Friday, June 16, 2017

Second Stages in the Planning

In recent history, SpaceX has demonstrated mastery of first stage reusability with the launch and landing of their first stage Falcon 9 again. What of the second stage? ULA, Blue Origin, and SpaceX all have planned, designed, and are building rockets that make innovative use of the second or upper stage.

The New Glenn rocket, by Blue Origin, is to be a very large reusable first stage. The second stage is a throw away, just like the traditional second stages. The innovation comes where they stack two second stages on top of one another. This effectively makes a bigger overall rocket without extra development costs of designing a bigger second stage. Sounds interesting, but nothing spectacular.

The Vulcan rocket, by ULA, will have the ACES upper stage. ACES will be more than just an upper stage, it will be a space tug capable of taking payloads to the lunar surface. It will also be able to refuel other ACES. It will have a fuel cell to produce its own electricity and take payloads on long duration missions. Reminds me of a five year mission I heard somewhere...hmm. I doubt that it's fuel cell will last that long without ref
Credit NASA: Saturn V second stage
ueling, but overall it sound pretty cool for commercial science missions.

The Interplanetary Spaceship, by SpaceX, seemingly doesn't have an upper stage. It's upper stage has been incorporated into the body of the spaceship. Yep, it's that thing in the back with 40 raptor engines. What SpaceX has done in designing this ship, is that they have created a ship straight out of classic science fiction. The second stage has become fully reusable. It does everything. It launches. It refuels. It lands. What more could you ask for from an upper stage? In my mind, this design takes the lot. It's far out there. It makes you think why we weren't designing spaceships like this in the first place. But that's a whole other discussion. In the interim, SpaceX may try to reuse land and reuse an upper stage on its Falcon Heavy. If successful, it would mean another technical and economic victory, over launch prices, for the company.

Rockets are changing, hopefully for the better. Which application of the upper stage will become standard? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Clipped Space Wings

2015 has seen some sad developments in new space companies that tout systems with wings. Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch, and XCOR have all seen changes in their programs with not much progress.It seems to me that this is the year that space wings have been clipped.

Virgin Galactic was the venerated company that inherited the technology from Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, winner of the Ansari X-Prize. Yet, its SpaceShipTwo suffered a disaster that killed a crew member, injured another, and destroyed the ship. It never made it to space. Due to constant changes to engines and other design features, it probably never will. I realized that this program was in real trouble when I read the article Virging Glactic gets a 747 jet to serve as a flying launch pad for its LauncherOne rocket . It said that VG had changed the mother craft for LauncherOne to launch from from the WhiteKnightTwo to a Boeing 747. That tells me the company sees no end to SpaceShipTwo’s problems. Perhaps we should also see no end either.

Stratolaunch was touted as the largest plane in the world. Then I read the article Stratolaunch Without Final Conception which said that not only has its company changed the rocket it would launch twice, but now the plane itself was in jeopardy. Someone seems to have bitten off more than they can chew; I think.

Then there is XCOR. They were to be a competitor to VG with their space-plane Lynx. Now the main guy Jeff Greason has left his position to a board position according to their news post. They also have not made much progress. What is taking so long? I fear the worse: lack of customers and cash.

All of this comes in a year when two new space rocket companies have made fantastic progress in doing the impossible: landing rockets. I'm talking about, of course, Blue Origin and SpaceX. Both companies have money backing them, one way or another, a strong handle on development, and strong top people to see the projects through. I think, in the end, that makes all the difference.

Shall we say farewell to the dream of space-wings? Perhaps, it’s farewell for now.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jupiter Spacecraft - Proposed Reusable Tug

Well, someone has heard.  Someone has come to reason.  In the Tech Times article called Lockheed Martin In Collision Course With SpaceX In Providing Reusable Spaceflight Architecture by Sumit Passary, Lockheed Martin is proposing a reusable space tug to compete in the new cargo resupply contracts bid to the ISS coming up.  I first wrote about a tug that was very similar in January of 2013 in my post Space Exploration Plans From Beoing.  I am happy to see that someone is taking the idea seriously.  This proposal is sophisticated and versatile enough for future infrastructure in space.

Locheed Martin calls it Jupiter spacecraft.  It has solar panels, propulsion (chemical), a robotic arm, and a refueling system.  Once in orbit, it will receive canisters called Exoliners one at a time.  After delivering the initial Exoliner with which Jupiter is launched,  Jupiter will rendezvous and capture the subsequent Exoliners for deliver.  Exoliners can also be deorbited as trash.  This is a very sophisticated if not complicated procedure.  Where is the refueling coming from?  I'm sure the Jupiter spacecraft is getting its fuel from the Exoliners.  Sure, it's not straight forward like Cygnus or Dragon cargo spacecraft, but the benefit is that it is reusable which brings down the launch weight and subsequently the cost.

Now, a craft like this can operate for years.  It may out live the ISS and start servicing other missions like a Bigelow Aerospace commercial space station.  The technology could be expanded into satellite repair/refuel.  It can also be upgraded to service flights to the Moon and back.  Such a technology is quite versatile.  It can not only move cargo pressurized or not, but also space capsules carrying people to higher orbits, different orbits, to asteroids, or the Moon.  It can expand our presence in space.  The idea of automated space tugs is not a new one, but this is the first commercially proposed one.

Jupiter/Exoliner space tug system is sophisticated, versatile, and commercial.  I'm happily surprised that Locheed Martin came up with the proposal.  Now, if they would only replace their venerable and rapidly obselete Atlas V with a reusable rocket that uses more principles from my Space Faring Standards post, they would be set.




Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Set Orbit Around Ceres

Courtesy of NASA
Dawn, the amazing unmanned spacecraft at the command of Marc Rayman as Mission Director and Dr. Chris Russell as the Principal Investigator with thier crew of scientists and engineers, has entered into orbit around Ceres.  This is a remarkable achievement as it is the first time in human history that an unmanned spacecraft has entered into orbit around a second space body in one mission.  Dawn was able to do this thanks to its multiple ion drives.  Dawn is an amazing spacecraft and will likely find new discoveries at Ceres.

No other spacecraft has been as powerful or versatile as Dawn.  It has been in orbit around the asteroid Vesta and has made geologic observations with spectrographic data.  Then it left Vesta and made its way to Ceres, a 30 month journey.  It did encounter equipment failures, but the crew was able to work around them to keep the mission alive.

Ceres is currently labeled as a Dwarf Planet.  That is the same label Pluto ended up with.  There are other Dwarf Planets of lesser notoriety.  Dawn will take some time to close its orbit around Ceres to get good image resolutions.  Ceres is already causing mystery.  It is sporting a bright spot or two that is making people get messed up hair from all the scratching.  I'm sure conspiracy theorists and ufologist are loving this.  Yep, drama may ensue.

So finding new discoveries at Ceres and being just amazing I think Dawn is flipping the bill.  For sure it is a mission to keep track of.  So here is to the venerable crew of Dawn.  Live long and prosper.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Space Faring Standards

IF we want to be a space faring people, we HAVE to adopt new launch vehicle standards.  This has become painfully obvious to me this fall with that failure of the Antares rocket and the political fallout of the RD-180 rocket engine which makes the Atlas V as useless as if it had a catastrophic in-flight failure.  You can say this sentiment has been building since SpaceX arrived on the scene and Elon Musk talked about improving the rocket.  I see it now.  I see how deficient our rockets have been.  The rocket is basically in a state that the automobile was in the pre-Model T period.  They are costly and unreliable.  They are toys for the rich.  Small efforts have been attempted to bring the launch price down.  The only company that is bringing prices significantly down is SpaceX.  Those prices still need to come down MORE.  SpaceX can't do it alone either.  There needs to be more companies in the effort.  Well, I came up with some standards to start with that should get us in the right direction.  Of course this is just my own opinion.  They cover items from payload to the first stage.

1.  The payload needs to be recoverable in all phases of flight.  Capsules with crews have had abort systems which were high speed rockets that separated the payload (capsule and crew) form the failing rocket and allowing the parachutes to activate and bring the payload safely to the ground.  Why don't we have this on unmanned payloads?  Unmanned payloads today just blowup with the rest of the rocket in case of an abort.  Thus making vapors out of hopes and investments.  Then the insurance companies have to pony up cash.  I have no doubt this drives up cost of launch to some degree.  If some degree of recovery of the payload could be guaranteed I bet cost would come down.

2.  The upper stage needs to be able to orbit the Earth and make a reentry and landing back to it launch site to be able to reuse.  This is a plan for SpaceX.  They want to make the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket reusable.  They want it to land after a launch back to base, preferably.  Today, all second stages are discarded after launch.  This means all that hardware has to be created from scratch and tested for ever launch.  That's a lot of man hours.  That's a lot of material.  That's a lot of money.  It's just a bad way to operate.  We've just been operating like that since the beginning of the space age.  The one exception would be the Space Transportation System which, arguably, had an orbiter that was held the payload and was also the second stage.  It was totally reusable.  It's drawback was that there was a lot of maintenance to it to get ready for the next flight.  Yet, overall reuseability should bring down the price of each launch.  Beneficial reuseability was demonstrated in the suborbital world with SpaceShipOne in 2004.

3.  The first stage needs to be able to lift the upper stage and the payload to a certain altitude guaranteed even in the event of an engine failure.  One rocket today meets this standard.  That rocket is the Falcon 9.  It demonstrated it in Oct 2012 where one Merlin engine shut down.  The rocket kept on flying and thanks to its design got it main payload to the International Space Station.  If that happened to any other rocket, the mission would have been a total failure.  The Falcon 9 can do this feat because it has 9 rockets which allows it to loose one or two engines before mission failure.  This needs to be a standard in all future rockets.  The area from the launchpad to the altitude where the second stage can ignite is a critical one.  The Earth is the most dangerous object to a flying rocket.  The more distance it can get away from the planet the safer it is.  That's why this standard is so important.  It give a high degree of guarantee to get to that second stage at a reasonable cost.

4.  The fist stage needs to be recoverable in one piece and reusable.  No one has ever accomplished this.  Oh, now your thinking about the SRBs in the STS.  Well, those were not reused in one piece. They were broken down and rebuilt.  I'm not talking about breaking down and rebuilding.  I'm talking about launch, land, recover, refuel, and launch again.  SpaceX is trying to learn how to do this.  They are currently trying to land their first stage on a large barge in the ocean.  Nobody else is even trying.  Well, Blue Origin was proported as wanting to accomplish this but they are not releasing where they are at or how far they got.  With them it has been so long that I can only conclude they were unable to finish the project.  First stage reuseablility is essential to bring down prices.  It represents the biggest hardware in the rocket stack.  It is only a suborbital vehicle by itself.

5.  Intensive and comprehensive checks on first stage, and upper stage systems need to be done at the launch time where the computer has the ability to abort at the sign of any failed test.  Most, if not all, mainstream rockets have implemented this standard to some degree or another.  The more successful the rocket, the more comprehensive their computerized checks are.  This stands to reason.  This is why there are delays at launch time.  Though they may be a little frustrating, I take the delays as a sign that the checks and tests are working and working hard.  It is a good thing.  Could Antares have used more comprehensive checks and tests to avoid its catastrophic failure?  Possibly.  Time will tell.  As far as I can tell, these tests and checks have become more and more computerized over the years.  Where many of them were just people staring at numbers on a screen to see if they see any anomalies.  This is thanks to miniaturization of the computer circuits on silicon chips and more sophisticated software.  Progress in this area should continue.  We need to get smarter software and more powerful computers as time goes on.  I have no doubt this trend will continue.  So this standard is the one standard that is being implemented by all successful launchers.  Great!  1 out of 5 ain't bad?!

Elon Musk, in an interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, mentioned that reusable rockets were needed to make space more accessible.  So he's working on the reusable rocket.  In my estimation, reusable stages just cover 2 of 5 standards that ought to be implemented by all launchers if we are going to be a people that live and work in space.  I don't mean low Earth orbit.  I mean the Inner Solar System, to include: the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Asteroid belt, and Near Earth Objects.  It's time we look at the big picture and make plans to inhabit this playground.  To do it we not only need to be scientifically smart but also economically smart in all things.

These standards are mostly from other people through the decades.  Many have realized we needed reusable vehicles to access space to include many science fiction writers.  Computerized tests came out of necessity from real life launch companies and government entities. Von Braun and his team implemented the multi-engine first stage to where if one goes out it could still get to orbit.  Maxime Faget came up with the idea of a rocket as a launch escape system for crews.  I just expanded the possible idea to non-human payloads.

I'd like to see other launch companies make new rockets that take on these standards.  I know a couple of start ups that are targeting the small satellite launch market that design their rockets with multiple engines on the first stage.  One of them is called Firefly.  We need to wait and see what happens.  For now, we have to make due with the clunker rockets as we see Falcon 9 develop and incorporate 4 out of the 5 standards I've stated.  Watch the other companies tremble in fear.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Revenge of the Stick

Ares I 'The Stick'
Could solid fuel be the cure to SpaceX competitors?  ATK seems to think so.  Look what they are touting.

Nasaspaceflight.com article titled 'ATK expand on its domestic alternative to Atlas V’s RD-180' said that ATK is bidding for a solid state first stage for the Atlas V.  Has the much hailed hero rocket by ULA plummeted this far from the heavens?  According to the article, plans to make the politically maligned RD-180 engine in the US fell through.  Now, they are hoping for the BE-4 from Blue Origin to save the rocket.  But wait!  Here comes ATK with an alternative solution, solid fuel first stage for the Atlas V.  What?!

Yes, solid fuel first stages.  Ahhhh!  Those where the days.  Oh the thrust, the power, the long slender look.  Doesn't just give you goosebumps?  I'm referring to the 'Stick.'  No, not some sleazy battery operated toy, but the rocket that was supposed to put astronauts back into space after the Shuttle was decommissioned as part of the ill fated Constellation Program.

Ares I was to be powered by a large solid rocket booster based on the Shuttle SRB.  It was aptly and despisingly nicknamed 'the Stick.'  The only launch, or proto-launch of such a configuration was in 2008 with the Ares 1-X.

Also according to the article, ATK is also petitioning Orbital Sciences and offering a solid rocket booster as a first stage to Antares.  This would make Antares an all solid fuel rocket, perhaps the biggest in operation.  It's not the best of options that could exist for them, but I suspect it would be a quick fix for the troubled rocket.

Now, this is all fine and dandy for ATK.  They are making smart moves for their business.  I don't blame them for offering solid rocket boosters as first stages for troubled Atlas V and Antares.  However, if ULA or Orbital Sciences have any delusions of competing with SpaceX on the basis on solid fuel, they better think again.  SpaceX prices are already so low the launch market members are tossing up their lobster dinners and scrambling for ideas to compete.  SpaceX is still on the move.  They are learning how to catch a flying Falcon 9 in the ocean, and then fly it again.  This is sure to bring their prices down even further, causing more tossing of lobsters.  Hmmm...maybe SpaceX will get an award for saving lobster populations on the planet.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Commercial Launch Market Made Different

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking." - George S. Patton.

For years after the Saturn V rocket was retired, rockets in the United States were reduced to a set of parameters.  This reflected a way of thinking in the industry.  If a rocket failed on liftoff, it was to be blown up.  It was an easy solution to minimize collateral damage.  Of course, computers then had a tiny fraction the power of today's computers.  By the way, that smartphone you just dropped? Yeah, it has more computing power than they could dream of back then.  Manufacturing was largely done by hand, or by hand operated mechanical/electrical machines.  Flaws were checked by only human hands and eyes for hours on end.  Now, we have robotic arms equipped with X-rays, infrared, ...etc, sensors.  The flaw checking is done in a fraction of the time it used to.

Saturn V was the so big that it took five of the biggest rocket engines on its first stage.  It was said that it could loose one engine and still complete the mission, or at least it could get its payload to orbit.  That capability went away with the Saturn V.  Elon Musk brought it back with the advent of Falcon 9.

So now, we have a contrast of operations.  One is a legacy operation founded on old technology and a robust track record.  The other is based on new technology capabilities and the need to take launch operations in a whole new direction.  I say 'new' though it's been in operation for four years now, it's still relatively new compared to the many decades of launch history we've had.

On October 7th 2008, Falcon 9 rocket lifted off carrying the Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station.  There was an engine anomaly and one engine shut down.  The rocket kept on going.  The primary payload got to complete its mission.  The secondary payload did not.  The rocket was not blown up.  If any other rocket had a main engine anomaly and was shut off, the rocket would have to been blown up because there would be no way it could get its payload to any orbit.  Atlas V and Delta IV would have to be blown up if such a thing happened to them.

In contrast, on October 28th 2014, Orbital Sciences rocket, Antares, lifted off and had allegedly a main engine anomaly within seconds.  It was blown up by mission control as soon as they detected the anomaly.  I gathered that from the briefing after the mishap and some articles.  The exact reason and conditions of he anomaly is still being investigated.  Antares was built on the old mindset on how you design a rocket.  Orbital is good at getting parts together and making a rocket.  They leverage the market.

You can see the difference here between the mishaps between Falcon 9 and Antares.  Falcon 9 was purposely designed to succeed with redundancy and Antares was not.  You can say the designers of Antares didn't know or didn't realize.  I say that is total BS.  Everyone knows!  Everyone in rocket design knows the Saturn V.  They know about all the mishaps in the past.  They are just making the same mistake as everyone else is doing by not thinking, or they are rationalizing the problem away.  This problem still exists in Atlas V and Delta IV.  The designers of those rockets did not account for this problem.

I was going to go into other points, but this point is so big and poignant.  It just makes me mad.  It makes me mad that for years big companies have been ripping off NASA and the US taxpayers with high cost for launches on rockets that are sub quality.  In contrast, this entrepreneur is offering high quality rockets at low cost launch service.  How can anyone pass that up?  The reality is they can't.  The Atlas V days are numbered because it's too costly and its engines are politically risky.  So they are trying to give it different engines.  Europe is trying to make a new rocket in an attempt to compete with SpaceX.  Through all of this money is scarce.  Recession is coming back to Europe and things are slowing down in China.  So reducing cost to launch satellites is too tempting.  The old ways have to go.  Elon has the floor.