Tag Archives: SpaceX

Elon Musk’s Roadster will most likely crash into Earth or Venus millions of years from now

Elon Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster that was recently shot into space on the most powerful operational rocket in the world will eventually collide with Earth or Venus — but that’s millions of years from now.

Credit: SpaceX.

The car and an onboard dummy named “Starman” acted as a test payload for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6. Not only was the launch a resounding success, with two of the reusable side boosters making a perfect, synchronized soft landing, it also provided both SpaceX and Tesla with great publicity.

Right now, the Roadster is set on crossing orbit between Earth and Mars, which will see it travel on an elliptical path beyond Mars and then back to Earth’s orbital distance from the sun. Each time the car comes close to Earth, it will get a gravitational kick that will send it into a wider or smaller obit. Over multiple iterations, Elon’s Roadster could end up on a pretty wild orbit — but where to?

It’s possible to rather easily determine where the roadster will end over a couple of orbital cycles. The thing is that there are so many variables that it becomes almost impossible to precisely predict where the car will end up after a certain number of cycles. It’s just like weather forecasting — scientists can come up with a fairly accurate forecast for tomorrow but for each additional day, the projection deviates from reality more and more.

You might have heard of the “butterfly effect”, which is to say that a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. Over time, minute changes compound so much that the expected outcome wildly differs from what you actually get. That’s why the weather forecast seven days in advance is not very accurate — but it’s still better than flipping a coin.

And just like weather forecasters perform dozens of parallel simulations and pick the likeliest outcome, physicists at the University of Toronto Scarborough studied a large number of simulations and arrived at a statistical distribution of possible outcomes. Their analysis suggests that the Tesla Roadster will collide with Earth or Venus over the next million years with a probability of 6 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. That’s about what scientists expect from the class of small bodies on Earth-crossing orbits termed Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs.

The first close encounter with Earth that the Tesla will have will be in 2091 when simulations suggest it will pass within few hundred thousand kilometers of the planet.

“Each time it passes Earth, the car will get a gravitational kick,” says Dan Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow at U of T Scarborough who is a co-author on the paper that has yet to be published.

“Although we are not able to tell on which planet the car will ultimately end up, we’re comfortable saying it won’t survive in space for more than a few tens of millions of years,” he says.

Tamayo and Hanno Rein, also a physicist at U of T Scarborough, only calculated the Tesla’s trajectory for the next three million years but the two are confident that the most likely outcome for the electric car is to crash into Earth or Venus in about ten million years. There’s an 11-percent chance of it smashing into Earth after three million years.

If it does crash into Earth, there would be no danger since the Tesla won’t be able to survive atmospheric re-entry.

This is all actually very good news for many scientists who were concerned the Tesla might crash into Mars, contaminating it with Earth microbes. And what’s more, the car might not even get a chance to crash into Earth in the first place. According to Tom Narita, an astrophysicist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the Roadster could be obliterated by high-speed space dust and cosmic ray radiation. In only a couple of years, all the plastic and rubber in the car should get shred into pieces by radiation while the metal structure itself can last for hundreds of thousands of years.

Falcon Heavy Rocket.

SpaceX to test the world’s most powerful operational rocket, the Falcon Heavy, later today

Later today, SpaceX will be test-firing the firm’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, which is earmarked to shuttle humans to Mars.

Falcon Heavy Rocket.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket. Image credits SpaceX.

The Falcon Heavy has the distinction of being the most powerful operational rocket today and the second most powerful rocket humanity has ever built — outclassed in payload capacity only by NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which put a man on the Moon.

The Falcon Heavy, on the other hand, is Elon Musk’s attempt to put a man on Mars. It’s a long and hard trek, so the vessel is about twice as powerful as its closest operational competitor. It’s an impressive bit of technology that SpaceX wants to make sure works perfectly on the first try. As such, the company will test fire the rocket’s (impressive) array of 27 engines today, Tuesday 15th, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET.

“With more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy will be the most capable rocket flying,” SpaceX states on its website. “By comparison, the liftoff thrust of the Falcon Heavy equals approximately 18 747 aircraft at full power.”

The only rocket that could carry a larger payload into orbit was the Saturn V, but that’s last been flown in 1973. It needs all that oomph, too, as the biggest challenge of sending a crew to Mars is the weight of the payload, around 10 times more than that of the Curiosity Rover.

Musk has high hopes for the Falcon Heavy. The billionaire has repeatedly talked about his ambition to make humanity a multi-planetary species, even calling for the President’s support in this endeavor last February. He even went as far as to goad his competition on if it gets us to that point sooner.

The Mars mission is just the first step on that path, but it could completely make or break Musk’s vision. A failure here could stifle the excitement in space travel for whole generations to come — and a success could galvanize societies across the Earth in a manner we haven’t seen in decades.

SpaceX is investing heavily in the hopes that the latter outcome comes to pass. According to NASA estimates, the company is investing around 320 million USD on the mission, a sum the agency will also contribute to. It makes perfect economic sense for NASA to do so as well since they can piggy-back on the company’s technological improvements — for example, use of SpaceX Dragon capsules allowed NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) at a fraction of its previous costs.

Fingers crossed for a successful test!

Credit: SpaceX.

Elon Musk shows off Falcon Heavy one month before its maiden flight

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will soon become the most powerful U.S. rocket to be launched since the Saturn rockets were retired in 1972. Its maiden flight is scheduled for next month — a great way for SpaceX to start off the new year. In anticipation of an important milestone, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, recently shared a few of photos of Falcon Heavy.

Engineers are currently making the finishing touches to the rocket at SpaceX’s hangar at Pad 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It’s where the three photos shared by Musk were taken.

The stunning views manage to capture the immensity and raw power of this rocket.

Credit: SpaceX.

Credit: SpaceX.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially made up of three Falcon 9s strapped together, which allows it to ferry roughly three times more payload into space than a single Falcon. Its design was first unveiled in 2011 but a series of setbacks have delayed the launch.

Credit: SpaceX.

Credit: SpaceX.

The 224-feet-tall (68.4 meters) rocket is capable of delivering 54 metric tons (119,000 lb) of payload (satellites, cargo, astronauts etc.) into Earth’s low orbit to the moon or even to Mars. That’s the mass equivalent of a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.  It can even carry up to 4,000 kilograms of payload to Pluto!

No other rocket will be more power once the Falcon Heavy enters operation. And like all the new SpaceX rockets, the rocket will be fully reusable, which might cut launch costs a hundredfold. 

Credit: SpaceX.

Credit: SpaceX.

Earlier this year, in May, SpaceX fired Falcon Heavy’s core stage for the first time. The Falcon Heavy is expected to perform its first static-fire test on Pad 39A by the end of this year. One month from now, if everything goes well, the rocket will be prepared for the ultimate test: its maiden voyage into space. Its first payload? What else but Musk’s own cherry-read Tesla Roadster.

Once the Falcon Heavy finally enters in operation, the ‘most powerful rocket’ crown might not last long. That distinction will soon belong to NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System that will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.

 

Crew Capsule 2.0 and its huge windows after it safely touched down on Tuesday. Credit: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin makes first test flight in over a year, tests new Crew Capsule

Blue Origin performed its first test flight in 14 months on December 12, before noon, in Texas. During the test, the company tested a new version of its reusable rocket and a capsule capable of carrying six passengers to space. Blue Origin and SpaceX are the only space ventures, private or public, which have demonstrated reusable space flight systems.

Crew Capsule 2.0 and its huge windows after it safely touched down on Tuesday. Credit: Blue Origin.

Crew Capsule 2.0 and its huge windows after it safely touched down on Tuesday. Credit: Blue Origin.

The revamped New Shepard system is equipped with a next-generation booster, which brought the novel Crew Capsule 2.0 to about 99km above sea level or almost to the edge of space. At an ascent velocity of Mach 2.94, the capsule detached from the booster and fired its parachutes to gently touch the ground at only 1mph. Meanwhile, the booster made a controlled landing.

In other words, the test was a sound success.

Blue Origin, which is owned by the billionaire Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, last fired New Shepard 14 months ago when it aced an abort-test flight. Since then, the company has mostly kept to itself. Even yesterday’s results weren’t confirmed by Blue Origin, which is very secretive, perhaps, because it’s experimenting with new technology.

The New Shepard booster made a controlled landing at just 6.75mph. Credit: Blue Origin.

The New Shepard booster made a controlled landing at just 6.75mph. Credit: Blue Origin.

For instance, during its previous test, Blue Origin’s capsule had painted-on windows. The 2.0-version has actual windows, which are 3.6 feet tall, the largest any spacecraft has even been fitted with. The inside space is also generous, the capsule offering 530 cubic feet (15 cubic meters) of interior volume. That’s comfortable enough for six passengers to perform somersaults inside.

On Tuesday, Blue Origin also launched a test dummy called “Mannequin Skywalker” with the capsule, along with commercial, research, and education payloads. The test dummy is littered with sensors whose collected data will tell Blue Origin engineers how close they are to guaranteeing passenger safety.

Mannequin Skywalker landed back safely. Credit: Blue Origin.

Mannequin Skywalker landed back safely. Credit: Blue Origin.

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are two companies at the very forefront of modern spaceflight technology. Both are capable of launching and landing their respective rocket boosters — something that might slash costs 100-fold — but, for now, at least, the two are using different strategies. SpaceX is focused on delivering cargo (and soon people, too) to the International Space Station, with the ultimate goal of reaching Mars. Blue Origin, on the other hand, wants to do space tourism, perhaps with the first such flight ready as early as 18 months from now. There is yet no information on how much a seat would cost.

Engines at MacGregor.

Experimental SpaceX engine explodes during trials, damaging the McGregor, Texas facilities

SpaceX’s McGregor facilities in Central Texas were rocked this Sunday as a Merlin engine exploded during testing. Two of the facility’s test bays were damaged, but nobody was harmed according to SpaceX.

Merlins.

Nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage.
Image credits SpaceX.

An explosion on Sunday (November 4) rocked SpaceX’s rocket-development facility at McGregor, Texas. The engine in question is being developed for the Block 5 version of SpaceX’s tried-and-true Falcon 9 craft. The explosion occurred before the engine was lit, during a procedure known as a LOX drop. The step involves pumping liquid oxygen through the engine to check for potential leaks, and an unknown event caused the liquid within the rocket to ignite.

Being an engine-in-development, the company is confident that its current launch manifest won’t be affected by the event. Three to four more launches are planned for this year (and the start of 2018), all of which will be powered by the Block 4 and an earlier version of the Merlin.

“All safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident,” said a company spokesman, John Taylor. “We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause. SpaceX is committed to our current manifest, and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.”

Nobody was hurt in the event, but it did damage the facility. SpaceX has three engine test stands in use at McGregor: one for the Merlin line of engines, one for the newer and more powerful Raptor, and one dedicated to upper-stage engines. Both bays of the Merlin stand were damaged. SpaceX said one of them should be up and running within a couple of days, while the other may require up to four weeks of repair works.

Engines at MacGregor.

Two SpaceX Merlin 1D engines on a test stand at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas.
Image credits SpaceX.

If repairs on the first bay go as planned, the company should be able to continue “acceptance testing” for its Block 4 Merlin engines. This represents the penultimate test before a rocket is assembled, shipped to the launch site, and the entire booster undergoes a static fire test on the launch pad.

The Block 5 variant is expected to improve the Falcon 9’s overall performance, in particular making it simpler and faster to re-use. It’s also this variant that Elon Musk plans to use for commercial crew flights, the missions which will ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Needless to say, SpaceX has a lot riding on the Block 5 working properly, and on time. A maiden flight hasn’t been announced but was widely expected to take place at some point in 2018. However, testing of the Block 5 Merlin engine will be suspended until the cause of that ignition is found and fixed. SpaceX anticipates that a full investigation into the incident will take several weeks, which may delay the debut.

Falcon 9 booster.

Tonight, SpaceX will live-broadcast launch of previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket

SpaceX is gearing a rocket for its second mission in the last three days. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit, and you can watch it all live.

Falcon 9 booster.

The Falcon 9 booster to be launched on Wednesday made its maiden voyage on February, 2017, on a mission to resupply the ISS.
Image credits SpaceX.

After their last launch on Monday, performed at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX is working on a follow-up mission, due Wednesday, Oct. 11 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The two-hour launch window will open at 6:53 ET, and the final goal is to send the EchoStar 105/SES-11, a communications satellite, to a geostationary transfer orbit.

I say ‘final goal’ because the highlight of Wednesday’s launch will be the re-usage of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage booster. The rocket first flew on February 19th as part of a mission for NASA. It pushed a Dragon capsule laden with supplies up to the ISS and then landed along Florida’s coast. This will be the third occasion ever that Musk’s company launches a “flight proven” booster, a term they use to refer to previously-flown components.

The mission will serve Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES, a long-time customer of SpaceX. SES has shown a lot of confidence in the company’s ability to bring safe, reusable launch rockets to the market and has previously employed a previously-flow booster — back in the time when SpaceX’s ability in this field remained largely untested.

To date, SpaceX has landed Falcon 9 first stages on 17 separate occasions, the latest being Monday’s mission (Oct. 9th). If this third launch of a ‘flight proven’ booster proves successful, SpaceX will likely have a much easier time of finding customers for flight-proven rockets in the future.

It would also continue an impressive streak of launches and what’s shaping up to be a remarkably productive year for the company. SpaceX has carried out 14 flights this year so far, and if Wednesday’s mission is successful, it would allow the company to achieve its goal of 20 flights by the end of the year. That’s more than any other country or company in the world has managed this year, and it’s bound to make SpaceX’s competitors quite uneasy.

A webcast of the launch attempt is set to begin about 15 minutes before the launch window opens — I’ve embedded it below. After the first stage delivers the satellite into orbit, it will attempt to land on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You some 8 minutes and 33 seconds after launch. EchoStar 105/SES-11 is scheduled to be deployed into high transfer orbit some 36 minutes after launch.

Concept image of spacecraft landing on Mars, next to a human settlement. Musk said early this Friday that he wants to make the Red Planet "a nice place to be. The plan is to reach a human colony with a population numbering around one million. Credit: SpaceX.

Elon Musk proposes landing rocket on Mars by 2022. The same system will also get you anywhere on Earth in less than 30 minutes

Just one year after Elon Musk explained how SpaceX is going to turn humanity into a “multi-planet species,” the serial entrepreneur is at it again with yet another audacious claim. Speaking to a full house at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk said that the same rocket that will get people to Mars and the Moon will be used to ferry passengers around the globe too. During an on-stage demonstration, the SpaceX CEO claimed passengers will be able to make “most long distance trips” in just 30 minutes and go “anywhere on Earth in under an hour.” All for the price of an economy airline ticket to boot.

In the video demonstration, passengers get on a large boat at a dock in New York City which takes them to a floating launchpad out at sea, similar to the kind SpaceX already uses to land reusable Falcon 9s. They then board a spaceship strapped to a mega-rocket codenamed “Big Fucking Rocket” or BFR for short and launch into space. However, instead of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, the spaceship breaks off from the rocket and heads to Shanghai. Some 7,000 miles and 39 minutes later, the ship touches down on another floating pad, in Chinese waters. Other trips include Hong Kong to Singapore in 22 minutes, London to Dubai or New York in 29 minutes, and Los Angeles to Toronto in 24 minutes.

Essentially, Musk just proposed the fastest means of transporting people yet. Forget the Concorde — at its peak, this trip will take you around the world at 18,000 miles per hour.

“It’s 2017, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during his 40-minute speech. “What the hell has been going on?”

“If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not go other places as well?” Musk casually remarked.

Is this madness?

The initial design of the rocket unveiled last year and supposed to carry people to Mars where they’d settle a ‘self-sustaining city within 40 to 100 years,’ was a tad too ambitious. It was supposed to be 254 feet tall (77.5 meters) or even an impressive 400 feet (122 m) high when combined with the crew spaceship. Powered by 42 Raptor engines, the transport system could fit 100 people, maybe up to 200. Now, in Australia, Elon Musk stepped down a bit and presented a resized, more reasonable version. The name was also changed from Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) to the BFR. It all sounds like a big fat joke really but Musk has enough credit to get off the hook.

The BFR system will be fully reusable and capable of carrying up to 100 people or so in a pressurized passenger space larger than in an Airbus A380 airplane. Besides people, the launch system will be capable of ferrying cargo across the globe or to and from the International Space Station. It will also be powerful enough to reach the moon and Mars. It will also launch satellites, an important funding source according to Musk.

At least two cargo ships would land on the Red Planet in 2022, tasked with finding water, he said. Humans would soon follow a few years later.

Concept image of spacecraft landing on Mars, next to a human settlement. Musk said early this Friday that he wants to make the Red Planet "a nice place to be. The plan is to reach a human colony with a population numbering around one million. Credit: SpaceX.

Concept image of spacecraft landing on Mars, next to a human settlement. Musk said early this Friday that he wants to make the Red Planet “a nice place to be. The plan is to reach a human colony with a population numbering around one million. Credit: SpaceX.

It’s interesting to note, however, that Musk — who has never traveled to Earth’s low orbit himself — seems to think passengers are enthusiastic about going into space as he is. Provided it’s all super safe, how many people will be willing to go through the hassle of boarding a spaceship just to save half a day of traveling? Perhaps this man’s vision is just too outlandish. Perhaps he’s just projecting the future as it ought to be. Perhaps it’s all just a mad fantasy.

When it will be ready, Musk told the audience gathered at the conference that all other SpaceX rockets and spacecraft will be replaced as they’ll become obsolete. Exactly ‘when’ is anyone’s guess at this point but Musk did claim that he hopes SpaceX will start fitting the first nut and bolt six to nine months from now.

“I feel fairly confident we can build the ship and be ready for the launch in five years. Five years seems like a long time for me,” Mr Musk said.

“I can’t think of anything more exciting than being out there among the stars,” he ended.

space-x-suit

Elon Musk shares full-body pic of SpaceX’s sleek astronaut suit

space-x-suit

Credit: SpaceX.

Last month, Elon Musk teased fans with a new space suit his company had been working on. It’s sleek, all white and black, really SciFi-looking , unlike the space suits NASA hasn’t been able to revamp for decades. Now, Musk shared a full-body picture of the space suit next to Crew Dragon, the next-generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space.

Who wore it better?

Along with Boeing, SpaceX has been awarded a $2.6 billion contract to design and develop technology capable of carrying humans into space. The plan is expected to loosen the nation’s dependency on Russian logistics and things are shaping up nicely. Already, the Crew Dragon capable of carrying four people has passed the initial design reviews and certifications to proceed to the next level of testing.

Dragon made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station, a feat previously achieved only by governments.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYyvO2WA3Ra/

If everything goes according to plan, a manned flight to the International Space Station on board a Dragon spacecraft should launch in late 2018 after an initial unmanned launch. The astronauts might travel to the space station wearing these new suits that seem taken right out of The Martian.

Looks can be deceiving, though. This is merely a pressurized suit, which isn’t suitable for space walks, let alone a trip outside Mars. Rather, these suits are designed to protect astronauts on route to the ISS in the unlikely event that their cabin becomes depressurized.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYIPmEFAIIn/

This new full-length press photo reveals some interesting details. The boots look very light-weight, giving the impression of enhanced mobility. Quite fashionable, too. The pants feature flex zones in the knee area for mobility when bending. Similarly, padded areas in the back colored in black also seem to be meant to enhance comfort while seated in the Dragon capsule.

Earlier this year, Boeing unveiled its own space suit — a bulkier blue version meant for astronauts riding Boeing’s Starliner space taxi. At less than 20 pounds, the suit weighs about 10 pounds less than the traditional orange launch-and-entry suit used during the shuttle era.

It’s thus quite exciting to follow how both of these private enterprises are making huge progress. Now, which of the two is your favorite?

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX completes critical test ahead of the first launch for world’s most powerful operational rocket

SpaceX, the most successful space company in the world, is just a few steps away from launching the most powerful operational rocket in the world, the impressive Falcon Heavy. After a successful starting test in May, SpaceX fired Falcon Heavy’s three first stage cores at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas. The test in the wee hours of Sep. 2 was deemed as a sounding success ahead of the rocket’s first launch scheduled for November.

Falcon Heavy, artist impression. Credit: SpaceX.

Falcon Heavy, artist impression. Credit: SpaceX.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially made up of three Falcon 9s strapped together, which allows it to ferry roughly three times as more payload into space. Its design was first unveiled in 2011 but a series of setbacks have delayed the launch.

It’s capable of delivering 54 metric tons (119,000 lb) of payload (satellites, cargo, astronauts etc.) into Earth’s low orbit but also beyond that, to the moon or even Mars. That’s a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.

“Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost. Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9. Its first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit,” according to a SpaceX press release. 

Falcon Heavy

Credit: SpaceX.

During the May static test, SpaceX fired one of Falcon Heavy’s cores. Now, with this most recent test, all three cores performed well. And like in the case of the Falcon 9, all three cores will be reusable, safely touching down on a pad on Earth where they’ll be readied for a new launch.

Once the Falcon Heavy finally enters in operation, the ‘most powerful rocket’ crown might not last long. That distinction will soon enough belong to NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System. It will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.

In any event, 2017 is shaping up as SpaceX’s best year yet. After a dramatic setback exactly one year ago when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded in Florida during a seemingly routine static fire test, destroying a client’s expensive satellite in the process, SpaceX has doubled up. It made 12 launches so far with eight more scheduled before the year ends. That’s more than any other company or country for that matter. So far, Russia only made 11 launches and its space agency is right to be afraid of such fierce competition.

The real kicker is that SpaceX made no fewer than 15 first-stage controlled landings, most of which occurred in the last seven months. The goal is for all SpaceX rockets, the Falcon Heavy not excluded, to be fully reusable which might cut launch costs a hundred fold. 

In other words, progress is fast and impressive. We can only begin to imagine what marvelous things SpaceX will achieve in the next five to ten years.

UPDATE: The initial draft referred to the Falcon Heavy as the ‘most powerful rocket in the world’. This may be confusing to some people seeing how Saturn V is the ‘most powerful rocket in history’ and NASA’s upcoming SLS will have much more thrust, though its maiden launch is unclear at this point due to budget constraints. The Falcon Heavy will be the world’s most powerful operational rocket. 

ISS.

Hewlett Packard supercomputer to be delivered to the ISS next Monday

The ISS is set to get a massive PC upgrade. SpaceX and the  Enterprise are sending a supercomputer up to the station on SpaceX’s next resupply mission, set for Monday.

ISS.

Image via Pixabay.

As far as opportunities go, ISS certainly does deliver. This space-borne orbital laboratory allowed government and private groups test technology and perform research in microgravity, gave us a testbed for astronaut health in-space, and gave NASA a good toehold for proving technology future deep space missions will need.

Processing power

There is one field of technology, however, that hasn’t received that much love on the ISS — computers. Currently, the station is handled by computers relying mostly on i386 processors which are, to put it mildly, absolute rubbish. It’s not much of a problem however since all of the station’s critical systems are monitored by ground control, who can work with astronauts in real time to fix any problems that might appear.

It starts to become a problem the farther away you go from the Earth, though. If we want to have any chance of sending a human crew beyond the Moon, we’ll need computers powerful enough to operate in a deep space environment without backup from ground control. For starters, because of the longer distances involved, communications will start experiencing delays in excess of half an hour at the more remote points of the mission. When that happens, the crew and its computers will have to be able to deal with any issue that arises.

We’re talking a lot more processing power than a few i386s can churn out. That’s why NASA and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) are launching the supercomputer to the ISS — to see how it fares in the cold, zero g environment of outer space. The device will be shuttled Monday aboard SpaceX’s next supply mission to the station.

The 1 teraflop super’computer isn’t that powerful by planetside standards, but it is the most powerful computer to ever make its way into space. It’ll stay there for one year, installed inside a rack in the Destiny module of the space station. It will spend this time powering through an endless series of benchmarks designed to detect if and how the computer’s performance is degraded in space.
An identical copy of the computer will run the same tests in a lab down on Earth to serve as a control.

If everything works out fine, the supercomputer might even stay on the ISS after the experiment to help astronauts in their data-crunching needs, saving up a lot of broadband. Let’s hope the experiment works, so NASA will soon have the computers it needs to send people further into the solar system.

 

Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Kremlin.

Russian space agency finally admits it’s afraid of SpaceX and reveals how it plans to fight back

Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Kremlin.

Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Kremlin.

Ever since NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011, the Roscosmos, ‘the Russian NASA’, has been enjoying a steady uptick in revenue as new orders kept piling up. Only a year earlier, SpaceX had performed Falcon 9’s maiden voyage. In 2012, the rocket launched only three times and with no commercial payload to boot. But from these humble beginnings, SpaceX has innovated itself into the leading private space company in the world that’s capable of competing with any space faring nation.

Poking the bear

While Russia is still launching relatively cheap Soyuz rockets, SpaceX is now delivering goods into space with reusable boosters. SpaceX hopes to begin reusing its rockets 10 to 20 times, and Musk has on various occasions claimed that reusability can reduce costs for launching things into space by a factor of 100.

The last couple of years hasn’t been exceptionally good for Roscosmos. The agency has an excellent engine-making subsidiary called Energomash which supplies parts major rocket manufacturers around the world, including United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rocket. After Russia annexed Crimea, however, sanctions made such sales extremely difficult if not impossible. To make things worse, the rubble toppled.

In 2011, Roscosmos charged NASA $70 million for each seat to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Musk promises to undercut that significantly, charging around $20 million on his “Dragon” spacecraft. Roscosmos has only about a $2 billion yearly budget over the next decade which means losing private contracts, by some estimates 25% of its budget, could slash its lifeblood.

These developments have been minimized by the Russians who have seemed skeptical of SpaceX success, at least publically. That tone has clearly changed now to a more precautions one, to say the least.

In a recent interview on the agency’s website, Roscosmos chief executive Igor Komarov basically acknowledged SpaceX as a direct threat to its business, which still amounts to a 40 percent share of the global launch market. Komarov called SpaceX a “serious challenge” before outlining some of the measures the agency is considering in response to SpaceX gobbling up its market share.

The Roscosmos chief says his team is almost ready with the Soyuz 5 rocket, a medium-lift rocket in the same class as Falcon 9 which will cost 20% less to fly. It will still be expendable, though. “If we achieve this goal, it will ensure its competitiveness,” Komarov said.

Komarov seems confident that in the next five years, there will be no more than 10-20% of a reduction in revenue as a result of competition. But one can’t help but notice Komarov is being overly optimistic. After all, he’s got nothing else to show. Where’s the Russian reusable rocket?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is making headlines with one successful reusable launch after another, and next year it will be ready to launch the Falcon Heavy — the most powerful rocket in the world capable of delivering three times as much payload into orbit than Falcon 9. SpaceX hasn’t yet reported any sizable drop in its launch price tag but it did claim the reusable booster means a 30% discount. For now, it seems like that discount is being funneled into the company’s pocket but no one should act surprised if SpaceX announces a steep price cut for its clients overnight, leaving its competition with a stiff lip.

As Eric Berger wrote for Ars Technica:

“If SpaceX has come this far in five years, it is difficult to see the company only offering a 15 or 20 percent reduction in launch costs by the year 2022. It seems more likely the reduction will be on the order of 50 percent or more, especially if the company makes strides on recovering the second stage and payload fairing of the rocket—which it is working avidly toward.”

“Perhaps the only strategy by which the Russian space enterprise succeeds commercially is one in which SpaceX fails.”

While Berger actually deems this scenario plausible (and I agree), I can’t help but notice rooting for your competition to fail sounds like an unwise business strategy. Really though, it’s not just the Russians that should be afraid. Anyone in direct competition against Elon Musk doesn’t sleep well at night from the likes of it.

Elon Musk shares his view of Mars colonization: one million people living in a self sustainable city

Like many other ambitious people, Elon Musk wants humanity to become a multi-planetary civilization. He’s made no secret of his dream of sending colonists to Mars during his lifetime, but now, his vision is becoming a bit less abstract and a bit more concrete.

Musk, pictured talking at the International Astronautic Congress 2016 event. Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Mr. Musk’s view, as it often is the case, is audacious. But he wants to make the audacious possible — and even more than that, he wants to make it common.

“I want to make Mars seem possible to do in our lifetimes,” said Musk in his presentation (you can watch a replay of the talk here). “I want anyone to go if they want to.”

Of course, when we can barely scrape the resources for any manned mission to Mars, colonization seems outside the realm of possibility. But then again, many of the things Musk did seemed the same way, initially. We now have cheap, reusable rockets which go a long way towards making space flight more accessible. He’s making space tourism a reality by sending people to the Moon, and he’s also planning to revolutionize trains — which have remained largely unchanged for almost a century. Why should Mars be any different?

Why Mars

The first question is: why Mars?

An artistic depiction of a Mars colonist. Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Many people believe humanity’s future is looking increasingly dire. With overpopulation and climate change, our planet’s resources are more and more strained, and at one point, they might simply be insufficient. I mean, we’re using them unsustainably today, so they’re technically not efficient even now, but this is expected to become more and more of a problem as time moves on.

So if we have to go somewhere, why not go for the Moon? It’s closer and we’ve been there before, so it should be easier.

Well, Musk argues, the Moon doesn’t really count as a planet. It doesn’t have any atmosphere whatsoever, it’s relatively poor in resources, and its gravity is six times weaker than that of the Earth (compared to Mars, which is just three times smaller). Furthermore, going on the Moon doesn’t really make you a multi-planet civilization.

“I think it is challenging to become multi-planetary on the moon because it is much smaller than a planet,” Musk wrote. “It does not have any atmosphere. It is not as resource-rich as Mars. It has got a 28-day day, whereas the Mars day is 24.5 hours. In general, Mars is far better-suited to ultimately to scale up to be a self-sustaining civilization.”

Reducing costs

So far, the main thing Musk has done in terms of space exploration is to reduce costs — by a lot. But there’s still a long way to go before we get down to a realistic figure. Musk says that with an “Apollo-style” approach, you’d end up with an “optimistic cost” of about $10 billion per person. You can’t build a civilization with that price tag. In fact, he’s aiming for $200,000 — the median cost of a house in the US. Of course, it’s still not clear how we’re going to get there.

“It is a bit tricky because we have to figure out how to improve the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent,” Musk cheekily commented.

He can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk? Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Step by step, the price is steadily going down. We’re not nearly close to a colony trip to Mars, but the progress is happening at a remarkable place. Still, big challenges still remain. First, we’d have to deal with rocket reusability — and there is significant, concrete progress in this direction. Sure, you’d need different kind of rockets than the ones currently in use, but you’d mostly apply the same principle at a larger scale. Then, you’d have to refuel the shuttle in orbit, which SpaceX (Musk’s company) is also working on. Thirdly, you’d have to produce the fuel on Mars, so that you don’t have to ship it from Earth. This would drastically reduce the payload and the associated costs. The entire feasibility of the project might rely on this, and we have very little idea how to do it.

This is just discussing the space flight aspect of things, let alone the livability and potential terraforming that a city on Mars would require.

If everything goes according to plan, the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) would carry 1,000,000 people to Mars; not at once but in transports of 10,000, in 40 to 100 years. Musk envisions a “fun” trip, with zero-gravity games and attractions for the colonists.

The Space Merchants

In the 1950s, Sci-Fi writers Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl envisioned a dystopic future in which humanity decides to colonize Venus. The world’s best marketers and publicity-makers were employed to make Venus, a hot horrid hell, attractive to colonists. Is this what we’re looking at here? Is this all marketing glitter and misleading flashes, or does Musk plan do what it says on the tin?

Musk is, as always, extremely aggressive in his plans and in his timings. He greatly relies on technology that hasn’t even been invented, but might foreseeably emerge in a few years. It also might not.

The thing is… we don’t really know how this will play out. We might look back on his vision and say that it ignited everything, or we might simply forget it through the shroud of history. But these are not words spoken in vain. If anyone has the drive and the resources to pull something as crazy as this, it’s Musk. Whether or not he succeeds, someone will succeed, and that someone will have this kind of attitude.

“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” he wrote. “There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.”

You can read the full paper describing Musk’s plan, published in the journal New Space, by clicking here.

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — the most powerful rocket in the world — is nearly ready

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Ever since Elon Musk founded SpaceX at the turn of the new century, he has been dreaming about building a huge rocket with three nine-engine boosters strapped to it. More than a decade later, this fabled rocket, called the Falcon Heavy, is nearly ready. According to inside sources, Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage could take place as early as fall 2017, ending a four-year long wait. Once it officially enters service, governments and companies will be able to launch instruments, cargo, and various machines that they previously couldn’t due to payload restrictions.

The most powerful rocket in the world

The Falcon Heavy’s specs are simply mind blowing. Basically, it’s made out of three Falcon 9 rockets — a standard Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as liquid strap-on boosters. Simply put, this means the triple-body rocket will be able to loft payloads three times heavier to orbit than the Falcon 9.  It should carry up to 21,200 kilograms (46,700 lb) to geostationary orbit and more than 14,000 kilograms (31,000 lb) to Mars. It can even carry up to 4,000 kilograms to Pluto! No other rocket besides the Saturn V used during the Apollo era to put a man on the moon is more powerful in the history of space flight.

Currently, the most powerful rocket in the world is United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy, which is another three-body design. However, the 70-meter tall Falcon Heavy has more than twice the payload capacity to low Earth orbit than ULA’s Delta 4-Heavy.

Falcon Heavy vs Falcon 9

Credit: SpaceX.

That’s certainly impressive, but it wasn’t easy getting here. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the design for the Falcon Heavy in 2011 and promised it would be ready for liftoff in 2013.

“Falcon Heavy is one of those things that, at first, sounded easy,” Musk said in March. “We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters. Actually, no, this is crazy hard, and it required the redesign of the center core and a ton of different hardware.

“It was actually shockingly difficult to go from a single-core to a triple-core vehicle,” Musk said.

We know the Falcon Heavy is imminent because on May 9th SpaceX shared a video showing the first test of the rocket’s boosters. You’re invited to check it out.

Yup, that’s what  5.1 million pounds of thrust look like. But the best thing about the Falcon Heavy is that it will be fully reusable. Just like the Falcon 9, each of the three boosters will touch down safely on a spaceport very casually like so:

Or crash miserably:

Each of the boosters for the maiden Falcon Heavy mission will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final processing in the coming months. According to March 30th press conference, the rocket will likely launch in ‘late summer’. It was actually supposed to launch this week per the previous schedule to deliver a powerhouse communications satellite owned by Inmarsat into orbit. Instead, it launched on Monday on a single Falcon 9 rocket.

The huge Inmarsat 5 F4 getting ready for take off on a Falcon 9. Credit: Inmarsat.

The huge Inmarsat 5 F4 getting ready for takeoff on a Falcon 9. Credit: Inmarsat.

Once the Falcon Heavy finally enters in operation, the ‘most powerful rocket’ crown might not last long. That distinction will soon enough belong to NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System. It will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.

SpaceX will launch three times more satellites than there currently are in orbit to give you fast internet

The ultimate goal of SpaceX has always been to reach Mars, but in the meantime it seems the visionary private space company has its eyes sets on other targets. Yesterday, we learned more about SpaceX’s plans to launch a huge fleet of tiny satellites into Earth’s low orbit to connect every part of the globe with fast internet. As many as 4,425 satellites would be launched part of the initiative or nearly three times as much as there are active satellites currently in orbit.

Space internet

According to Patricia Cooper, who is SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government affairs, the first prototype satellite will go into this space as early as this year, followed quickly by another launch in early 2018. These first attempts will serve as a proof of concept so that SpaceX can assess whether or not it’s feasible to send a couple thousand more. In 2019, SpaceX expects to seriously start deploying satellites in low-orbit. By 2024, SpaceX ought to have an entire network of satellites capable of delivering internet to any part of the globe, and presumably cheap too.

The thousands of tiny satellites will operate in 83 planes at an altitude between 1,100 kilometers and 1,325 kilometers. These will be linked with ground control centers, gateway stations, and other Earth-based facilities to offer a steady connection somewhere between cable and fiber-optic in quality and a latency of around 35ms.

When it’s all said and done, the project should amount to $20 billion in investment, with Google and Fidelity already investing $1 billion with SpaceX for this particular purpose.

Whatever’s the case, we’re talking about a massive scale with a high potential for disruption in the industry. Providers won’t have to invest nearly as much in digging trenches, hundreds of thousands of miles of cables, and so on. Instead, they’ll just rent the service from SpaceX, or that’s what likely Elon Musk’s company hopes.

“Once fully deployed, the SpaceX System will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,” the FFC application reads which SpaceX filled a while ago. “Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a SpaceX satellite.”

An additional 7,500 satellites might be deployed at an even lower plane from the main fleet to further boost capacity and reduce latency. By now, some of you might be wondering how on Earth will SpaceX pull this off? Well, earlier this year, India broke the record for the most satellites launched on a single rocket with 104 satellites. Most were nanosats that only weigh 6 kilograms (13 pounds) so it’s foreseeable it won’t be long before SpaceX shatters this record.

SpaceX is also growing better and better at launching, landing, and then reusing the same Falcon 9 rockets. This puts it at a considerable advantage over its competitors as it can cut down costs a couple of fold, at least. At the same time, the huge amount of satellites SpaceX is considering can only exacerbate a growing space junk problem, as reported earlier by us in more depth. 

The announcement is still fresh but seeing how the first prototypes will be deployed later this year, things are destined to move very fast. It will be interesting to learn more as developments arise. It would be particularly interesting to see how Facebook reacts to the news, for instance. Not too long ago, a Falcon 9 rocket was destroyed shortly after liftoff and with it Facebook’s $200-million satellite destined to connect users in Africa to the internet. Facebook’s initiative called internet.org wants to bring a free interent connection to those people who most need it, particularly in developing countries around the world. Internet.org has come under fire, though, because it’s not really offering free internet — it’s free access to a limited variety of web services, with Facebook and partners at the center. As Mahesh Murthy wrote for QZ, it’s “poor internet for poor people”.

I have a feeling SpaceX’s vision of a fast internet connected over satellite will be radically different. Perhaps it will be even more business orientated than Facebook’s approach but certainly net neutral. We’ll just have to wait and see.

spacex launch

SpaceX rockets are just inches away from full reusability. Space flight might never be the same after

spacex launch

Credit: Pixabay

Last Thursday, SpaceX made another milestone for itself and space flight in general after it launched and landed a previously used Falcon 9 rocket. Only the 1st stage booster was re-used but the ultimate goal is to reuse all the other components, like the 2nd stage booster. Right now, to launch a payload into orbit companies have to invest tens of millions but 99% of this expense is the rocket itself which historically speaking has always been dumped in the ocean, never to be reused. A reusable rocket which you can fly again maybe hundreds of times only requires some maintenance and fuel, which is 1% of today’s space flight cost.

Judging from the achievements of bold companies such as SpaceX, but also Blue Origin which has its own working reusable rocket plans, a fully functional reusable rocket could surface within the next 12 months.

What’s left on the to-do list

After SpaceX launched the SES-10 commercial communications satellite to orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket whose first stage booster had already been used only two weeks prior, Elon Musk didn’t rest on his laurels. In a press a conference, Musk said that the milestone will empower the company to plow throw its next checklist. Right now, the next goal is to have the first stage booster ready for re-launch within 24 hours. In other words, a Falcon 9 could deliver supplies to the International Space Station in the early morning and launch a satellite for some communications company the next day.

“Our aspiration will be zero hardware changes, reflight in 24 hours,” Musk said. “The only thing that changes is we reload propellant.”

This new milestone could be achieved this year or early next year tops. It should be noted that for last Thursday’s historic launch some auxiliary components were replaced, though the air frame and engines were unaltered. Another thing that needs special attention is the rocket’s grid fins which see the brunt of damage from atmospheric re-entry. These are essential for precisely and safely landing the rocket back on Earth, such as on SpaceX’s moving unmanned barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

Besides its two rocket boosters, there are also plans to reuse the Falcon 9 fairing — the nose cone used to protect a spacecraft (launch vehicle payload) against the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating. During the press conference, Musk said there was a second landing attempt, this time for Falcon 9’s fairing. It had its own thruster control system and a steerable parachute. “So it’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said.

Though it might not look like much, the fairing costs $6 million so reusing it could significantly drive down costs.

Speaking of which, the typical SpaceX launch costs around $62 million. The short term goal is to drop space launch costs to 10% of what they are today with a longer term goal of slashing costs to 1%. That’s only $620,000, which sounds absolutely preposterous today, but to Musk this is only a rational development if we’re to become an interplanetary, space fairing species per the vision he outlined last year. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves for a moment. It’s estimated reusing the first stage booster of Falcon 9 as demonstrated last week should lead to a 30% cost reduction. This means a launch like SES-10 could cost $43 million instead of $62 million.

Musk said discounts will certainly apply from now on but SpaceX has yet to reach some figures yet because they still have a lot of things to consider first, including development costs. Launch prices might stay the same or at a small discount for some time before more tempting rates apply.

“It will certainly be less than the current price of our rockets and will be far lower than any other rocket in the world,” he said.

Plans to reuse the Falcon 9 second stage booster have been abandoned as the weight of a heat shield and other equipment would impinge on payload too much for this to be economically feasible. Instead, the first fully reusable rocket will likely be the upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, which has 27 engines and three boosters. All three stages will be recovered. It’s not clear exactly when Falcon Heavy will have its maiden flight but all clues point to mid-2017. So, possibly within 12 months, the world might already have its first fully functional reusable rocket.

What happens next is hard to predict but nothing but positive things will come out of it — and fast, like a cascading domino effect. Space tourism will be enabled for tens of thousands, companies will be able to launch better communication systems into orbit much cheaper and faster than ever before. It’s anyone’s guess how far all of this will go.

 

Elon Musk’s SpaceX just announced it will send two tourists to the Moon

SpaceX just made a stunning announcement: it will send two private citizens around the moon. Elon Musk said that the mission will take place in 2018 using a Dragon 2 spacecraft and the massive new Falcon Heavy rocket.

The two passengers, who have not yet been named, are the first tourists to ever go near the Moon. The passengers are “very serious” about the trip and have already paid a “significant deposit,” according to Musk. The trip itself will take just over a week, as the shuttle will go on the Moon’s orbit, venture a bit into deeper space, and then sling back to Earth. There will be no Moon landing. The statement reads:

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year.”

Well, I’m not sure what to say about the Apollo astronauts comparison, as where the Apollo missions were thoroughly scientific in nature, this one is rather a revenue driver for SpaceX — and a hell of a leisure trip for the two passengers. Even the legal status of this trip is a bit fuzzy, though Musk claims there’s no need for a UN permit, just a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

All of this was facilitated by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development. The fact that SpaceX managed to bring down the costs for rocket launches also helps — particularly the fact that they can now reuse their rockets. For a few years already Musk has toyed with the idea of commercial spaceflight, initially planning such a trip in 2017. Well, that year is off the table, so we should perhaps take this announcement with a grain of salt. Recently, SpaceX has also been plagued by technical errors and launch setbacks, raising concerns about the company’s long-term plans and success. There was even an explosion — but nothing can deter Musk from his goals.

As he has told the media numerous times, his ultimate goal is to put people on Mars. He told WSJ in 2011 that his best-case scenario was to put people on Mars by 2021 (his worst-case scenario was between 2026 and 2031). Whether or not he can achieve that remains to be seen but for now, he seems to be on the right path.

“Next year is going to be the big year for carrying people,” says Musk. “This should be a really exciting mission that hopefully gets the world really exciting about sending people into deep space again.”

Federal investigators find persistent cracks in SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets

After launching ten satellites into orbit last week and successfully landing a Falcon 9 first stage, Elon Musk’s SpaceX seemed on a roll. But things didn’t go so well when federal investigators had a look at the rockets. Reports from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) mention a dangerous defect that could compromise the safety of astronauts — namely, “persistent cracking of vital propulsion-system components.”

Image credits: NASA.

According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the GAO is a federal agency that does audits on behalf of Congress and the remarks about the cracks in the rockets are part of a preliminary report. The information has not yet been officially confirmed.

“We do have work underway and it is due out later this month,” Charles Young, the managing director of GAO’s public affairs, told The Verge. “I can’t comment on the contents of the report until it is issued. It is still in draft form and we have not provided copies to any reporters.”

While the final report has not been published yet and it has not been released to the press, the WSJ gained access to a leaked version which raises troubling concerns. WSJ reports that the turbopump cracks could “pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.”

This is not good news for SpaceX. The company’s appeal and potential are without a doubt exhilarating, yet the company’s evolution has had major ups and downs. Now, SpaceX is preparing for its most ambitious (and dangerous) project: manned spaceflight. They’re currently modifying the Dragon capsules to support transporting astronauts, and the earliest such mission is scheduled for 2018.

But things will be patched as soon as possible. SpaceX claims the rockets were built to withstand such cracks, and NASA’s acting director Robert Lightfoot says they’re working together with the company to fix the issues.

“We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” John Taylor, a SpaceX representative, tells The Verge. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9. SpaceX has established a plan in partnership with NASA to qualify engines for [crewed] spaceflight.”

Mr. Lightfoot said “we’re talking to [SpaceX] about turbo machinery,” adding that he thinks “we know how to fix them.” In the interview, Mr. Lightfoot said he didn’t know if the solution would require a potentially time-consuming switch to bigger turbopumps.

As the old saying goes, space is tough — and SpaceX is learning that first hand.

Elon Musk announcement

Elon Musk unveils the ITS: a spaceship capable of carrying 100 people destined to settle Mars

Elon Musk announcement

Credit: YouTube capture

Elon Musk took the stage of the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexic, on Sep. 27 to announce his grand plans to colonize Mars and settle a ‘self-sustaining city within 40 to 100 years.’ Central to this plan is a new rocket and spaceship called Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). When and if ever completed, it ought to be the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built. It will also be a lot more spacious than astronauts are used to. The ITS will be able to carry 100 people, maybe up to 200, and make return trips to Mars at a fraction of the time and cost it currently takes.

“It’ll be, like, really fun to go,” Musk said. “You’ll have a great time.”

The Interplanetary Transport reusable rocket booster vs the Saturn V rocket. Credit: SpaceX

The Interplanetary Transport reusable rocket booster vs the Saturn V rocket. Credit: SpaceX

The ITS rocket itself will look like a scaled-up version of SpaceX’s famous Falcon 9 reusable booster, only instead of nine Merlin engines, the planned interplanetary launch system will feature a whopping 42 Raptor engines. Raptor is part of a new class of engines developed at SpaceX will be powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LOX), rather than the RP-1 kerosene and LOX used in all previous Falcon 9 rockets. Raptors will be about the same size as Merlin engines but will deliver three times the thrust.

The new rocket will be  254-foot-tall (77.5 meters), but when combined with the crew spaceship ITS will stand at an impressive 400 feet (122 m) high. That’s more than a hundred feet higher than Blue Origin’s recently announced New Glenn rocket and almost 40 feet higher than the iconic Saturn V rocket (363 feet tall), the rocket that put man on the moon for the first time and is still the biggest in space launch history.

As for the spaceship itself, it will be 62 feet (49.5 m) tall and 56 feet (17 m) wide. It will also be equipped with nine Raptors, but will initially leave with an empty tank to maximize the payload — cargo, supplies and (a lot of) people. Once in Earth’s orbit, the booster will make a soft landing at a SpaceX spaceport, launch back into orbit topped with the tanker full with fuel and rendezvous with the ITS spaceship to hand over the tank.

The Mars Transporter Spaceship. Credit: SPACE

The Mars Transporter Spaceship. Credit: SPACE

Once locked and load, the spaceship will fire its boosters and make its journey towards Mars — when the time is right, of course. Mars is closest to Earth only once every 26 months, so it’s a pretty tight. Propelled by the powerful Raptor engines, ITS ought to get to Mars in only 80 days, instead of the six months it takes to get there with present technology. There’s reason to believe the arrival time could be cut to as little as 30 days.

The spaceship, which sits atop the booster, will be 162 feet (49.5 m) tall and 56 feet (17 m) wide and will have nine Raptors of its own. The booster will launch the spaceship to Earth orbit, then return to make a soft landing at its launch site, which is currently envisioned to be Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Huge and optimized at the same time, the ITS should be able to carry 300 tons to low-Earth orbit or 550 tons in an extend version, Musk said. As for people, at least 100 should fit inside the spaceship which will also feature movie theaters, lecture halls and a restaurant — things International Space Station astronauts can only dream of.

Musk: ‘the only reason I’m gathering assets is to fund this’

Schematic of how a trip with the ITS might look like. Credit: SpaceX

Schematic of how a trip with the ITS might look like. Credit: SpaceX

Once in Mars’ orbit, the ITS spaceship will make a soft landing using “supersonic retropropulsion,” instead of parachutes. The landing should be more precise and safe using such engineering. It’s not clear what the first humans carried by SpaceX to Mars will do there, but Musk alluded that a solar-powered settlement would have to be built. Here, carbon dioxide and ice mined from Mars will be transformed into methane and oxygen — the fuel needed to power the ITS spaceship.

Oh, and this won’t be a one-ship deal. After the first trips are made, Musk expects 1,000 ITS’es will zip to and from Mars every 26 months. Anyone who isn’t happy with Martian accomodations can then leave back to Earth.

“The Mars colonial fleet would depart en masse,” Musk said.

“We need the spaceship back, so it’s coming,” Musk said. “You can jump on board or not.”

Check out Musk’s hour-long presentation below.

Musk’s plans sound audacious, but also very inspiring. This begs the next question: “how are we doing so far, Elon?” According to the SpaceX CEO, fewer than 5 percent of the company’s personnel and resources are devoted to the ITS — that’s in the order of a couple tens of millions of dollars. Musk says, however, that he wants to migrate most of SpaceX’s resources to the ITS project which requires about $10 billion in investment. He envisions a ‘huge public-private partnership’ will eventually make the ITS a reality. If all fails, it can be a 100% private venture seeing how Musk said ‘the only reason I’m accumulating assets is to fund this.’

You can also help too once it’s finished by buying a ticket and eventually becoming a Mars settler. There will be no special requirements, Musk responded to a question from the audience.

“The architecture allows for a cost per ticket of less than $200,000,” Musk said. “We think that the cost of moving to Mars ultimately could drop below $100,000.” Currently, the projected cost per person to reach Mars and come back is $1 billion.

“The objective is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species,” the billionaire entrepreneur said.

For now, however, SpaceX should focus on making its launches air-tight. Earlier this month, one of the company’s Falcon 9 boosters exploded at the launch pad destroying the satellites it was supposed to carry into Earth’s orbit. In 2018, SpaceX expects to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule to Mars which prove a training-ground for the upcoming ITS technology.

This was an amazing announcement, but we can’t all share Musk’s enthusiasm or vision for that matter. We’ll just have to wait and see how this all pans out.

SpaceX rocket explodes during satellite launch

SpaceX has suffered a serious setback after one of its rockets, carrying a $200 million communications satellite, exploded yesterday.

spacex explosion

The satellite was supposed to expand Facebook’s reach across Africa but never quite got to do that, after the Falcon 9 rocket carrying it blazed down in a massive fireball. The rocket exploded at 9:07 a.m. EDT (1307 GMT), and while SpaceX released a statement explaining the direct cause of explosion was, we don’t yet know the underlying cause.

“The anomaly originated around the upper-stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle,” SpaceX representatives said in a statement. “Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries. We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

This isn’t the first problem SpaceX has had with its Falcon 9 rockets. This is the second loss in the past 14 months, after another Falcon 9 broke down 3 minutes after launching in June 2015. Still, NASA has reiterated its confidence in SpaceX, saying that this can be treated like a lesson to be learned from.

“We remain confident in our commercial partners and firmly stand behind the successful 21st century launch complex that NASA, other federal agencies, and U.S. commercial companies are building on Florida’s Space Coast,” the space agency said. “Today’s incident — while it was not a NASA launch — is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but our partners learn from each success and setback.”

But not everyone is so confident. Several scientists and engineers have expressed worries regarding the SpaceX approach.

“SpaceX is running a punishing schedule,” said Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former NASA official.

Pace also expressed concerns others were thinking about too – the potential of a human error.

“There is probably some human factor involved here. To what extent was human error part of this? And if so, why? Are you running your people too hard? What are your safety requirements?”

This could also jeopardize (to an extent) the ISS mission, as SpaceX was also scheduled to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Again, NASA said they are fully prepared to deal with the situation.

“The situation at the Cape is being evaluated, and it’s too early to know whether the incident will affect the schedule for upcoming NASA-related SpaceX launches to the International Space Station. If there are SpaceX mission delays, other cargo spacecraft will be able to meet the station’s cargo needs, and supplies and research investigations are at good levels,” the NASA statement concluded.

For now, we await an official report on what happened and what the causes of the explosion are.

Elon Musk warns that settling Mars will be harsh, even deadly for the first colonists

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk plans to get the first humans to land on Mars by 2025, and is really excited about the prospect of establishing a colony there. Pioneering a new planet isn’t going to be a walk in the park, he warns. Colonists will face harsh conditions, isolation, even death.

Image via youtube

“It’s dangerous and probably people will die – and they’ll know that. And then they’ll pave the way, and ultimately it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will be very comfortable. But that will be many years in the future,” Musk told the Washington Post detailing his Mission to Mars.

Musk’s SpaceX is making history under our very eyes. The company has been at the forefront of space transportation for quite some time now, designing and building the first re-usable deep space rocket, the Falcon 9 (you can read all about the project’s ups and downs here.)

Musk received official approval from NASA to sent US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) starting from 2017, and currently has an ongoing US$2.6bn contract with NASA to routinely transport cargo to and from the ISS.

But the entrepreneur’s real goal is Mars. SpaceX plans to send regular unmanned spacecraft missions to the red planet starting 2018 to gather data about descending and landing on Mars for human missions in the future. The missions will take place every two years when Mars’ and Earth’s orbits bring the planets to their closest points.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars. It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station,” he said.

“And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

The missions will also test if these autonomous crafts are safe enough for humans, the first manned missions will take place in 2025. But even at their closest, the two planets are still separated by 140 million miles of empty space, and it will take months for the ships to make the journey.

Musk admits the journey will likely be “hard, risky, dangerous, difficult” for the first pioneers who leave Earth. He points out however that they will be no different to the British who chose to travel across the sea to colonize the Americas in the 1600s.

“Just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that,” he concluded

“They want to be the pioneers.”