Are There Better Things To Hurl Into Orbit Than A Sports Car?

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.

Testing

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.

Launch of first Arianne 5. Not where you want your pricey satellite.

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.

Space Junk

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.

Smaller and Smarter: The Electron Rocket Takes Flight

On January 21st, 2018 at 1:43 GMT, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Roughly eight minutes later ground control received confirmation that the vehicle entered into a good orbit, followed shortly by the successful deployment of the payload. On only their second attempt, Rocket Lab had become the latest private company to put a payload into orbit. An impressive accomplishment, but even more so when you realize that the Electron is like no other rocket that’s ever flown before.

Not that you could tell from the outside. If anything, the external appearance of the Electron might be called boring. Perhaps even derivative, if you’re feeling less generous. It has the same fin-less blunted cylinder shape of most modern rockets, a wholly sensible (if visually unexciting) design. The vehicle’s nine first stage engines would have been noteworthy 15 years ago, but today only serve to draw comparisons with SpaceX’s wildly successful Falcon 9.

But while the Electron’s outward appearance is about as unassuming as they come, under that jet-black outer skin is some of the most revolutionary rocket technology seen since the V-2 first proved practical liquid fueled rockets were possible. As impressive as its been watching SpaceX teach a rocket to fly backwards and land on its tail, their core technology is still largely the same as what took humanity to the Moon in the 1960’s.

Vehicles that fundimentally change the established rules of spaceflight are, as you might expect, fairly rare. They often have a tendency to go up in a ball of flames; figuratively if not always literally. Now that the Electron has reached space and delivered its first payload, there’s no longer a question if the technology is viable or not. But whether anyone but Rocket Lab will embrace all the changes introduced with Electron may end up getting decided by the free market.

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Aireon Hitchhikes on Iridium to Track Airplanes

SpaceX just concluded 2017 by launching 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. A footnote on the launch was the “hosted payload” on board each of the satellites: a small box of equipment from Aireon. They will track every aircraft around the world in real-time, something that has been technically possible but nobody claimed they could do it economically until now.

Challenge one: avoid adding cost to aircraft. Instead of using expensive satcom or adding dedicated gear, Aireon listen to ADS-B equipment already installed as part of international air traffic control modernization. But since ADS-B was designed for aircraft-to-aircraft and aircraft-to-ground, Aireon had some challenges to overcome. Like the fact ADS-B antenna is commonly mounted on the belly of an aircraft blocking direct path to satellite.

Challenge two: hear ADS-B everywhere and do it for less. Today we can track aircraft when they are flying over land, but out in the middle of the ocean, there are no receivers in range except possibly other aircraft. Aireon needed a lot of low-orbit satellites to ensure you are in range no matter where you are. Piggybacking on Iridium gives them coverage at a fraction of the cost of building their own satellites.

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Hackaday Links: September 24, 2017

This is it. After twelve years we finally have a new Star Trek. Star Trek: Discovery (we’re using ST:DSC as the abbreviation) is airing right about when this post goes up. Next week, you’ll have to pay CBS $6USD a month to get your Star Trek fix, and today might be the last time a new episode of Star Trek is aired on broadcast TV ever. Enjoy it now, and hope the theme song doesn’t have lyrics. Also, hope The Orville is a tenth as good as a Galaxy Quest series could be.

What’s the best way to describe Delta Sigma PLLs? The Cat In The Hat (PDF, page 31). [Dr. Tune] found a Seuss reference in a TI app note. Personally, I’m a fan of hand-drawn cartoons, but we’ll take what we can get.

This weekend the Prusa I3 MK3 was announced. A good printer just got better. Now here’s the video.

The Raspberry Pi is a great media storage device, but it’s absolutely insufficient for audiophile tomfoolery. Here’s a neat Pi DAC/amp/DSP thingy. The VoltaStream turns the Raspberry Pi into a WiFi-connected pair of speakers with low-latency audio in and a TOSLINK connector.

SpaceX! There is serious consideration being given to starting an ‘Elon Musk column’ here on Hackaday. There will be SpaceX updates coming this week from the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. What will we find out? I don’t know bruh, but I just got back from Burning Man and I realized it was a whole lot like Mars and I was wondering Elon, like, have you ever been to Burning Man because it’s really dusty and a whole lot like Mars and there’s not much water… Please, organizers of the IAC, I implore you: give more idiots microphones. That was hilarious.

How was the World Maker Faire in New York this weekend? In one word, empty. Abnormally so. Maker Faire was not as crowded as last year, and you could actually move around. My agoraphobia didn’t kick in until the afterparties, and lines for the $5 bottles of water were short. Bay Area Faire attendance was down 16% from 2016-2017, and I would bet attendance for the NY Faire would be down a similar amount. Even a 10% decline in attendance would be noteworthy; the weather last year was cold and rainy and this year was beautiful. There are rumors, speculation, and people wondering how long Maker Faire will continue, but except for Intel pulling out of the maker market, no actual information. Millennials are killing the Maker Faire industry?

The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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Take A Look At The Hyperloop Competition Entries

If you are a follower of futuristic high-speed transport systems you’ll have had your fill of high-speed trains, you’ll mourn the passing of Concorde and be looking forward to future supersonic passenger aircraft. Unless you have a small fortune to pay for a spaceplane tourist flight at an unspecified time in the future, life is going to feel a little slow.

There is one spark of light in this relative gloom though, in the form of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. A partially evacuated tube in which vehicles, or “pods” can accelerate to very high speeds. SpaceX may not be pursuing it themselves, but they’ve made it available for others and to promote it they are running a competition in which they have invited teams to submit pod designs. And as a significant number of teams have made it through the first round and are prepared to compete outside SpaceX’s headquarters, Business Insider have a look at all the teams and their prototype pods. Continue reading “Take A Look At The Hyperloop Competition Entries”

Working For Elon Musk

One of my favorite types of science fiction character is found in the books of Ben Bova; a business mogul who through brilliance, hard work, and the force of personality drives mankind to a whole new level in areas such as commercializing space, colonizing the stars, battling governments, and thwarting competitors.

It is possible to name a few such characters in real life — influencing the electricity industry was George Westinghouse, automobiles was Henry Ford, and more recently Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. With Elon’s drive we may all finally be driving electric cars within 20 years and spreading out into space with his cheap rockets. Due to the latter he may be the closest yet to one of Bova’s characters.

So what’s it like to work for Elon Musk at Tesla or SpaceX? Most of us have read articles about him, and much that he’s written himself, as well as watched some of his many interviews and talks. But to get some idea of what it’s like to work for him I greatly enjoyed the insight from Ashlee Vance’s biography Elon Musk – Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. To write it Vance had many interviews with Musk as well as those who work with him or have in the past. Through this we get a fascinating look at a contemporary mogul of engineering.

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