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.

Space Update Episode 3: Hayabusa

After 7 years in space, the Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusa returned with what hopefully is a good sample of Itokawa. Finding out if this is the case will take some time as they JAXA are being extremely careful to avoid contamination, which all things considered is smart. Some scientists believe that life on Earth could have come from the asteroids and thus the results could be quite astounding… or rather disappointing if there is nothing there. (No full samples are believed to have been taken, but some dust is possible.) In any case the mission has been a success considering how pioneering it was and how much techniques have been tested. I’ll be eagerly awaiting news on this one!

…and in old news

IKAROS In transit to Venus. The sail deployed on the 10th of June.

COTS Next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for later this year. No exact dates as of yet. The first launch seems to be largely successful, however the 1st stage booster was not recovered as planned due to a parachute failure. Since it’s supposed to be re-usable this could be a minor setback. The other entrant in the COTS program, Orbital Sciences Corporation, has a launch planned in March 2011 with Taurus II.

The Falcon Flies!

After much delays the Falcon 9 has successfully reached low earth orbit!

It is funny though as a few days ago SpaceX seemed to discourage people being overly expectant of a success;

It’s important to note that since this is a test launch, our primary goal is to collect as much data as possible, with success being measured as a percentage of how many flight milestones we are able to complete in this first attempt. It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions. It would be a bad day if something happens on the launch pad itself and we’re not able to gain any flight data.

If we have a bad day, it will be disappointing, but one launch does not make or break SpaceX as a company, nor commercial spaceflight as an industry. The Atlas rocket only succeeded on its 13th flight, and today it is the most reliable vehicle in the American fleet, with a record better than Shuttle.

I tried to confirm that statistic but according to me Atlas was successful on the fourth launch so I wasn’t sure what he was actually referring to. In any case Atlas is a bad example as the ones used now has nothing in common with the original SM-65 Atlas used for the Mercury missions. In fact the current Atlas V even has some Russian engines!

But, even though I’m not a fan of the COTS program, I’m still happy that this mission was a success. I’ll be looking out for Flight 2.

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…

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!