Space Update Episode 4: Shuttle Sadness

“supposedly regular” eh? In any case…

Shuttle

Discovery has been retired. It’s last mission it seem is a trip to the Smithsonian Institute. It’s a logical call since she’s the oldest and has been the most active orbiter, but it’s sad news just the same. As much as I am opposed to the retirement of the shuttles, the fact is Discovery and Atlantis are in need of major refurbishments. Personally I think they should get them, but at this time it seems to not be an option. Atlantis is due for one more mission prior to being sent to a museum (no decision yet as to which one). Endeavour also has one mission left (the now second last one), but she was refitted in 2005 so there’s no hurry to retire her.

My preference is to make two+ new orbiters with minimal upgrades (new computers, chairs… the kind of stuff that doesn’t require too much testing) and keep the fleet active for another 10+ years as is. During that time a new booster and launch method could be developed to reduce costs. (Electromagnetic rail boosters for example.) That tech could then be used on the next new shuttle and then we’d at last have a good system. To retire the shuttle now when it’s been so useful and has taught the world so much would be rather insane.

Dreaming I might be, but it’s not impossible; there are some proposals to extend the program for another five years to fill the gap. I’m not convinced five years would be enough, nor am I convinced that Atlantis will last that long without a major refit, but it could be a good start. The fact is Soyuz is the only other active vehicle, and it’s due for a replacement as well, and… it’s a lot smaller.

Space Shuttle vs Soyuz

As a final point, it’s important to note that even after being donated, NASA still can (and has) taken back things on display for use again.

…and in old news

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Returned on the 3rd of December last year after over six months in orbit. No released details of her mission due, but there’s been plenty of speculations. My favorite is testing the ability to track from orbit hypersonic craft; the Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 (also funded by DARPA) was launched with similar timing. A second X-37B launch occurred on the 5th of March using the second prototype. No details on this one either…

IKAROS Passed Venus on 8th of December last year, and thus its primary mission is now over. There is a similar mission in progress now called NanoSail-D2.

COTS Falcon 9 is making good progress; a second launch with the Dragon orbital capsule was a success. The next flight will involve a ISS approach, and possibly even a docking. This should be around the mid year mark. Taurus II has still yet to launch; it’s due to do so in the next few months.

Hayabusa Samples have been confirmed but not much analysis has been done at this stage as they are still working out the best way to transfer and test the particles.

Oxygen is for losers!

There’s been much discussion about the possibility of the origin of life on Earth being outside our solar system lately, and that’s one of the goals of the New Horizons mission.

Aside from being the first probe to actually visit Pluto (50 days till the half way point; 1780 days to go!) its secondary mission is to scout out, and hopefully flyby some Kuiper belt objects. (The Kuiper belt is the area where Pluto and other dwarf planets are found. It is believed that there are many thousand objects in that area, totaling around the mass of Earth.) It is from here that some of the local comets could come from (recent research points to the much further out and sparser Scattered disc being the source of most), and some believe that on these are ancient microbes. (It’s possible that Pluto could too; this is to be tested.)

These ideas have been given some strong support recently; on the ISS there was a recent experiment where some microbe samples were placed outside the station and given no protection. (The Van Allen belt would have offered some protection, but I digress.) 553 days later they were brought in…

…and some were still alive! It does make me wonder; if life can continue in space then why not Mars or Jupiter? Maybe the spacecraft hunting worm from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back isn’t so implausible afterall!

Space Update Episode 2: Hypersonic Voyager

Hypersonic

While it’s progressing at a crawl, hypersonic flight research does continue. The X-51 WaveRider had a test flight on the 26th, flying at over 5,500 km/h (3500 mph) for about 200 seconds. (This was short of the planned 300.) This isn’t a practical demonstration by a long shot; it’s a one off and disposable (not even a parachute) missile that has to be launched while in flight (via a B-52), and it needs a booster to then get it to Mach 4.5 prior to the scramjet working. But it’s still great news, and a huge step towards a single stage to orbit craft.

Interestingly this project has DARPA funding as well…

Voyager 2

Surprising Voyager 2 made news recently with an interesting glitch; it seemed to be talking differently than expected. Trekkies around the world we probably fearing a V’ger like occurance, but it all turned out being a single bit that was fixed with a simple reset. Darn?

…and in old news

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Still in orbit, believed to be on a test reconnaissance mission.

IKAROS In orbit preparing for sail deployment prior to a Venus transit.

COTS The Falcon 9 is still going nowhere. June 2?

Space Update Episode 1: Mars Solar Shuttle!

Makes no sense eh? This is part one in a supposedly regular round-up session of space related news. First up is…

Mars

The Mars Society have done a good essay on what they see as the truth being President Obama’s future of NASA speech; in short that the US is going to cancel most manned programs and replace them with nothing. To my annoyance they seem to be one of the few that agree with me on this issue; most of the mainstream press are reporting his announcements as a good thing. Sadly it looks like in the short term the closest we’ll be getting to Mars is the Mars500 experiment. This experiment, while in many ways redundant, will provide some very useful data for when we at last get our priories right.

I’m starting to lose hope that I’ll see a new daring space mission in my lifetime.

Solar

Ikaros probe

Japan is launching a solar sailed test probe on May 18th known as IKAROS. It has a 20 meter (diagonal) sail and while this is mostly just a proof of concept they have plans to make a larger one with a 50 meter sail (as well as a solar powered ion engine) for a mission to Jupiter in the next ten years. Will solar racing be here soon?

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Oh my, this one is exciting! Originally developed by NASA as part of Space Shuttle research prior to running out of money, this craft finished develpment under DARPA. I thought it was pretty much a dead project, but it’s actually in orbit right now! What it is actually doing is a mystery, but personally I don’t care that much. It’s just great news that there is some research going on in regard to re-usable space craft.

While the X-37 is small (about 25% the size of a shuttle) and unmanned, it still is an important craft. It’s designed to have much greater endurance than the shuttle too; up to 9 months! (Not needing oxygen or food obviously helps a lot, as does it’s usage of solar panels.) In the short term it’ll probably used for spying on foreign satellites, but think of the potential even as is; it could be modified into a rescue craft, a space tug, or even a sample mission to an asteroid!

On the other hand, this launch could be motivated by deep rooted resentment over the Dyna-Soar cancellation and this first launch may be the all they wanted…

COTS

Falcon 9 is still on the pad, with the launch being delayed until May 8. Hardly news…

The time of truth

Falcon 9

SpaceX has a Falcon 9 on Cape Canaveral pad 40, the launch vehicle that could end up as the future of US space travel for the next 5+ years. I personally don’t hold out much hope for its long term success… but I hope I’m wrong. SpaceX has received the most funds so far from NASA in relation to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, which in short is a program to deliver cargo to the ISS.

The launch is scheduled for sometime in April, possibly the 12th. Supposedly it’s all re-usable, but I’m not clear on how. (Parachutes seem likely.) It’s going to be launching a test version of the Dragon, which is their multipurpose launch capsule. (According to SpaceX that still needs around 3 years to be man-rated.)

So why am I so negative? I’m just not convinced that it’s time for the commercialisation of space. There’s a lot that can (and has; a test a few weeks back was aborted) gone wrong here, and the fact that the usual suspects aren’t part of this is very telling to me.

But NASA have that covered anyway; Orbital Sciences Corporation is due to launch the Taurus II in mid 2011… (The third company, Rocketplane Kistler, is out of the race and probably bankrupt.)

Full disclosure: I’m a Space Shuttle fanboy!

Dreams of VASIMR

I was reading story about VASIMR and I was rather surprised by the quotes. In particular Franklin Chang-Diaz, who is credited as creating the VASIMR concept said;

They were mesmerized by the Apollo days and lived in the Apollo era for 40 years, and they just forgot developing something new

I think this statement is rather harsh, not to mention deceptive. Due to their low budget, NASA has been focused on Earth orbit missions ever since the 80s, and thus have been using more traditional booster methods, such as solid rockets and cryogenic rocket engine. There simply hasn’t been the money (or much reason) for research like this as by their own admission VASIMR is simply not suitable for these roles as it is designed for long term thrust in vacuum and its power to weigh ratio is too low.

I’m not really sure what game he’s playing there, but since he is CEO of the Ad Astra Rocket Company and all they do is develop the VASIMR, his motivations are suspect. Annoying several websites have published what reads like a PR release without much editing.

Personally I see this research as interesting and useful, but no where near as useful as a Space Shuttle replacement… something VASIMR will need to progress from an experiment to a practical technology. Research into technology like mass drivers, Scramjets and fusion power makes more sense.

The latest Buzz

Long time no post, I know. I’m still sorting stuff… but I should have a new MOC in the next week. On the subject of “Buzz”, he’s been blogging about how backward the NASA plans for the future are. I agree with him for the most part, but I can’t see it making much difference. Obama would have saved the Shuttle by now if he was interested in (and capable of) doing so. The word is that NASA will get an increase, but not enough for a new shuttle…