Falcon Heavy

Paul Raven @ 07-04-2011

Unless you’ve been under that good old hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last couple of days, you’ve surely seen at least a snippet of news about SpaceX’s announcement of their Falcon Heavy rocket. With all the standard caveats (it’s still on the drawing board, things can go wrong, rocketry ain’t easy), “gamechanger” seems like a reasonable term to use; more than twice the payload of the Space Shuttle at a much lower price-per-launch. Personally I’d still like to see us moving away from rocketry as prime launch technology, but hey, anything that makes further developments at the top of the gravity well is OK by me. Plus it has a name that could just as easily adorn the bottle of some obscure craft-brewery ale… 🙂

I know we have some hardcore spacegeeks in the audience, so let me know what you think about this one – are bigger cheaper fireworks the answer, or are SpaceX aiming in the wrong direction here?

SpaceX Dragon capsule: breaking a trail to a new economic frontier?

Paul Raven @ 09-12-2010

You’d have had to be living under that oft-mentioned internet-proof rock (or possibly just focussing on that other currently ubiquitous news topic) to not have noticed that yesterday’s launch and re-entry of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule went off exactly according to plan. So when – if? – the Wikiwars die down a bit, expect a lot of pondering from all sides about the future of commercial space exploration, unfettered (well, kind of… or rather not really) by the capricious politics and budgeting of nation-states. Hell knows I’ll be waffling about it a fair bit… but then you probably knew that already.

The sceptical among you may be wondering what’s going to convince profit-motivated businesses to clamber up the gravity well. Well, Centauri Dreams has a pretty good run-through of a paper entitled “Space Colonization: A Study of Supply and Demand”, which suggests that there may well be gold platinum in them thar lunar hills

Lunar prospecting, then, is a first step in determining the existence of asteroidal metal containing nickel, cobalt and platinum-group metals on the surface. We have much to learn, including not just the quality and location of ores, but also the location of volatiles like water. We also need to learn what happens when asteroidal nickel/iron is made into metal products, and to what extent we will have to rely on engineered alloys to get the desired result. At present, of course, we cannot test the processes we might use on the lunar surface, requiring a preliminary manned base there to work through these contingencies.

Andrews works out a simple cost model exploring mining, processing and shipping operations, comparing these to existing costs. With platinum, for example, selling at close to $40,000 per kilogram, a price that is itself escalating, the case for lunar mining is clearer than that for more plentiful products like cobalt.

How will the mining be accomplished? That’s left for someone else to write a paper about… but how we might get there and back again gets a look-in.

Andrews proposes a lunar sling for launching metal products to Earth, but goes into greater detail on what any space infrastructure requires going out of the gate: A simple and inexpensive way to get to Earth orbit, what he calls FRETOS — Fully Reusable Earth-to-Orbit Systems. A fleet of five launchers supporting a flight rate of 1000 launches per year using four tethers is at the heart of the proposal. On the space side, a Skyhook capture device located at 300 kilometers orbital altitude is part of a picture that also includes a Low Earth Orbit station at 1000 kilometers, a powered winch module at 1700 kilometers and a counter-balance at 2400 kilometers. The total mass of the space segment is estimated at 190 metric tons, including 2100 kilometers of tether lines, high-speed winches, power generation arrays, counter balances and station-keeping components, all to be launched separately and docked together for assembly.

All hypothetical at this point, of course, but the space where possible and plausible overlap is a nice place to hang out… that’s why I read science fiction, at any rate. 🙂

SpaceX granted reentry license

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, it’s one small step for commercial space travel: the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has granted SpaceX a reentry license for their Dragon spacecraft. That’s a commercial license for full orbital flight testing, not just sub-orbital bounces.

Elon Musk dreams of Martian retirement condos

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2010

The Astronomer Royal may think manned spaceflight is a pipedream, but Elon Musk – the fantastically-moniker’d founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, as well as private space company SpaceX – begs to differ. In fact, he seems to be taking Stephen Hawking’s eggs-in-the-basket metaphor to heart, and wants save the human species from the existential threats that come from living on the surface of a planet with a history of having large space rocks smash into it.

Wearing my cynic’s hat for a moment, I suspect Musk’s stated desire to move to Mars when he retires is at least as much about giving good soundbite as it is a genuine statement of intent — all the highest-flying entrepreneurs have a bit of the P T Barnum about them, after all. But with SpaceX he’s at least putting his money where his mouth is, and this Guardian pen-portrait paints him as being quite removed from the flamboyant Ben Gunn stereotype of spaceflight boosterism; apparently, SpaceX isn’t about making Musk another fortune.

…he is risking his fortune to start a company in a field most people said could not support a project like SpaceX. Again and again, he returns to the themes that keep him going. He sees what SpaceX is doing as part of humanity’s destiny. “I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems… It’s got to be something inspiring even if it is vicarious. When the US landed on the moon it was for all humanity. We count that as a human achievement. Anyone who could get near a TV got near a TV. If there was one TV in an African village and you had to walk 50 miles to get there, you’d do it,” he says.

And through it all is the desire to colonise Mars. Musk insists that his most powerful Falcon 9 rockets could already launch missions to Mars if assembled in Earth’s orbit. He wants SpaceX to help humanity spread into space, just like the first European explorers setting out for the New World. “One of the long-term goals of SpaceX is, ultimately, to get the price of transporting people and product to Mars to be low enough and with a high enough reliability that if somebody wanted to sell all their belongings and move to a new planet and forge a new civilisation they could do so.”

There’s something about the way he candidly admits to a long-term mission that everyone else in the business considers impossible (or impractical, or just plain laughable) that makes me want to believe he’s telling the truth. It’s a tough time for dreamers right now — hell, it’s a tough time for everyone — but perhaps adversity will be the heat in the forge.

That said, the analogy to the European colonisation of the New World is an uneasy one; even if there are no natives on Mars to exploit or extinguish (that we know of, at any rate), the earliest transAtlantic colonists had a rough old time of it, and they were sustained by the promise of bounteous resources rather than bijou retirement villas. Life beyond the gravity well won’t be a picnic until long after we’ve managed to get ourselves there… and Charlie Stross has a pretty solid set of arguments that suggest the analogy of space colonisation to the Westward expansion in the US is equally (if not more) flawed.

Even so… if you’re reading, Mister Musk, I’d like to put a small downpayment on a condo sited on the lower slopes of Olympus Mons; sea views a bonus.

Oh yeah, and you should totally hire Jason Stoddard as your head of PR. I’m not even kidding about that bit, either.

Space is the place, redux

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2010

Seeing as how SpaceX managed to pull off the first commercial rocket launch to reach orbit over the weekend, I figure we’re allowed to get a bit excited about space again… it’s a welcome distraction from the World Cup, if nothing else. It might have been even more of a distraction to our antipodean friends, some of whom spotted weird lights in the sky that may (or may not) have been parts of the Falcon 9 falling back to Earth [via SlashDot].

But who can we trust to tell us the truth of it, hmmm? After all, the Chinese have a history of telling porkies about their space program, and hell knows the Cold War space race was all about giving the people the story you wanted them to believe… it might be fun to work as a spin doctor for a multinational space company.

Speaking of the Cold War, did you know that Venera, the Russian mission to Venus, was the first to send back photographic images from another planet? If any nation-state or corporation is taking a poll on where we should send space probes next, my vote goes for Titan – it’d be fun to find out if those atmospheric anomalies are actually the signal of methane-based microbial life that they appear to be

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