January 3, 2018

BAHFest London 2017 – Louie Terrill: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future

Filed under: Humour, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on Dec 11, 2017

Watch Louie Terrill at BAHFest London 2017 present his theory, “Making sure we’re all in this together: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future.”

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong scientific theory. Additional information is available at http://bahfest.com/

December 23, 2015

SpaceX Falcon 9 performs successful launch and controlled landing

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

William Harwood reports for CBS News:

Making its first flight since a catastrophic launch failure last June, an upgraded, more powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot into space Monday, boosting 11 small Orbcomm data relay satellites into orbit in a major milestone for the California rocket builder.

In a significant space “first,” the Falcon 9’s first stage fell back into the atmosphere and pulled off a powered landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, settling to a smooth tail-first touchdown in a convincing demonstration of reusability, a key requirement for lowering commercial launch costs.

In a scene resembling a launch video running in reverse, the booster quickly dropped out of a cloudy sky atop a jet of flame from one of its Merlin 1D engines, heralded by twin sonic booms that rumbled across Florida’s Space Coast. Cheers erupted in company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as the stage settled to a smooth touchdown.

In another first, the Falcon 9 used colder, denser-than-usual liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, a significant upgrade allowing the booster’s nine first-stage engines to generate more power, increasing their combined liftoff thrust from 1.3 million pounds to 1.5 million, or 170,000 pounds of thrust per engine.

The launch, first-stage landing and satellite deployments all appeared to proceed without a hitch, a welcome success for a company returning to flight after a disheartening failure.

“Everything we’ve seen thus far in the mission appears to be perfect,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a conference call with journalists. “The satellites were deployed right on target and the Falcon 9 booster came back and landed. Looks like almost dead center on the landing pad. … As far as we can see right now, it was absolutely perfect. We could not have asked for a better mission.”

October 18, 2014

Unmanned X-37B returns to earth after nearly two years in orbit

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:50

In the Telegraph, Rob Crilly tells us what is known about the X-37B’s mission:

It arrived back at a California air base after dark. Only the eagle-eyed would have spotted the snub-nosed spacecraft gliding out of the black sky.

Officially, the unmanned Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle had just completed its longest ever mission, spending almost two years circling the Earth, conducting experiments.

But its secretive history has sparked countless theories about what the computer controlled craft was really doing in space.

One idea is that the US Air Force has developed a drone spy ship, which it uses to shadow Chinese satellites. Another more fanciful claim is that it has been developed to engage in sat-napping — gobbling up rival spy satellites like something from a James Bond film.

There were few clues in an official press release.

“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program,” said an unidentified programme manager quoted in the Air Force statement.

“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

May 25, 2014

Russian rocket export ban means increasing opportunities for private enterprise in space

Filed under: Russia, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Strategy Page looks at the knock-on effects of the Russian government banning the export of rocket engines to the United States:

The U.S. government is being forced to use satellite launchers developed without government financing because the usual methods of obtaining these launchers is falling apart and currently is unable to supply enough rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. The immediate cause of this problem is the recent (since earlier this year) Russian aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. responded to this aggression by placing sanctions on some Russian officials and firms. Russia responded to that by halting RD-180 shipments to the United States. That’s breach of contract and it will do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of high-end industrial items. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).


This is good news for the new private firms that are developing rockets for launching stuff into orbit. One such firm is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and is has been trying to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. Because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) than the Delta 4. Meanwhile SpaceX expects to have Atlas 5 competitor ready in a few years.

In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper that ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

May 1, 2014

SpaceX and the successful re-entry experiment

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:58

Amanda Wills talks about the most recent SpaceX achievement:

When SpaceX launched its Dragon supply mission to the International Space Station on April 18, it tried something revolutionary after the spacecraft was safely in orbit.

Behind the scenes, CEO Elon Musk and his team had been testing the reusability of this rocket. On that Friday, the team returned part of it to Earth for the first time in history. Once Dragon was in space, the first stage separated and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. As the helium-filled rocket slowed, it extended four 25-foot-long landing legs and used its thrusters to briefly hover over the Atlantic Ocean before plopping down ever so gently onto its surface.

Musk and his team pulled it off — a huge feat considering that the chance of success was only around 30% to 40%. The SpaceX team recovered the raw video from the camera that was on board Falcon 9, and software engineers have spent the last week trying to repair the footage, which was taken just before splashdown.


The team was able to bring back the first stage. The rocket was clearly vertical — an important detail in testing reusable rockets — and the soft landing was successful. However, the weather wasn’t cooperative that day and the stage was destroyed by rough waves. Fortunately, Musk said his team was able to recover bits of the rocket.

April 19, 2014

ISS resupply mission successfully launched

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:45

And another story from yesterday that I would have covered:

SpaceX shoots off the launch pad right on time

SpaceX shoots off the launch pad right on time

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on schedule at 12:35pm PDT (8:35pm UTC), carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS. The first stage separated cleanly two minutes and fifty one seconds into the flight, 103km above the launch pad, and the Dragon capsule has deployed its solar panels and is now on course to dock with the ISS in two days, once orbital paths have matched up.

It was a very close run thing. The CRS-3 mission was due to take off on Tuesday but was cancelled after a helium leak was detected. Friday’s launch was much tighter, and SpaceX said the launch had a one-second window if the rocket was to successfully insert its cargo into the right orbital plane.

Weather was a big worry for the SpaceX team. There was rain and relatively heavy clouds at the launch site, and the team floated multiple weather balloons into the upper atmosphere to make sure that winds weren’t too strong at altitude.

Unfortunately, the heavy winds and storm conditions in the Atlantic may hamper the second part of Friday’s mission: the remote landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. After separating, the booster is planned to fire up again and slow down, falling back towards the Earth.

If all goes well, the rocket will then deploy four legs, which were covered for the initial launch phase, and begin a controlled burn to slowly sink towards the ocean and hover for landing and retrieval. At least, that was the plan.

But the inclement weather means the SpaceX support ship that was due to witness the rocket’s return and retrieve the hardware couldn’t get into position. SpaceX says it will attempt the soft landing anyway, but there’s no word yet on its success or otherwise.

November 19, 2012

Space-Age technology on Earth, but not so much in space

Filed under: Science, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:33

In The Register, Shaun Dormon explains why almost all the electronic components used on modern spacecraft, satellites, and the International Space Station (ISS) are actually not cutting-edge, top-of-the-line items:

I hate to say it, but most of what you think about space-age technology is a total fabrication. It’s the stuff of sci-fi.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is that spacecraft are equipped with cutting-edge computing platforms that any self-respecting technophile would commit unspeakable acts to get their mitts on.

If only. The fact of the matter is that even the most advanced chips up there were considered obsolete ten years ago down here. Although it’s true that in space no one can hear you scream, outer space is actually a very noisy place, electromagnetically speaking.

The computer on your desk is very unlikely to experience much in the way of EM radiation unless someone cuts a hole in the side of the kitchen microwave. Out in orbit, though, there are many sources of radiation, ranging from the relatively mundane stuff pouring out of the Sun and collecting in the Van-Allen radiation belts to more exotic things such as cosmic rays and other high-energy particles that cause so-called “single-event effects”.

[. . .]

The damage is cumulative. Individually, an impact causes the ionisation of a single oxide molecule present in the semiconductor. It’s not enough to cause instant failure, but as more and more impacts take place, the effects combine to significantly alter the electrical properties of the circuit until it can no longer function correctly.

More exciting dangers arise from exposure to gamma or cosmic rays. These ultra-high energy impacts cause localised ionisation which results in an unexpected flow of current. In the case of a lower energy event, this may result in a “single event upset” or “bit-flip”, and data corruption can ensue. These are not usually fatal to the system. No so the worst case “single event burnout”, which creates such high currents that the very circuitry itself is burned out almost instantaneously.

October 29, 2012

The Dragon returns, bearing cargo

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

At The Register, Brid-Aine Parnell reports on the mostly successful cargo delivery round-trip by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule:

The reusable cargoship dropped into the ocean yesterday evening around 250 miles off the coast of Mexico after resupplying the ISS and its crew. The Dragon was ferried to a port near Los Angeles where it will be prepped for its return to SpaceX’s test facility in Texas.

Some of the cargo brought back by the capsule is due to be returned to NASA in the next couple of days, including research samples from the station’s microgravity environment. The ship delivered 882 pounds of gear to the ISS, including scientific research and crew supplies. It returned with nearly twice that weight of stuff.

The mission was only a part-success, as the secondary objective was to launch a satellite for Orbcomm, but due to a malfunctioning engine in the launch phase, the satellite could not be placed in the correct orbit and was lost. Orbcomm is sticking with SpaceX for two more satellite launches in spite of this initial failure.

October 17, 2012

Elon Musk drops hints about next SpaceX development direction

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Zach Rosenberg reports on the next big thing we can expect from SpaceX:

Launcher developer SpaceX has promised a new engine for a new rocket, larger than the Falcon 9 that NASA expects to become a mainstay of its Earth orbit operations.

Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who successfully parlayed the fortune he earned founding PayPal into launch systems developer SpaceX, said the new engine would not be based on the 160,000lb-thrust (712kN) Merlin 1 series that powers Falcon 9.

Musk said the new rocket, which he calls MCT, will be “several times” as powerful as the 1 Merlin series, and won’t use Merlin’s RP-1 fuel. Beyond adding that it will have “a very big core size”, he declined to elaborate, promising more details in “between one and three years”.

Musk declined to say what ‘MCT’ stands for, and declined to answer further questions on the project.

October 9, 2012

Falcon 9 loses an engine, able to partially complete mission

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:40

Lewis Page at The Register, with a well-timed reminder that work in space is still not routine or ordinary:

The Falcon 9 rocket from upstart rocket firm SpaceX, which lifted off yesterday with supplies for the International Space Station, will deliver those supplies successfully following loss of an engine during launch. However a commercial satellite which was also aboard the rocket has been placed into a lower orbit than planned as a result of the mishap.

As we previously reported, the nine-engined Falcon first stage suffered an engine failure as it climbed towards space, with launch video giving the impression that one of the Merlin rockets had lost its nozzle. The Falcon is designed to carry out its mission even having lost an engine, and the flight path was duly adjusted. The Dragon capsule with supplies for the International Space Station was successfully sent on its way and is expected to reach the ISS without trouble.

[. . .]

Orbcomm says it is investigating the possibility of getting its satellite into the right place using its own onboard propulsion. Even if this can be achieved, however, it will be unsatisfactory as a satellite’s own fuel must be sparingly eked out over its operational lifespan to maintain it in orbit. Using up a lot of it before even beginning operations is liable to mean a short working life for the Orbcomm bird.

September 30, 2012

Tracking (smaller) space junk in orbit

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:04

Strategy Page on the latest developments in tracking even smaller pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth:

The U.S. Air Force is spending nearly $4 billion to build a S-Band radar on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific. This will make it easier and cheaper to find and track small (down to 10mm/.4 inch) objects in orbit around the planet. Such small objects are a growing threat and Space Fence will make it possible to track some 300,000 10mm and larger objects in orbit.

Getting hit by an object 100mm (4 inch wide), if it’s coming from the opposite direction in orbit, results in an explosion equivalent to 20 kg (66 pounds) of TNT. That’s all because of the high speed (7 kilometers a second, versus one kilometers a second for high-powered rifles) of objects in orbit. Even a 10mm object hits with the impact of 50-60 g (2 ounces) of explosives. In the last 16 years eight space satellites have been destroyed by collisions with one of the 300,000 lethal (10mm or larger) bits of space junk that are in orbit. As more satellites are launched more bits of space junk are left in orbit. Based on that, and past experience, it’s predicted that ten more satellites will be destroyed by space junk in the next five years. Manned space missions are at risk as well. Three years ago a U.S. Space Shuttle mission to fix the Hubble space telescope faced a one in 229 chance of getting hit with space junk (that would have likely damaged the shuttle and required a backup shuttle be sent up to rescue the crew). Smaller, more numerous, bits of space junk are more of a danger to astronauts (in space suits) working outside. The shuttle crew working outside to repair the Hubble satellite had a much lower chance of being killed by space junk because a man in a space suit is much smaller and the space suits are designed to help the person inside survive a strike by a microscopic piece of space junk.

August 31, 2012

Colby Cosh on Neil Armstrong’s finest moment

Filed under: History, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

No, it’s not what you think at all:

On March 16, 1966, Armstrong and future Apollo 15 moonwalker David R. Scott became the first human beings to dock an orbiting spacecraft with an independently launched satellite, the Agena. (As proofs-of-concept go, this one has been more important to spaceflight than the moon landings.) The procedure proved surprisingly unchallenging; when the Gemini capsule nosed into place, Armstrong blurted out, “It’s really a smoothie!” The Gemini-Agena combo — mankind’s first “space station” — moved out of radio contact with mission control 28 minutes later. When it came back in range after another 15, Armstrong’s first words were, “We have serious problems here.” A wiring problem had left one of the attitude thrusters on Gemini stuck in the “on” position — firing continuously and causing an increasing left roll. Unsure what was causing the problem, Armstrong made the snap decision to separate from the Agena. But the problem was on their side, and without the Agena’s inertia, the Gemini craft began to spin even faster.

Press accounts said the pair were spinning at about one revolution per second. Senior mission controller Chris Kraft has since noted that their peak rotation was actually 550 degrees a second. Only a trained test pilot could make good decisions while whirling around in freefall 90 times a minute — and Armstrong justified the use of test pilots in space for all time by using Gemini’s re-entry thrusters to dampen the roll and save himself and Scott. By rule, the use of those thrusters meant the mission had to be aborted early. Armstrong and Scott suffered tense hours as they waited to see if they would splash down short of their Pacific landing zone, on the soil of Communist China.

Armstrong was rueful about the abort, which cost Scott the chance to make a spacewalk and cut short the experiment with Agena. But NASA was impressed. One of the agency’s main concerns before the moon missions was that astronauts trying to set down the lunar module would refuse to abort the landing, even if they ran too short on fuel to leave the moon. Armstrong, alone among astronauts of the time, had established a record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency. He would probably like to be remembered for that — for making the right choice, a pilot’s choice — at least as much as for the trail he left in the dust of the moon.

August 27, 2012

Restarting the age of space

Filed under: Media, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:24

sp!ked reposted an older article by James Woudhuysen on the long-term importance of space exploration and the stay-at-home attitudes that oppose further development of the “final frontier”:

One thing unites the critics of lunar exploration. Forty years after man first landed on the moon — on 20 July 1969 — they share a disdain for the grandeur of extra-terrestrial endeavour; for the scale of human ambition involved; for the very idea that human beings should climb into space, as up a mountain, ‘because it is there’.

I have no special preference for size, thrust during lift-off, or the traverse across vast distances. The development of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, so important to the Apollo programme, was a tribute to miniaturisation rather than to high energy or physical scale. No, my admiration for both Saturn boosters and tiny electronics grows from a respect for open-ended curiosity, for human achievement, and for taking risks. With space travel, a lot of bravery was also at stake. And with both space and the development of semiconductors, there is much teamwork to celebrate — teamwork that, in the case of Apollo, involved not just three astronauts, but the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people.

[. . .]


July 10, 2012

Telstar’s 50th anniversary

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:47

Scott Van Wynsberghe in the National Post:

What followed Echo 1 was a space race within a space race, this one determining whether government or industry would send up the first active non-military communications satellite. In 1961, NASA awarded a contract for such a satellite to the company RCA, but Pierce and Bell Labs were undeterred. According to Calvin Tomkins, Bell Labs spent US$50-million (at early-1960s rates) for research and development and devoted about 700 of its personnel to the project.

The baby that was born of it all was a sphere weighing 170 pounds (77 kilograms), called Telstar 1. Going by specifications collected by Bill Yenne, an authority on U.S. spacecraft, Telstar 1 received signals at 6,390 megacycles, re-transmitted them at 4,170, and boasted of 600 voice channels and one channel for television.

Perched atop a Thor-Delta booster — paid for by Bell Labs but launched by NASA — Telstar 1 ascended on July 10, 1962. It did not go far, parking itself in an elliptical orbit less than 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) away. Within hours, Bell Labs arranged what was previously impossible — transatlantic television. As described by T.A. Heppenheimer, the ensuing video exchange humorously followed national stereotypes. The United States sent France and the U.K. taped material heavy on patriotic themes, the French responded with footage of actor Yves Montand and other cultural figures, and the British muddled about for a few days before getting things straight.

Humour aside, the achievement left the world stunned. In just the month of the launching of Telstar 1, the New York Times ran almost 100 articles related to the satellite. Joe Meek’s Telstar composition stormed the pop charts later in the year, and that 1963 New Yorker profile of Pierce ran for 29 pages. Telstar 1 did not outlast some of this acclaim, as it ceased transmission in early 1963, but it had blazed a path. Today, anyone using satellite TV or radio is honouring that decades-old triumph of engineering.

Update: Bill Ray has more at The Register:

Arthur C Clarke is often credited with inventing the idea of satellite communications, though in fact his contribution was to point out that three birds in geostationary orbit could provide global coverage. Geostationary orbit is more than 35,000km up, beyond the reach of radios in 1962, so Telstar’s orbit peaked at less than 6,000km up and dipped down to less than 1,000km during its two-and-a-half-hour circumnavigation.

That dip is also what caused Telstar’s downfall. Its repeated drops into the Van Allen radiation belt did allow the satellite to gather information about the belt (which was part of the plan) but the information it gathered was largely the havoc such radiation plays with electronic circuits. If Wikipedia is to be believed then US nuclear tests at the time had left the Van Allen particularly charged, but either way the satellite failed intermittently for a few months and finally stopped relaying signals entirely in February 1963. However, it remains in orbit to this day, faithfully tracked by the US government as required by international treaties.

Telstar was solar powered, with 3,600 solar cells feeding 19 nickel-cadmium batteries which received a 6GHz signal and retransmitted it with 2.25w of power at 4GHz. The electrics necessary were all suspended by shock-absorbent nylon cords in the middle of the spherical body, which had to spin at 180 rpm for stabilisation (gyroscopes perform the same function on modern satellites, but weren’t reliable enough back then).

June 18, 2012

Speculation on the intended mission of the X-37B

Filed under: China, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:24

A blog post at New Scientist compares the achievement of the Chinese space program, which just successfully placed three astronauts aboard the ISS and the highly mysterious X-37B spaceplane which just completed a 469-day mission:

China’s space agency took the plaudits for successfully docking its crewed Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with its orbiting lab Tiangong-1 today, but the feat was slightly overshadowed by the weekend landing of the US X-37B spaceplane, which after a record-breaking orbital flight of 469 days showed just how far China has to go to catch up with advanced spacefaring nations.

At around noon local time, the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre relayed live pictures of Shenzhou-9’s docking on state broadcaster China Central Television. The space capsule held off at a distance of 62 kilometres from Tiangong-1 before making its docking approach just before 2pm — and once the crew had manually locked on to the latter’s cruciform docking target it took only eight minutes to latch the spacecraft together safely.

[. . .]

This Boeing-built spaceplane, roughly one quarter the size of the space shuttle, is equally mysterious. It flies to orbit on a regular rocket and when there deploys a solar array that gives its sensors the power they need for extended missions. It also has enough propellant to fire thrusters that make small changes to its orbit in a bid to foil surveillance. The vehicle re-enters the atmosphere just like the shuttle but lands entirely autonomously, making it a space drone.

At no point has the USAF revealed the craft’s purpose: in addition to spacecraft surveillance, it could deploy a robot that repairs (or disables) satellites in orbit, say some, while at the darker end of the spectrum of possibilities — it was a DARPA project in its early days — it could carry a warhead, using its drone homing capability to provide surprise precision strike from orbit.

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