Tag Archives: Falcon 9

Landing the Business of Launch

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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…

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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.

Skylon: They Do it with Smoke and Mirrors?

The proposed Skylon space transport. Looks a little SR-71 derivative, doesn’t it? Image from Wikimedia.org.

Every now and then I’ve heard of this Skylon space transport.  It sounds very interesting and I honestly hope technology like it does come to fruition.  But here’s the thing:  Skylon-related research has apparently been going on for over thirty years.  According to the wiki, which might contain some inaccuracies, the idea of horizontal take-off and landing with a single stage reusable spacecraft was starting to be explored by the United Kingdom government as early as 1982.  Skylon has cost UK taxpayers about $12 billion just in development (at least according to the wiki).  What has the result been thus far?

This is my question, because Skylon sounds very neat.  It seems like it would really be revolutionary if the technology becomes a reality.  But the catch is that I haven’t seen signs of Skylon approaching reality at all.  There are a few BBC videos of engine tests, but I’m not a engine specialist, and they could just be showing off a jet engine.  What I am seeing is a lot of “dog and pony” animations only of what Skylon could look like and what Skylon could do.  Maybe the BBC is part of the cheering section?

It looks like the Skylon animation budget is at least getting its money’s worth.  But the animations seem to be the only product from the Skylon program, which raises red flags to me.

Why?  Well, let’s look at a few other rocket programs, also aiming to be reusable and inexpensive.  SpaceX has been making a lot of noise and news about their Falcon 9 rocket.  Not only has the Falcon 9 been successful for the relatively new rocket company, but SpaceX have been developing many different technologies to make their rocket approach reusability (you can read up on some of those things, here).

While SpaceX is testing basically vertically launched and vertically landed rockets, Virgin Galactic seems to be edging more into the horizontally launched and landed rocket territory of the Skylon.  They’ve been test launching their rocket for a few years now, and SpaceShip one, the first of this type of Virgin Galactic rocket, first flew into space over 10 years ago, in June 2004.  There is no similar evidence of progress from Reaction Engines, Limited, which has been working on Skylon for nearly 25 years.

Even more distressing is the fact that Skylon is supposed to make access to space cheaper, which this CNN post states will be about $94 million per flight.  That price is cheaper than Arianespace and ULA rocket flights–however, SpaceX already advertises around a $6o million per rocket flight basic cost–without reusability thrown in.  And Musk has said he believes once his rockets attain reusability, the prices will suddenly be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range, not the ridiculous millions needed currently.

Virgin Galactic is selling seats for $250,000 a pop.  This means it will also be able to sell the option to launch payloads cheaply–definitely cheaper than $94 million.  Just to be more international, even India is managing to get payloads into geosynchronous orbit for about $70 million (and their system isn’t designed to be reusable).

Have either SpaceX or Virgin Galactic actually used their reusable rockets for any commercial launches yet?  No–but they are showing more than animations and engine tests.  They are showing actual rockets in flight with video of what their rockets are doing during testing.  Shouldn’t Skylon, after all of these years, be able to do the same thing?  And for cheaper than $94 million?  If that price is their goal, then isn’t that already heading for failure, because it just won’t be able to compete with cheaper possible reusable options?

Anyway, until they can actually fly a Skylon, the program will all be just smoke and mirrors to me.  And too expensive for my tastes.

Update:  Oh dear!  It seems there are true fans out there of this particular technology, just like with SpaceX.  Some care enough to clarify a few things about REL, Skylon, etc.and point out the initial pricing launch, which comes from ESA via CNN, is too high.  Read those comments if you wish to learn more.

 

Lone Star Rising

Image of the Falcon 9 pictured and hosted on Bloomberg Businessweek’s site.

According to this Bloomberg Businessweek article, it looks like SpaceX just bought itself a spaceport.  Their planned launch facility looks to cover nearly 50 acres of Texas land on the coast.  The specific area might be near Boca Chica Beach.

Why would SpaceX want a launch complex in this area?  First of all, if they are launching rockets, most would likely be flying east over nothing but water.  They don’t have to worry about population centers on land (except for maybe cruise ships), just in case something bad does happen to one of their rockets during flight.  This falls in line with accepted thoughts about where and why the US government have launch facilities at Cape Kennedy, Vandenberg AFB, and Wallops Island.  All are by bodies of water over which rockets from those complexes fly over, with no population centers to worry about.

It also looks like SpaceX is receiving some heavy subsidies, in the form of “incentives” from Texas and Brownsville, Texas (the closest local government to Boca Chica Beach).  $20 million or so.  Which isn’t chicken feed when SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets launch for an advertised $60 million, give or take.

There also may be another incentive, which is not having to deal with pesky government interlopers.  So long as SpaceX is launching from NASA or DoD run launch pads, SpaceX is compelled to comply with onerous rules and processes for launching their rockets.  Such processes require a lot of extra time and money.  This newer Texas launch complex might allow them to showcase their own methods for getting things done.

Of course, they might learn that there are good reasons for certain NASA and DoD processes.  But for now, it will be interesting to watch what they do, and how they do it.  Will they revolutionize the rocket industry?  That remains to be seen.  But everything they’ve done so far has the current rocket incumbents reacting–which is a nice place to be for SpaceX.