Category Archives: NASA

NASA Finally Chooses New Crew Vehicles

From Space.com:

American astronauts will soon have new homegrown rides into space.

After a four-year competition, NASA has tapped the commerical spaceflight companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil by 2017, agency officials announced today (Sept. 16). If all goes according to plan, the two companies will reduce or end NASA’s dependence on Russia for its orbital taxi service. Russia’s Soyuz has been NASA’s only crew access to space since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011.

“Today’s announcement sets the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters today. [SpaceX’s Manned Dragon Spaceship in Pictures]

The choice reflects a melding of old and new; Boeing has been an aerospace mainstay for decades, while billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk founded SpaceX just a dozen years ago, in 2002.

NASA has picked SpaceX's Dragon Version 2 manned spacecraft (left) and Boeing's CST-100 space capsule to fly American astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2011.
NASA has picked SpaceX’s Dragon Version 2 manned spacecraft (left) and Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule to fly American astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. NASA announced the decision on Sept. 16, 2014 in a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Credit: SpaceX/Boeing

Filling the shuttle’s shoes

Details of SpaceX's Dragon V2 manned spacecraft.
SpaceX’s Dragon Version 2 spacecraft is a manned space capsule designed to fly seven astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. See how SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft works in this Space.com infographic.
Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

SpaceX and Boeing are splitting NASA’s $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability award, or CCtCap, the latest in a series of contracts set up in 2010 to encourage the development of private American manned spaceships. SpaceX will get $2.6 billion and Boeing will receive $4.2 billion, officials said. [Boeing’s CST-100 Space Capsule in Photos]

NASA is looking to the private sector to fill the crew-carrying shoes of the space shuttle fleet, which was retired in 2011 after 30 years of orbital service. For the past three years, the agency has relied on Russian Soyuz capsules to fly its astronauts to and from space — recently, at a cost of more than $70 million per seat.

NASA officials have said they want at least one American commercial vehicle to be up and running by late 2017. A domestic capability to and from low-Earth orbit could not only cut costs but also free the agency to work on getting people to more distant and difficult destinations such as Mars, Bolden said.

Four companies have been major players in NASA’s ongoing commercial crew competition: SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada. SpaceX and Boeing are building capsules called Dragon and the CST-100, respectively. Blue Origin has been developing a conical craft called the Space Vehicle, while Sierra Nevada’s entry was a space plane called Dream Chaser.

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin is led by a billionaire — in this case, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Today’s announcement apparently takes Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada out of the mix, but it doesn’t eliminate competition from the commercial crew program. Under the CCtCap contracts, both Boeing and SpaceX will be required to go through a rigorous certification process, which will include at least one manned demonstration mission to the space station, NASA officials said.

“NASA is committed to ensuring these systems are held to the same rigorous safety standards as previous human spaceflight programs,” said NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders.

After completing certification, Dragon and the CST-100 will each fly at least two, and perhaps as many as six, crewed NASA missions to and from the space station, Lueders added. Each of these crewed flights will carry four astronauts.

NASA will continue using both capsules as long as they meet the agency’s requirements, Bolden said.

Meet Dragon and the CST-100

Boeing is developing its capsule for use ferrying astronauts to Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.
Boeing is developing the CST-100 capsule for use ferrying astronauts to Earth orbit and to the International Space Station. See how Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft works in this Space.com infographic.
Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com Contributor

Both Dragon and the CST-100 are reusable vehicles designed to carry seven passengers. (CST-100’s name, incidentally, derives from “Crew Space Transportation” and 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — the traditional altitude boundary that marks the beginning of outer space.)

Dragon is an upgraded, manned version of the robotic capsule SpaceX uses to fly cargo missions to the space station under a separate, $1.6 billion NASA contract. The crew capsule will ride to space aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, as the cargo variant does.

The CST-100, meanwhile, will be lofted by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket. The Atlas 5 currently uses a Russian RD-180 engine, but that may change soon; United Launch Alliance — a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin — is reportedly tapping Blue Origin to build a new, homegrown engine for the rocket.

Both capsules will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, officials said.

It’s too bad Sierra Nevada didn’t get a little money thrown its way, it would’ve been nice to have a mini-shuttle flying by 2017.

All in all, SpaceX has the most modern capsule design and it will serve NASA and commercial concerns for many years.

Mars anyone?

Original article

Falcon Heavy or Space Launch System For Lunar Exploration ?

From America Space:

There have been occasional suggestions that NASA should scrap its Space Launch System (SLS) in favor of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for fulfilling its beyond low-Earth orbit needs [1]. The claim forwarded by some is that the as-yet-untested-and-unflown 53 mt low-Earth orbit (LEO) (200 km @ 28°) Falcon Heavy is now “cheaper” than the as-yet-untested-and-unflown SLS. Furthermore, canceling the SLS would supposedly save NASA $10 billion—money that could otherwise be used to fund such programs as the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap), to conduct a flight test of Orion on a Falcon Heavy, and to focus on building a small-scale space station in the area near the Moon. One issue not addressed by proponents of canceling SLS is whether it is a good idea to couple a nation’s human exploration spaceflight capabilities to a private company. An issue which appears to be altogether ignored, is the Falcon Heavy’s small lunar payload capability and the impact this would have on an already complex and risky endeavor such as lunar exploration.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 Heavy, also called the Falcon Heavy, will have a 53 mt (metric ton) payload capacity to LEO of 200 km with an inclination of 28° [2]. Such a LEO payload capability will be impressive, allowing SpaceX to launch nearly twice the payload of a Delta IV Heavy or an Atlas V, and to do so more cheaply than either. But when it comes to launching payload to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or beyond, the Falcon 9 Heavy falls far short of either the Delta or Atlas launchers. With a GTO payload of barely over 12 mt, the Falcon 9 Heavy is at least 1 metric ton, or 1,000 kg, under what either the Delta IV Heavy or Atlas V can deliver to the same point in space.

The Falcon 9 Heavy is, much like United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, a triple-bodied version of the company's Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Heavy is, much like United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, a triple-bodied version of the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Heavy’s GTO payload deficiency relative to the existing EELV launch vehicles has other down-stream effects as to its appropriateness for beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) crewed exploration. It is safe to assume that the Falcon Heavy’s low-lunar orbit (LLO) payload capacity will not top much above 10 mt [3]. How will the Falcon 9 Heavy’s meager LLO payload capacity enable a meaningful return to the Moon? And why even talk about the Falcon Heavy as a possible launcher of crewed lunar exploration when each of the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V launchers can send over 1,000 kg more than the Falcon Heavy to the Moon? Moreover, while the Delta IV and Atlas V have extensive flight histories, the Falcon Heavy has no such experience.

Advocates of using the Falcon Heavy don’t just want to rewrite who takes us beyond-Earth orbit, but more fundamentally how such missions are built. Reliance upon the Falcon Heavy for launching a beyond-Earth exploration program means some hard choices as to mission architecture. Traditionally, crewed exploration beyond low-Earth orbit has focused on minimizing complexity, and therefore risk and cost, by using a heavy-lift rocket (HLV). The logic behind using an HLV for lunar exploration in the past was that fewer launches correlated to less risk. The Falcon Heavy’s 10 mt capability means that any lunar exploration program will have to be one of assembling pieces/parts in low-Earth orbit, where the Falcon Heavy’s (LEO) 53 mt payload capacity can really shine. Some have claimed that centering a beyond-Earth exploration program on the Falcon Heavy does not mean ending the Orion spacecraft program. They point this out because Orion is the only spacecraft designed from the ground up for beyond-Earth exploration. Certainly, a Falcon Heavy can place an Orion crewed and service module in low-Earth orbit. But several additional launches will be needed to send Orion and her crew to the Moon. A lunar crewed mission using the Falcon Heavy would mean assembling, at necessary LEO locations, a crewed vehicle, a lander, a trans-lunar injection stage, a stage to get the crewed spacecraft and lander into LLO, and possibly a separate stage to enable the crewed spacecraft to return to Earth [4].

While supporters of an all-commercial approach frequently tout the company's laudable accomplishments - they just as frequently ignore the limitations of both the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle as well as the Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: SpaceX

While supporters of an all-commercial approach frequently tout the company’s laudable accomplishments, they just as frequently ignore the limitations of both the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: SpaceX

One problem with a non-HLV approach to lunar exploration is that if a replacement Falcon Heavy and payload are not handy, any launch failure could very well mean a scrubbed mission. So a non-HLV approach necessarily means an inventory of not just a spare Falcon Heavy, but of duplicate spaceflight hardware—or designing hardware and refueling stations such that a delay of weeks or months would have only a marginal impact on the mission. Solving all of these unknown-unknowns (or unk-unks in engineering speak) associated with multiple launches, assembling a mission in LEO, in-space refueling at an orbiting location, among others flowing from a non-HLV approach to beyond-Earth exploration, could see the cost advantage of using the relatively unproven Falcon Heavy largely, if not completely, evaporate.

A beyond-Earth exploration program using the Falcon Heavy in an HLV architecture has its own downsides and associated costs. In order to enable the Falcon 9 Heavy to be a capable beyond low-Earth orbit launcher, funds will certainly be needed to create a new cryogenic second-stage. This will be needed because, in its current configuration, a Falcon 9 Heavy could not even launch one 11.6 mt Unity node module, much less a 20 mt Bigelow BA 330 Nautilus module. Even with a brand new second-stage, reliance upon the Falcon 9 Heavy to build, visit, and maintain a lunar orbiting outpost will dictate doing so in very small chunks; the number of launches will then begin to add-up, as will the complexity, risk, and cost. A Falcon Heavy cannot place an Orion spacecraft even in high-Earth, much less lunar, orbit. So reliance upon the Falcon 9 Heavy for beyond low-Earth missions in an HLV-based lunar mission architecture would only set NASA up to cancel Orion and go with Dragon for our nation’s crewed space exploration needs.

As it currently stands, neither NASA's Space Launch System nor SpaceX's Falcon Heavy have a proven track record. However, it would take multiple launches to accomplish what SLS could in a single flight. Image Credit: NASA

While it may be true that the Dragon spacecraft has a heatshield capable of allowing the spacecraft safe reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, little else of Dragon is crew, much less lunar mission, capable. SpaceX’s Dragon is currently a participant in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs. One goal of NASA’s commercial crew program is to enable spacecraft built and operated by commercial space companies to get crews to and from the International Space Station by late 2017. But the requirements for a crewed spacecraft tailored for low-Earth orbit are different than those for beyond-Earth orbit. For one, a LEO capable spacecraft need only be capable of hours of operation, where a lunar spacecraft needs a capability of days. This means that the use of the Falcon Heavy as a means to returning humans to the Moon very likely means funding further enhancements, and verifying those enhancements to the Dragon spacecraft. As with over 90 percent of the funding for Falcon 9 and Dragon, this additional financial burden would fall upon NASA’s, and therefore the U.S. taxpayer’s, shoulders. Even with an enhanced Falcon Heavy launcher and Dragon spacecraft, more than one Falcon Heavy launch would still be needed to support a crewed lunar landing mission. Several Falcon Heavy launches would be needed to build a lunar orbiting outpost.

NASA's SLS has the full support, to include funding, of Congress, as such, efforts to cancel the system in lieu of one that favors the company that SpaceX supporters approve of - is not likely to occur. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s SLS has the full support, to include funding, of Congress. As such, efforts to cancel the system in lieu of one that favors the company that SpaceX supporters approve of is not likely to occur. Image Credit: NASA

Or NASA could send a crewed lunar mission or build a lunar outpost with far fewer SLS launches. That’s because the very first iteration of the SLS, the Block I, will carry twice the payload of a Falcon Heavy to the Moon. The SLS Block II will have a lunar payload capacity nearly 3–4 times that of the Falcon Heavy, depending upon what engines are selected for the SLS’s advanced booster.

Beyond the SLS’s substantial payload advantage for lunar missions, the question of cost remains. Are 3 or 4 Falcon Heavy launches really cheaper than just one SLS Block II launch? That is a hard question to answer given that both launchers are still effectively “paper” rockets. In factoring launch costs, there is the cost of the launch vehicle, the launch pad, launch support, and post-launch management, just to name a few.

The bigger problem for those wishing to end the Space Launch System program is that it is currently ahead of schedule. According to John Elbon, Boeing VP & General Manager, Space Exploration, “We’re on budget, ahead of schedule. There’s incredible progress going on with that rocket” [5]. Canceling a rocket that is ahead of schedule would be difficult at best. Given that Congress has, over three votes, not only supported SLS but increased its funding over amounts sought by the Obama Administration, the odds of opponents getting SLS canceled are slim-to-none.

Space Launch System opponents suggest that the SLS program should cancel until a mission requiring such a rocket is identified. John Shannon, also with Boeing, recently stated, “This ‘SLS doesn’t have a mission’ is a smokescreen that’s been put out there by people who would like to see that [program’s] budget go to their own pet projects. SLS is every mission beyond low Earth orbit. The fact that NASA has not picked one single mission is kind of irrelevant” [6]. It bears mentioning that a good part of the reason there is no meaningful mission for the Orion-SLS is because the Obama Administration has not agreed with Congress that, as Congress noted in its 2010 NASA Authorization Act, cislunar space is the next step in our efforts beyond Earth and that the SLS is an integral part of that step.

Moreover, both short- and long-term missions for SLS have emerged in recent months. Within the 2014 FY Budget Proposal Request, NASA was directed to retrieve an asteroid, place it in lunar orbit, and then send astronauts to study it. The vehicle of choice is SLS. During a recent interview, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Dan Dumbacher stated on AmericaSpace that the long-term mission for SLS was to send astronauts to Mars.

Mr. Jillhouse sings the acolades of the Space Launch System as others sing them about SpaceX’s Falcon9 rockets. What he fails to mention is the SLS’s massive program slippages and muti-billion dollar cost overruns, versus commercial’s million dollar overruns and schedule slippages. It’s not even in the same ballgame, let alone ballpark.

Also the point should be that NASA should’ve bid the SLS job out in order to save the taxpayers money, but the function of SLS isn’t primarily for beyond Earth orbit exploration.

It’s to provide jobs in states that have NASA centers. And that’s why these projects are perpetually underfunded, just enough money is sent in order to keep people employed as long as the politicians can make it possible.

Maybe in the end the SLS will get finished and work as advertised. If I live long enough.

Falcon Heavy: Uncertain Case For Lunar Exploration

NASA, U.S. Government and the Asteroid

From Space.com:

NASA’s bold plan to drag an asteroid into orbit around the moon may sound like science fiction, but it’s achievable with current technology, experts say.

President Barack Obama’s 2014 federal budget request, which will be unveiled today (April 10), likely includes about $100 million for NASA to jump-start an asteroid-capture mission, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said last week.

The plan aims to place a roughly 23-foot-wide (7 meters) space rock into a stable lunar orbit, where astronauts could begin visiting it as soon as 2021 using NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, Nelson said.

While challenging, the mission is definitely doable, said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of billionaire-backed asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources. [NASA’s Asteroid-Capture Plan (Video)]

“Return of a near-Earth asteroid of this size would require today’s largest launch vehicles and today’s most efficient propulsion systems in order to achieve the mission,” Lewicki, who served as flight director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and surface mission manager for the agency’s Phoenix Mars lander, wrote in a blog post Sunday (April 7).

“Even so, capturing and transporting a small asteroid should be a fairly straightforward affair,” Lewicki added. “Mission cost and complexity are likely on par with missions like the [$2.5 billion] Curiosity Mars rover.”

Spurring solar system exploration

NASA’s idea is similar to one proposed last year by scientists based at Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena.

The Keck study estimated that a robotic spacecraft could drag a 23-foot near-Earth asteroid (NEA) — which would likely weigh about 500 tons — into a high lunar orbit for $2.6 billion. The returns on this initial investment are potentially huge, the researchers said.

“Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt,” the Keck team wrote in a feasibility study of their plan.

The mission would also help develop asteroid-mining technology, advocates say, and advance scientists’ understanding of how our solar system took shape more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Asteroids “probably represent samples of the earliest matter that was made available to form our solar system and our Earth,” Caltech’s Paul Dimotakis, a member of the Keck study team, told SPACE.com in February.

“We learned a lot about the moon by analyzing the moon rocks that Apollo astronauts brought back,” he added. [NASA’s 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]

A challenging mission

Unmanned probes have successfully rendezvoused with asteroids in deep space multiple times. Japan’s Hayabusa craft even snagged pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa in 2005, sending them back to our planet for study.

But bagging an entire asteroid and dragging it to our neck of the cosmic woods is unprecedented, and it presents several daunting challenges.

For example, the target asteroid will be spinning, which doesn’t make for a smooth ride to lunar orbit. After the spacecraft captures the asteroid and brings it into a hold of sorts, the space rock will have to be de-spun, likely with thrusters, Dimotakis said.

“You might use reaction jets to take out most of it [the spin],” he said. “You would give you yourself a lot of time to do this, because there’s no second chance in any of this.”

Further, bringing the asteroid onboard greatly increases the spacecraft’s mass, making propulsion and navigation much more difficult. And precise navigation will definitely be required to deliver the space rock to its desired orbit, Dimotakis said (though he also stressed that any asteroid chosen would pose no danger to humanity even if it somehow struck our planet).

But ion thrusters like the ones powering NASA’s Dawn mission to the huge asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres should be muscular enough to make the journey, likely taking a few years to reach the asteroid and somewhat longer to come back. And the asteroid-laden probe could probably still be guided with great care, he added.

“My guess is that all of these are not insurmountable challenges, and you would be able to calibrate yourself after you snagged it and adjust your controls,” Dimotakis said.

Choosing a target

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the entire mission is picking a suitable space rock to retrieve, Lewicki wrote in his blog post.

The Keck study recommends going after a carbonaceous asteroid packed full of water and other volatiles. Carbonaceous asteroids can be very dark, and it’s tough to spot and characterize a 23-foot asteroid in the vast depths of space whatever its color.

So both Lewicki and Dimotakis stressed the importance of searching for potential asteroid targets sooner rather than later. Planetary Resources plans to begin launching a line of small prospecting space telescopes in 2014 or 2015, and these “Arkyd-100″ craft could aid NASA’s mission, Lewicki wrote.

Dimotakis, for his part, is engaged in a follow-up to the Keck study that’s looking for potential targets in observations made by current telescopes.

“We are developing software in collaboration with JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] that is going to exploit the observational digital record and essentially flag things that could be of interest and might be in this class,” he said. “This has never happened before.”

Still, mission scientists and engineers shouldn’t just sit on their hands until an asteroid selection is made, he added.

It’s important “to start developing the spacecraft before you even know where you’re going,” Dimotakis said. “If you do these things in parallel, then the mission timeline shrinks.”

The $2.6 Billion price tag looks a little low to me, but the Russians seem to want to get onboard with this idea too.

Unfortunately, the Russian space program is largely financed by NASA payments to launch American and international astronauts to the ISS. So the cost will still be born by the U.S. taxpayer.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a worthwhile effort, but I think NASA should continue to partner with private industry and the Europeans to help defray the expences.

Capturing an Asteroid: How NASA Could Do It

Skylab II

From Space.com:

NASA’s first manned outpost in deep space may be a repurposed rocket part, just like the agency’s first-ever astronaut abode in Earth orbit.

With a little tinkering, the upper-stage hydrogen propellant tank of NASA’s huge Space Launch System rocket would make a nice and relatively cheap deep-space habitat, some researchers say. They call the proposed craft “Skylab II,” an homage to the 1970s Skylab space station that was a modified third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket.

“This idea is not challenging technology,” said Brand Griffin, an engineer with Gray Research, Inc., who works with the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“It’s just trying to say, ‘Is this the time to be able to look at existing assets, planned assets and incorporate those into what we have as a destination of getting humans beyond LEO [low-Earth orbit]?'” Griffin said Wednesday (March 27) during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group.

Astronauts Fly Orion to Skylab II

A roomy home in deep space

NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch astronauts toward distant destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and Mars. The rocket’s first test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA wants it to start lofting crews by 2021.

The SLS will stand 384 feet tall (117 meters) in its biggest (“evolved”) incarnation, which will be capable of blasting 130 metric tons of payload to orbit. Its upper-stage hydrogen tank is big, too, measuring 36.1 feet tall by 27.6 feet wide (11.15 m by 8.5 m).

The tank’s dimensions yield an internal volume of 17,481 cubic feet (495 cubic m) — roughly equivalent to a two-story house. That’s much roomier than a potential deep-space habitat derived from modules of the International Space Station (ISS), which are just 14.8 feet (4.5 m) wide, Griffin said.

The tank-based Skylab II could accommodate a crew of four comfortably and carry enough gear and food to last for several years at a time without requiring a resupply, he added. Further, it would launch aboard the SLS in a single piece, whereas ISS-derived habitats would need to link up multiple components in space.

Because of this, Skylab II would require relatively few launches to establish and maintain, Griffin said. That and the use of existing SLS-manufacturing infrastructure would translate into big cost savings — a key selling point in today’s tough fiscal climate.

“We will have the facilities in place, the tooling, the personnel, all the supply chain and everything else,” Griffin said.

He compared the overall concept with the original Skylab space station, which was built in a time of declining NASA budgets after the boom years of the Apollo program.

Skylab “was a project embedded under the Apollo program,” Griffin said. “In many ways, this could follow that same pattern. It could be a project embedded under SLS and be able to, ideally, not incur some of the costs of program startup.”

Skylab II Made From Tank

There has been much caterwauling in the space advocacy community about the Space Launch System ( ne, “The Senate Launch System” ) concerning its cost and lack of purpose and/or destinations.

Of course, the thing was designed by Congress in order to fund a jobs program in the NASA Centers for the good voters of those districts. But it’s a seriously underfunded program, with just enough money to keep the civil servants of NASA employed, with just enough contractor support to keep them happy.

In the meantime, ideas like Skylab II, the Spacehab at EML-2 and the asteroid capture scheme rear their ugly heads and claim they’re economical in these austeric times.

My money is still on Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow, Dennis Tito and company.

NASA Mega-Rocket Could Lead to Skylab 2 Deep Space Station

Did Voyager 1 Leave The Solar System?

From nytimes.com:

For about three hours on Wednesday, Voyager 1 had left the solar system — before a rewritten news release headline pulled it back in. Voyager 1, one of two spacecraft NASA launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets, is now nearly 11.5 billion miles from the Sun, speeding away at 38,000 miles per hour. In a paper accepted by the journal Geophysical Review Letters, William R. Webber of New Mexico State University and Frank B. McDonald of the University of Maryland reported that on Aug. 25 last year, the spacecraft observed a sudden change in the mix of cosmic rays hitting it.

Cosmic rays are high-speed charged particles, mostly protons. Voyager 1’s instruments recorded nearly a doubling of cosmic rays from outside the solar system, while the intensity of cosmic rays that had been trapped in the outer solar system dropped by 90 percent.

The American Geophysical Union, publisher of the journal, sent out the news Wednesday morning: “Voyager 1 has left the solar system.” NASA officials, surprised, countered with a contrary statement from Edward C. Stone, the Voyager project scientist. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space,” Dr. Stone said. He said that the critical indicator would be a change in the direction of the magnetic field, not cosmic rays, for marking the outermost boundary of the solar system. In their paper, Dr. Webber and Dr. McDonald (who died only six days after Voyager observed the shift in cosmic rays) did not claim that Voyager 1 was in interstellar space, but had entered a part of the solar system they called the “heliocliff.” The geophysical union then sent out another e-mail with the same article but a milder headline: “Voyager 1 has entered a new region of space.”

Eventually Voyager 1 will leave the Solar System and there will be no dispute about it.

In the meantime, mainstream science will learn and post about the outer edges of the Solar System as Voyager 1 creeps along at .00002 lightspeed ( 37,500 mph ) .

Of course there are those in mainstream media and science who believe that mankind will never leave the Solar System because they proclaim that spacecraft will never be built that go faster than that.

Already the Pluto probe New Horizon traveling at 54,500 mph is breaking Voyager’s speed record and will probably leave the Solar System before Voyager does!

I’m certain in 100 years star probes will be launched toward Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti that reach appreciable percentages of lightspeed bypassing all of our old interplanetary probes and perhaps in several centuries, mankind’s interstellar colonies will be picking up these old probes to study them, like old time capsules!

Where’s Voyager 1? That Depends.

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

To Ply The Martian Way

From Centauri Dreams:

Existential risks, as discussed here yesterday, seem to be all around us, from the dangers of large impactors to technologies running out of control and super-volcanoes  that can cripple our civilization. We humans tend to defer thinking on large-scale risks while tightly focusing on personal risk. Even the recent events near Chelyabinsk, while highlighting the potential danger of falling objects, also produced a lot of fatalistic commentary, on the lines of ‘if it’s going to happen, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Some media outlets did better than others with this.

Risk to individuals is understandably more vivid. When Apollo 8 left Earth orbit for the Moon in 1968, the sense of danger was palpable. After all, these astronauts were leaving an orbital regime that we were beginning to understand and were, by the hour, widening the distance between themselves and our planet. But even Apollo 8 operated within a sequenced framework of events. Through Mercury to Gemini and Apollo, we were building technologies one step at a time that all led to a common goal. No one denied the dangers faced by every crew that eventually went to the Moon, but technologies were being tested and refined as the missions continued.

Inspiration Mars is proposing something that on balance feels different. As described in yesterday’s news conference (see Millionaire plans to send couple to Mars in 2018. Is that realistic? for more), the mission would be a flyby, using a free return trajectory rather than braking into Martian orbit. The trip would last 501 days and would be undertaken by a man and a woman, probably a middle-aged married couple. Jonathan Clark, formerly of NASA and now chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars, addresses the question of risk head-on: “The real issue here is understanding the risk in an informed capacity – the crew would understand that, the team supporting them would understand that.” Multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, a one-time space tourist who heads up Inspiration Mars, says the mission will launch in 2018.

Mars_atmosphere

Image: A manned Mars flyby may just be doable. But is the 2018 date pushing us too hard? Image credit: NASA/JPL.

We’ll hear still more about all this when the results of a mission-feasibility study are presented next weekend at the 2013  IEEE Aerospace Conference in Montana. Given the questions raised by pushing a schedule this tightly, there will be much to consider. Do we have time to create a reliable spacecraft that can offer not only 600 cubic feet of living space but another 600 for cargo, presumably a SpaceX Dragon capsule mated to a Bigelow inflatable module? Are we ready to expose a crew to interplanetary radiation hazards without further experience with the needed shielding strategies? And what of the heat shield and its ability to protect the crew during high-speed re-entry at velocities in the range of 50,000 kilometers per hour?

For that matter, what about Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle discussed in the feasibility analysis Inspiration Mars has produced for the conference? This is a rocket that has yet to fly.

No, this doesn’t feel much like Apollo 8. It really feels closer to the early days of aviation, when attention converged on crossing the Atlantic non-stop and pilots like Rene Fonck, Richard Byrd, Charles Nungesser and Charles Lindbergh queued up for the attempt. As with Inspiration Mars, these were privately funded attempts, in this case designed to win the Orteig Prize ($25,000), though for the pilots involved it was the accomplishment more than the paycheck that mattered. Given the problems of engine reliability at the time, it took a breakthrough technology — the Wright J-5C Whirlwind engine — to get Lindbergh and subsequent flights across.

Inspiration Mars is looking to sell media rights and sponsorships as part of the fund-raising package for the upcoming mission, which is already being heavily backed by Tito. I’m wondering if there is a breakthrough technology equivalent to the J-5C  to help this mission along, because everything I read about it makes it appear suicidal. The 2018 date is forced by a favorable alignment between Mars and the Earth that will not recur until 2031, so the haste is understandable. The idea is just the kind of daring, improbable stunt that fires the imagination and forces sudden changes in perspective, and of course I wish it well. But count me a serious skeptic on the question of whether this mission will be ready to fly on the appointed date.

And if it’s not? I like the realism in the concluding remarks of the feasibility study:

A manned Mars free-return mission is a useful precursor mission to other planned Mars missions. It will develop and demonstrate many critical technologies and capabilities needed for manned Mars orbit and landing missions. The technology and other capabilities needed for this mission are needed for any future manned Mars missions. Investments in pursuing this development now would not be wasted even if this mission were to miss its launch date.

Exactly so, and there would be much development in the interim. The study goes on:

Although the next opportunity after this mission wouldn’t be for about another 13 years, any subsequent manned Mars mission would benefit from the ECLSS [Environmental Control and Life Support System], TPS [Thermal Protection System], and other preparation done for this mission. In fact, often by developing technology early lessons are learned that can reduce overall program costs. Working on this mission will also be a means to train the skilled workforce needed for the future manned Mars missions.

These are all good reasons for proceeding, leaving the 2018 date as a high-risk, long-shot option. While Inspiration Mars talks to potential partners in the aerospace industry and moves ahead with an eye on adapting near-Earth technologies for the mission, a whiff of the old space race is in the air.  “If we don’t fly in 2018, the next low-hanging fruit is in ’31. We’d better have our crew trained to recognize other flags,” Tito is saying. “They’re going to be out there.”

In 1968, faced with a deadline within the decade, NASA had to make a decision on risk that was monumental — Dennis Tito reminded us at the news conference that Apollo 8 came only a year after the first test launch of the Saturn 5. Can 2018 become as tangible a deadline as 1970 was for a nation obsessed with a Moon landing before that year? If so, the technologies just might be ready, and someone is going to have to make a white-knuckle decision about the lives of two astronauts. If Inspiration Mars can get us to that point, that decision won’t come easy, but whoever makes it may want to keep the words of Seneca in mind: “It is not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It is because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”

There are a lot of nay-sayers out yonder decrying Tito’s idea as suicidal and a waste of money. But as recently as a couple of months ago questionnaires were sent out asking for volunteers to sign up for a one way trip to Mars (Mars One), even if there’s a better than even chance of dying at any moment of it.

The results were astounding.

Tito’s idea of sending an older married couple is nothing short of public opinion genius and if successful, could be the format of any future Mars colonization efforts.

Not to mention the technologies needed for the crossing.

Mars Flyby: Daring to Venture

Bigelow Module on the I.S.S.

From spaceref.com:

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced Wednesday a newly planned addition to the International Space Station that will use the orbiting laboratory to test expandable space habitat technology. NASA has awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

“Today we’re demonstrating progress on a technology that will advance important long-duration human spaceflight goals,” Garver said. “NASA’s partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.”

The BEAM is scheduled to launch aboard the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the station contracted by NASA, currently planned for 2015. Following the arrival of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft carrying the BEAM to the station, astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to install the module on the aft port of the Tranquility node.

After the module is berthed to the Tranquility node, the station crew will activate a pressurization system to expand the structure to its full size using air stored within the packed module.

During the two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. An assortment of instruments embedded within module also will provide important insights on its response to the space environment. This includes radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules.

“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”

Astronauts periodically will enter the module to gather performance data and perform inspections. Following the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry.

The BEAM project is sponsored by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Program, which pioneers innovative approaches to rapidly and affordably develop prototype systems for future human exploration missions. The BEAM demonstration supports an AES objective to develop a deep space habitat for human missions beyond Earth orbit.

A $17.8M contract is chump change for an I.S.S. article, but then again it’s only a test stand.

Bigelow plans on selling these things to countries like Japan and England who might want their own space stations on the cheap.

Maybe Golden Spike will buy a couple for a future Moon Base?

NASA To Test Bigelow Expandable Module On Space Station

Carl Sagan and the U.S. Military

From io9.com:

News of Carl Sagan’s involvement with a plan to “nuke” the moon, Project A119, has become relevant again. In fact, Sagan was involved in a number of military causes during his all-too-short lifetime. But later, he cut all ties with the military. Here’s what happened.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbfOqgQVKmI&feature=player_embedded

Carl Sagan spent his childhood under the ominous cloud of World War II. As the war faded and the United States and USSR entered a Cold War, the United States once again looked to its best and brightest — including many academic scientists — to consult with the military.

Sagan’s extremely limited involvement in a theoretical plan to “Nuke the Moon” as a show of U.S. military might recently caused an uproar, but this was just one aspect of Sagan’s involvement with the militarily. Sagan’s involvement in Project A-119 occurred while he worked toward his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. The good scientist actually broke personnel restrictions placed on the classified project by listing his involvement on a job application.

Sagan and Project Blue Book The majority of Sagan’s contact with the military came as a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board beginning in 1966. Sagan lectured at Harvard at this time in his life, but would soon depart to become Associate Professor of Astronomy in the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell after being denied tenure by Harvard.

At this time in his career, Sagan had already begun to publish his suppositions about the atmosphere of Venus and became a member of the fringe in the eyes of many thanks to his ruminations on the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Sagan also played a role in advising the U.S. Space Program, a program synonymous with military applications during the Cold War era.

Sagan allegedly received $800 per day (roughly $4500 in current dollars), an astounding sum for a university lecturer, to act as a consultant for the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. The United States Air Force Scientific Advisory Board began in 1944 as a secret program with a variety of missions, including determining the possibility of using atomic energy in jet propulsion as well as non-traditional use of nuclear weapons.

Sagan’s military contact revolved around Project Blue Book, a 23-year study of UFOs conducted by the United States Air Force that ceased in January of 1970. Project Blue Book took a systematic approach to the study of unidentified flying objects, analyzing possible UFO data and aiming to determine if these objects were a danger to United States national security.

Within the two-decade-plus report are 12,618 “sightings”, with analysis leaving a mere 700 classified as unidentified. The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, however concluded that Project Blue Book did not meet necessary rigors, suggesting a university-led study of unidentified flying objects would be far more conclusive.

Separation from the military After the closure of Project Blue Book, Sagan continued to act as a prominent scientific advisor for NASA, arguing for the financial merit of robotic spacecraft.

Sagan became an extremely vocal advocate against nuclear proliferation after the rise of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Sagan openly protested the testing of nuclear weapons, with the sage arrested for trespassing after a 1986 underground detonation of a thermonuclear warhead in the Nevada desert.

Though he cut ties with the military, Sagan continued to ponder the idea of space war. He concocted the Deflection Dilemma — the idea that the using a significant blast to knock a near earth object on a trajectory towards earth off course could also be used as a weapon, sending the object into the country or countries of choice.

If you are curious, you can lose an entire weekend and browse through the entirety of Project Blue Book online thanks to the Project Blue Book Archive, or have a marathon of Twin Peaks to catch a hint of the intrigue surrounded Project Blue Book.

The idea of blowing up the Moon seems far-fetched, but not knocking an asteroid into an orbit that intercepts a certain country(s) and wreaks destruction over one side of the planet. It’s the ultimate Dooms-Day Device!

That’s why I don’t think NASA’s plan of flying to an asteroid in 2025 and Planetary Resources’ idea of asteroid capture and mining will be politically viable or palatable in the international arena because if a country that has the technology to move planetary objects into different orbits, especially in Earth orbit has the ultimate weapon over other nations in the form of a huge hammer.

And I’m really surprised this isn’t mentioned at various mainstream space sites.

Maybe it’s an unmentionable thing?

What Exactly Was Carl Sagan Working on with the U.S. Military?

Elon Musk Interview

From Wired Science:

When a man tells you about the time he planned to put a vegetable garden on Mars, you worry about his mental state. But if that same man has since launched multiple rockets that are actually capable of reaching Mars—sending them into orbit, Bond-style, from a tiny island in the Pacific—you need to find another diagnosis. That’s the thing about extreme entrepreneurialism: There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and you need a little bit of both to really change the world.
——–
All entrepreneurs have an aptitude for risk, but more important than that is their capacity for self-delusion. Indeed, psychological investigations have found that entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-tolerant than non-entrepreneurs. They just have an extraordinary ability to believe in their own visions, so much so that they think what they’re embarking on isn’t really that risky. They’re wrong, of course, but without the ability to be so wrong—to willfully ignore all those naysayers and all that evidence to the contrary—no one would possess the necessary audacity to start something radically new.

I have never met an entrepreneur who fits this model more than Elon Musk. All of the entrepreneurs I admire most—Musk, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Jack Dorsey, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a few others—have sought not just to build great companies but to take on problems that really matter. Yet even in this class of universe-denters, Musk stands out. After cofounding a series of Internet companies, including PayPal, the South African transplant could simply have retired to enjoy his riches. Instead he decided to disrupt the most difficult-to-master industries in the world. At 41 he is reinventing the car with Tesla, which is building all-electric vehicles in a Detroit-scale factory. (Wired profiled this venture in issue 18.10.) He is transforming energy with SolarCity, a startup that leases solar-power systems to homeowners.

And he is leading the private space race with SpaceX, which is poised to replace the space shuttle and usher us into an interplanetary age. Since Musk founded the company in 2002, it has developed a series of next-generation rockets that can deliver payloads to space for a fraction of the price of legacy rockets. In 2010 SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and bring it back; in 2012 it sent a craft to berth successfully with the International Space Station.

It’s no wonder the character of Tony Stark in Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., was modeled on Musk: This is superhero-grade stuff. I sat down with him at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory to discuss how cheaper and (eventually) reusable rockets might someday put humans on Mars.

Chris Anderson: You’re not a rocket scientist by training. You’re not a space engineer.

Elon Musk: That’s true. My background educationally is physics and economics, and I grew up in sort of an engineering environment—my father is an electromechanical engineer. And so there were lots of engineery things around me. When I asked for an explanation, I got the true explanation of how things work. I also did things like make model rockets, and in South Africa there were no premade rockets: I had to go to the chemist and get the ingredients for rocket fuel, mix it, put it in a pipe.

Anderson: But then you became an Internet entrepreneur.

Musk: I never had a job where I made anything physical. I cofounded two Internet software companies, Zip2 and PayPal. So it took me a few years to kind of learn rocket science, if you will.

Anderson: How were you drawn to space as your next venture?

Musk: In 2002, once it became clear that PayPal was going to get sold, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, the entrepreneur Adeo Ressi, who was actually my college housemate. I’d been staying at his home for the weekend, and we were coming back on a rainy day, stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. He was asking me what I would do after PayPal. And I said, well, I’d always been really interested in space, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do as an individual. But, I went on, it seemed clear that we would send people to Mars. Suddenly I began to wonder why it hadn’t happened already. Later I went to the NASA website so I could see the schedule of when we’re supposed to go. [Laughs.]

Anderson: And of course there was nothing.

Musk: At first I thought, jeez, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place! Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing. It seemed crazy.

Anderson: NASA doesn’t have the budget for that anymore.

Musk: Since 1989, when a study estimated that a manned mission would cost $500 billion, the subject has been toxic. Politicians didn’t want a high-priced federal program like that to be used as a political weapon against them.

Anderson: Their opponents would call it a boondoggle.

Musk: But the United States is a nation of explorers. America is the spirit of human exploration distilled.

Anderson: We all leaped into the unknown to get here.

Star Man

To put Elon Musk’s astronomical goals in perspective, here’s a look at some of his stellar achievements so far.—Victoria Tang

1983

At the age of 12, designs a videogame called Blast Star and sells it to a computer magazine for $500.

1995

After spending two days in a graduate physics program at Stanford, drops out to start Zip2, an online publishing platform for the media industry.

1999

Sells Zip2 to Compaq for $307 million.

2000

Forms PayPal by merging his new online-payments startup, X.com, with Max Levchin and Peter Thiel’s Confinity.

2001

Establishes the Musk Foundation to provide grants for renewable energy, space, and medical research as well as science and engineering education.

2002

PayPal goes public; its stock rises more than 54 percent on the first day of trading. Eight months later, eBay acquires PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk founds SpaceX.

2004

Invests in Tesla Motors, a company that manufactures high-performance electric cars.

2006

Helps create SolarCity, which provides solar-power systems to some 33,000 buildings. Will serve as the company chair.

2008

NASA selects the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the reusable Dragon spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttles retire.

2010

Makes a cameo appearance in Iron Man 2. Director Jon Favreau cites Musk as an inspiration for Tony Stark.

2012

SpaceX’s Dragon becomes the first commercial spacecraft to berth with the ISS

———

Few people change the course of human history and less realize that witnessing that change is important. Mainstream science is slow to change and it takes a hard-headed individual to fight against it.

Musk is such an individual and it will be interesting to see him outsmart ignorant public and political forces to achieve his stated goal of making mankind a multi-planetary species.

It will be fun to watch!

Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars

Hat tip to Nasa Watch.

Artificial Life-Form Inventer Venter To Build Martian DNA Teleporter

From Technology Review:

Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.

Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s “Personal Genome Machine” for a similar task.

“We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars,” Rothberg told Technology Review.

Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine.

“There will be DNA life forms there,” Venter predicted Tuesday in New York, where he was speaking at the Wired Health Conference.

Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission. (Hear his comments in this video, starting at 00:11:01.) Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Venter, confirmed the existence of the project but said the prototype system was “not yet 100 percent robotic.”

Meanwhile, Rothberg’s Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won’t send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see “The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph“), and there’s no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. “The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications,” says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. “[Venter] isn’t ahead of anyone else.”

Venter has a great idea here, but it reminds me of a certain movie in which sequencing alien DNA wasn’t such a great plan.

Species !

Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA

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