Friday, October 16, 2015

China seeks to start a new space race? Co-operation is the aim.

Earlier this week China released a statement of their plans and hopes for the next few years of space travel. They've expressed to send manned missions deeper into space, send a probes to Mars and Jupiter, and maybe even a landing on the far side of the moon. "When exploring the unknown, we should not just follow others. China should be more creative," said Liu Jizhong, director of the lunar exploration program and space engineering center under the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence. This is good news. China wish to succeed in their space ventures, and if you ask me that's great for humanity. I don't think we should be concerned about borders when talking about space travel and the advancement of all things space, we should want to see humanity as a whole excel.

NASA are still by and large the best at spacial discovery. They're the leader for a reason, despite the ineffective funding they're given. Voyager 1 and 2 are still operational, currently in deep space, New Horizons is sending back awesome pictures of Pluto, the Mars rovers and the Hubble Telescope are still operational too. However, the progress of NASA in the past few decades has been decreased to a slow burn rather than the fiery attitude it had in the 60's and 70's. This was due to a completive nature of the "Space Race". America was rushing against the Russia to beat them in space. Eventually they did it, and put a man on the moon. Nowadays NASA gets 0.5% of the US federal budget, and there are those which would like it further reduced. Hence why their needs to be global co-operation, and a competitive nature. One could argue that if China suddenly started progressing forward with some impressive feats in space, the US congress would act quickly to make sure NASA keeps up. This is all just speculation. The real aim should be co-operation. Imagine if NASA's budget was increased, and the rule against working with the Chinese Space Agency was removed. Co-operation could begin. No one country should have to drive this aim alone. The combined ability of several countries should be aiming for one goal, progress of humanity.

What should be next on the list then? What's the way forward for co-operation. For me, it's probably the moon. Humanity wants to send people to Mars, and the amount of training and experience needed is exhausting. If we're going to succeed, we need to go through a huge amount of trial and error. It's been a while since people have done space walks, descents and landings from another planet. The gravity on Mars, is about 40% of that on Earth, and the moon is about 17% of that on Earth. It's not ideal, but it's a starting point. Effective landings, takeoffs and other tests need to be done, repeatedly.
Mars want to do a landing Mission on the far side of the moon. Why shouldn't NASA, the ESA etc. get involved too? It's probably of reluctance and politics. I hate saying it but personal interested and national pride get in the way of progress.

The next step has to be about co-operation. It needs to be seen as a global effort to achieve some common goals. The main goal for space should be exploration. It doesn't necessarily need to be manned , just done in a way that multiple  international stakeholders are involved. Right now, China are extending a hand. The world should accept it and move on from this stance of separation.

Also, take a look at this picture of Pluto released recently. Isn't it amazing?
Picture of Pluto

Sunday, October 11, 2015

SpaceX Launch November 2015

It's been a while since I've posted, and unfortunately I don't think I'm going to make this a particularly regular blog. I have another blog related to STEM subjects, which has grown in popularity: It's located at that blog if you're interested.

However, I am still extremely passionate about SpaceX, so will be creating some posts related to SpaceX and their launches. I don't think I could ever replace some of the more in depth blogs, like the blog from waitbutwhy, but I can give my opinion and provide some sort of worthwhile commentary on it. They're at the centre of innovation, and I believe they're going to play a huge part in the progress of humanity. In mid November, SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9. This Falcon 9 could be considered version 1.1 as some serious improvements have gone into the rocket. Specifically, a 20 percent increase in engine thrust on the first stage booster. The Falcon 9 is already ahead of its competition in terms of thrust, so this is quite amazing that they're still able to innovate to such a level.

They have several launches planned for the next few years. However, I think it's important to stay grounded and only concentrate on the launches in the near future. Baby steps are needed here.
SpaceX have been trying their best to land a rocket vertically, and as I've said in previous posts, it hasn't been very successful. However when they do finally pull it off  in such a way that it is 100% repeatable, they will change how we access space, in a huge way.

SpaceX have a few launches left for 2015:

  • On November 17th, A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the SES 9 communications satellite.
    It will launch from launch site SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • In early December, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch 11 second generation communication satellites for Orbcomm. The rocket will fly in the Falcon 9 v1.1 configuration with upgraded Merlin 1D engines , stretched fuel tanks, and a payload fairing.
  • In mid December, A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Jason 3 ocean altimetry mission. Jason 3 will measure ocean surface topography to aid in ocean circulation and climate change research for NOAA, EUMETSAT, NASA and the French space agency, CNES.

These launches are part and parcel of SpaceX's daily operations. They're first and foremost a launch company. It may be exciting to see the new innovations, but you can't lose sight of the daily workings of the company. Sure , they've got long term goals for reusable rockets and colonising Mars, but we can't lose track of what they're doing right now. The overall goal takes time, and these smaller missions help achieve that goal. There aren't many test launches planned for the next while, and I'll update the blog when I find out. Stay tuned!

Until then have a look at this test launch:

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Cost Conundrum

Currently, the only way to launch a spacecraft into space is by putting a controlled explosion at the bottom of it and firing it upwards. It's a chemical reaction causing upwards thrust. It would need to go very fast to escape the pull of Earth's gravity. It's a complex calculation, but for a standard rocket carrying a satellite it would be around 7 miles a second or  25,000 miles an hour. To escape the earth's gravity you need lots of fuel to create enough thrust to get out. This becomes heavy, which means it will need more power. Therefore more fuel is needed and the rocket becomes heavier.
It's a horrible cycle of inefficiency and high costs.

Rockets therefore are expensive. The amount of fuel needed to escape the Earth's gravity is crazy. The rockets used aren't reusable, or at least take a long time to refurbish. If you launch a explosive canister the height of a 40 story building, it's going to take a long time to fix it up for another launch. Therefore the rocket industry is super expensive and hasn't really improved much in the last 30 years.
SpaceX want to revolutionise the cost of space travel. They eventually want to send a colony to Mars using these rockets, but that's a far off goal. Right now they want to get the launch company working to a supremely high level. To do this, they need to innovate. They need to make it clear that they're the number one choice for resupply and satellite launch missions. To do this means innovating rocket technology like no one has ever done before, giving them them ability to land vertically. If they can do that, a rocket can be landed, refueled and launched in a reasonable amount of time. If successful, their rockets will effectively become reusable, and bring down costs dramatically.

In my last post, I spoke about how they're trying to make a reusable rocket, it's called the Falcon 9. Reusable rockets will change the space industry in a big way. SpaceX want to reduce the average cost for a launch, and this approach would do it. If they're successful, it'll span the way for other companies to do the same. Or risk being left behind. So far they've attempted to land the Falcon 9 twice, and both have ended in spectacular failure. The rocket is designed to descend vertically at astronomical speeds, using its boosters to thrust upwards and slow down the rocket as it's descending. The flaps mentioned in my previous post are like those aerodynamic flaps you see raising when a pane is coming into land. They're used to create drag which also slows the rocket down. Eventually it slows down to a few hundred miles an hour and should be slowing down in time to land on a barge. Unfortunately both attempts have ended in failure due to mechanical failures of some kind. But they're getting closer each time, and eventually they'll probably make it work.

The importance of reducing costs in space travel is huge. It's an industry in dire need of revival. The Soyuz rockets have a monopoly in the industry with regards to human cargo. They're the only provider of launches to get astronauts into space. China can provide the odd launch or two, but they're very rare. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security and they're a major competitor of SpaceX.  They're currently in the process of designing a new crew rocket in association with NASA. The expected completion date is July 2017. If SpaceX can get their new rockets ready in time, it will make for an exciting period. They're also designing a rocket called the Falcon Heavy which I will discuss in a later post.

Until then, stay tuned and keep an eye on the SpaceX thread on reddit :

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Introduction of sorts

Lately I have become very interested in astronomy, specifically projects planned for the near future.
Be it companies trying to beat Fermi's paradox by making humanity a multi planetary species, or interesting new space propulsion inventions, I am utterly obsessed. This is no passing phase though, the passion I have for this particular area of science is borderline manic. I have spent many nights thinking to myself about the future of the human race. When I look at humanity, I'm amazed. Despite all the bad news that comes out of the main media, I'm still driven by hope that we can do better.

One such company shares the same belief as me, but has taken that belief a whole lot further. They are called SpaceX. SpaceX are lead by a very inspirational man, Elon Musk. He's the guy who was heavily involved in the early days of PayPal, and also owns the Tesla car brand. Tesla make cars than run on renewable sources of energy, and they're pretty damn cool. That's enough about the man though, these blog posts are about the company he runs, SpaceX. They are simply put, a rocket company. The longer explanation involves reusable rockets, making Mars habitable and putting a colony there. Sounds like mad stuff. I'll discuss the costs, benefits and my overall opinion of that in a later post.
Right now, this blog is purely about the company and what they currently do. Currently their main operation mission is a launch service. They launch rockets for private and state based organisations, delivering cargo, and eventually humans to their destination. NASA have a contract with them to send astronauts to the ISS from 2017. Currently American astronauts must use Russian rockets to get their people to and from the space station.

The fun doesn't end there though. SpaceX is not only running a lot of operations to make money. It is also testing new ways of making the industry cheaper. Rocket launches are not cheap, and the restoration period for a lot of the reusable equipment is very long. SpaceX wants to improve this problem. By reducing the cost dramatically and using an innovative approach, they hope to create an service that is reliable, trustworthy and quick. They want to be able to do several launches a month. Most companies can only handle a very small amount of launches a year. It sounds crazy and completely outlandish. How are they going to do it? Reusability. They're in the business to innovate, and that's exactly what they have done. They have rockets that can theoretically be used repeatedly, without any need for restoration. How are they doing this? Once a rocket goes up, it should normally separate and fall back to earth, ideally the ocean. They're working on a rocket descends vertically, using flaps and one of its thrusters to slow it down and keep it stable. That seems bonkers.  The diagram below explains what they plan to do:

That's probably enough information to digest for now. In my next post I plan to discuss the future goals of SpaceX and why they want to go to Mars. 
The bit about colonising Mars will take quite a few posts to explain, but I would recommend viewing the Wait But Why website to read more about it: