Category Archives: Private Space

Landing the Business of Launch

5401dd98-2cc9-4a7e-8601-231775d8930b

The history-making Falcon 9 Upgrade ready to launch at Space Launch Complex 40. Image from SpaceX.

SpaceX was very confident that today’s successful landing would happen. Instead of hedging the outcome as they had in previous launches, statements from people within the company before the launch today indicated that today was the day. And today was their day.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the footage of the Falcon 9’s first stage landing on a barge, and–and this is the most important part–staying upright and intact. If not, you should really watch the video, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEr9cPpuAx8. To see the rocket land, on a barge, is pretty nifty.

But after today, what will happen? Does the launch industry change? Does it get cheaper? Well, not right away. Some of it depends on whether SpaceX can just get down to the business of launching. According to SpaceFlightNow.com’s launch manifest, SpaceX has at least 11 other launches to clear this year. That’s quite a few, but perhaps not impossible to accomplish. But the company has barely launched slightly over half that number so far in the past few years. There’s also the possible launch of their Falcon Heavy, promised for many years but yet to make it past artist conceptions into reality.

SpaceX also must prove the Falcon 9’s first stage is reusable. Landing it on a barge is awesome, but how quickly can they turn it around and use it again? Blue Origin, another rocket manufacturer and potential launch provider, is kind of setting the standard with their New Shepard suborbital rocket. The company launched the same rocket and engine three times, supposedly with minimal inspections of the whole thing in-between. The average turn-around for their rocket seems to be about a month and a half. In fact, Blue Origin’s third launch of New Shepard occurred just last weekend, on April 2. Of course, they have a pretty cool video to watch as well: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/news/pushing-the-envelope.

Can SpaceX match or exceed Blue Origin’s turnaround time? How often will a reusable stage be reusable? Whatever the answer, there are quite a few companies ready to buy a berth on a reusable rocket. There’re a lot of plans and pressure for launch services. More importantly, there are markets hungry for the services and products coming from space. The price of a space launch needs to come down. SpaceX is one of the cheaper launch providers, and if it, or Blue Origin, or someone else, succeeds in incorporating a reusable space launch vehicle in their business, prices will, after a while, start falling.

But, while SpaceX deservedly got their time in the limelight today, tomorrow they need to do one thing: launch!

And then launch some more…

Launching satellites is getting cheaper?

Last year was pretty good for small satellites weighing less than 10 kg (22 lbs).   46 percent of all satellites launched in 2014 weighed less than 10 kg. A LOT of satellites were launched in 2014. Heck, just one Russian Dnepr rocket deployed 37 satellites during one launch last year. Many were deployed from the International Space Station. But while small satellites seem set to grow even more this year, one of the big limiting factors to that growth is the number of rockets that can launch them, inexpensively and reliably. And little oopsies such as what happened with the Antares and Falcon rockets aren’t doing much to increase the opportunities to launch small satellites.

However…

…there’s a company trying to join what appears to be the growing small satellite market business through providing cheaper prices for launching satellites. Rocket Lab, founded about eight years ago, is building a new rocket and is offering to launch a satellite for as low as $80,000. And that satellite has to be quite small–a 1U cubesat. 1U means 1 unit, the satellite, that is 10 cm (3.94 inches) by 10 cm by 10 cm big and weighs no more than 1.33 kg (2.93 lbs).

A person has the option to go bigger, but will need to pay more. Rocket Lab will graciously launch a 3U cubesat for $250,000. They will launch either one on their yet-to-be-launched Electron rocket. The rocket can only hold so much–8 1U cubesats and 24 3U cubesats per launch. It looks like there’s a bit of interest in the launch opportunities, which they’re projecting to start in the third quarter of 2016. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, explains some of the rationale for why their system will work in the video below.

The Electron rocket is new and full of interesting tech to make launch cheaper, and you can read about the rocket, here. But Rocket Lab is also building a commercial launch site in New Zealand. Part of the problem Rocket Lab has identified with the current active spaceports is how busy they are and how active the airspace is around those spaceports. In the U.S., certain transportation such as boats, trains, and planes are restricted from moving through spaces in which a rocket can launch and/or fail.

Rocket Lab also believe the location is perfect for launching satellites into “high inclination” orbits. Those orbits will probably be at angles of 90 degrees plus from the Earth’s equator since they’re specifically mentioning sun-synchronous orbits as the target for the satellites they’ll be launching. What, you don’t know what sun-synchronous is? You can go here to read about the sun-synchronous low earth orbit if you want to learn more.

Rocket Lab isn’t the only company focused on catering to the small satellite market. Firefly Space Systems is building their Alpha rocket, which will be able to launch at least 12 3U satellites and a bigger primary payload into sun-synchronous orbit. No advertised prices per satellite yet, but since there are less cubesats launched, and their CEO was quoting $8-9 million to launch an Alpha (vs. Electron’s $4.9 million per launch), the pricing might be slightly higher to launch a cubesat on an Alpha. And Firefly will still have to deal with the problems of current spaceports, unless they build their own (or perhaps lease from SpaceX?). But the Alpha can carry more mass.

Either way, it seems like more competition is coming to the small launcher market. I might be able to afford my small satellite fleet yet…

SpaceX’s CRS7 mission explodes

The Falcon 9 a little over 2 minutes after launch. Image from NASA TV courtesy of SpaceNew.com

This Sunday morning, a Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to launch and deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). And while SpaceX launched the rocket around 8:20 AM (MST) this morning, the resupply mission, CRS7, didn’t make it. The Falcon 9 exploded a little over 2 minutes into flight. There were mentions of an anomaly right before the explosion, but that word has little meaning to public understanding of what happened.

The mission was intended to get supplies and equipment to the ISS. Two days after launch, the Dragon resupply capsule would have rendezvoused with the ISS and the crew would have started unloading the slightly over 4000 pounds (nearly 2000 kilograms) of supplies, vehicle equipment, experiments, and more. Eight of Planet Labs’ cubesats were also aboard as cargo, and would have been deployed in the months after they had been transferred from the Dragon to the ISS.

After today, of course, none of that mission is possible. The question is, what will happen next? Some might say it’s a reflection of our character as a nation on how we act towards this accident. There are already a few people who are ready to take their “ball,” the taxpayers’ money, and go home. Sad to say, there are some who have been waiting for something like this to happen, and are ready to undercut the pile of work that has gone into not only NASA’s and SpaceX’s work, but Orbital Sciences’, Boeing’s, and Sierra Nevada, and quite a few others.

But, and I admit this as me being optimistic, I’d like to think there are a few more level-head people who will, as they did with Antares, note that this kind of thing is the price of working in space. Occasionally, especially with long tubes of fuel and complex machinery flying through the sky, things go “boom.” And then those same level-headed people will just turn around and continue working to get the U.S. a commercial rocket fleet–which would be a first of its kind in the world.

We already saw some wisdom in NASA’s approach when the Antares launch failure occurred. While bad for Orbital Sciences, the accident didn’t seem to cripple NASA’s ability to resupply the ISS, because there was still SpaceX’s Falcon rocket ready for use. If anything, this latest incident with SpaceX seems to be full of opportunities.

First, SpaceX has the chance to show its chops to perhaps do a quick-turnaround on this. The company has already said it wants to be able to launch their rockets quickly, so why not just get another one on the pad? Of course, the company and NASA would still be striving to figure out what happened with today’s rocket. But, isn’t part of this whole concept just to keep launching in spite of some hiccups?

Second, get more players involved with the business of launching. NASA basically whittled the field down to two resupply players, SpaceX and Orbital, because of money. But today’s lesson should be showing just how frail our space launch infrastructure is with even two launch systems resupplying the ISS. Get someone else in there. Heck, the United Launch Alliance might be able to pick up some slack on this, and in the process prove they can compete with the lower launch prices. It doesn’t even have to be through as complicated a contract vehicle as NASA’s Commercial Cargo.

Third, keep pushing government money out of the industry. If other political players are attempting to influence the future of humanity in the stars by taking funding away to get work done on a bridge to nowhere, then maybe that’s a sign that government might not be the best steward for fostering the space industry.

And, oh by the way, the more we do this kind of thing, the better our rockets will be.

In the end, I’d like to think some combination of these three options will happen. But I’ve also seen enough shenanigans to know that none of these options might ever happen because–politics. But for now I’m cheering NASA and all these companies to get up. Get up, keep showing how amazing your products are, and how smart and tough your engineers are, and ultimately ignore the whiners who want to take their ball and go home. You’re the ones on the ball court, not them.

“Hold your fire.” SpaceX’s “Escape Pod”

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule making its escape. Image from SpaceX. Click to embiggen.

When I first saw images of SpaceX’s test of their Dragon capsule’s pad abort test, the obvious nerd-quote going through my mind was “Hold your fire. There’s no lifeforms.” Which was true for the test. And if you don’t get the reference, please just search on the net, roll your eyes, and sigh. For the rest of you, you’re welcome!!

The big news, then, is that on May 6, 2015, SpaceX conducted the first test of the abort system for their capsule, and it looks like it worked. It also looked really cool. But why conduct this nifty-looking test in the first place? In plain English, SpaceX would like to build space capsules to take humans into space. The capsule they’re advertising to accomplish this feat is the Dragon Version 2 (v2). The pad abort test they conducted this last week was a step towards actually building and operating a manned capsule.

The test is a milestone, a critical step, required by NASA of SpaceX as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The program’s goal is to ferry people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) using commercially-built space capsules from the U.S. (for more information about this interesting program, click here). This particular milestone begins testing the Dragon’s escape system, which is supposed to keep astronauts safe in case something goes wrong with the rocket beneath it–such as going kablooey like Orbital’s Antares rocket did in October 2014. If such an explosive event were to occur, then the capsule needs to lift off from the rocket body quickly, which it looks like the Dragon does. See the video of the test below and then read on.

According to SpaceX, the capsule accelerated from rest to 100 mph (161 kmh) in 1.2 seconds. It eventually reached a top speed of 345 mph (555 kmh), and was supposed to fly as high as 5.000 ft (1524 meters). It took eight liquid-fed SuperDraco engines to move the capsule that high and that quickly. Each engine puts out 15,000 lbs of thrust. The same engines would normally be used for Dragon capsule landing after atmospheric re-entry.

The capsule does separate from the trunk (the white cylinder it’s attached to), flips, and then pops out a few parachutes to float down to the Atlantic Ocean. The Dragon capsule is supposed to be able to do this type of maneuver throughout a rocket flight, from launch pad through orbit. SpaceX notes that, based on data from the 270 sensors mounted on the capsule and possibly on the dummy sitting inside, a human would have come through just fine. But this is a single test, and there’s more testing to come for SpaceX. SpaceX is aiming to get the Dragon crew-rated and actually manned by humans traveling in it to and from the ISS come 2017. They seem to be making great progress.

You can go to SpaceX’s Pad Abort webpages to read more about the test and view the pictures.

Amazoom? Blue Origin launches a rocket

It does look a little…weird. But this is what Blue Origin’s rocket looks like. Picture from Blue Origin’s site.

Blue Origin is one of those rocket companies that’s been fairly secretive in its activities. But it’s very difficult, unless you’re Russia or China, to secretly shoot a rocket 307,000 feet (58 miles) into the sky. But launch is just what Blue Origin did last week, on 29 April.

The company not only tested the rocket, but then popped the capsule off of the rocket’s top. The capsule, which Blue Origin calls New Shepard, deployed parachutes and appeared to land successfully. Which is great when you consider Blue Origin would like to put passengers in that capsule. You can see it in the video below.

The other part, the more interesting one to me, is the reusable rocket part–the rocket body under the capsule . That’s the part they didn’t really focus on, and according to sites like Mashable, Blue Origin didn’t say what happened to the rocket body once the capsule was deployed. Supposedly, the rocket body is supposed to land the way it takes off, vertically. It’s the way SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage rocket body is supposed to land, when the Falcon 9 eventually succeeds in landing. You can go to Blue Origin’s “Technology” page to see what they’d like to do.

There’s really very little good information on that page, though, if you’re interested in details. There’s no payload weight range to LEO, GEO, GSO, etc. But, maybe they’ll have that information there eventually. They do list information about “payload lockers,” specialized containers to carry experiments to orbit in New Shepard. But I’m certain only so many of those boxes can be carried up.

So, Blue Origin has finally done something more visible for spaceflight. Sure, they’ve tied themselves to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) last September (still not sure why) to develop a rocket engine to take the place of the politically incorrect Russian engines. Maybe they’ll call the partnership BlULA? But, it is something I’ve noticed–most of these “New Gen” space companies, with as much chest-thumping as they do about changing the space scene, still rely very much on the older companies for some of their tech and processes. Perhaps that’s an article subject for another day.

Still, it’s very exciting to see someone else start launching rockets, even if it’s not that high or long. It’s only a matter of time…and Blue Origin’s money. And for those wondering about the title–Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is also the owner of Blue Origin.