chances of a successful mission are pretty low."
Mag-beam is one of 12 proposals that this month began receiving support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Institute for Advanced Concepts. Each gets $75,000 for a six-month study to validate the concept and identify challenges in developing it. Projects that make it through that phase are eligible for as much as $400,000 more over two years.
Note that NASA's funding level for this concept is miniscule. Meanwhile billions per year are spent on the obsolete and flawed Space Shuttle. For a complete list of the 12 funded projects see here.
A space station beam generator would shoot ions at the spacecraft and the spacecraft would use a magnetic sail to capture the momentum of the particles blowing at it from what would essentially be an ion wind blown at the spacecraft.
Under the mag-beam concept, a space-based station would generate a stream of magnetized ions that would interact with a magnetic sail on a spacecraft and propel it through the solar system at high speeds that increase with the size of the plasma beam. Winglee estimates that a control nozzle 32 meters wide would generate a plasma beam capable of propelling a spacecraft at 11.7 kilometers per second. That translates to more than 26,000 miles an hour or more than 625,000 miles a day.
Mars is an average of 48 million miles from Earth, though the distance can vary greatly depending on where the two planets are in their orbits around the sun. At that distance, a spacecraft traveling 625,000 miles a day would take more than 76 days to get to the red planet. But Winglee is working on ways to devise even greater speeds so the round trip could be accomplished in three months.
But to make such high speeds practical, another plasma unit must be stationed on a platform at the other end of the trip to apply brakes to the spacecraft.
"Rather than a spacecraft having to carry these big powerful propulsion units, you can have much smaller payloads," he said.
Winglee envisions units being placed around the solar system by missions already planned by NASA. One could be used as an integral part of a research mission to Jupiter, for instance, and then left in orbit there when the mission is completed. Units placed farther out in the solar system would use nuclear power to create the ionized plasma; those closer to the sun would be able to use electricity generated by solar panels.
The mag-beam concept grew out of an earlier effort Winglee led to develop a system called mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion. In that system, a plasma bubble would be created around a spacecraft and sail on the solar wind. The mag-beam concept removes reliance on the solar wind, replacing it with a plasma beam that can be controlled for strength and direction.
A mag-beam test mission could be possible within five years if financial support remains consistent, he said. The project will be among the topics during the sixth annual NASA Advanced Concepts Institute meeting Tuesday and Wednesday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seattle. The meeting is free and open to the public.
Winglee acknowledges that it would take an initial investment of billions of dollars to place stations around the solar system. But once they are in place, their power sources should allow them to generate plasma indefinitely. The system ultimately would reduce spacecraft costs, since individual craft would no longer have to carry their own propulsion systems. They would get up to speed quickly with a strong push from a plasma station, then coast at high speed until they reach their destination, where they would be slowed by another plasma station.
"This would facilitate a permanent human presence in space," Winglee said. "That's what we are trying to get to."
I've seen claims that the Space Shuttle has had as much as $100 billion spent on it and we have little to show for all that money. For a much smaller amount of money we could have a set of space highways running around the solar system moving spacecraft at faster speeds than any conventional propulsion system could achieve.
“If we are solidly funded we could at least mount a test flight in five years,” says Winglee. A test flight alone would cost $1 million, while a trip to Mars would cost billions because it would require building a space station there.
Leonard David of Space.com has an article discussing other advanced propulsion concepts NASA is funding. But keep in mind that the funding level for most of these projects is still pretty low. If the Space Shuttle was retired and that money put into advanced propulsion concepts we could greatly accelerate the rate of development of much more advanced approaches to space travel.
Over the decades, Rutan said, despite the promise of the Space Shuttle to lower costs of getting to space, a kid’s hope of personal access to space in their lifetime remained in limbo.
“Look at the progress in 25 years of trying to replace the mistake of the shuttle. It’s more expensive…not less…a horrible mistake,” Rutan said. “They knew it right away. And they’ve spent billions…arguably nearly $100 billion over all these years trying to sort out how to correct that mistake…trying to solve the problem of access to space. The problem is…it’s the government trying to do it.”
It is my hope that the success of SpaceShipOne and the coming flights of SpaceShipTwo and other private spacecraft designs will allow the American public to get over their emotional attachment to the Space Shuttle. People no longer need to invest their hopes for space exploration in the Shuttle. We can relegate the Shuttle to history as an obsolete and flawed design. We have wasted enough money on the Shuttle and more billions continue to be thrown at it to little result. The Shuttle was a bad idea in 1980. It is just an expensive money sink today. We should focus on the new designs and innovations that can be developed in the future.
There are signs of hope with NASA. Most importantly, NASA is going to offer Centennial Challenges prizes for innovations in aerospace and space exploration.
Welcome to Centennial Challenges, NASA's program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and ongoing NASA mission areas. By making awards based on actual achievements, instead of proposals, Centennial Challenges seeks novel solutions to NASA's mission challenges from non-traditional sources of innovation in academia, industry and the public.
NASA is accepting Centennial Challenges ideas from the public. So if you have any ideas for prizes for development of spacecraft and for advance of aerospace technology do write them up and send them in. So far NASA has not yet announced even a single challenge prize. Since NASA operates in a very political environment and wants to please its political masters it wouldn't hurt for you all to contact your elected representatives via their email address (enter your zip code at the top) and let those Congress critters know you want them to support NASA's move to offer cash prizes for aerospace achievements.
SpaceShipOne, the sleek combination of rocket and glider designed by Burt Rutan and financed by the billionaire Paul G. Allen, reached a record altitude of 368,000 feet, or 69.7 miles, blasting past the 337,600-foot altitude reached by the same ship last week.
The prize, which required two flights in two weeks, will be paid by a special "hole-in-one" insurance policy, a common method of financing prize contests in which an insurance company essentially bets against success. The premium for the policy was paid by Anousheh Ansari, a telecommunications entrepreneur in Texas and a board member of the X Prize Foundation; she said that it cost "in excess of a million" dollars.
And so Diamandis and his backers found a Bermuda insurance company that was willing to underwrite the prize as, essentially, a bet it expected never to be collected. Even then, it took a major contribution from Anousheh Ansari, a young engineer who made $180 million in the telecom boom, to get the premiums paid up.
My guess is that it will be a lot harder in the future to find insurance companies willing to insure against the achievement of aerospace prize goals.
Allen put up all the cash for developing the spacecraft, but said he'll share the prize with Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, which built it. Rutan, in turn, said the company will distribute its share of the winnings among employees.
But the more important story here is not about space flight or human exploration. The more important story is that prize money can very efficiently speed the rate of technological advance in targetted areas. If NASA's entire budget was shifted over into prize money it would do far more to accelerate the development of space technology than the current set of programs that NASA funds.
The success of the X Prize is spawning imitators. A $50 million dollar prize may be offered for an orbital vehicle.
Bigelow Aerospace is reportedly on the verge of offering a $50 million American Space Prize to any private American company that can develop a reliable orbital vehicle. There's a good reason for that. Bigelow has been working on orbiting space habitats - and needs an orbital rocket for people to get to them.
Raymond Orteig emigrated to New York from France in 1912. He worked as a bus boy and café manager and eventually acquired two New York Hotels which were popular with French airmen assigned to duty in the United States during the Great War In 1919 Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. By the mid 1920’s, airplanes had finally developed enough to make such a flight possible.
. The Orteig Prize stimulated not one, but nine separate attempts to cross the Atlantic. To initiate the flights, competitors raised and spent some $400,000, or 16 times the amount of the prize. As a result of these early aviation prizes, the world’s $250 Billion aviation industry was created. The ANSARI X PRIZE hopes to spur the creation of a vibrant commercial space industry through the $10M competition.
Designer Burt Rutan said what makes his SpaceShipOne so robust is its lightweight materials of graphite and epoxy (it weighs about 6,000 pounds and can be towed by a pickup), its safer propulsion system fuel of rubber-nitrous oxide fuel, and its ability to fold and open its wings, which stabilizes the craft. With the exception of refueling its rocket motors, 97 percent of the spaceship was reused for the two X Prize flights.
But what is amazing in this story is the low cost for SpaceShipOne's development. Estimates for the cost of development range between $20 million and $30 million. What prizes for cutting edge technological achievements do is they give America's and the world's many multimillionaires and billionaires entertaining and ego gratifying ways to use their their cash to push the envelope on what is technologically possible. Putting up technological goal posts and declaring contests with large money prizes is a great way to spur incredibly cost-effective competition. We need more prizes for more more technological goals.
The research and development area most in need of funding for prizes is aging rejuvenation therapies known as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). There is now one prize aimed at this topic which is called the Methuselah Mouse Prize. The goal of this prize is to provide researchers an incentive to develop biotechnologies that will double the life expectancies of lab rats from 3 years to 6 years. Currently the prize has a half million dollars in funding.
Note that academic researchers already have large funding agencies to which to apply for grants and the agencies are to some extent led in directions based on which topics researchers decide to apply for to get funding. If top researchers in many fields started applying for research grants to explore the development of various SENS therapies then some of those grants would get funded and more SENS research would get done. Financial incentives in the form of prize money could sway a lot of existing research money in the direction of rejuvenation research. So prize money for the achievement of SENS research goals could potentially sway the allocation of literally orders of magnitude more money than was used to win the X Prize.
For more on the topic of SENS research and prize money the Fight Aging! blog has 3 posts on the X Prize, the Methuselah Mouse Prize and how the fight against aging can be accelerated with prize money. See here and here and here for more.
How much investment the X Prize has spurred won't be known until next year, after all the various teams have wrapped up their work on prototype space taxis for tourists. Most contenders have been scrimping along on shoestring budgets, so the X Prize isn't likely to reach the 16-to-1 payback ratio of the Orteig Prize. Rutan's Mojave (Calif.) company, Scaled Composites, chewed through some $25 million of the fortune Allen earned as a founder of Microsoft.
However, there is a positive spin that can be put on that news: The Orteig Prize was there for 8 years before its goal was achieved. That gave plenty of time for a succession of teams to come along, spend money, and fail. The X Prize was announced in 1996. But it didn't become fully funded until some time in 2001 when an insurance policy was negotiated to fund the prize for a limited period of time.
Bermuda-based insurer XL Capital took the wager. The firm required regular payments of $50,000 to $100,000 from Diamandis and a deadline in 2003 for someone to make it to space, a date that later was extended to Jan. 1, 2005.
It was a risky move. The contract with XL stipulated that if Diamandis missed even one premium payment, the deal was off and the firm got to keep whatever had been paid in."
Prizes with more certain funding and funding for much longer periods of time could produce much larger multiplier effects in terms of dollars spent. Also, prizes aimed at researchers who can write grant applications to get money to pursue prize goals could produce even larger multiplier effects.
September 29, 2004: At 8:13 this morning PDT, SpaceShipOne (SS1) coasted above the 100 km altitude point and successfully completed the first of two X-Prize flights. The peak altitude reached was 337,500 ft. The motor was shut down when the pilot, Mike Melvill, noted that his altitude predictor exceeded the required 100 km mark. The motor burn lasted 77 seconds – 1 second longer than on the June 21st flight. Melvill was prepared to burn the motor up to 89 seconds, which indicates significant additional performance remains in SS1.
The second X-Prize flight is tentatively scheduled for Monday, October 4.
Click through on that previous link to links for videos and photos.
Note that Burt Rutan is considering trying for a second flight on October 3 since that is the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik.
MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA – The frightening spin of SpaceShipOne during its trip into space Wednesday was caused by a known deficiency and at no time led to an out-of-control situation, officials said today.
The unofficial altitude reached by SpaceShipOne yesterday, based on radar tracking, was 337,500 feet -- about 64 miles.
The Ansari X-Prize was modelled on the $25,000 prize that Charles Lindbergh won in his Spirit of St Louis for the first solo Transatlantic flight between New York and Paris in 1927.
The success of the X Prize competition argues for more and larger such prizes to achieve other goals in aerospace exploration and development. A portion of NASA's budget ought to be set aside for prize awards. Imagine much larger prizes for private spacecraft flight records, private orbital space station habitation for some period of tim, trips around the moon, manned landings on the moon with successful return, and successful construction an underground (because the moon is outside of the Van Allen Belt and radiation levels there are much higher) moon base with, say, 90 day continuous occupancy. A billion dollars a year accumulating in some fund would provide incentive for all sorts of highly cost-effective private aerospace development efforts.
The new service will be called Virgin Galactic and expects to fly 3,000 new astronauts in its first five years. Fares will start at $208,000 for a suborbital flight, including three days’ training.
Designs for the Virgin Galactic craft are progressing on a weekly basis at Rutan's base in Mojave, California and by early 2005 the final design for the maiden Virgin Galactic ship, the VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise, should be signed-off.
What will follow will be a concerted Research and Development programme to earn the craft their qualification to carry some of the world's first scheduled space tourists. Safety is paramount. It is planned to have multiple levels of redundancy on key systems in order to achieve a very robust system in every phase of flight.
Virgin's experience in aviation, adventure, luxury travel and cutting-edge design will be vital in contributing to the design of the spaceship, the smooth operation of the spaceline and creating an unforgettable experience unlike any other available to mankind.
"We've always had a dream of developing a space tourism business and Paul Allen's vision, combined with Burt Rutan's technological brilliance, have brought that dream a step closer to reality. The deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures is just the start of what we believe will be a new era in the history of mankind, one day making the affordable exploration of space by human beings a real possibility." Richard Branson
One argument for putting NASA into a prize-granting role is that some of its existing missions could be taken over by private efforts anyway. NASA ought to put up an award for building a space hotel. The hotel could be used by scientists as well as by tourists. A hotel built for prize money would not cost the government as much as the International Space Station because the prize amount would be some fixed lower amount.
A story on flying cars includes a comment at the end pointing out that there are arguments to be made against flying cars.
Ken Goodrich, a senior research engineer at NASA, said one concept under discussion is technology that runs in "h" mode, which stands for "horse." The idea is that a horse, unlike a car, is more likely to try to avoid other objects and may even know how to find its way home.
But Goodrich said he's not sure that the fantasy of the flying car ever would or should become a reality. He questioned whether having flying/driving vehicles throughout the country might end up being too noisy, disruptive and impractical.
Noise is certainly an important issue. In the future we should have fewer and quieter disruptions from the noises generated by others. Certainly car locking horn blasts and car horn alarms should be banned as obnoxious public nuisances. But millions of flying vehicles taking off and landing daily next to every house in suburbs would make horn blasts seem like minor annoyances in comparison.
There is an even more important issue than noise: Safety of people on the ground. Right now a person can greatly reduce their risk of death or disablement from accidents by working at home or within walking distance of a job or in some rural environment where there are few cars. Whereas sky cars flying in and out of suburban housing tracts all day and night will bring a new risk to the lives of all the people who are now safe in their own homes from the risks of car accidents.
Flying cars might be safer for drunk drivers and their current day victims. But a better solution to that problem ought to be either to make smart cars down here on the ground that can take over for a drunk or make it impossible for a drunk to start a car in the first place (biosensors embedded in the steering wheel could detect the alcohol).
Failure modes such as engine failures which are almost always non-fatal in ground vehicles become potentially fatal not only to commuters but to anyone they are flying over in housing tracts. Plus, cars rarely hit houses and cause building structure damage today. But that would change if tens of millions of flying vehicles were passing over housing tracts every day.
Once we achieve perpetual youth with SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) technologies a risk that is low in a single year will become orders of magnitude larger once human life spans are measurable in thousands or tens of thousands of years. People may become more risk averse when faced with longer lives (or maybe not). We ought to be looking ahead now and avoiding the spread of technologies that will make it hard to lower risks that would pose substantial cumulative risks to long lived humans. Count me in the ranks of opponents of sky cars.
Update: It is debatable whether people will become more risk averse when faced with longer lives. Some people, given younger bodies, will feel energetic and will have higher levels of hormones running through their bodies making their personalities younger again as well. So people may take more risks rather than less risks. However, there will be considerable variation between different people due to innate differences in what people find most rewarding.
Also, some people will seek out brain treatments that lower thrills they get from risky activity. Just as drug addicts will some day get gene therapies to change receptors to lower cravings for drugs so will thrill seekers. Expect to see gene therapies developed that lower the feeling of excitement that people get from dangerous activities.
Also, expect to see people migrate to jurisdictions that have safety regulation levels geared to their own levels of risk aversion. Highly dedicated long lifers will live in jurisdictions where sky cars are banned, cars have test devices to guarantee that drivers are cognitively competent to drive, speed limits are low, and commuter train systems are designed to be extremely safe. High safety jurisdictions will likely not allow violent criminals to ever be released onto the street without being subjected to gene therapies that reprogram their brains to make them non-violent.
Hokan Colting, founder of 21st Century Airships Inc., (check out the main page picture) is interviewed by New Scientist magazine about his spherical airship design and high altitude record for lighter-than-air manned airship operation.
What's the highest you've flown in it?
We took it up to 6234 metres (20,450 feet), which is the world record for airships. Traditional airships can only go up to about 1540 metres. After that, we descended, and sat in the cabin with the door open and had lunch.
Who's going to want these airships?
High-altitude airships will be used for wireless telecommunications. For a signal to go from the ground to a geostationary satellite and down again, it's a round trip of 70,000 kilometres. Even at the speed of light, that still creates a delay. Or else you put up all these telephone towers everywhere.
A Georgia-based company, Techsphere Systems International LLC, has licensed the 21 Century Airships technology to build unmanned airships and expects to begin production in July 2004.. The spherical approach is seen as having advantages for high altitude loitering applications.
At sea level, the spherical airship will always have more drag than a traditional, cigar-shaped airship. However, for high altitude flying in an air density of approximately 6% that at sea level, the difference in drag between a spherical and a cigar-shaped airship is negligible. At an altitude of 65,000 ft., the spherical airship can achieve speeds exceeding 90 knots.
The AeroSphere has a dual envelope system. The outer envelope is load bearing and the inner envelope contains the lifting gas. When the inner envelope is fully expanded, the airship is at pressure altitude; meaning it cannot climb higher without valving some lifting gas. The air inside the envelope is slightly pressurized by electric blowers to maintain the airship's shape and resist deformation from wind loads.
For a high altitude airship, operating at 60 - 70,000 ft., the envelope must be sufficiently large enough to accommodate the 1,600 - 1,700 % lifting gas expansion. At lift-off, the inner envelope is only filled to 6% of its total volume (Fig. 2). The remaining 94% is filled with air at a slight (over) pressure.
During the climb to altitude, the lifting gas will expand, eventually occupying approximately 85% of the total volume (Fig. 3). At the designed operational altitude, the platform will have enough space to expand with temperature increase during daytime sun exposure.
The spherical airship has no balancing problems at any stage of “fullness”. The weight of the payload is at the center/bottom and the lift vector is directly above this with all the forces acting on the central vertical axis.
The AeroSphere is powered by a hybrid electric system. Thin film solar cells provide power during the daytime with turbo diesel engines that power back-up generators and a small compressor (engine is started with compressed air) for night time power. Very large, lightweight propellers provide sufficient thrust to keep the airship on station.
What is not clear is just how much energy do they think the airship will have to expend to maintain a fairly fixed position at high altitude. Can they move it up and down in altitude to catch winds blowing in different directions? Or can the solar cells power a propulsion system to maintain a stationary position?
Our High Altitude Spherical Airship, the AeroSphere, is designed as a platform with significant payload capacity suitable for stationary, long endurance, unmanned operations at an altitude between 60,000’ and 70,000’MSL. This places them above the highest winds and weather systems and out of the way of commercial air traffic. And unlike satellites, these platforms can easily be retrieved and payload packages can be recovered and upgraded for further use.
Low and Mid Altitude Airships operate below 35,000'MSL. Depending on payload and application, these AeroSpheres will range in size from 60' to 140' in diameter. These lower level airships are ideal for military applications ranging from surveillance to troop support and homeland security applications such as border patrol and port security. These airships are designed for both manned and unmanned modes of operation.
The key attribute to effectively providing support for these applications is Long Endurance. The ability to loiter for days, weeks or even months at a time in an assigned position or "box". This is the advantage of Lighter Than Air (LTA) technology. To efficiently provide wireless communications to a very large geography. To provide the "unblinking stare" for surveillance and reconnaissance. To know when a suspected mobile chemical lab has moved from one area to another. This is the unique ability of the AeroSphere.
The solution is AeroSphere High Altitude Airships. A single AeroSphere at an altitude of 20km can provide effective wireless coverage to an area the size of Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia and Maryland. (see diagram to the left). This is the effective wireless foot print at a 5 to 90 degree angle of elevation. Attenuation from weather is also a major consideration in building tower based networks. Due to the angle of elevation to the AeroSphere, signals will experience far less rain attenuation as compared to terrestrial networks.
If this type of airship can put an end to cell phone cut-offs I for one will be very grateful. I am currently averaging one cut-off phone conversation a day from someone on a cell phone who is either moving or in an area with poor coverage.
This is very good news. An unmanned supersonic ramjet test vehicle soared to 95,000 feet and Mach 7 (about 5,000 mph).
(Dulles, VA 27 March 2004) - Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB) announced today that its Hyper-X Launch Vehicle was successfully launched on Saturday, March 27 in a flight test that originated from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center located at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The Hyper-X launch vehicle uses a modified first stage rocket motor, originally designed and flight-proven aboard Orbital's Pegasus® space launch vehicle, to accelerate NASA's X-43A air-breathing scramjet to seven times the speed of sound.
Unlike vehicles with conventional rocket engines, which carry oxygen onboard, the air-breathing X-43A scoops and compresses oxygen from the atmosphere using the shape of the vehicle's airframe. This type of propulsion system could potentially increase payload capacity of future launch vehicles and make high-speed passenger travel feasible since no onboard supply of oxidizer would be required.
"We are extremely pleased with the results of the Hyper-X flight," said Ron Grabe, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Orbital's Launch Systems Group. "After several years of detailed analysis, design upgrades and testing to address the factors that contributed to the failure of the program's first flight, it is all the more gratifying to have carried out this successful flight test. This flight was one of the most challenging missions Orbital has ever conducted and demonstrated our ability to take on and tackle the toughest technical challenges."
Mr. Grabe added, "Our congratulations go out to NASA and all the partners on this program who persevered to get it right. We now have our sights set on a successful third mission to provide even more critical data to NASA's research into the field of hypersonic flight and to extend the flight speed record set today to Mach 10."
On launch day, flight operations began when NASA's B-52B carrier aircraft took off and flew a predetermined flight path to a point 50 miles off the California coast. The Hyper-X vehicle was released from the B-52 at 2:00 p.m. (PST) approximately 40,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. Following rocket motor ignition, the Hyper-X Launch Vehicle, carrying the X-43A scramjet, accelerated to a velocity of approximately Mach 7 (or seven times the speed of sound) and reached an altitude of 95,000 feet. Approximately 90 seconds after ignition, with the booster at a precise trajectory condition, the Hyper-X launch vehicle sent commands to the X-43A scramjet, which then separated from the booster.
Early flight results indicate that the X-43A stabilized, ignited its scramjet and provided flight data back to NASA engineers. Following the engine burn, the X-43A executed a number of aerodynamic maneuvers during its eight-minute coast to an ocean impact approximately 450 miles from the launch point. After separation, the spent booster impacted the ocean in a pre-determined splash area.
The lure of a scramjet engine is that unlike a rocket it does not need to carry its oxidizer. It carries fuel but scoops oxygen from the atmosphere. A conventional jet engine does this as well but theoretically a scramjet can operate at much higher speeds. However, the heat and pressure at such high speeds have made the development of scramjet vehicles an extremely difficult challenge. Before this latest flight there was enough skepticism about scramjets that some press reports were predicting that if this flight failed the X-43A program would be cancelled. Fortunately this second X-43A test flight succeeded and NASA will continue to do scramjet vehicle development unless the Bush Administration is foolish enough to redirect the money toward a Moon and Mars expedition.
The unpiloted vehicle's supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, ignited as planned and operated for the duration of its hydrogen fuel supply. The X-43A reached its test speed of Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound.
The flight originated from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Taking off at 12:40 p.m. PST, NASA's B-52B launch aircraft carried the X-43A, which was mounted on a modified Pegasus booster rocket. The booster was launched from the B-52B just before 2 p.m. PST. The rocket boosted the X-43A up to its test altitude of about 95,000 ft. over the Pacific Ocean, where the X-43A separated from the booster and flew freely for sev
Aside: Note the reference to the B-52B above. Am I the only one who is under the impression that only B-52G and B-52H aircraft are still operational?
The flight is part of the Hyper-X program, a research effort designed to demonstrate alternate propulsion technologies for access to space and high-speed flight within the atmosphere. It will provide unique "first time" free flight data on hypersonic air-breathing engine technologies that have large potential pay-offs.
LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Feb. 10, 2004 -- A proposed U.S. mission to investigate three ice-covered moons of Jupiter will demand fast-paced research, fabrication and realistic non-nuclear testing of a prototype nuclear reactor within two years, says a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist.
The roots of this build and test effort have been under way at Los Alamos since the mid-1990s, said David Poston, leader of the Space Fission Power Team in Los Alamos' Nuclear Design and Risk Analysis Group.
NASA proposes using use electrical ion propulsion powered by a nuclear reactor for its Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, an element of Project Prometheus, which is scheduled for launch after 2011. However, the United States hasn't flown a space fission system since 1965.
One advantage of a nuclear power source for propulsion is that the space probe would travel to its destination more quickly. However, another big advantage is that the probe would have a lot more power to run sensors, computers, and a transmitter. Hence it seems likely such a probe could gather much more and better quality data.
We can not do more in space without much better propulsion systems both for getting into orbit and to move around once up there. It is great that NASA is seriously considering this proposal and I hope they go ahead with it. Definitely a step in the right direction.
Boeing's Phantom Works is working on the problem of how to make aircraft that unskilled regular folks can drive.
NS: What's the big idea you're working on for the future?
PD: Boeing's philosophy in terms of commercial travel is focused on point-to-point travel. At Phantom Works we try to think further out, to the extreme version of point-to-point, which would be personal transportation vehicles where you can have this thing take off and land from your driveway. One thing we think very critical to that concept is the air traffic control (ATC).
NS: ATC in that environment sounds an unfeasible nightmare - but you think it might actually be possible?
PD: Yes. We think it could certainly be possible. What we are beginning to explore is what technologies you would want to deploy both in terms of the ATC and the flight controls on such a vehicle. Also, how they would inter-operate with one another so that we can have a safe and efficient air transportation system on a personal level.
If the past century was about winning military superiority and exploring the frontiers of flight, then the coming 100 years could be more about making flight more accessible to all.
Andrew Hahn thinks about that constantly. As a member of the Personal Air Vehicle project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., his job, essentially, is to invent the Jetson's car. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Hahn's aim is to turn the Technicolor dreams of past futurists and reshape them into something that could actually make its way into garages by 2103
The Personal Air Vehicle concept makes perfect sense as the future of aviation for a very simple reason: direct point-to-point flights from local and much smaller airports would be much faster than trips to bigger airports followed by hops through hub sites and trips down long hallways to go to luggage unloading areas. Computers are going to get fast enough and sophisticated enough to take over much of the work currently done by pilots. Materials advances and fabrication technologies advances ought to eventually allow the construction of small fast aircraft at much lower cost.
What doomed the train as a means of passenger travel? One factor was the rise of much faster aircraft. But much train travel was done over shorter distances where aircraft didn't offer much advantage. Most train traffic was lost to cars rather than to aircraft. Why did cars displace trains? Because cars allowed direct point-to-point travel and therefore saved time. The same pattern is going to play out in the air as smaller highly automated aircraft that will allow more direct and faster trips start to displace larger aircraft.
Also see another New Scientist article on the future of air flight that covers the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's pursuit of the use of advanced materials to create aircraft that can morph into different shapes for different missions and portions of missions.
NS: So who is doing what in the DARPA programme?
TW: NextGen is looking at a sliding skins idea, Raytheon at telescoping wings and Lockheed Martin at rotating and folding wings.
Telescoping wings would also help in allowing personal aircraft to fit into a car garage.
Small aircraft that could both fly and drive, carrying two to four passengers, are not a century away, but rather two or three decades, said Dennis Bushnell, the chief engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. These "personal air vehicles" could go 600 to 900 miles after a vertical takeoff that could transform the landscape much the way cars did over the last century.
"You won't need airports," he said. "Everyone can use them -- the aged, the infirmed, the young, the inebriated. You don't have the restriction that you need a pilot. It will be automated."
Horses are in some sense analogous to smart airplanes because a horse could take its master home even if the master was too drunk to drive.
Said conference organizer Bryan E. Laubscher of the Los Alamos Space Instrumentation and System Engineering Group, "With the discovery of carbon nanotubes and their remarkable strength properties, the time for the space elevator is at hand."
"The promise of inexpensive access to space is so important to the human race that we are ready to meet these challenges head on. Viewed in one way, the space elevator will be the largest civil engineering project ever attempted," Laubscher said.
For online information, visit http://www.isr.us/spaceelevatorconference.
"In order to be ready with the required technologies, those scientists and engineers interested in the space elevator must begin now to identify and solve the technical challenges involved in constructing and operating a space elevator. The Second Annual Space-Elevator Conference is being held to discuss these challenges and their solutions."
NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) granted funds to Dr. Bradley Edwards, ISR's director of research, to investigate the feasibility of designing and building a space elevator. Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, the space elevator is now the subject of scientific research by ISR. The discovery of carbon nanotubes and the ongoing development to implement them into a composite is the key to space elevator viability being achieved in the future.
Researchers estimate that a space elevator capable of lifting 5-ton payloads every day to low Earth orbits could be operational in 15 years. From this first orbit, the costs to go on the moon, Mars, Venus, or the asteroids would be reduced dramatically. The first space elevator is projected to reduce lift costs immediately to $100 per pound, as compared to current launch costs of $10,000-$40,000 per pound, depending upon destination and choice of rocket-launch system. Additional and larger elevators, built utilizing the first, would allow large-scale manned and commercial activities in space and reduce lift costs even further.
With so much orbiting clutter, including spent rocket stages, dead or dying satellites, zipping around Earth all the way up to stationary orbit, damage to the space elevator is a worry, Clarke said.
There is also concern, Clarke added, that the heavenly elevator is sure to become a target for terrorism. "We need to remove economic and other grudges. But, of course, you could never cope with total lunatics that could do anything."
It would seem to be a relatively easy thing to damage. Once it is built the first priority ought to be to send up more nanotube ribbon fiber to give the top-end enough material to send down repair ribbon. It might even be wise to have stopping off points where repair ribbon is warehoused to send down more quickly to repair damaged pieces. But if a complete cut is made either intentionally or by a piece of fast-moving space debris then everything below that point is going to come flying down. How big of a splash would that make in the ocean?
All the necessary underlying technology exists, Dr. Edwards said, except the material for the ribbon. (The longest nanotube to date is just a few feet long.) But he said he expected that scientists would develop a strong enough nanotube-polymer composite in a few years.
The initial elevator will carry only cargo. A week trip up the elevator would require a special capsule to be designed to support humans and the capsule would need to carry a lot of food and other supplies to keep the humans protected. Plus, there are concerns that pockets of high energy particles trapped in the Earth's magnetic field could deliver harmful doses of radiation. Human capsules would need to be shielded and move faster to deal with this problem.
The first big unknown is when will nanotube fabrication technology advance far enough to make the space elevator buildable? The second big unknown is how fast will funding become available to build it once it becomes possiible?
The Houston Chronicle has a good brief overview of the history of the development of the Space Shuttle with the politics and the decisions that caused it to be the dangerous and incredibly expensive spacecraft that it is. Near the end of the article Alex Roland sums up a view of the Shuttle with which I am in complete agreement:
Alex Roland, a space historian at Duke University who likens the shuttle to "a camel -- a horse designed by a committee," prefers a different route. He said NASA should concentrate its efforts on bringing down the cost of getting into space.
"Instead of doing that," Roland said, "NASA keeps on throwing away its money on a system that doesn't work and which doesn't do anything."
The money currently spent on Shuttle operations would be better spent on the development of technologies that hold the promise of greatly lowering space launch costs. Materials science research should be funded toward that end. Also, a series of experimental spacecraft should be designed, built, and tested in order to test concepts and to gather information about hypersonic flight for scramjet propulsion systems development. The continued operation of an old tech spacecraft for a couple of more decades is just a total waste of time and money.
NASA scientist Dennis Bushnell tells Technology Review that electronic technology advances in GPS, auto-pilot and other areas will allow unskilled people to pilot aircars.
The technology of personal VTOL transportation is "expanding and will soon be exploding," says Bushnell, with at least a dozen individuals and groups in the United States now competing to produce a safe, dependable aircar. The U.S. Army and Navy are developing aircar-type vehicles for military applications, and a NASA researcher has also been working on a design. Most of the action seems to be in the United States, though at least one foreign company—Urban Aeronautics in Israel—is also in the race.
The companies currently trying to design vertical take-off and landing vehicles for mass use may be premature in their efforts given the current state of materials technology. But materials advances using nanotechnology should eventually enable the construction of flying craft that are much lighter and stronger. Also, powerplants with higher thrust-to-weight ratios should also eventually be constructable due to coming materials advances.
The other key area of enabling technologies is in electronics and computing. The amount of decision-making load that would need to be off-loaded from the human operator would of course have to be far greater if people who are not trained pilots are to operate personal aircars. Certainly the capacity of computers will continue to advance quite rapidly. The challenge will be to develop software sophisticated enough to recognize a large range of operating conditions and dangers and to react appropriately.
NASA director of shuttle and space station programs Michael C. Kostelnik says NASA plans to keep operating the shuttle at least until 2020. Since the Shuttle will continue to be an inherently dangerous design one way to reduce the casualty rate will be to automate the shuttle's operation so that astronauts do not have to die when it crashes.
Reducing the risk might require eliminating the crew altogether, Kostelnik said. The shuttle will be needed as a "workhorse," he said, but it might not need to carry people. "Perhaps even flying a robotic shuttle in those out years would not be out of the question," he said.
To switch the Shuttle over to an automated robotic cargo delivery system will require the development of the orbital space plane to carry astronauts into space.
Kostelnik said that in the future -- once an orbital space plane is a reality and can ferry astronauts to and from the international space station -- NASA would have the option of flying the shuttle only as a cargo vessel.
The problem is that the orbital space plane that will be designed to more safely and cheaply (at least if they don't botch the design job) carry astronauts will not be ready for at least 12 years.
The space agency's long-term plans call for the shuttle fleet to be active at least until a "next- generation launch technology" -- which is in the earliest stages -- makes its first flight some 12 years from now.
NASA does not want to give up operating the Shuttle because NASA does not want to give up operating the International Space Station. Of course, operating ISS and Space Shuttle (especially since now the Shuttle will need to have a lot more spent on it to improve its safety) eats up so much budget money that the money left over for the Orbital Space Plane won't be enough to fund its rapid development.
The Orbital Space Plane is not all that radical anyway. It will still be boosted into space via chemical rockets. Space launch of humans will remain very expensive even once the Orbital Space Plane is operational. Do not expect NASA to revolutionize space flight. It has some big white elephants to tend and feed and doesn't have budget allocations for radical advances.
The upshot of all this is that NASA is going to continue to be irrelevant to the future of humanity in space. Will that always be the case? There is one scenario under which that could change. China could get such a big space program going that the US might decide there's a serious national security issue at stake and that something big ought to be done about it quickly. NASA could be funded to do more radical work on much more ambitious projects. If this sounds far-fetched just remember that some day pigs will fly with the help of genetic engineering.
Another way that NASA could regain its relevancy would be if it lost its remaining shuttles in accidents. Then it might be pressured into pursuing bigger steps forward in space launch designs. Of course, if the other shuttles were lost NASA still might just decide to use available technology to design a safer but still very expensive Shuttle replacement.
Ultimately human space travel is going to be enabled by advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Nanotech advances made for other reasons will provide stronger and cheaper materials for building space launch vehicles. Biotech will make it easier to modify human bodies to live in low gravity and to grow food and structures for Mars colonies. The broader economy will drive the development of enabling technologies for space travel and space exploration far more than anything NASA is likely to do.
Picture Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that can fly continuously for months.
The AFRL now has other ideas, though. Instead of a conventional fission reactor, it is focusing on a type of power generator called a quantum nucleonic reactor. This obtains energy by using X-rays to encourage particles in the nuclei of radioactive hafnium-178 to jump down several energy levels, liberating energy in the form of gamma rays. A nuclear UAV would generate thrust by using the energy of these gamma rays to produce a jet of heated air.
A tutorial on quantum nucleonics provides some details on the science involved.
A friend who knows a fair amount of physics thinks that pumping the hafnium nuclei up to a high energy state to make them into a suitable fuel source would be a fairly inefficient process because most of the x-ray energy would not hit the nuclei to cause the needed energy jump. Many times more energy would be needed to pump the nuclei up into a higher energy state than would be given back as the jump down to a lower state and release their energy. Therefore quantum nucleonics is not an approach suitable for large scale energy storage use.
The advantage over batteries or even hydrogen fuel is that quantum nucleonics can be used to produce a material with a much higher energy density. In specialty applications such as military UAVs the energy costs may be worth it because the high energy density would allow continuous operation of a UAV for a long period of time.
The technology seems like it would be more attractive for UAV use over oceans than over land. A UAV that crashed over an ocean would likely sink to the bottom taking its radioactive material with it far beyond the reach of humans. There are plenty of naval military applications for UAVs such tracking enemy fleets, surveilling ships to look for possible terrorist ships carrying WMD, as well as search and rescue. There are also civilian scientific applications such as continuous data collection on weather and environmental monitoring. Plus, search and rescue is a civilian need as well. One can even imagine long duration UAVs being used as lower altitude equivalents of communications satellites.
Update: Back in August 2001 some Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists published a result that argues against the possibility of using hafnium-178 as an energy storage material.
LIVERMORE, Calif.—Physicists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists at Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, have new results that strongly contradict recent reports claiming an accelerated emission of gamma rays from the nuclear isomer 31-yr. hafnium-178, and the opportunity for a controlled release of energy. The triggering source in the original experiment was a dental X-ray machine.
Using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, which has more than 100,000 times higher X-ray intensity than the dental X-ray machine used in the original experiment, and a sample of isomeric Hf-178 fabricated at Los Alamos, the team of physicists expected to see an enormous signal indicating a controlled release of energy stored in the long lived nuclear excited state. However, the scientists observed no such signal and established an upper limit consistent with nuclear science and orders of magnitude below previous reports.
Technology Review surveys the burgeoning field of privately funded space launch start-ups.
Of course, people have tried for decades to realize the vision of a reusable rocket plane, with little success. “Rocket science has become synonymous with advanced technology, but the fact of the matter is that there has been very little in the way of new development of rockets since the early 1960s,” says Xcor Aerospace president Jeff Greason, a former Intel executive. What’s different now, he and others say, is that even before Columbia broke apart on February 1, people were actually starting to build and test new designs. Indeed, more than two dozen companies worldwide, not to mention NASA and other national space agencies, are actively developing rocket planes. And with the loss of the Columbia, deaths of seven astronauts, and subsequent grounding of the remaining shuttles, both the number of developers and the urgency of their task are likely to grow. “The need to find some way to get new technologies and new approaches to space transportation is probably a lot clearer than it was before,” Greason says.
Mojave, CA, Friday, July 12, 2002: XCOR Aerospace announced yesterday that its EZ-Rocket flew twice in one day. The flights were in preparation for the first air show flight of the EZ-Rocket at EAA AirVenture 2002 in Oshkosh, WI later this month. In addition to flying twice in one day, the EZ-Rocket performed two mid-flight engine restarts during each flight, another first for the EZ-Rocket.
The plane took off at 8:00 AM and performed a series of steep climbs while making multiple passes over the Mojave Airport. After the morning flight the EZ-Rocket was brought back to the hanger for refueling. "We were able to reload propellants quickly by cryogenically chilling our helium that is used to pressurize the propellant tanks," said XCOR Rocket Engineer Doug Jones. "Typically, as we load helium, its temperature rises through compression heating. Chilling the helium during loading negates this heating and allows us to get a full load onto the EZ-Rocket quickly."
At 1:15 PM the EZ-Rocket was rolled back out to the runway and made its second flight of the day with Dick Rutan at the controls. The EZ-Rocket performed another series of tight turns, steep climbs, and a wingover maneuver. "It was a zero-defects flight," said test pilot Dick Rutan. "It's quite pleasant to fly with that much power. It reminded me of my days in the military flying high performance jet fighters with afterburners. I am confident we'll be able to put on a great show at Oshkosh."
The EZ-Rocket, a modified Long EZ plane piloted by retired Lt. Col. Dick Rutan, flew two flights in one day earlier this month. Rutan's brother Burt Rutan, of Scaled Composites, designed the Long EZ plane and is also developing a separate reusable vehicle as part of the $10 million X-Prize competition to put three people in space and return them safely.
Xcor expects to be able to extend their upcoming Xerus design to make it capable of delivering microsatellites into low Earth orbit.
In this configuration, our suborbital vehicle would function as a reusable first stage that carries an expendable upper stage. Our vehicle releases the upper stage, which has its own rocket engine and is capable of putting a microsatellite into low Earth orbit. This vehicle will service the current small payload market as well as customers who today are not in the satellite launch market for reasons of expense and lead time.
Currently existing satellite launch vehicles do not allow for quick turnaround experiments. Not even the military has rapid and responsive access to space. Microsatellites almost always are launched as secondary payloads that are tied to the schedule of the larger primary payload. Although this is currently a small market, we think it has a large potential for development. Electronics miniaturization and diminishing size and power needs means that the next generation of certain kinds of satellites need not be as large as current models.
The Pathfinder is a sub-orbital propellant-transfer spaceplane. The configuration is a two-seat fighter-bomber-sized aircraft powered by two turbofan engines and one kerosene/oxygen-burning RD-120 rocket engine. The Pathfinder aircraft is designed to take off with its turbofan engines, and climb to approximately 30,000 feet where it meets a tanker aircraft. The tanker then transfers about 150,000 pounds of liquid oxygen to the Pathfinder spaceplane. After disconnecting from the tanker, the spaceplane starts its rocket engine and climbs to 70 mile altitude and Mach 15. By this time, the spaceplane is outside the atmosphere and can open its payload bay doors, releasing the payload with a liquid rocket upper stage, which delivers the payload to its intended low-earth orbit. The doors are then closed and the Pathfinder aircraft reenters the atmosphere. After slowing down to subsonic speeds, the turbofan engines are restarted and the aircraft is flown to a landing field.
The efforts of these private companies are more reason for optimism about the future of space travel than anything that NASA is currently doing. These companies are free of the complex bureaucracies of NASA and of the big aerospace firms. Their engineers can make purely engineering judgements. Lots of companies translates into the trying out of lots of new designs. Their pursuit of the sub-orbital space tourist market will, if any of these companies produce a working production craft, provide them with revenue from their first generation designs to fund development of successive generations.
Jay Manifold has a great (or infuriating - actually both) post up on the economics of the Space Shuttle and ISS. Skylab wasn't as pretty looking but it was way more cost effective.
While I'm making comparisons, consider that Skylab had a total habitable volume of 361 m3, and cost less than $100 million (see page 5); for comparison, the ISS has a habitable volume of 425 m3, for a cost approaching $100 billion. In the Encyclopedia Astronautica Skylab entry referenced above, Mark Wade concludes that a second Skylab/Apollo-Soyuz could have been launched in the mid-1970s, "an International Space Station, at a tenth of the cost and twenty years earlier." I'd say more like less than 1% the cost and thirty years earlier ...
NASA is being run as a Congressional district and aerospace industry jobs program. It has made itself irrelevant to the future of humanity in space. Will the latest tragedy be enough to convince Congress that a radical change in course is necessary?
The first step toward a more productive space program would be to announce the permanent grounding and retirement of the Space Shuttle. Relegate it to history and move on. Take its funding and use it to develop nuclear propulsion, a large variety of experimental space launch vehicles, research on biological problems with space travel (zero gravity effects, growing food, growing drugs, and even growing structures on Mars and the Moon), and nanotechnological research on materials fabrication for the special requirements for rocket engines, hypersonic ramjets and other demanding space applications.
Orbital Recovery Corporation is proposing that their Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES)TM "space tug" be used to save the stranded Astra 1K Telecommunications Satellite.
ORBITAL RECOVERY CORPORATION OFFERS SPACE RESCUE FOR STRANDED ASTRA 1K TELECOMMUNICATIONS SATELLITE
Washington, D.C., Luxembourg, December 5, 2002 - Orbital Recovery Corporation has proposed an ambitious rescue plan for ASTRA 1K -- one of the world's largest telecommunications satellites -- that was stranded in low Earth orbit last week after its launch vehicle malfunctioned.
The salvage mission would use Orbital Recovery Corp.'s new "space tug" -- called the Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLESTM) -- to boost ASTRA 1K from its current 290-km. circular orbit to the desired 35,000-km. operational altitude for telecom satellites.
Orbital Recovery Corp. has been in significant discussions with the stakeholders concerned with the future of the Astra 1K spacecraft, who have indicated a significant interest in the company's proposed solution to recover this massive satellite for normal operation.
The SLES would be launched in approximately 20 months for a rendezvous and docking with ASTRA 1K. Once firmly attached to the stranded telecommunications satellite, the space tug will use its own propulsion system to raise ASTRA 1K's altitude and reduce its inclination to the Clarke Belt orbital plane -- allowing the spacecraft to function for up to its original 13-year expected mission lifetime in geostationary orbit.
"Our SLES is perfectly tailored for the rescue of ASTRA 1K, which is an extremely expensive asset that unfortunately is useless in its wrong orbit," said Orbital Recovery Corp. Chief Executive Officer Walt Anderson. "We have run simulations of the rescue mission that validate its feasibility, and we are ready to work with SES ASTRA in Luxembourg and with the insurance sector to make the flight a reality."
Definition work on the SLES has been completed by Orbital Recovery Corp., which is now creating its industrial team by seeking competitive bids for spacecraft hardware and systems from international suppliers. Earlier this month, the company announced its selection of the DLR German Aerospace Center's robotic technology for the SLES docking and linkup with telecom satellites in orbit. In October, Aon Space joined the Orbital Recovery Corp. team to provide insurance brokering and risk management services.
The SLES is a modular spacecraft that can be adapted to operate with a full range of three-axis telecommunications satellites -- from the small relay platforms to massive 5-metric ton spacecraft such as ASTRA 1K. Proven, off-the-shelf hardware will be used in production of the SLES to keep costs down and ensure high reliability. It will be built around a main bus that contains the spacecraft control/management systems and the primary ion propulsion system.
In addition to the rescue of stranded satellites, the SLES is designed to extend the operating lifetimes of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit that routinely are junked when their on-board fuel supply runs out. Orbital Recovery Corp. has identified more than 40 spacecraft currently in orbit that are candidates for life extension using the SLES.
The first SLES mission is targeted for 2004 on the ASTRA 1K rescue flight, with two more deployments the following year and three annually beginning in 2006.
Orbital Recovery Corp. has offices in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and will add an Asia-Pacific presence in early 2003. More information on Orbital Recovery Corp. is available on the company's Web site: www.orbitalrecovery.com.
Images of the SLES can be found here.
Telecommunications satellites typically cost $250 million - and they are designed for an average useful on-orbit life of 10-15 years. Once their on-board propellant load is depleted, the satellites are boosted into a disposal orbit and decommissioned, even though their revenue-generating communications relay payloads continue to function.
Orbital Recovery Corporation's Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES)TM is a novel concept that will significantly prolong the operating lifetimes of these valuable telecommunications satellites.
The SLES will operate as an orbital "tugboat," supplying the propulsion, navigation and guidance to keep a telecom satellite in its proper orbital slot for many years. Another application of the SLES is the rescue of spacecraft that have been placed in a wrong orbit by their launch vehicles, or which have become stranded in an incorrect orbital location during positioning maneuvers.
The SLES is designed to easily mate with all telecommunications satellites now in space or on the drawing boards. After launch, the SLES will rendezvous with the telecommunications satellite, approaching it from below for docking. The SLES will link up using a proprietary docking device that connects to the telecommunication satellite's apogee kick motor.
Apogee kick motors are used by nearly every telecommunications satellite for orbital boost and station-keeping, and they provide a strong, easily accessible interface point for the SLES' linkup that is always within the satellite's center of gravity.
Orbital Recovery Corporation has identified 43 telecommunications satellites currently in orbit that are candidates for life extension using the SLES. The system also will be offered for use on new satellites, allowing manufacturers and operators to conceive such spacecraft for much longer operating periods than currently possible.
The company is targeting the first SLES mission for 2004, with two more deployments the following year and three annually after 2005.
Note how advanced technology cuts costs, reduces waste, and reduces space pollution. So what's the next step? It seems easy to imagine satellites designed to so that they can be refueled by periodic visits of refueling tugs. After all, why launch and attach a complete new set of manuevering engines and controls for each satellite when the satellite's original equipment could continued to be reused if its propellant tanks could be refilled?
Update: The SLES will not be coming to the rescue. The Astra 1K has been crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
If an elevator could take you up into space would you feel like you were ridiing a spacecraft as you journeyed upward? HighLift Systems thinks nanotube nanotechnology research is advancing far enough to make a space elevator viable:
For the last few months, officials at HighLift Systems have been talking it up with an alphabet soup of government agencies, like NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
Meanwhile, testing of prototype space elevator equipment is near at hand. And by far the strongest link that keeps the concept on the straight and narrow is worldwide work now underway by the carbon nanotube research community.
Overall, progress is being made in attaining the lofty goal of operating a 21st century elevator to space.
From the HighLift Systems web site:
Simply put, a space elevator is a revolutionary way of getting from Earth into space. A space elevator is a ribbon with one end attached to Earth on a floating platform located at the equator and the other end in space beyond geosynchronous orbit (35,800 km altitude). The space elevator will ferry satellites, spaceships, and pieces of space stations into space using electric lifts clamped to the ribbon. Ultimately, the space elevator will serve as a means for commerce, scientific advancement, and exploration.
Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, the space elevator is now the subject of serious research by Seattle-based company HighLift Systems. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts granted funds to Eureka Scientific and Dr. Bradley Edwards to investigate the feasibility of designing and building a space elevator. As commercial applications are being explored, HighLift Systems was co-founded by Dr. Edwards and Michael Laine to move the development of the space elevator forward. With the discovery of carbon nanotubes and the ongoing development to implement them into a composite, HighLift Systems believes that building a space elevator will be viable in the coming years. In its initial report, HighLift Systems has found that a space elevator capable of lifting 5-ton payloads every day to all Earth orbits, the Moon, Mars, Venus or the asteroids could be operational in 15 years. This first space elevator could be built for between $7-$10 billion and would reduce lift costs immediately to $100 per kilogram, as compared to current launch costs, which are $10,000-$40,000 per kilogram, depending on destination and choice of rocket launch system. Additional and larger elevators, built utilizing the first one, would allow large-scale manned and commercial activities in space and reduce lift costs even further.
Penn and Lindley believe it is possible to design a paraffin-powered rocket engine that would require very little maintenance and that the rocket would be reusable for tens of thousands of flights. The articles that are reporting their claim provide no indication of why they believe this. The first stage would fly itself back to Earth for refueling:
But Jay Penn and Charles Lindley, from the Aerospace Corporation in California believe a ticket into orbit could come substantially down in price.
They say that by using a two-part craft, space travel would become much cheaper.
They think this could be done in fairly short order:
In a forthcoming paper in the journal Acta Astronautica, Penn and Lindley say the reusable system will allow the number of flights to be stepped up dramatically to around 9500 a year, compared with the current 10 or so shuttle launches.
The fleet and infrastructure would take about seven years to develop, and could start to turn in a profit after only six years of flights (see chart).
This scheme would rely on an orbital space tourist hotel:
In the first stage, a small fat rocket with wings would carry the smaller second stage winged rocket to the edge of space.
The second rocket would then fire up its own engines to carry it to a station orbiting the earth. Here it would unload passengers and fill up with returning tourists, while the first rocket glided back to earth ready for another launch.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer has the best zoomable higher resolution images if the Bird Of Prey.
Aviation Week's Aviation Now web site has a picture of it from above though not at high res.
This article has no pictures but it has more basic information about the aircraft. Sounds like this was a one off technology prototype testbed aircraft. It was built for a mere $67 million dollars and the program supposedly ended in 1999. It will be displayed at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio:
Bird of Prey
First flight: Fall 1996
Wingspan: About 23 feet
Length: 47 feet
Weight: 7,400 pounds
Height: 9 feet, 3 inches
Engine: Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5C turbofan
Thrust: 3,190 pounds
Maximum speed: About 300 mph
Maximum altitude: 20,000 feet
More basic info here.
Its payload would be more than an order of magnitude greater than that of a C-5 Galaxy.
This article has comparisons to other existing aircraft as well:
The Boeing Co.'s proposed Pelican transport aircraft would dwarf the largest plane now flying, the Russian-built Antonov An225.
The An225 has a 290-foot wingspan, which would be more than 200 feet shorter than the Pelican's preliminary wingspan design of 500 feet. It is 275 feet long, compared to the Pelican's projected length of more than 300 feet. And its cargo-hauling capacity, 275.5 tons, would be only a fraction of the Pelican's as-designed 1,400-ton payload.
The Daily Telegraph has an artist's rendering here.
The Pelican will be designed to fly 50 feet above the ocean, using the buoyant aerodynamic effect of flying close to the water to provide its maximum economic range.
The BBC says Boeing hasn't yet committed to building it.
Here's the best article on the prospects for the Pelican.
Update: Some additional clarification from the Pelican Program Manager.
Other than cruising at low altitude above water, the Pelican has little in common with historical Russian wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) aircraft. The Russian WIGs were designed primarily for short range, sea-based military missions. With beefy structure and ample propulsion systems for water operations, they were no more efficient than modern subsonic transports, despite their lower speed.
The advent of computer-based flight controls permits the Pelican to be land-based, so that it can be much lighter and aerodynamically cleaner than earlier WIGs. It appears, remarkably, that land-based WIGs differ little from aircraft optimized for conventional cruising altitudes. This permits a dual-mode aircraft to provide substantial operational benefits in the long-range transport of cargo.
Advanced flight control systems also provide ample maneuverability while automatically maintaining safe clearance from the water.
— Blaine K. Rawdon, Pelican Program Manager, San Pedro, Calif.
Riding on top of a cushion of air, the Pelican would experience 70 percent less drag than a normal plane, allowing it to travel further while using the same amount of fuel. The wing-in-ground effect occurs at an altitude equivalent to 10 percent to 25 percent of the wing’s width at the point where it joins the fuselage. The phenomenon increases the ratio of lift to drag for a wing.
"It’s an effect that provides extraordinary range and efficiency," says John Skorupa, senior manager of strategic development for Boeing Advanced Airlift and Tankers. "With a payload of 1.5 million pounds, the Pelican could fly 10,000 nautical miles over water and 6,500 nautical miles over land.
According to Joel Primack writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a really big dust-up in low Earth orbit caused by anti-satellite weapons could render LEO unusable for satellites:
But in reality, space does not clear after an explosion near our planet. The fragments continue circling the Earth, their orbits crossing those of other objects. Paint chips, lost bolts, pieces of exploded rockets—all have already become tiny satellites, traveling at about 27,000 kilometers per hour, 10 times faster than a high-powered rifle bullet. A marble traveling at such speed would hit with the energy of a one-ton safe dropped from a three-story building. Anything it strikes will be destroyed and only increase the debris.
With enough orbiting debris, pieces will begin to hit other pieces, fragmenting them into more pieces, which will in turn hit more pieces, setting off a chain reaction of destruction that will leave a lethal halo around the Earth. To operate a satellite within this cloud of millions of tiny missiles would be impossible: no more Hubble Space Telescopes or International Space Stations. Even communications and GPS satellites in higher orbits would be endangered. Every person who cares about the human future in space should also realize that weaponizing space will jeopardize the possibility of space exploration.
To a scientist whose research has benefited enormously from space observations, these prospects are horrifying. Many of the important astronomical satellites are in low Earth orbit (from the lowest practical orbits—about 300 kilometers—to about 2,000 kilometers above the Earth). The Cosmic Background Explorer, which operated from 1989 to 1994, is at 900 kilometers and the Hubble Space Telescope is at about 600 kilometers.
In addition, most Earth-observing satellites are also in low Earth orbit, both those that study changes in climate and vegetation and those for military surveillance. Low orbits permit the highest-resolution imaging, and are also easiest to reach with existing launch vehicles.
Unfortunately it is probably impossible for treaties to prevent the inevitable development of anti-satellite weapons. US adversaries such as China see US military satellites as high priority targets in any future conflict with the US. The history of arms control treaty cheating (eg the massive Soviet biological weapons program) suggests that only countries that want to obey treaties will do so - especially among the less democratic and less open nations.
What would be interesting to know is whether any low cost techniques could be developed for doing clean-up after massive amounts of small fragments were released into LEO. Could one make, for instance, large very thin sheets unfolded and moved around in orbit (perhaps using solar wind?) to try to get fragments to collide with them? Every collision - even if the collisions punch right thru the thin sheets - is going to rob a fragment of momentum. Rob of them of enough momentum and they will fall out of orbit.
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has written an article about nuclear powered spaceships and the history of the Orion project to design one. The amazing thing about it is that it is possible to prevent the pusher plate (and therefore the spaceship) from being vaporized by the atomic blasts:
But experiments demonstrated that properly treated substances could survive intact within a few meters of an atomic explosion, protected from vaporization by a thin layer of stagnating plasma.
Such a spaceship could be built today. Go read his essay if you are interested. Science fiction buffs may recall that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used such a nuclear pulse engine in their 1985 novel Footfall (graphic depiction of the Footfall spaceship available here) where some humans built one to defeat alien invaders. Here's an earlier article about the concept from the space.com site.