Tag Archives: SpaceX

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…

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.

Another False Step for Mankind?

Image from NASA.

The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.

I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.

This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?

Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.

Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?

I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.

Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.