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…

Shuttle Birthday

Today (depending on perspective) is the anniversary of the completion of the first Space Shuttle launch, 29 years ago. Sadly this is the last one she’ll have as the last flight is planned for the September 16, this year. Aside from the massive loss of capability that the retirement will bring, this (combined with other cuts at NASA) will result in 10,000 jobs being lost. This works out as roughly of their staff. Will the grand plan of outsourcing work? Many doubt that it will.

As Larry Niven once said, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” yet here goes the USA going down that path in the name of budget cuts. Obviously they don’t agree with the sentiment.

Right now US Astronauts are doing great work in orbit; even the loss of their Ku band antenna didn’t stop them. They just docked without radar! Could a robot do this? No. Could a commercial company do this? It’s hard to be sure, but I doubt it.

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 Luvly Laady

I at last got around to adding the page for The Luvly Laady. Also, Classic-Pirates were kind enough to blog the Luvly Laady too!

Voting is going on now, but being a Sci-Fi MOC in a Pirate Forum I don’t rate my chances too high! (I don’t go too well in contests actually… maybe I should get a new hobby?)

Finishing it will be delayed until I need her. I have at least three MOCs needed for the next two parts…

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…