# Single-Stage-to-Orbit: The Launch Technology We Wish Was Real

Reaching orbit around Earth is an incredibly difficult feat. It’s a common misconception that getting into orbit just involves getting very high above the ground — the real trick is going sideways very, very fast. Thus far, the most viable way we’ve found to do this is with big, complicated multi-stage rockets that shed bits of themselves as they roar out of the atmosphere.

Single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launch vehicles represent a revolutionary step in space travel. They promise a simpler, more cost-effective way to reach orbit compared to traditional multi-stage rockets. Today, we’ll explore the incredible potential offered by SSTO vehicles, and why building a practical example is all but impossible with our current technology.

## A Balancing Act

The SSTO concept doesn’t describe any one single spacecraft design. Instead, it refers to any spacecraft that’s capable of achieving orbit using a single, unified propulsion system and without jettisoning any part of the vehicle.

Today’s orbital rockets shed stages as they expend fuel. There’s one major reason for this, and it’s referred to as theĀ tyranny of the rocket equation. Fundamentally, a spacecraft needs to reach a certain velocity to attain orbit. Reaching that velocity from zero — i.e. when the rocket is sitting on the launchpad — requires a change in velocity, or delta-V. The rocket equation can be used to figure out how much fuel is required for a certain delta-V, and thus a desired orbit.

The problem is that the mass of fuel required scales exponentially with delta-V. If you want to go faster, you need more fuel. But then you need even more fuel again to carry the weight of thatĀ fuel, and so on. Plus, all that fuel needs a tank and structure to hold it, which makes things more difficult again.

Work out the maths of a potential SSTO design, and the required fuel to reach orbit ends up taking up almost all of the launch vehicle’s weight. There’s precious mass left over for the vehicle’s own structure, let alone any useful payload. This all comes down to the “mass fraction” of the rocket. A SSTO powered by even our most efficient chemical rocket engines would require that the vast majority of its mass be dedicated to propellants, with its structure and payload being tiny in comparison. Much of that is due to Earth’s nature. Our planet has a strong gravitational pull, and the minimum orbital velocity is quite high at about 7.4 kilometers per second or so.

## Stage Fright

Historically, we’ve cheated the rocket equation through smart engineering. The trick with staged rockets is simple. They shed structure as the fuel burns away. There’s no need to keep hauling empty fuel tanks into orbit. By dropping empty tanks during flight, the remaining fuel on the rocket has to accelerate a smaller mass, and thus less fuel is required to get the final rocket and payload into its intended orbit.

So far, staged rockets have been the only way for humanity to reach orbit. Saturn V had five stages, more modern rockets tend to have two or three. Even the Space Shuttle was a staged design: it shed its two booster rockets when they were empty, and did the same with its external liquid fuel tank.

But while staged launch vehicles can get the job done, it’s a wasteful way to fly. Imagine if every commercial flight required you to throw away three quarters of the airplane. While we’re learning to reuse discarded parts of orbital rockets, it’s still a difficult and costly exercise.

The core benefit of a SSTO launch vehicle would be its efficiency. By eliminating the need to discard stages during ascent, SSTO vehicles would reduce launch costs, streamline operations, and potentially increase the frequency of space missions.

## Pushing the Envelope

It’s currently believed that building a SSTO vehicle using conventional chemical rocket technology is marginally possible. You’d need efficient rocket engines burning the right fuel, and a light rocket with almost no payload, but theoretically it could be done.

Ideally, though, you’d want a single-stage launch vehicle that could actually reach orbit with some useful payload. Be that a satellite, human astronauts, or some kind of science package. To date there have been several projects and proposals for SSTO launch vehicles, none of which have succeeded so far.

One notable design was the proposed Skylon spacecraft from British company Reaction Engines Limited. Skylon was intended to operate as a reusable spaceplane fueled by hydrogen. It would take off from a runway, using wings to generate lift to help it to ascend to 85,000 feet. This improves fuel efficiency versus just pointing the launch vehicle straight up and fighting gravity with pure thrust alone. Plus, it would burn oxygen from the atmosphere on its way to that altitude, negating the need to carry heavy supplies of oxygen onboard.

Once at the appropriate altitude, it would switch to internal liquid oxygen tanks for the final acceleration phase up to orbital velocity. The design stretches back decades, to the earlier British HOTOL spaceplane project. Work continues on the proposed SABRE engine (Syngergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) that would theoretically propel Skylon, though no concrete plans to build the spaceplane itself exist.

Lockheed Martin also had the VentureStar spaceplane concept, which used an innovative “aerospike” rocket engine that maintained excellent efficiency across a wide altitude range. The company even built a scaled-down test craft called the X-33 to explore the ideas behind it. However, the program saw its funding slashed in the early 2000s, and development was halted.

McDonnell Douglas also had a crack at the idea in the early 1990s. The DC-X, also known as the Delta Clipper, was a prototype vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. At just 12 meters high and 4.1 meters in diameter, it was a one-third scale prototype for exploring SSTO-related technologies

It would take off vertically like a traditional rocket, and return to Earth nose-first before landing on its tail. The hope was that the combination of single-stage operation and this mission profile would provide extremely quick turnaround times for repeat launches, which was seen as a boon for potential military applications. While its technologies showed some promise, the project was eventually discontinued when a test vehicle caught fire after NASA took over the project.

Ultimately, a viable SSTO launch vehicle that can carry a payload will likely be very different from the rockets we use today. Relying on wings to generate lift could help save fuel, and relying on air in the atmosphere would slash the weight of oxidizer that would have to be carried onboard.

However, it’s not as simple as just penning a spaceplane with an air-breathing engine and calling it done. No air breathing engine that exists can reach orbital velocity, so such a craft would need an additional rocket engine too, adding weight. Plus, it’s worth noting a reusable launch vehicle would also still require plenty of heat shielding to survive reentry. One could potentially build a non-reusable single-stage to orbit vehicle that simply stays in space, of course, but that would negate many of the tantalizing benefits of the whole concept.

Single-stage-to-orbit vehicles hold the promise of transforming how we access space by simplifying the architecture of launch vehicles and potentially reducing costs. While there are formidable technical hurdles to overcome, the ongoing advances in aerospace technology provide hope that SSTO could become a practical reality in the future. As technology marches forward in materials, rocketry, and aerospace engineering in general, the dream of a single-stage path to orbit remains a tantalizing future goal.

Featured Image: Skylon Concept Art, ESA/Reaction Engines Ltd

# The Usage Of Embedded Linux In Spacecraft

As the first part of a series, [George Emad] takes us through a few examples of the Linux operating system being used in spacecraft. These range from SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to everyone’s favorite Martian helicopter. An interesting aspect is that the freshest Linux kernel isn’t necessarily onboard, as stability is far more important than having the latest whizzbang features. This is why SpaceX uses Linux kernel 3.2 (with real-time patches) on the primary flight computers of both Dragon and its rockets (Falcon 9 and Starship).

SpaceX’s flight computers use the typical triple redundancy setup, with three independent dual-core processors running the exact same calculations and a different Linux instance on each of its cores, and the result being compared afterwards. If any result doesn’t match that of the others, it is dropped. This approach also allows SpaceX to use fairly off-the-shelf (OTS) x86 computing hardware, with the flight software written in C++.

NASA’s efforts are similar, with Ingenuity in particular heavily using OTS parts, along with NASA’s open source, C++-based F’ (F Prime) framework. The chopper also uses some version of the Linux kernel on a Snapdragon 801 SoC, which as we have seen over the past 72 flights works very well.

Which is not to say using Linux is a no-brainer when it comes to use in avionics and similar critical applications. There is a lot of code in the monolithic Linux kernel that requires you to customize it for a specific task, especially if it’s on a resource-constrained platform. Linux isn’t particularly good at hard real-time applications either, but using it does provide access to a wealth of software and documentation — something that needs to be weighed up against the project’s needs.

The second of three major solar eclipses in a mere six-year period swept across the United States last week. We managed to catch the first one back in 2017, and still have plans for the next one in April of 2024. But we gave this one a miss, mainly because it was “just” an annular eclipse, promising a less spectacular presentation than a total eclipse.

Looks like we were wrong about that, at least judging by photographs of last week’s “Ring of Fire” eclipse. NASA managed to catch a shot of the Moon’s shadow over the middle of the US from the Deep Space Climate Observer at Lagrange Point 1. The image, which shows both the compact central umbra of the shadow and the much larger penumbra, which covers almost the entire continent, is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Ground-based photographers were very much in the action too, turning in some lovely shots of the eclipse. We particularly like this “one-in-a-million” shot of a jet airliner photobombing the developing eclipse. Shots like these make us feel like it was a mistake to skip the 10-hour drive to the path of annularity.

# Voyager 2: Communication Reestablished With One Big Shout

You could practically hear the collective “PHEW!” as NASA announced that they had reestablished full two-way communications with Voyager 2 on Friday afternoon! Details are few at this point — hopefully we’ll get more information on how this was pulled off, since we suspect there was some interesting wizardry involved. If you haven’t been following along, here’s a quick recap of the situation.

As we previously reported, a wayward command that was sent to Voyager 2, currently almost 19 light-hours distant from Earth, reoriented the spacecraft by a mere two degrees. It doesn’t sound like much, but the very narrow beamwidth on Voyager‘s high-gain antenna and the vast distance put it out of touch with the Canberra Deep Space Network station, currently the only ground station with line-of-sight to the spacecraft. While this was certainly a problem, NASA controllers seemed to take it in stride thanks to a contingency program which would automatically force the spacecraft to realign itself to point at Earth using its Canopus star tracker. The only catch was, that system wasn’t set to engage until October.

With this latest development, it appears that mission controllers weren’t willing to wait that long. Instead, based on what was universally referred to in the non-tech media as a “heartbeat” from Voyager on August 1– it appears that what they were really talking about was the use of multiple antennas at the Canberra site to pick up a weak carrier signal from the probe — they decided to send an “interstellar shout” and attempt to reorient the antenna. The 70-m DSS-43 dish blasted out the message early in the morning of August 2, and 37 hours later, science and engineering data started streaming into the antenna again, indicating that Voyager 2 was pointing back at Earth and operating fine.

Hats off to everyone involved in making this fix and getting humanity’s most remote outpost back online. If you want to follow the heroics in nearly real-time, or just like watching what goes on at the intersection of Big Engineering and Big Science, make sure you check out the Canberra DSN Twitter feed.

# Discussing The Finer Points Of Space-Worthy Software

At the dawn of the Space Race, when computers were something that took up whole rooms, satellites and probes had to rely on analog electronics to read from their various sensors and transmit the resulting data to the ground. But it wasn’t long before humanity’s space ambitions outgrew these early systems, which lead to vast advancements in space-bound digital computers in support of NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. Today, building a spacecraft without an onboard computer (or even multiple redundant computers) is unheard of. Even the smallest of CubeSats is likely running Linux on a multi-core system.

As such, software development has now become part an integral part of spacecraft design — from low-level code that’s responsible for firing off emergency systems to the 3D graphical touchscreen interfaces used by the crew to navigate the craft. But as you might expect, the stakes here are higher than any normal programming assignment. If your code locks up here on Earth, it’s an annoyance. If it locks up on a lunar lander seconds before it touches down on the surface, it could be the end of the mission.

To get a bit more insight into this fascinating corner of software development, we invited Jacob Killelea to host last week’s
Software for Satellites Hack Chat. Jacob is an engineer with a background in both aero and thermodynamics, control systems, and life support. He’s written code for spacecraft destined for the Moon, and perhaps most importantly, is an avid reader of Hackaday.

# Laser Propulsion Could Satisfy Our Spacecraft’s Need For Speed

There are many wonderful places we’d like to visit in the universe, and probably untold numbers more that we haven’t even seen or heard of yet. Unfortunately…they’re all so darn far away. A best-case-scenario trip to Mars takes around six months with present technology, meanwhile, if you want to visit Alpha Centauri it’s a whole four lightyears away!

When it comes to crossing these great distances, conventional chemical rocket technology simply doesn’t cut the mustard. As it turns out though, lasers could hold the key to cutting down travel times in space!

# Mercury Thrusters: A Worldwide Disaster Averted Just In Time

The field of space vehicle design is obsessed with efficiency by necessity. The cost to do anything in space is astronomical, and also heavily tied to launch weight. Thus, any technology or technique that can bring those figures down is prime for exploitation.

In recent years, mercury thrusters promised to be one such technology. The only catch was the potentially-ruinous environmental cost. Today, we’ll look at the benefits of mercury thrusters, and how they came to be outlawed in short order.