Things aren’t looking good for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Occasionally referred to as the “Senate Launch System”, or even less graciously, the “Rocket to Nowhere”, the super heavy-lift booster has long been a bone of contention for those in the industry. Designed as an evolution of core Space Shuttle technology, the SLS promised to reuse existing infrastructure to deliver higher payload capacities and lower operating costs than its infamous winged predecessor. But in the face of increased competition from commercial launch providers and proposed budget cuts targeting future upgrades and expansions of the core booster, the significantly over budget and behind schedule program is in a very precarious position.
Which is not to say the SLS doesn’t look impressive, at least on paper. In its initial configuration it would easily take the title as the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting nearly 105 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 70 tons for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It would still fall short of the mighty Saturn V’s 155 tons to LEO, but the proposed “Block 2” upgrades would increase SLS payload capability to within striking distance of the iconic Apollo-era booster at 145 tons. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been adamant that the might of SLS was the only way the agency could accomplish bigger and more ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Or at least, they were. On March 13th, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to Congress that in an effort to avoid further delays, the agency is exploring the possibility of sending their Orion spacecraft to the Moon with a commercial launcher. The statement came as a shock to many in the aerospace community, as it would seem to call into question the future of the entire SLS program. If commercial rockets can do the job of SLS, at least in some cases, why does the agency need it?
NASA is currently preparing a report which investigates what physical and logistical modifications would need to be made to missions originally slated to fly on SLS; a document which is sure to be scrutinized by SLS supporters and critics alike. Until the report is released, we can speculate about what this hypothetical flight to the Moon might look like.
[Rogelio] isn’t new to the astrophotography game, possessing a capable twin-telescope rig with star tracking capabilities and chilled CCDs for reducing noise in low-light conditions. Identifying the location of the Tesla Roadster was made easier thanks to NASA JPL tracking the object and providing ephemeris data.
Imaging the Roadster took some commitment – from [Rogelio]’s chosen shooting location, it would only be visible between 3AM and 5:30AM. Initial attempts were unsuccessful, but after staying up all night, giving up wasn’t an option. A return visit days later was similarly hopeless, and scuppered by cloud cover.
It was only after significant analysis that the problem became clear – when calculating the ephemeris of the object on NASA’s website, [Rogelio] had used the standard coordinates instead of the actual imaging location. This created enough error and meant they were looking at the wrong spot. Thanks to the wide field of view of the telescopes, however, after further analysis – Starman was captured, not just in still, but in video!
We’ve been having a lively discussion behind the scenes here at Hackaday, about SpaceX’s forthcoming launch of their first Falcon Heavy rocket. It will be carrying [Elon Musk]’s red Tesla Roadster, and should it be a successful launch, it will place the car in an elliptical orbit round the Sun that will take it to the Martian orbit at its furthest point.
On one hand, it seems possible that [Musk]’s sports car will one day be cited by historians as the exemplar of the excesses of the tech industry in the early 21st century. After all, to spend the millions of dollars required to launch the largest reusable space launch platform ever created, and then use it to hurl an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun seems to be such a gratuitous waste of resources, an act of such complete folly as to be criminal.
Surely even given that there is a reasonable chance of a first launch ending in fiery destruction it must be worth their while canvassing the universities and research institutions of the world with the offer of a free launch, after all there must be a significant amount of science that would benefit from some cost-free launch capacity! It seems a betrayal of the famous “Why explore space” letter from the associate science director of NASA to a nun who questioned the expenditure while so many in the developing world were starving.
But on the other hand, first launches of rockets are a hazardous endeavour, as the metaphorical blue touchpaper is lit on the world’s largest firework for the first time. Satellites are expensive devices, and it would be a foolhardy owner who entrusted their craft to a launch vehicle with a good chance of a premature splashdown.
First launches traditionally carry a ballast rather than a payload, for example NASA have used tanks of water for this purpose in the past. SpaceX has a history of novelty payloads for their test launches; their first Dragon capsule took a wheel of cheese into space and returned it to Earth. We picture Musk looking around a big warehouse and saying, “well, we got a lot of cars!”
There is a fascinating question to be posed by the launch of the car, just what did they have to do to it to ensure that it could be qualified for launch? Satellite manufacture is an extremely exacting branch of engineering, aside from the aspect of ensuring that a payload will work it must both survive the launch intact and not jeopardise it in any way. It’s safe to say that the Roadster will not have to function while in orbit as the roads of California will be far away, but cars are not designed with either the stresses of launch or the transition to zero gravity and the vacuum of space in mind. Will a glass windscreen originally specified for a Lotus Elise on the roads of Norfolk shatter during the process and shower the inside of the craft with glass particles, for example? There must have been an extensive space qualification programme for it to pass, from vibration testing through removal of any hazards such as pressurised gases or corrosive chemicals, if only the folks at SpaceX would share some its details that would make for a fascinating story in itself.
So the Tesla Roadster is a huge publicity stunt on behalf of SpaceX, but it serves a purpose that would otherwise have to have been taken by an unexciting piece of ballast. It will end up as space junk, but in an orbit unlikely to bring it into contact with any other craft. If its space-suited dummy passenger won’t be providing valuable data on the suit’s performance we’d be extremely surprised, and when it is finally retrieved in a few centuries time it will make a fascinating exhibit for the Smithsonian.
Given a huge launch platform and the chance to fill it with a novelty item destined for orbit,the Hackaday team stepped into overdrive with suggestions as to what might be launched were they in charge. They varied from Douglas Adams references such as a heart of gold or a whale and a bowl of petunias should the rocket abort and the payload crash to earth, to a black monolith and a few ossified ape remains to confuse space historians. We briefly evaluated the theory that the Boring Company is in fact a hiding-in-plain-sight construction organisation for a forthcoming Evil Lair beneath the surface of Mars, before concluding that maybe after all the car is a pretty cool thing to use as ballast for a first launch.
It may be reaching towards seven decades since the first space programmes successfully sent rockets beyond the atmosphere with the aim of exploration, but while the general public has become accustomed to them as routine events they remain anything but to the engineers involved. The Falcon Heavy may not have been developed by a government, but it represents every bit as astounding an achievement as any of its predecessors. Flinging an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun is a colossal act of showmanship and probably a waste of a good car, but it’s also more than that. In hundreds of years time the IoT devices, apps, 3D printers, quadcopters or whatever else we toil over will be long forgotten. But there will be a car orbiting the Sun that remains a memorial to the SpaceX engineers who made its launch possible, assuming it doesn’t blow up before it gets there. What at first seemed frivolous becomes very cool indeed.