Centauri Dreams: To Build the Ultimate Telescope
Paul Gilster posts:
In interstellar terms, a ‘fast’ mission is one that is measured in decades rather than millennia. Say for the sake of argument that we achieve this capability some time within the next 200 years. Can you imagine where we’ll be in terms of telescope technology by that time? It’s an intriguing question, because telescopes capable of not just imaging exoplanets but seeing them in great detail would allow us to choose our destinations wisely even while giving us voluminous data on the myriad worlds we choose not to visit. Will they also reduce our urge to make the trip?
Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin described the effects of a telescope something like this back in 1999 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although he didn’t have a specific telescope technology in mind, he was sure that by the mid-point of the 21st Century, we would be seeing exoplanets up close, an educational opportunity unlike any ever offered. Goldin’s classroom of this future era is one I’d like to visit, if his description is anywhere near the truth:
“When you look on the walls, you see a dozen maps detailing the features of Earth-like planets orbiting neighboring stars. Schoolchildren can study the geography, oceans, and continents of other planets and imagine their exotic environments, just as we studied the Earth and wondered about exotic sounding places like Banghok and Istanbul … or, in my case growing up in the Bronx, exotic far-away places like Brooklyn.”
Webster Cash, an astronomer whose Aragoscope concept recently won a Phase I award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (see ‘Aragoscope’ Offers High Resolution Optics in Space), has also been deeply involved in starshades, in which a large occulter works with a telescope-bearing spacecraft tens of thousands of kilometers away. With the occulter blocking light from the parent star, direct imaging of exoplanets down to Earth size and below becomes possible, allowing us to make spectroscopic analyses of their atmospheres. Pool data from fifty such systems using interferometry and spectacular close-up images may one day be possible.
Image: The basic occulter concept, with telescope trailing the occulter and using it to separate planet light from the light of the parent star. Credit: Webster Cash.
Have a look at Cash’s New Worlds pages at the University of Colorado for more. And imagine what we might do with the ability to look at an exoplanet through a view as close as a hundred kilometers, studying its oceans and continents, its weather systems, the patterns of its vegetation and, who knows, its city lights. Our one limitation would be the orbital inclination of the planet, which would prevent us from mapping every area on the surface, but given the benefits, this seems like a small issue. We would have achieved what Dan Goldin described.
Seth Shostak, whose ideas we looked at yesterday in the context of SETI and political will, has also recently written on what large — maybe I should say ‘extreme’ — telescopes can do for us. In Forget Space Travel: Build This Telescope, which ran in the Huffington Post, Shostak talks about a telescope that could map exoplanets with the same kind of detail you get with Google Earth. To study planets within 100 light years, the instrument would require capabilities that outstrip those of Cash’s cluster of interferometrically communicating space telescopes:
At 100 light-years, something the size of a Honda Accord — which I propose as a standard imaging test object — subtends an angle of a half-trillionth of a second of arc. In case that number doesn’t speak to you, it’s roughly the apparent size of a cell nucleus on Pluto, as viewed from Earth.
You will not be stunned to hear that resolving something that minuscule requires a telescope with a honking size. At ordinary optical wavelengths, “honking” works out to a mirror 100 million miles across. You could nicely fit a reflector that large between the orbits of Mercury and Mars. Big, yes, but it would permit you to examine exoplanets in incredible detail.
Or, of course, you can do what Shostak is really getting at, which is to use interferometry to pool data from thousands of small mirrors in space spread out over 100 million miles, an array of the sort we are already building for radio observations and learning how to improve for optical and infrared work on Earth. Shostak discusses a system like this, which again is conceivable within the time-frame we are talking about for developing an actual interstellar probe, as a way to vanquish what he calls ‘the tyranny of distance.’ And, he adds, ‘You can forget deep space probes.’
I doubt we would do that, however, because we can hope that among the many worlds such a space-based array would reveal to us would be some that fire our imaginations and demand much closer study. The impulse to send robotic if not human crews will doubtless be fired by many of the exotic scenes we will observe. I wouldn’t consider this mammoth space array our only way of interacting with the galaxy, then, but an indispensable adjunct to our expansion into it.
Of course Shostak takes the long, sensor derived view of exploring the Universe, his life’s work is radio telescopes.
Gilster is correct that interferometry will be an adjunct to sending robotic probes to distant interstellar worlds, you can’t make money by just gawking at places.
Or can you?
Centauri Dreams: Creative Constraints and Starflight
I discovered Karl Schroeder’s work when I was researching brown dwarfs some years ago. Who knew that somebody was writing novels about civilizations around these dim objects? Permanence (Tor, 2003) was a real eye-opener, as were the deep-space cultures it described. Schroeder hooked me again with his latest book — he’s dealing with a preoccupation of mine, a human presence in the deep space regions between ourselves and the nearest stars, where resources are abundant and dark worlds move far from any sun. How to maintain such a society and allow it to grow into something like an empire? Karl explains the mechanism below. Science fiction fans, of which there are many on Centauri Dreams, will know Karl as the author of many other novels, including Ventus (2000), Lady of Mazes (2005) and Sun of Suns (2006).
by Karl Schroeder
My newest science fiction novel, Lockstep, has just finished its serialization in Analogmagazine, and Tor Books will have it on the bookshelves March 24. Reactions have been pretty favourable—except that I’ve managed to offend a small but vocal group of my readers. It seems that some people are outraged that I’ve written an SF story in which faster than light travel is impossible.
I did write Lockstep because I understood that it’s not actual starflight that interests most people—it’s the romance of a Star Trek or Star Wars-type interstellar civilization they want. Not the reality, but the fantasy. Even so, I misjudged the, well, the fervor with which some people cling to the belief that the lightspeed limit will just somehow, magically and handwavingly, get engineered around.
This is ironic, because the whole point of Lockstep was to find a way to have that Star Wars-like interstellar civilization in reality and not just fantasy. As an artist, I’m familiar with the power of creative constraint to generate ideas, and for Lockstep I put two constraints on myself: 1) No FTL or unknown science would be allowed in the novel. 2) The novel would contain a full-blown interstellar civilization exactly like those you find in books with FTL.
Creativity under constraint is the best kind of creativity; it’s the kind that really may take us to the stars someday. In this case, by placing such mutually contradictory — even impossible — restrictions on myself, I was forced into a solution that, in hindsight, is obvious. It is simply this: everyone I know of who has thought about interstellar civilization has thought that the big problem to be solved is the problem of speed. The issue, though (as opposed to the problem), is how to travel to an interstellar destination, spend some time there, and return to the same home you left. Near-c travel solves this problem for you, but not for those you left at home. FTL solves the problem for both you and home, but with the caveat that it’s impossible. (Okay, okay, for the outraged among you: as far as we know. To put it more exactly, we can’t prove that FTL is impossible any more than we can prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I’ll concede that.)
Read the rest here…
Scientist wants to teleport Martians to Earth
Craig Venter And Life At The Speed of Light
A U.S. scientist wants to detect Mars life and teleport it to Earth. And he already has the technology to do it.
Dr. J. Craig Venter. (Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute)
J. Craig Venter, Ph.D. is a leading scientist in the field of genomic research. He is also the founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company dedicated to “commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address global needs such as new sources of energy, new food and nutritional products, and next generation vaccines.”
He and his research team have been field-testing technology that he believes will revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life. According to the South China Morning Post, “Not only does Venter say his invention will detect and decode DNA hiding in otherworldly soil or water samples – proving once and for all that we are not alone in the universe – it will also beam the information back to Earth and allow scientists to reconstruct living copies in a biosafety facility.” He hopes to detect Martian life and bring it to Earth using a digital biological converter, or biological teleporter.
The India Times describes, “Dr. Venter’s machine would merely create a copy of an organism from a distant location — more like a biological fax machine.” Storing genetic code in a computer and transmitting it just like any other data is the basic idea.
Cover of J. Craig Venter’s latest book. (Credit: Viking Adult)
Dr. Venter’s team, and scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center, recently conducted field-testing of this technology in the Mojave Desert south of Baker, California–a dry environment similar to Mars. Researchers tested the unit that would, in theory, send data back from Mars. But according to Dr. Venter, a prototype of the unit that would receive the transmitted data here on Earth exists as well, and will be available for sale next year.
India Times explains that this machine will be able to “automate the synthesis of genes by stringing small pieces of DNA together to make larger ones.” With this technology, “A person with a bacterial infection might be sent the code to recreate a virus intended to kill that specific bacterium.” Venter optimistically surmises that this technology will enable doctors to “send an antibiotic as an email,” and allow diabetics to “download insulin from the Internet.”
Of Orphan Worlds and Interstellar Island Hopping
From Centauri Dreams:
Because of my fascination with exotic venues for astrobiology, I’ve always enjoyed Karl Schroeder’s novels. The Canadian writer explored brown dwarf planets as future venues for human settlement in Permanence (2002), and in his new book Lockstep (soon to be published by Tor, currently being serialized in Analog), Schroeder looks at ‘rogue’ planets, worlds that move through the galaxy without a central star. Imagine crimson worlds baked by cosmic radiation, their surfaces building up, over the aeons, the rust red complex organic molecules called tholins. Or consider gas giants long ago ejected from the system that gave them birth by close encounters with other worlds.
Objects like these and more are surely out there given what we know about gravitational interactions within planetary systems, and they’re probably out there in huge numbers. I’m not going to review how Lockstep uses them just yet — in any case, I haven’t finished the book — but we’ll return to its ingenious solution to time and distance problems in a future post. Right now I just want to mention that one of Schroeder’s characters muses upon ‘a hundred thousand nomad planets for every star in the galaxy.’ Now that’s some serious real estate.
If the number sounds like a novelistic exaggeration, it’s nonetheless drawn from recent work. Schroeder is invoking the work of Louis Strigari (Stanford University), who has studied the possibilities not only of planets ejected from their own systems but those that may form directly from a molecular cloud. The figure of 105 free-floating planetary objects for every main sequence star is from a 2012 paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (you can read more about Strigari’s ideas in ‘Island-Hopping’ to the Stars).
Rogue planets would be tricky to find but gravitational microlensing should help us set constraints on their actual numbers, and as we’ll see below, direct imaging has its uses. If rogue worlds are available in such quantities, we can imagine a starfaring culture capable of exploiting their resources. We can even speculate that a thick atmosphere that can trap infrared heat coupled with tectonic or radioactive heat sources from within could sustain elemental forms of life even in the absence of a star. Tens of thousands of objects in nearby interstellar space would obviously be a spur for exploration.
A Newly Found Orphan World
Eighty light years from Earth floats a solitary planet that has been discovered through its heat signature in data collected by the Pan-STARRS 1 wide-field survey telescope on Maui. In mass, color, and energy output, the world is similar to directly imaged planets. As you might expect, PSO J318.5-22, a gas giant about six times the mass of Jupiter, turned up during a search for brown dwarfs, delving into the datasets of a survey that has already produced about 4000 terabytes of information. The discovery was then followed up through multiple observations by equipment on nearby Mauna Kea, with spectra from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the Gemini North Telescope indicating the young, low-mass object was not a brown dwarf.
Image: Multicolor image from the Pan-STARRS1 telescope of the free-floating planet PSO J318.5-22, in the constellation of Capricornus. The planet is extremely cold and faint, about 100 billion times fainter in optical light than the planet Venus. Most of its energy is emitted at infrared wavelengths. The image is 125 arcseconds on a side. Credit: N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium.
“We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone,” explained team leader Dr. Michael Liu of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.”
The find is interesting on a number of levels, not least of which is that observations of gas giant planets around young stars have shown that their spectra differ from those of L- and T-class brown dwarfs. Young planets like these, according to the paper on this work, show redder colors in the near-infrared, fainter absolute magnitudes at the same wavelength and other spectral peculiarities that suggest the line of development between brown dwarfs and gas giant planets may not be as clear cut as once assumed. The paper makes clear how complex the issue is:
PSO J318.5−22 shares a strong physical similarity to the young dusty planets HR 8799bcd and 2MASS J1207−39b, as seen in its colors, absolute magnitudes, spectrum, luminosity, and mass. Most notably, it is the ﬁrst ﬁeld L dwarf with near-IR absolute magnitudes as faint as the HR 8799 and 2MASS J1207−39 planets, demonstrating that the very red, faint region of the near-IR color-magnitude diagram is not exclusive to young exoplanets. Its probable membership in the β Pic moving group makes it a new substellar benchmark at young ages and planetary masses.
A landmark indeed, and here the Beta Pictoris moving group, a collection of young stars formed about twelve million years ago, is worth noting. Beta Pictoris itself is known to have a young gas giant planet in orbit around it. The newly detected PSO J318.5−22 is lower still in mass than the Beta Pictoris planet and it is thought to have formed in a different way. The paper goes on:
We ﬁnd very red, low-gravity L dwarfs have ≈400 K cooler temperatures relative to ﬁeld objects of comparable spectral type, yet have similar luminosities. Comparing very red L dwarf spectra to each other and to directly imaged planets highlights the challenges of diagnosing physical properties from near-IR spectra.
The beauty of objects like these from an astronomical point of view is that we don’t have to worry about filtering out the overwhelming light of a parent star as we study them. Co-author Niall Deacon (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) thinks PSO J318.5−22 will “provide a wonderful view into the inner workings of gas-giant planets like Jupiter shortly after their birth.” The discovery also gives us much to think about in terms of future explorations as we contemplate a cosmos in which perhaps vast numbers of planets move in solitary trajectories through the galaxy.
I like the idea of targeting “rogue” planets as potential interstellar missions within the next 100 years. The probes can be smaller and the fuel problem won’t be as bad.
Karl Schroeder isn’t the only author who has used rogue planets as interstellar destinations. The old Space: 1999 television series addressed it as well as Peter Watts Blindsight. Good stuff.
Ring-Worlds are now Mainstream Astroarcheology
From Open Minds TV:
In the search for intelligent extraterrestrials, scientists listen for incoming radio signals and they hunt for Earth-like planets. Some scientists are also looking for megastructures constructed by aliens.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope searches for planets using the transit method–Kepler’s sensors detect dips in brightness caused when an alien planet passes in front of its star from Kepler’s perspective. And this same method is used by scientists searching the universe for alien megastructures.
Simple illustration of a Dyson Sphere. (Credit: Vedexent/Wikimedia Commons)
According to Universe Today, astronomer Geoff Marcy, who was recently appointed to the new Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at the University of California at Berkeley, was awarded a grant to hunt for evidence of Dyson spheres using Kepler data. A Dyson sphere is a theoretical megastructure envisioned by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson consisting of a giant array of solar panels that would surround a star to harvest its energy.
Scientists hunting alien megastructures are also looking for theoretical structures known as ringworlds. Universe Today explains that ringworlds “would consist of a giant ring in orbit around a star, constructed comfortably inside the star’s habitable zone.”
Whether alien megastructures actually exist is unknown. But as Universe Today points out, “The possibility alone is exciting enough to make it worth continuing to look.”
Actually looking for Ring Worlds and Dyson Spheres would be relatively easy using Kepler data since the Kepler probe uses occluded starlight to detect transitioning alien planets.
The theory is that advanced alien tech would be larger constructions than normal planets and thus, the starlight would be blocked longer. That suggests super-alien cultures.
Sigh. What ever happened to old fashioned UFOs, lol?
Space Oddity Part Deux / Small Colleges Pushing Out Poor Kids
An anonymous reader writes “With updated lyrics, Commander of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, sings Space Oddity on board the International Space Station. He’s not Bowie, but he’s pretty good.”
An anonymous reader writes “A change from ‘need’ based financial aid to a ‘merit’ based system coupled with a ‘high tuition, high aid,’ model is making it harder for poor students to afford college. According to The Atlantic: ‘Sometimes, colleges (and states) really are just competing to outbid each other on star students. But there are also economic incentives at play, particularly for small, endowment-poor institutions. “After all,” Burd writes, “it’s more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student.” The study notes that, according to the Department of Education’s most recent study, 19 percent of undergrads at four-year colleges received merit aid despite scoring under 700 on the SAT. Their only merit, in some cases, might well have been mom and dad’s bank account.'”
Hat tip to the Daily Grail
No more poor smart kids to sing ‘Space Oddity.’
On the serious side, this is the effects of thirty years of St. Ronnie of Reagan’s economic policies and social Darwinism.
78,000 People Want To Go To Mars ( With Mars One )
The Mars One organization released this announcement on Tuesday:78,000 sign up for one-way mission to MarsAmersfoort, 7th May 2013 – Just two weeks into the nineteen week application period, more than seventy-eight thousand people have applied to the Mars One astronaut selection program in the hope of becoming a Mars settler in 2023.
Mars One has received applications from over 120 countries. Most applications come from USA (17324), followed by China (10241), United Kingdom (3581), Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Argentina and India.
Bas Lansdorp, Mars One Co-Founder and CEO said: “With seventy-eight thousand applications in two weeks, this is turning out to be the most desired job in history. These numbers put us right on track for our goal of half a million applicants.”
“Mars One is a mission representing all humanity and its true spirit will be justified only if people from the entire world are represented. I’m proud that this is exactly what we see happening,” he said.
As part of the application every applicant is required to explain his/her motivation behind their decision go to Mars in an one minute video. Many applicants are choosing to publish this video on the Mars One website. These are openly accessible on applicants.mars-one.com.
“Applicants we have received come from a very wide range of personalities, professions and ages. This is significant because what we are looking for is not restricted to a particular background. From Round 1 we will take forward the most committed, creative, resilient and motivated applicants,” said Dr. Norbert Kraft, Mars One Chief Medical Officer.
Mars One will continue to receive online applications until August 31st 2013. From all the applicants in Round 1, regional reviewers will select around 50-100 candidates for Round 2 in each of the 300 geographic regions in the world that Mars One has identified.
Four rounds make the selection process, which will come to an end in 2015; Mars One will then employ 28-40 candidates, who will train for around 7 years. Finally an audience vote will elect one of groups in training to be the envoys of humanity to Mars.
I’m not surprised most of the applicants are from the U.S., but the number of applicants from China does a little bit.
Maybe it shouldn’t though, the Chinese maybe looking for lebensraum ( elbow room ), what with over a billion people and all.
Mars might be an appealing bit of real estate to them.
Mars One receives 78,000 applications in 2 weeks for Mars settlement
The Interstellar Mind of Robert Goddard
From Centauri Dreams:
Astronautics pioneer Robert H. Goddard is usually thought of in connection with liquid fuel rockets. It was his test flight of such a rocket in March of 1926 that demonstrated a principle he had been working on since patenting two concepts for future engines, one a liquid fuel design, the other a staged rocket using solid fuels. “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” published in 1920, was a treatise published by the Smithsonian that developed the mathematics behind rocket flight, a report that discussed the possibility of a rocket reaching the Moon.
While Goddard’s work could be said to have anticipated many technologies subsequently developed by later engineers, the man was not without a visionary streak that went well beyond the near-term, expressing itself on at least one occasion on the subject of interstellar flight. Written in January of 1918, “The Ultimate Migration” was not a scientific paper but merely a set of notes, one that Goddard carefully tucked away from view, as seen in this excerpt from his later document “Material for an Autobiography” (1927):
“A manuscript I wrote on January 14, 1918 … and deposited in a friend’s safe … speculated as to the last migration of the human race, as consisting of a number of expeditions sent out into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking in a condensed form all the knowledge of the race, using either atomic energy or hydrogen, oxygen and solar energy… [It] was contained in an inner envelope which suggested that the writing inside should be read only by an optimist.”
Optimism is, of course, standard currency in these pages, so it seems natural to reconsider Goddard’s ideas here. As to his caution, we might remember that the idea of a lunar mission discussed in “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” not long after would bring him ridicule from some elements in the press, who lectured him on the infeasibility of a rocket engine functioning in space without air to push against. It was Goddard, of course, who was right, but he was ever a cautious man, and his dislike of the press was, I suspect, not so much born out of this incident but simply confirmed by it.
In the event, Goddard’s manuscript remained sealed and was not published until 1972. What I hadn’t realized was that Goddard, on the same day he wrote the original manuscript, also wrote a condensed version that David Baker recently published for the British Interplanetary Society. It’s an interesting distillation of the rocket scientist’s thoughts that speculates on how we might use an asteroid or a small moon as the vehicle for a journey to another star. The ideal propulsion method would, in Goddard’s view, be through the control of what he called ‘intra-atomic energy.’
Image: Rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, whose notes on an interstellar future discuss human migration to the stars.
Atomic propulsion would allow journeys to the stars lasting thousands of years with the passengers living inside a generation ship, one in which, he noted, “the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with the succeeding generations.” We’ve made the same speculation here, wondering whether a crew living and dying inside an artificial world wouldn’t so adapt to the environment that it would eventually choose not to live on a planetary surface, no matter what it found in the destination solar system.
And if atomic energy could not be harnessed? In that case, Goddard speculated that humans could be placed in what we today would think of as suspended animation, the crew awakened at intervals of 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars, and intervals of a million years for greater distances. Goddard speculates on how an accurate clock could be built to ensure awakening, which he thought would be necessary for human intervention to steer the spacecraft if it came to be off its course. Suspended animation would involve huge changes to the body:
…will it be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space? It would probably be necessary to dessicate the body, more or less, before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly. It might be necessary to have people evolve, through a number of generations, for this purpose.
As to destinations, Goddard saw the ideal as a star like the Sun or, interestingly, a binary system with two suns like ours — perhaps he was thinking of the Alpha Centauri stars here. But that was only the beginning, for Goddard thought in terms of migration, not just exploration. His notes tell us that expeditions should be sent to all parts of the Milky Way, wherever new stars are thickly clustered. Each expedition should include “…all the knowledge, literature, art (in a condensed form), and description of tools, appliances, and processes, in as condensed, light, and indestructible a form as possible, so that a new civilisation could begin where the old ended.”
The notes end with the thought that if neither of these scenarios develops, it might still be possible to spread our species to the stars by sending human protoplasm, “…this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings eventually, by evolution.” Given that Goddard locked his manuscript away, it could have had no influence on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind,” which in 1928 speculated that humans might travel on millennial voyages to the stars aboard the future equivalent of a Noah’s Ark.
Interstellar voyages lasting thousands of years would become a familiar trope of science fiction in the ensuing decades, but it is interesting to see how, at the dawn of liquid fuel rocketry, rocket pioneers were already thinking ahead to far-future implications of the technology. Goddard was writing at a time when estimates of the Sun’s lifetime gave our species just millions of years before its demise — a cooling Sun was a reason for future migration. We would later learn the Sun’s lifetime was much longer, but the migration of humans to the stars would retain its fascination for those who contemplate not only worldships but much faster journeys.
Goddard was obviously influenced by his contemporary J.D. Bernal with his The World, the Flesh and the Devil which predicted Man’s spread out into the Solar System and interstellar space with artificial worlds and hollowed out asteroids.
These worlds are needed because such journeys will take hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.
Of course that brings in natural evolution and what these people inside these places will become when they eventually reach their destinations and if they’ll actually have need of them.
Robert Goddard’s Interstellar Migration
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 . 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° . 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’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 . 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 .
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.
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
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” . 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” . 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.
Orbital Sciences Launches It’s Antares Rocket
Orbital Sciences Corporation Sunday launched its Antares rocket at 05:00 p.m. EDT from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The test flight was the first launch from the pad at Wallops and was the first flight of Antares, which delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth’s orbit.
“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.
“President Obama has presented a budget for next year that ensures the United States will remain the world leader in space exploration, and a critical part of this budget is the funding needed to advance NASA’s commercial space initiative. In order to stop outsourcing American space launches, we need to have the President’s budget enacted. It’s a budget that’s good for our economy, good for the U.S. Space program — and good for American taxpayers.”
The test of the Antares launch system began with the rocket’s rollout and placement on the launch pad April 6, and culminated with the separation of the mass simulator payload from the rocket.
The completed flight paves the way for a demonstration mission by Orbital to resupply the space station later this year. Antares will launch experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory carried aboard the company’s new Cygnus cargo spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
“Today’s successful test flight of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket from the spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, demonstrates an additional private space-launch capability for the United States and lays the groundwork for the first Antares cargo mission to the International Space Station later this year,” said John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century. With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.
“I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA teams at Wallops, and look forward to more groundbreaking missions in the months and years ahead.”
Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. After successful completion of a COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin conducting eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through NASA’s $1.9 billion CRS contract with the company.
NASA initiatives, such as COTS, are helping to develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program also is working with commercial space partners to develop capabilities to launch U.S. astronauts from American soil in the next few years.
Although Orbital had to reschedule three times, they got their test launch off.
Let’s hope they solved their fairing separation issues before the main Cygnus missions start.