27 December 2012

Jump On Board the Private Space Train

From private space tourism to asteroid mining to the Google X Prize, there is a little something for almost every space enthusiast in the upcoming private space race to orbit, to the moon, to near-Earth asteroids, and even to Mars.

Here is a quick preview of coming attractions in private space enterprise, from Wired.
“When you give these Silicon Valley guys a billion dollars,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of Harvard, who tracks rocket launches, “Their first thought is ‘Cool, now I can have my own space program.’”

“I don’t expect them all to succeed, but I don’t expect them all to fail,” said space lawyer Michael Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions. Taken together, the companies’ ambitions underscore just how much times have changed. “About 10 years ago, if you presented one of these plans, people would have looked at you like you’re crazy. Now people can say, well it’s a little crazy, but considering what’s been done, it might be possible.”

Perhaps the most important factor was the trailblazing success of SpaceX, a commercial rocket business started by entrepreneur and PayPal founder Elon Musk. This year, the company conducted two launches to the International Space Station using their Falcon 9 vehicle, with the second mission bringing supplies and helping prove that SpaceX was on the path to ferrying astronauts.

The company is already planning their next rocket, the enormous Falcon Heavy, for launch in 2013 and recently won important contracts with the U.S. military to deliver hardware to space. With all these notches on his space belt, Musk is no doubt already eyeing the perfect ridge for his retirement home on Mars.

Falcon Heavy

Though not announced this year, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been a hot topic as the company prepares to launch this new rocket in 2013. Once operational, the vehicle would be the most capable existing rocket, able to bring 120,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit for as little as $1,000 per pound. The closest current spacecraft is United Launch Alliance’s Delta rocket, which can take 50,000 pounds up at a cost of $6,000 per pound.
Falcon Heavy has a number of other companies hoping to ride on its success. Both Golden Spike and Mars One plan to use the vehicle in their operation while NASA and the military are also looking forward to its capabilities. The question for SpaceX is just how soon they can get the new rocket ready.

Golden Spike Company

The most recently unveiled audacious space venture is the Golden Spike Company, which wants to take people back to the moon by 2020. For the low, low price of $1.5 billion, Golden Spike will land a two-person crew on the lunar surface and safely return them. Given the expense, the company is targeting governments without large space programs that may be looking for a little international prestige.
Golden Spike has a team with technical chops, including planetary scientist and former NASA science administrator Alan Stern and former NASA flight director Gerry Griffin. The business hopes to make use of low-cost existing rockets as much as possible to cut down on their expenses and estimates the entire scheme could cost as little as $7 billion. All of the experts we asked praised the company’s mission architecture as fairly plausible.

Planetary Resources, Inc.

Asteroid mining is a staple of science-fiction, transplanting a familiar Earth-based activity to the new frontier of space. Many of the resources we dig up from underground on our planet were in fact laid down during an asteroid impact billions of years ago. So let’s cut out the middleman and simply mine riches from the skies.
Such is the thinking behind Planetary Resources, Inc., which revealed their asteroid mining plans in April. The company hopes to extract water and precious metals, such as platinum, in order to get a return on their investment. Shortly after the unveiling, the internet reached a fever pitch about Planetary Resources, with Jon Stewart even calling in astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson just as a sanity check on the whole endeavor.
Planetary Resources' biggest strength comes from its financial backing, with founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis veterans of both Silicon Valley and space technology. Other rich luminaries behind the company include Google CEO Larry Page, Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and even filmmaker James Cameron. The company’s goals are very long term, with simple plans to launch telescopes to identify and catalog near-Earth asteroids in the next few years, and the actual mining and resource extraction as much as 20 years away.

B612 Foundation

Nearly overshadowed by that other private asteroid business, the B612 Foundation’s announcement in June was nonetheless important. The nonprofit company hopes to raise money to launch an infrared telescope that will be ever vigilant for dangerous asteroids hurtling toward Earth. Though NASA is already watching for these potentially civilization destroying rocks, B612 said they would be able to more than double the near-Earth object catalog in their first month of observation.
The company has some good technical backers, including former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart and former shuttle astronaut Ed Lu. As a nonprofit, B612’s approach most closely resembles a philanthropic foundation looking to build a new wing for a hospital. While donors are used to the idea of such charity on Earth, can B612 convince people that the same model works for a space telescope?

Mars One

Getting people to Mars has long been a goal of the spaceflight community. While many thought it was the next logical step after the Apollo program, the United States has never been able to commit to the necessary funding for such a mission. But now a private company named Mars One has stepped in with their own audacious plan.
Announced in May, Mars One has an extremely aggressive goal: land a crew of four on the Red Planet by 2023. The company hopes to cut costs with a radical mission. They intend to send people on a one-way trip to set up a colony, with a new set of four settlers arriving every two years after the initial touchdown. Mars One said it intends to pay for the plan by creating “the biggest media spectacle in history” with a reality TV show that will follow the astronauts.

The Google Lunar X-Prize

Intended to stimulate new ideas for exploring the moon, the Google Lunar X-Prize was announced in 2007. The goal is for a small private team to land an autonomous rover on the lunar surface, travel about 1,000 feet, and beam back high-definition images and video. The first team to do so will win $20 million, and constellation prizes are offered for other tasks.
The prize’s deadline was originally meant to expire this year but after insufficient progress was made, the foundation extended their target date to the end of 2015. While more than 20 teams are still technically in the running, very few are where they need to be right now to claim the reward and accolades. Though 2015 seems a while away, this year and next are “really a make or break period for the teams left in the competition,” said journalist Jeff Foust.

Private Space Tourism

We live in the future! You may not have a personal jet pack but, if certain schemes pan out, you couldone day afford a few minutes of spaceflight. That at least is the goal of companies like Virgin Galactic, which has allied with Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipTwo, a passenger spaceplane that will take tourists 70 miles above the Earth for short flights.
Initially affordable only for the very rich, such a jaunt will set you back about $200,000 — that is, once Virgin Galactic actually gets their machine flying and ready. Though the business hoped to get off the ground years ago, they have constantly pushed back the date of their first flights. Virgin Galactic now hopes to be ready to carry passengers by the end of 2013.

_Wired
For all the neo-$billionaires of Silicon Valley and beyond, the best bet for them to become $trillionaires is to grab a piece of the virtually limitless resources of outer space, beyond the home planet.

But they had best hurry, before the kleptocrats and autocrats of the planetary governments and inter-governments decide to close that doorway to a more abundant and unlimited future.

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04 December 2012

Anticipations of a Secret Private Manned Moon Launch

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die _Tom Delaney, Blues and Jazz Composer.
Internet rumors have been swirling for several weeks of a secret venture backed by private entrepreneurs that would return people to the moon’s surface. It seems that the veil will finally be lifted this week, during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6.

“The Golden Spike Company invites you to attend a game-changing announcement about the future of commercial human space travel to the Moon,” reads the announcement for the media briefing. ”Executives from the company will describe the team, the mission architecture, and the business model.”

...The Golden Spike Company is registered in Colorado to planetary scientist and aerospace engineer Alan Stern, who ran NASA’s science directorate from 2007 to 2008. Stern also worked in the private spaceflight sector that year, as an independent research representative for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. In a 2011 interview he said, “I hope that in 10 to 20 years’ time, we are on the hills of human return to the moon, so that we could then go on with humans to explore the solar system. I think this is our destiny.”

Golden Spike is a reference to the ceremonial spike driven into the rails connecting the U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869, which helped open up the American West. _Wired
Going to space is expensive, risky, and politically / legally fraught with peril. But if the great private space rush is to ever take place in search of outer space wealth and resources, someone has to go first.

Meanwhile, SpaceX' Elon Musk has dreams of interstellar flight

Curiosity Rover finds methane and more on Mars

The engines of the Skylon spaceplane pass a test, which brings hypersonic flight closer to reality.

In addition, it looks as if a large amount of water ice may have been located on the dark side of Mercury.

Space is the mother lode of riches, in terms of precious metals, base metals, and the important volatiles that will keep people alive in the alien environment of space. Space also represents the "high ground," which gives a military advantage to the nation that first establishes a strong permanent presence outside Earth's gravity well.

Private individuals and groups have essentially no standing before the international legal organisations that determine space law. It will be interesting to see how well the ambitions of Earth's new mega-billionaires -- and would-be trillionaires -- can be constrained by thuggish and corrupt organisations such as the UN and the like.

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10 October 2012

Hope Above, Deep Concerns Below

The SpaceX Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), full of ice cream and supplies. The Dragon was promptly captured by the ISS crew, who were already salivating for the treats, and eager to complete the docking procedure.


Carrying over 800 pounds of supplies for the ISS crew — including ice cream for a desert treat — SpaceX Dragon successfully docked at almost 4 AM PST this morning when Japanese astronaut Akihidko Hoshide secured the spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm.

...Dragon’s flight was not uneventful: one of the spacecraft’s nine rocket engines failed during the launch. However, the craft, which is designed to be able to launch with only seven operational engines, recalculated a new ascent profile, relieved pressure in the blocked rocket, and successfully inserted into orbit.

Building a space launch vehicle that can successfully complete missions even when things go wrong is impressive design, and SpaceX says that no other currently operational rockets have the same ability.

In addition, it’s worth noting that, while spaceflight may never be cheap, the cost for SpaceX to deliver supplies and groceries to low-earth orbit are approximately half NASA’s now-shuttered Space Shuttle. Lifting a kilogram of cargo to low earth orbit costs Spacex about $5000; the shuttle burned about $10,000 to accomplish the same feat.

The Dragon will stay at the ISS for an expected two and half weeks, and then return to earth with a cargo from the space station. _VB

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the nations of the planet are making a hash of their world. Things appear to be developing toward A Coming Anarchy -- or A Coming Global Disorder at the very least. The global economy appears to be slumping further into the swamp. The BRICS are crumbling without fanfare, and it seems that the planet may be approaching "a geopolitical phase change" similar in magnitude to that portrayed in Neil Stephenson's 1996 novel, The Diamond Age.

Of course, to achieve the level of global change that Stephenson describes, would require nanotechnological assemblers, capable of providing the basic needs of individuals -- without the need for large governments or nation states (see Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation")

Unfortunately, we are not close to achieving the molecular assembler "age of plenty," but some of the mechanisms of global economic collapse portrayed in The Diamond Age are apt to come into play over the next decade or three. The difference will be that ordinary people are not likely to have their basic needs met so readily after the likely coming phase change.

Fortunately we do not foresee collapse from resource scarcity or climate catastrophe. What is more likely to occur is a series of local and regional collapses due to warfare, government spurred economic crises, and deadly ethnic clashes as increasing multiculturalism comes face to face with a growing economic hardship. As long as the larger powers do not allow themselves to be pulled into a global nuclear - biological - or chemical confrontation, we do not anticipate a global scale conflagration.

If advanced nations put the lion's share of their investment into the generative technologies of the future, their peoples are likely to emerge from the coming age of disruption in reasonably good condition, into a relatively abundant future.

But if they continue to waste their resources on false promises (intermittent unreliable energy sources) and false threats (carbon hysteria climate catastrophism), as well as on maintaining the status quo (a welfare state mentality), they are likely to be caught flat footed when the feces hits the high speed blower.

It is very hard to predict anything, but particularly the future.

Everything you think you know, just ain't so.

It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood.

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26 September 2012

Top-Secret X-37B SpacePlane Ready for New Mystery Mission


The exact purpose of the mysterious USAF spaceplane -- built by Boeing -- is being kept a secret. But when this X-37B returns to outer space, it will be the third flight for the system as a whole, and the second flight for this particular re-usable space bird.

The secret space missions of the X-37B have fueled a large amount of paranoid rumours, particularly from the Chinese.
Next month, the X-37B will blast off again aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The exact timing of the October launch is unknown and subject to change due to weather conditions, and there’s no telling how long the drone will stay in orbit. ”Preparations for launch at Cape Canaveral have begun,” Major Tracy Bunko, an Air Force spokesperson, told Space.com.

While it’ll be the third flight for the robotic space plane program as a whole, it’s only the second for this particular craft. Four months ago, X-37B’s second of two planes returned from its first flight and a record-breaking 469 days in orbit – more than double the first mission’s total.

...What we do know about the X-37B is that it’s a smaller, unmanned version of the now-retired space shuttle and is ostensibly used for Air Force research missions of an indeterminate nature. The manned space shuttle, we know, was retired last summer and just completed a three-day ferry flight across the United States. The X-37B is like a lighter robotic version, and can stay up for more than a year at a time — far longer than the manned shuttles ever could. The drone measures 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, weighs 11,000 pounds and is about a fourth the weight of the space shuttle, and launches into orbit on a conventional rocket but glides back down to Earth like a plane. Inside the plane is a payload bay roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. It costs around an estimated billion dollars.

The done has also received attention from secretive sources. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), America’s secret spy satellite agency, has shown interest in using reusable launch vehicles like the X-37B to carry sensors. Right now the X-37B happens to be the only reusable space plane currently in service by the U.S. military, which narrows the NRO’s options.

The Air Force is also considering a shift of the craft’s landing site from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — where the two previous X-37B flights touched down — to Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. The Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility was used for most of the old shuttle landings, which would be a way to use leftover infrastructure and save money by leveraging “previous space shuttle investments,” said Bunko.

Trying to find a way to reduce costs is crucial if the X-37B is to survive, and promoting the X-37B as an affordable replacement for the shuttle has figured prominently in statements from Boeing. There have been recurring questions as to why the Air Force needs a new reusable orbiter when contrasted with existing — and cheaper — conventional satellites. The facility, called Building 31, has been the center of a fractious labor dispute between Boeing managers and engineers.

There’s also increasing competition from the private space industry pushing the Pentagon and Boeing to find cheaper alternatives to get into space. Paul Rusnock, Boeing’s vice president of Government Space Systems, has said the return of the first X-37B to space will demonstrate that it’s “an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused.” _Wired

While the X-37B is far ahead of anything the Chinese have been able to put into space, it is also ahead of anything else currently flying for western nations -- including the US -- in terms of re-usability, and extended length of missions in space.

We may not understand what the X-37B has been doing in space, over its long-term missions. But we do know that it represents a proof of concept of sorts, for small scale, re-usable spaceplanes.

Much more development is needed before private launch services can make space access more affordable to larger areas of private enterprise. But between SpaceX, Boeing, Stratolaunch, Planetary Resources, and other ventures, we have reason to hope that things are developing in the right direction.

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20 September 2012

Commercial US Spaceport to Launch Cargo to ISS

On 17 September aerospace firm Orbital Sciences of Dulles announced a deal with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority to launch cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS) from a private spaceport on the state's eastern coast.

If Orbital's pre-mission tests go as planned next month, their first demonstration flight could happen by the end of the year, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island will become the first commercial spaceport to launch a mission to the ISS. The new deal formalises Orbital's use of the Virginia spaceport, where a launch pad has been built to send the company's Antares rocket beyond the stratosphere. _New Scientist
Other private US spaceports are located in southern California and New Mexico.

Of course, if Burt Rutan's Stratolaunch system is successful, just about any airport with a sufficiently long runway could become a "spaceport," in a manner of speaking.

The development of space resources is one of a number of crucial steps which humans must make to achieve the next level. It is clear that the competitive nature of private space launch and development can provide the activation energy necessary for humans to climb over the obstacles that have held them back so far.

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22 August 2012

Planetary Resources' Plans: Interview in Slate

Planetary Resources officials Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki were interviewed regarding their company's plans to mine asteroids in space:
PM: You want to put space telescopes in orbit to seek out asteroids rich in precious metals or water, and then send out robotic spacecraft to study and mine them. Are you serious?

Chris Lewicki: Yes. We're launching the first telescopes in 18 months, and we're actually building them ourselves in our own facility in Bellevue, Wa. We have a team of more than 30 engineers with long experience of doing this kind of thing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, myself included. Many of our team worked on designing and building NASA's Curiosity rover, and I was a system engineer on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers—and flight director when we landed them on Mars.

PM: How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need, and are they anything like Hubble?

Eric Anderson: We'd like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the next five years, some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They're a lot less capable than Hubble, which is a billion-dollar space vehicle the size of a school bus. Our telescopes, which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft, are cubes half-a-meter on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line. They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging capability.

CL: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch. Making them the size of a minifridge, with 22-centimeter-diameter optics, hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.

PM: How can you tell if an asteroid might have platinum, gold, or water deposits?

CL: We'll characterize them by studying their albedo—the amount of light that comes from them—and then with the appropriate instruments we can start to classify them, as to what type of asteroid they are, whether they are stony, metallic, or carbonaceous. We're starting with optical analyses, though we could use swarms of Arkyd 100s with spectroscopic, infrared, or ultraviolet sensors, too, if needed.

PM: Once you spot a likely asteroid, what then?

EA: We'll send other spacecraft out to intercept and study them. They will be rocket-assisted versions of the telescope—the Arkyd 200 for nearer Earth space, and the Arkyd 300, which is the same except that it will have a deep-space communications capability. We'll make sure we understand every cubic inch of that asteroid. We'll find out where it is, what its inertia is, what its spin rate is, whether it has been burned, impacted, or is carbonaceous or metallic. We'll know that asteroid inside and out before we go there and mine it.

PM: Will you be able to tell, remotely, if a space rock has lucrative platinum deposits, say?

CL: Probably not. But we would be able to tell metals from water or silicates. There's an asteroid out in the main belt right now called 24 Themis, and we've been able to sense water ice on its surface from way back here on Earth. Identifying metals will require spectrometry and direct analysis of the materials returned. The Arkyd 300 will get right up to the asteroid, land on it, and take samples—like NASA's NEAR and Japan's Hayabusa missions did—then return pictures, data, and grain samples back to Earth for analysis.

PM: Digging up ore on an asteroid 50 to 500 meters wide in zero gravity will be a tough task, even for robots. What technology will you use?

CL: The data the 300-series gathers will allow us to design the mining spacecraft. There are many, many different options for that. They could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial. Before we can begin the detailed design of a mining spacecraft, we need to actually go there, explore the asteroid and learn where the specific opportunities are.

PM: You've suggested an asteroid could be brought closer to the Earth to make it easier to mine. Is that really feasible?

EA: It is. One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 percent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

Another way is to set up a catapult on the asteroid itself and use the thermal energy of the sun to wind up the catapult. Then you throw stuff off in the opposite direction you want the asteroid to go. Conservation of momentum will eventually move the thing forward—like standing on a skateboard and shooting a gun.

CL: This is not only our view. A Keck Institute "return an asteroid study," involving people at JPL, NASA Johnson Space Center and Caltech, showed that the technology exists to place small asteroids a few meters wide in orbit around the moon for further study.

PM: Can you think of any other uses for asteroid repositioning?

EA: There is one incredible concept: We could place the asteroid in an orbit between the Earth and Mars to allow astronauts who want to get there to hop on and off it like a bus. Think about that. You could make a spacecraft out of the asteroid. _Slate
The use of an asteroid as a spacecraft is particularly exciting for anyone who wants to see a more rapid expansion of human activity into space. Not only could an asteroid be converted into an Earth to Mars roundtrip shuttle, but similar asteroid shuttles could be nudged into orbits going beyond Mars, to the asteroid belt and further yet.

And anyone wishing to travel interstellar on a "generation ship" could not wish for a better vehicle than a hollowed asteroid.

Stay tuned. Between SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Stratolaunch, etc., humans may just find a profitable and sustainable way to live in space -- and live well.

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12 July 2012

Private Space Launch: Enter the Virgin

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has decided to enter the orbital satellite launch field, using air-launch technology already developed for its sub-orbital space tourism project. Interestingly, asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources is one of the investors in the Virgin project (more).
The announcement isn’t a huge surprise, as it’s long been assumed the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft would serve as a launch platform for other space-bound vehicles beyond SpaceShipTwo. Keeping the naming of its space vehicles relatively simple, LauncherOne is capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to low earth orbit for less than $10 million.

“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space,” Branson said at Farnborough. “Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies. It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably.” _Wired

Also, see Brian Wang's take on the Virgin Galactic - Planetary Resources teamup

The Stratolaunch air launch system pictured above is a much larger version of an air-launch to orbit system, allowing for heavier payloads. Like the Virgin system, Stratolaunch allows for a very versatile approach to orbital insertions. The huge carrier craft serves as the "first stage" of the launch system, carrying the launch craft to altitude and providing a wider range of opportunistic launch attitudes than is conveniently possible for fixed launch sites.

In other recent space-related news:

The US Defense Department's DARPA is resuming efforts to develop a hypersonic "X-plane (HX). DARPA's plans are ambitious, and will require very rapid innovation and development in order to meet its schedule -- achieving a rocket launched hypersonic craft by the year 2016.
The hypersonic X-plane (HX) will launch using a disposable rocket stack, unlike previous models which have used space launch rockets, then begin its hypersonic glide. The plan is for the "highly manoeuvrable" vehicle to be recoverable, meaning it will either return to Earth with the help of a parachute, or possibly land on a runway.

Darpa is reigniting the hypersonic flight research with the intention of launching future missions ranging from "space access to survivable, time-critical transport [troop deployment] to conventional prompt global strike." _Wired

Development of the Skylon spaceplane has passed a critical milestone following tests on the key component for its Sabre engine.

The engine, being developed by Reaction Engines Ltd, looks set to revolutionise not only space travel but also air transport around the world.

It promises to allow a new generation of aircraft to fly from one side of the Earth to the other, e.g. the UK to Australia, in just four hours instead of the 22 or so needed nowadays.

But it will also provide sufficient boost to send the Skylon spaceplane into orbit where it could deliver satellites or link up with the International Space Station.

What makes Sabre different from other aircraft engines is a revolutionary ability to switch from an air-breathing mode to that of a rocket engine.

This hybrid function will allow it to power aircraft at up to five times the speed of sound within the atmosphere or directly into Earth orbit at 25 times the speed of sound. _Wired

Brian Wang has more on this development.

Hybrid engines of this type may provide a crucial weight savings in the early stages of the development of workable hypersonic craft. Engineers need to be cautious in avoiding excessive complexity in this new type of engine. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!) is the key, as far as it is possible.
The type of craft pictured above has been discussed by Brian Wang in multiple articles. It is powered in multiple ways: by chemical rocket, air-breathing propulsion, by MHD, and by dense plasma focus fusion -- all of which should combine to allow it to travel at very high velocities. It will require significant development of several components, including the focus fusion module, before it becomes practical.

Parts of the above posting were excerpted and adapted from an earlier article published on Al Fin Potpourri

Ideally, all components of the system would be reusable, to save on costs. There are several tradeoffs to be made in terms of launch platforms, launch attitudes, propulsion strategies: pure vs. hybrid vs multiple etc., numbers of propulsion stages, orbital vs sub-orbital flight, method of terrestrial return, and so on.

Hypersonic flight inside the Earth's atmosphere is very punishing, physically. Better types of outer covering materials are needed to provide greater durability for multiple flights. Alternatively, inexpensive spray-on outer skins may be applied prior to each flight, which will naturally ablate in the course of the flight.

An earlier Al Fin article on this topic

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29 June 2012

How Many People Could Live in a 100 km Tall Building?

In January of 2010, inspired by the opening of the world's tallest skyscraper the Burj Dubai, J. Storrs Hall described an easy and luxurious way of housing the entire world's population in an area the size of the US state of Montana. His plan called for one giant tower per square mile, allowing most of the land area in between the towers to be used for agriculture, parks, and recreation etc.



The image at left portrays the progression of tall buildings from the pyramids of Egypt to the Burj Dubai. With every increase in height for tall skyscrapers, the potential for housing more people within each building tends to grow.

Below and to the right you can see Hall's trend line for the world's tallest buildings. He projects that at that rate, the world's tallest building will reach 1 mile high by about the year 2065.



But now we learn that visionary architect Zhang Yue -- of China's Broad Group -- is already designing plans for a skyscraper that would reach roughly 1.25 miles (via Brian Wang)!

The Broad Group's current planned magnum opus -- the Broad Skycity One (pictured below right) -- is planned for the city of Changsha, and is slated to be 10 metres taller than the Burj (Khalifa) in Dubai. But apparently the world's tallest tower at 838 metres is not enough for Yue. He wants to build one that is 2 km tall!
The plan seems impossibly ambitious: Build a 220-story building, the tallest in the world, in just four months by using the rapid-construction techniques his company has developed.

Zhang, a slight but wiry and intense man of 52, says "Sky City" - as he has dubbed it - can fix many of the world's pollution, congestion, transportation and even disease problems by completely purifying the tower's air. The 838-meter-tall building (10 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world's tallest) will hold schools, a hospital, 17 helipads and some 30,000 people. It will, indeed, be a city in the sky.

His dreams don't stop there. Pinned up on his office wall are plans for a project even more audacious - an almost preposterously massive building two kilometers high. _Reuters (viaNBF)


When Josh Hall calculated that the entire population of the world could reside in a number of "Burj Dubais" scattered about the state of Montana, he was estimating the average human residency per building of around 40,000.

The Broad Group's Sky City One is designed to house 30,000 + people, along with shops, restaurants, hospitals, commercial offices, schools, and more. And each Sky City can be built in just 4 months.

This is roughly in line with J. Storrs Hall's plan to house the entire world's population in an area the size of Montana, placing one tower in the middle of each square mile of land area -- leaving the overwhelming balance of land for purposes other than housing, commerce, industry, etc. Each tower would be a city in itself.

But once Zhang Yue is able to scale up to his 2,000 metre (over 1.2 miles) towers, we can really start talking about increased population density.

Which brings us to another of J. Storrs Hall's fabulous ideas: A 100 km tall space pier, designed as a platform for space launch. Such a space pier would need to be supported by strong structures to maintain stability for safe launch. No one knows how to build 60 mile high structures safely -- for now.

But at the rate that Zhang Yue is going, it may not be many years before he is ready to tackle the project of building the towers to support the 100 km tall space pier. And how many people do you think he could house within each of his 100 km skyscrapers?

Perhaps Zhang Yue and Josh Hall should sit down for a talk, to mull over some of these ideas.

Link to earlier Al Fin article discussing placing the world's population inside the state of Montana

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19 June 2012

China Playing "Catch-Up" in Space Race

Update 27 June 2012: China Deeply Suspicious of USAF X-37B Spaceplane

China successfully docked its Shenzhou 9 spacecract with an orbiting spacelab, just weeks after private US space company SpaceX delivered cargo to the International Space Station. While China's accomplishment should be celebrated as a milestone in that nation's ability to achieve a human presence in space, we should have no illusions about China's current ranking in the international space race.

China's space activity is an appendage of its military organisation. That will be a drag on its speed of space accomplishments -- not only compared with much smaller and more nimble SpaceX, but even with the US military, significant parts of which have adopted the motto: "smaller, cheaper, faster, better."
...the X-37B seems to be a triumph of spacecraft reusability, the holy grail of latter-day western space flight. In December 2010, the first X-37B (called OTV-1) landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after a 220-day mission, its nose still glowing in infrared footage with the residual heat of its incandescent re-entry. Now that mission time has been more than doubled by the second vehicle which landed on 16 June: OTV-2 managed an astonishing 469 days in orbit. _NewScientist


In geopolitical terms, and at a time of major cost pressures, developing viable reusability like this is key. It is the major technology driver for SpaceX, for example, the first firm to fly a commercial cargo flight to the ISS and which is now converting that technology for crewed missions. Boeing says the X-37B is designed to develop "reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions". Its design is scalable, too, so larger versions could be made to carry astronauts.

So while China's achievement today is impressive, it's on the trailing edge of space-flight technology: the US and Russia docked with their own orbital space stations in the early 1970s - and even with each other in Apollo and Soyuz capsules in 1975. Congratulations to the Chinese space agency - but the landing of the X-37B only serves to show them how far they have to go. _NewScientist


USAF X37B Lands AFter 469 Days in Orbit

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09 June 2012

Hypersonic Scramjets, Spaceplanes, and Air Launched Orbitals

The Air Force's desired "High Speed Strike Weapon" would travel at five times the speed of sound or faster, theoretically launching from a stealthy F-22 Raptor jet or a future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and travelling so fast and at such long distances as to render an enemy's anti-aircraft systems defunct. The Air Force's Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate is gathering possible design partners later this month at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida before any solicitation. According to an Air Force notice, whatever prototype gets built will ultimately need to strike "time-critical" targets -- on the move, possibly -- from " tactically relevant standoff distances." _Wired
The hypersonic stealth missile would be powered by a scramjet air-breathing engine, traveling at speeds of Mach 5 or greater. While such a speed is not sufficient to achieve Earth orbit, it would allow jet pilots to launch from a considerable distance, in a stealthy manner.

Hypersonic Stealth Rocket

Meanwhile, the US Air Force X-37B space plane is due to land soon, after spending more than a year orbiting the Earth.
The X-37B looks much like NASA's now-retired space shuttles, only much smaller. The space plane is about 29 feet long by 15 feet wide, with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed. A solar array packed in the payload bay powers the spacecraft. For comparison, two entire X-37Bs could fit inside the payload bay of a space shuttle.

OTV-2's flight represents a big jump for the X-37B space plane. The vehicle has been aloft for 462 days as of June 8, more than doubling the on-orbit time of the first space-flown X-37B, known as OTV-1. _X37B Due to Land

US Air Force


The X-37B space plane is unmanned, and is launched vertically on a large booster. But the technology for air-launching larger space vehicles and space planes is improving, thanks to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan.
The Stratolaunch system would super-size the arrangement used for the SpaceShipOne launches: Scaled Composites has been tapped to build a carrier airplane that weighs more than 1.2 million pounds, with a wingspan of more than 380 feet. That tonnage rivals the weight of the Antonov An-225, which is recognized as the world's heaviest aircraft. Stratolaunch's dual-fuselage plane would be powered by six 747 engines, and would require a 12,000-foot runway for landing.

...The plane would be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to reach its launch point. SpaceX would provide a shortened version of its Falcon 9 rocket for the next phase of Stratolaunch's route to orbit. Wentz described it as a "Falcon 4 or 5." The multistage booster would be attached to the plane using a mating and integration system developed by Dynetics, and released during the mothership's flight at 30,000 feet. After release, the 490,000-pound rocket would light up to send commercial and government payloads weighing up to 13,500 pounds into low Earth orbit. _Cosmic Log

Stratolaunch

The advantages of an air launch are several, perhaps the largest being the much wider range of orbits and launch windows achievable using much less fuel.

Combining the approaches discussed above, would give one an air-launched stealth plane which used hypersonic scramjet engines to save rocket fuel in the "second stage." The "first stage" would be the airplane that launched the spaceplane. Airplanes are highly economical and reliable, and completely reusable.

Hypersonic scramjets as a second stage should also allow complete recovery and re-usability, depending on configuration and design. Eventually, the first stage ground launched airplanes might incorporate both air breathing turbines and hypersonic scramjet engines, but such designs have a ways to go in testing. Clearly the huge Stratolaunch design could not tolerate such speeds.

Wikipedia: Scramjet and Specific Impulse

The third stage would be the spaceplane itself, which can grow larger as the first stage is safely enlarged. The spaceplane should be completely reusable, and should be able to land almost anytime and anywhere on Earth with a suitable runway.

As for stealth capability of the ground launcher and space plane, that would be a matter of design and mission requirement. If you wanted to secretly send a spaceplane and crew into orbit, the best way to do so would be using stealth air-launched spaceplane technology, unannounced, taking off from a secret runway in the Southern Hemisphere, as far away from observers as possible.

The United States is unlikely to pull something like that off without multiple leaks to the press and interested foreign powers. Russia is unlikely to be able to put all the technology and logistics together without disastrous failure. China might be able to put something similar together within 10 years, but unless China's international projection of power and coordinated activity expands significantly, it is unlikely to be able to do so secretly.

Guide to spaceplanes of the past


More 14 June: The scramjet needs to be traveling at supersonic speeds before it will work, so any second stage of an air launch system which uses scramjets will need to have some way to reach a speed fast enough for the scramjet to burn properly.

NASA: Rocket - Scramjet Hybrid Second Stage (PDF) (highly redacted)

Air Breathing Space Vehicles

Scramspace: An Australian Project

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06 June 2012

Moon Express Acquires Next Giant Leap: Now 25 Teams Competing for Google Lunar X Prize

The Google Lunar X Prize is the largest incentive prize in history -- a reflection of the vast technological and financial challenges of landing a spacecraft on the Moon. First prize of $20 million (£13m) will be awarded to the first company to land a robotic rover on the Moon, travel 500 metres and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.

Although the NGL acquisition removes a competitor there are still 24 other teams competing for the $30m (£20m) prize pot. The runner-up gets $5 million (£3.2m) and the remaining $5m prize money will be made available to teams that go beyond the basic requirements -- such as travelling five kilometres, capturing images of relics of the Apollo programme, verifying the presence of water, or surviving a lunar night. But there is a time limit. Whoever makes it to the Moon must do so by the end of 2015 when the prize fund expires. _Wired
The Google Lunar X First Prize of $20 million will go to the first team to safely land a robot on the moon, have the robot travel at least 500 metres on the lunar surface, and send images, video, and data back to Earth. As noted above, this feat must be achieved on or before December 31, 2015.

The acquisition of Next Giant Leap by Moon Express, Inc., reduces the number of competing teams to 25. Don't be surprised if their are more acquisitions and mergers over the next year or so, as teams become pressed by the deadline and attempt to combine their strengths.

More about the recent acquisition:
Moon Express Inc, a company set up to explore and mine the Moon for precious resources, has acquired Next Giant Leapto advance its plans to be the first company to land a spacecraft on Earth's natural satellite.
The Next Giant Leap acquisition gives Moon Express access to additional technology and scientists, as well as the benefit of several strategic partnerships with companies such as Sierra Nevada Corporation, The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, MIT Space Systems Laboratory, Aurora Flight Services, Jolted Media Group, The Centre for Space Entrepreneurship (eSpace) and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
The company plans to send its first robotic lander to the Moon in late 2014, to be launched atop of either SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket or other commercial launch vehicle._Wired
As noted, the Moon Express team plans to launch in 2014, possibly using a SpaceX booster.

It is interesting to see the list of strategic partners that the Next Giant Leap team brings to the table. Such partnerships can be extremely valuable in terms of sharing experience and research, and in facilitating necessary product deliveries etc.

If this competition is successful, we may see a proliferation of similar prizes meant to spur visionary and potentially disruptive technological developments.

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25 May 2012

SpaceX Dragon Hooks Up with ISS in Orbit

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


The International Space Station's crew reached out today with a robotic arm to grab SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule and brought it in for the orbital outpost's first-ever hookup with a commercial spaceship.

It marks the station's first linkup with a U.S.-made spacecraft since last year's retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of commercial cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.

"Today, this really is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program. _CosmicLog

Keep watching the video through the initial ad, the news story, and subsequent ad. The actual video footage of the linkup itself is provided along with a view of the Houston control centre. More SpaceX news coverage follows after each subsequent ad.

Brian Wang has more on SpaceX : ISS hookup

New Scientist interviews SpaceX founder Elon Musk on past and future of company

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22 May 2012

Not as Easy as it Looks


Video via Telegraph Coverage at link

More from Wired

National Geographic Coverage

The planned future of NASA's collaboration with private space taxis

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21 May 2012

SpaceX Launch Time Set for 03:44 EDT 22 May 2012


If all goes as planned, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 3:44 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time tomorrow. The Falcon 9 will loft the company’s Dragon space capsule into orbit. The Dragon is slated to become the first privately operated spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station, delivering a payload of crew rations and other cargo to the six astronauts on the station.

If the mission unfolds smoothly, SpaceX will begin regular deliveries of supplies to the space station. The company has agreed to send 12 cargo capsules to the space station over the next few years, at a total cost to NASA of $1.6 billion. Someday, a human-rated Dragon capsule could ferry astronauts, not just cargo, to and from orbit. But first the Falcon 9 rocket must get off the ground. _Sciam
Problems with last weekend's planned launch are being blamed on a faulty valve, which allowed pressures in the #5 engine combustion chamber to climb to marginally high levels -- automatically scrubbing the closely timed launch.
SpaceX has replaced a faulty valve that led to the aborted launch attempt early Saturday morning and is currently planning a second launch attempt at 3:44 a.m. EDT Tuesday, May 22. The first launch attempt was unsuccessful after a last-half-second shutoff occurred due to higher than acceptable pressure in the combustion chamber of one of the Falcon 9′s Merlin rocket engines.

After examining the problematic engine, SpaceX engineers were able to trace the high-pressure problem to a valve that controls the flow of nitrogen used to purge the engine before ignition. Using the inert nitrogen gas to purge rocket engines is common and has been used for decades. The nitrogen displaces gases and/or liquids, effectively cleaning the engine and preventing any volatile mixtures before ignition.

A check valve that allows the nitrogen purge prior to ignition in the Merlin engine was stuck open just before launch. This stuck valve allowed “liquid oxygen to flow from the main injector [for the rocket engine itself] into the gas generator injector” that generates hot turbine gas, which drives the turbopumps, according to SpaceX. The turbopumps (pictured) are basically very high-powered fuel and oxidizer pumps that deliver the liquids to the main combustion chamber of the rocket. The result was the turbopumps were operating at a slightly higher power level, resulting in the high pressure detected in the combustion chamber on engine five. _Wired

The more moving parts an engine contains, the more potential for such problems as apparently occurred. Potential hazards tend to expand exponentially at the kinds of pressures and temperatures which are normally found in and around rocket engines such as SpaceX's Merlin.

Here is a SpaceX flashback to 2003, containing a report on early tests and plans for the Merlin engine and the company. Such looks back are likely to prove nostalgic, should SpaceX achieve tomorrow morning's launch, and succeed in this and subsequent missions.

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19 May 2012

High Combustion Chamber Pressure Reading in Engine 5 Aborts SpaceX Launch

All nine engines for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life Saturday morning. But with a mere half-second remaining before liftoff, the onboard computers automatically shut everything down. So instead of blasting off on a delivery mission to the space station, the rocket stayed on its launch pad amid a plume of engine exhaust.

...SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said that high combustion chamber pressure in engine No. 5 was to blame and that technicians would conduct an inspection later in the day. If the engine needs to be replaced, a spare is available.

Tuesday is the earliest that SpaceX can try again to send its cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the space station. The California-based company - formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - is targeting every few days for a launch attempt to save fuel in case of rendezvous problems at the space station. Wednesday also could be a launch option. _SeattleTimes
Over 1,000 guest observers left Cape Canaveral disappointed, early this morning. But SpaceX officials vow to persist until they achieve a successful launch and docking with the international space station (ISS).

This morning's launch required precise timing in order to achieve full mission goals. Even one second's delay in launch would have prevented the mission from proceeding to completion, thus the absolute abort and computer shutdown when the anomalous pressure reading was detected.

Saturday morning's setback is the latest in a long line of delays for the private space company. And yet, SpaceX remains on the path to set countless records for private space missions, in addition to the records it has already set. The smart money continues to bet on SpaceX.

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15 May 2012

Private Space Companies: Don't Try to Convince People -- Just Do It

At 4:55 a.m. on Saturday, a rocket is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and carry cargo — but no people — to the International Space Station.

But if all goes as planned, that morning will mark something transformative for the space industry: a victory for capitalism in what has been for decades a government-run enterprise. The capsule, built by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX, for short — would be the first commercial spacecraft to make it to the space station, and many observers view its launching as the starting gun in an entrepreneurial race to turn space travel into a profit-making business in which NASA is not necessarily the biggest customer. _NYT

SpaceX Falcoln 9 Hotfire Test of First Stage
The long-awaited mission will, if all goes well, combine the milestones of two separate missions, designated C2 and C3, originally planned as part of NASA’s award to SpaceX under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. This “C2+” mission will perform a series of maneuvers in the vicinity of the station—milestones from the original C2 mission—and, if all goes well, then approach the station, whose robot arm will grapple the spacecraft and berth it—milestones from the C3 mission.

That mission will begin with the launch of the Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral at 4:55 am EDT on Saturday, May 19. The launch window is instantaneous, leaving no margin for error in the event of a technical or meteorological issue during the countdown. Moreover, launch opportunities are only once every three days, something SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at a press conference last month was designed to minimize the propellant Dragon will have to use to reach the ISS, maximizing the amount available for maneuvering in the station’s vicinity.

After the Falcon 9’s second stage places Dragon into an approximately 310 by 340 kilometer orbit, the spacecraft will spend two days gradually maneuvering towards the ISS. On Day 3 of the mission, Dragon will move to a position 2.5 kilometers below the ISS, then fly around the station before returning to that initial location, demonstrating its ability to precisely and safely fly in proximity to the ISS. As soon as the following day, pending approval from NASA, Dragon will approach the station, holding at positions 250 and then 30 meters from it, before moving to its “capture point” 10 meters below the station. At that point, the station’s Canadarm2 will grapple Dragon and berth it to the Earth-facing node on the station’s Harmony module.

Should all that go according to plan, the station’s crew will open the hatches between the station and Dragon the following day and start to unload the 520 kilograms of cargo it contains. While not an official cargo delivery flight under SpaceX’s separate Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, the Dragon is carrying some relatively nonessential cargo, including food and other supplies, as well as a laboratory module for NanoRacks, a company that provides access to the station for commercial and educational research.

After about two weeks on the station, the Dragon will be loaded with 660 kilograms of cargo for return to Earth, including experiments and unneeded equipment. Dragon will undock, maneuver away from the station, and reenter, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California... _Space Review
That is the plan, anyway. In a few days, we will see if things go according to plan.
...Only recently have smaller, nimbler companies like SpaceX, some of them run by billionaires who proved themselves in other fields, started trying to compete as equals with NASA and its major contractors. (Mr. Musk, for example, is an Internet entrepreneur who founded PayPal.)

...Already, there are some hints of how the era of commercial space travel might unfold. Companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Space Adventures are booking passengers on suborbital joy rides to space, promised for dates within the next few years, and hundreds of people are signing up. And already there are celebrity tie-ins: Among the people who have signed up for Virgin’s first flights are Ashton Kutcher, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Katy Perry.

On a more mundane note, the launching of commercial satellites has been a steady business for decades, and SpaceX is among the companies already competing for contracts. Indeed, SpaceX already seems to have built a viable business here, having announced more than $1 billion of contracts in the last few years.

Then there are the longer-term dreams, which may sound less far-fetched as each landmark in space travel grows nearer.

“I think humanity needs to get to Mars, one way or another,” said Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, who vows that his company will send people to Mars in as little as 10 years — more likely 15 years, and certainly within 20. He said he would do this with or without NASA: “I would prefer it would be with NASA. If not, we have to find another path.” _NYT
For humans to be able to move around the solar system quickly enough to make a difference, we will need better methods of propulsion. Perhaps something like an antimatter rocket:
First, some basic rocket science. The maximum speed of a rocket depends on its exhaust velocity, the fraction of mass devoted to fuel and the configuration of the rocket stages. "The latter two factors depend strongly on fine details of engineering and construction, and when considering space propulsion for the distant future, it seems appropriate to defer the study of such specifics," say Keane and Zhang.

So these guys focus on the exhaust velocity--the speed of the particles produced in matter-antimatter annihilations as they leave the rocket engine.

The thrust from these annihilations comes largely from using a magnetic field to deflect charged particles created in the annihilation. These guys focus on the annihilation of protons and antiprotons to produce charged pions.

So an important factor is how efficiently the magnetic field can channel these particles out of the nozzle.

In fact, the exhaust velocity of these pions depends on two factors--their average initial velocity when they are created and the efficiency of the magnetic nozzle design.

In the past, various physicists have calculated that the pions should travel at over 90 per cent the speed of light but that the nozzle would be only 36 per cent efficient. That translates into an average exhaust velocity of only a third of lightspeed, barely relativistic and somewhat of a disappointment for antimatter propulsion fans.

All that is set to change now, however. Keane and Zhang have come up with a different set of figures with the help of software developed by CERN that simulates the interaction between particles, matter and fields of various kinds. _TechnologyReview
More from Brian Wang:

How Space Can Open Up a World of Unprecedented Abundance

Anticipated Propulsion Breakthroughs

Ultimately, it is a waste of time to try to convince people that you are going to do something spectacular. The best approach is to just do it.

At this time, the governments and inter-governments of the world exist to limit what individuals and groups of independent individuals can do. Such limitations will not always be in force, for all humans everywhere.

Remember: It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood. The world of the future will need as many dangerous children as it can get.

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12 May 2012

Private Space Habitat: 2015 -- SpaceX & Bigelow Team Up

SpaceX is busy gearing up for a date with the International Space Station, but the company now has a second invite to one that doesn't exist yet. SpaceX has announced that it will help fellow private spaceflight firm Bigelow carry its inflatable modules into orbit, with the goal of connecting a bunch to form a proper station.

...The lynchpin is the company's seven-person Dragon capsule, which has so far cleared seven of the 10 checks NASA requires before the agency deems the craft as safe for ferrying human cargo. The Dragon capsule will launch atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, and the vehicle is one of the options on the table NASA is considering to further its manned space ambitions in sub-orbit. That cargohold could also include inflatable habitats by Bigelow Aerospace, as both Bigelow and SpaceX just inked a new deal to see it happen. Sometime after SpaceX is ready to rumble, Bigelow will go through the company to launch its BA 330 modules, the latest orbital habitat Bigelow has developed and one that offers 330 square meters of space in an environment that's safer than the International Space Station, according to the firm. While it was once thought that Bigelow would immediately turn these into space hotels for rich thrill seekers, the 330s would instead be joined to form commercial space, one that countries without an advanced program can use for orbital experiments. Of course, before any of that happens, SpaceX has a date with destiny — and the ISS. Right now that rendezvous is scheduled for May 19, though there have been several delays and could be more. _DVice
DVice
Bigelow is partnering with SpaceX to work with its BA 330 module, an inflatable habitat based on NASA technology that can hold around six astronauts in relative comfort. The Nevadan company, set up by Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suite hotel chain, has had two test facilities in orbit for years and now appears ready to move into commercial operation.

...The BA 330 is the latest design from Bigelow, giving 330 square meters of habitat when fully inflated. The walls of the shelter are made up of eight layers of materials designed to offer better defense for occupants, and Bigelow claims it offers full radiation protection and better micrometeorite safety than the International Space Station's rigid walls.

..."SpaceX and BA have a lot in common. Both companies were founded to help create a new era in space enterprise," said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. "Together we will provide unique opportunities to entities - whether nations or corporations - wishing to have crewed access to the space environment for extended periods."_TheRegister
Once SpaceX demonstrates its ability to reliably supply materials and men to orbital space, it will be able to boost Bigelow's inflatable habitats into orbit.

The goal for $billionaires and would-be $trillionaires such as Bigelow and Musk (of SpaceX), is to develop as many profitable ways of entering and utilising outer space as possible. While actual moon-mining and asteroid-mining may still be a decade or more away, there are a lot of preliminaries to get through, and many other possible ways of profiting from outer space access.

Once the profits start flowing in, the need for a permanent human presence in space will evolve. More: Brian Wang at NextBigFuture takes a look at the collaboration between SpaceX and Bigelow

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19 April 2012

Can Ross Perot Jr. and the Google Founders Save the Earth from Obama, Putin, Castro, etc.?

There is no better way for a $billionaire to become a $trillionaire than by breaking through into a lucrative space enterprise -- by exploiting a new frontier. The table below lists a number of super-rich individuals who would like to bring about a brave new future in outer space and elsewhere, and to hopefully profit by doing so.
Wired
Now Ross Perot Jr. -- the son of the billionaire former US presidential candidate -- and the founders of Google, are getting involved with a few other investors in a new space venture, which may have the goal of mining the asteroids.
On Tuesday, a new company called Planetary Resources will announce its existence at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at The Museum of Flight in Seattle. It's not clear what the firm does, but its roster of backers incudes Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, filmmaker James Cameron, former Microsoftie (and space philanthropist) Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate. According to the company's press release (below):
[...] the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
That sounds like asteroid mining. Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? _TechnologyReview
While details of the new company, called Planetary Resources, Inc., have been kept secret, officials familiar with the firm said that “the company will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” according to media reports on April 18.
As well as support from Cameron, director of blockbuster movies Avatar and Titanic, the company is being backed by Google cofounders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft exec Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., son of former presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Planetary Resources Inc. was co-founded by commercial space pioneers Peters Diamandis and Eric Anderson. Diamandis is chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which offers prizes for technological feats. He is also co-founder of Zero-G Corporation, which offers commercial flights to experience weightlessness aboard a modified Boeing 727-200 jet. Anderson is the chairman and co-founder of Space Adventures, a multi-million-dollar flight company that offers space flights to the International Space Station for private citizens, such as Simonyi, who flew to the ISS twice with Space Adventures, most recently in 2009, which cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million.
Tuesday’s event will also include former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki and planetary scientist and veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, PhD. The conference will begin at 10:30 a.m. and be available online via webcast. Tickets to the event cost $25.

When Planetary Resources reveals its plans next week, it will be the second billionaire-backed private space company launched within the last six months. _RedOrbit
More from Forbes
Brian Wang at NextBigFuture is likely to provide more details as they become available

There are very few true frontiers, beyond the deadening influence of autocrats and would-be autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez, and the rest of the usual suspects who are seemingly dedicated to preventing an abundant and open ended human future.

But it is the frontiers where truly revolutionary change is likely to be generated. Humans have been tied down by the political forces of stasis for most of their modern existence. A bit of frontier excitement seems long overdue.

More: Brian Westenhaus weighs in on the promise of asteroid mining

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16 March 2012

Outer Space to Earth: Hit Me With Your Best Shot!

Dr George Maise invented the Startram orbital launch system along with Dr James Powell, who is one of the inventors of superconducting maglev - for which he won the 2002 Franklin Medal in engineering. Startram is in essence a superconducting maglev launch system. _Gizmag
When we think about space elevators and other high altitute electromagnetic space launch methods, we are typically concerned about creating materials that are strong enough to support the weight of the massive launch apparatus. The Startram approach to cheap, high frequency space launch turns this thinking on its head, by utilising a form of electromagnetic levitation which requires the launch apparatus to be tethered to prevent it from whipping out into space.
All Images Courtesy of Gizmag

It's easy to levitate objects electromagnetically. If you push enough current through two conductors in opposite directions, the conductors will be subject to a force pushing them apart. The more current the greater the force. With the advent of superconducting cables being developed for superconducting power grids, it is now possible to construct cables which can carry hundreds of megamps of current. These amperages are sufficient to supply a levitating force of 4 tons per meter of startram guideway, even when the conductors are separated by 20km.

...One of the challenges of the Space Elevator concept is to engineer tethers that have breaking lengths (i.e. the length of tether can attain before it breaks under its own weight) of thousands of kilometers. Startram tethers, in contrast, needs tethers with breaking lengths of only tens of kilometers, which is well within the specifications of modern fibers. _Startram Technology
The Startram launch tubes are evacuated in order to reduce friction losses from air resistance during high velocity launch. According to the developers, the system can be built using existing materials and technologies.
The scope of the project is challenging. A launch system design for routine passenger flight into LEO should have rather low acceleration - perhaps about 3 g's maximum, which then requires 5 minutes of acceleration to reach LEO transfer velocities. In that period, the spacecraft will have traveled 1,000 miles (1,609 km). The maglev track must be 1,000 miles in length - similar in size to maglev train tracks being considered for cross-country transportation.

Like a train, the Startram track can follow the surface of the Earth for most of this length. Side forces associated with the curvature of the surface can be accommodated by the design, but not the drag and sonic shock waves of a craft traveling at hypersonic velocity at sea level - the spacecraft and launching track would be torn to shreds.

To avoid this, the Startram track must be contained inside a vacuum tube with vents to allow air compressed in front of the spacecraft to escape the tube. A vacuum equivalent to atmospheric conditions at an altitude of 75 km (about 0.01 Torr) should suffice for the efficient operation of the Startram launch system. Rapid pumping to achieve this pressure will be provided by a magnetohydrodynamic vacuum pump.

If the entire Startram tube is at sea level, on exiting the tube the spacecraft will suddenly be subjected to several hundred g's due to atmospheric drag - rather like hitting a brick wall. To reduce this effect to a tolerable acceleration, the end of the Startram vacuum tube must be elevated to an altitude of about 20 km (12 miles). At this height, the initial deceleration from atmospheric drag will be less than 3 g's, and will rapidly decrease as the spacecraft reaches higher altitudes.... how do we hold up the exit end of the Startram vacuum tube? Well, the tube already contains superconducting cable and rings. Powell and Maise realized that the tube could be magnetically levitated to this altitude. If we arrange that there is a superconducting cable on the ground carrying 200 million amperes, and a superconducting cable in the launch tube carrying 20 million amperes, at an altitude of 20 km there will be a levitating force of about 4 tons per meter of cable length - more than enough to levitate the launch tube. _Gizmag
Sandia National Laboratories has carried out a '"murder-squad" investigation of the Startram concept, whose purpose is to find any flaw in a proposed project. They gave Startram a clean bill of health. Estimates suggest that building a passenger-capable Startram would require 20 years and a construction budget (ignoring inflation and overoptimism) of about $60 billion.

Why take on such an enormous project? Simple - $50 per kilogram amortized launch costs. The total worldwide cost of developing and using rocket-based space travel is more than $500 billion. The Space Shuttle program cost about $170 billion. The International Space Station has cost about $150 billion to date. _Gizmag
If access to space can be made safe and routine, humans will suddenly find ways to make space travel and habitation safe, sustainable, and profitable. The challenge of surviving and prospering in space is the type of challenge which malaise-laden modern humans need, to revive a much needed sense of transcendence and open-ended overcoming.

Startram website

Why it is so important for people of the western world to find their way into space

More: Brian Wang is also beginning to look at this exciting space launch technology

First published on Al Fin Potpourri

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