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: