Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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SpaceX Clips Dragon’s Wings After Investigation

When the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached orbit for the first time in 2010, it was a historic achievement. But to qualify for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the capsule also needed to demonstrate that it could return safely to Earth. Its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, had wings that let it glide home and land like a plane. But in returning to the classic capsule design of earlier spacecraft, SpaceX was forced to rely on a technique not used by American spacecraft since the 1970s: parachutes and an ocean splashdown.

The Dragon’s descent under parachute, splashdown, and subsequent successful recovery paved the way for SpaceX to begin a series of resupply missions to the International Space Station that continue to this day. But not everyone at SpaceX was satisfied with their 21st century spacecraft having to perform such an anachronistic landing. At a post-mission press conference, CEO Elon Musk told those in attendance that eventually the Dragon would be able to make a pinpoint touchdown using thrusters and deployable landing gear:

The architecture that you observed today is obviously similar to what was employed in the Apollo era, but the next generation Dragon, the Crew Dragon, we’re actually going to be aiming for a propulsive landing with gear. We’ll still have the parachutes as a backup, but it’s going to be a precision landing, you could literally land on something the size of a helipad propulsively with gear, refuel, and take off again.

But just shy of a decade later, the violent explosion of the first space worthy Crew Dragon has become the final nail in the coffin for Elon’s dream of manned space capsules landing like helicopters. In truth, the future of this particular capability was already looking quite dim given NASA’s preference for a more pragmatic approach to returning their astronauts from space. But Crew Dragon design changes slated to be implemented in light of findings made during the accident report will all but completely remove the possibility of Dragon ever performing a propulsive landing.

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New Space Abort Systems Go Back To The Future

Throughout the history of America’s human spaceflight program, there’s been an alternating pattern in regards to abort systems. From Alan Shepard’s first flight in 1961 on, every Mercury capsule was equipped with a Launch Escape System (LES) tower that could pull the spacecraft away from a malfunctioning rocket. But by the first operational flight of the Gemini program in 1965, the LES tower had been deleted in favor of ejection seats. Just three years later, the LES tower returned for the first manned flight of the Apollo program.

Mercury LES Tower

With the Space Shuttle, things got more complicated. There was no safe way to separate the Orbiter from the rest of the stack, so when Columbia made its first test flight in 1981, NASA returned again to ejection seats, this time pulled from an SR-71 Blackbird. But once flight tests were complete, the ejector seats were removed; leaving Columbia and all subsequent Orbiters without any form of LES. At the time, NASA believed the Space Shuttle was so reliable that there was no need for an emergency escape system.

It took the loss of Challenger and her crew in 1986 to prove NASA had made a grave error in judgment, but by then, it was too late. Changes were made to the Shuttle in the wake of the accident investigation, but escape during powered flight was still impossible. While a LES would not have saved the crew of Columbia in 2003, another seven lives lost aboard the fundamentally flawed Orbiter played a large part in President George W. Bush’s decision to begin winding down the Shuttle program.

In the post-Shuttle era, NASA has made it clear that maintaining abort capability from liftoff to orbital insertion is a critical requirement. Their own Orion spacecraft has this ability, and they demand the same from commercial partners such as SpaceX and Boeing. But while all three vehicles are absolutely bristling with high-tech wizardry, their abort systems are not far removed from what we were using in the 1960’s.

Let’s take a look at the Launch Escape Systems for America’s next three capsules, and see where historical experience helped guide the design of these state-of-the-art spacecraft.

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NASA’s “Green” Fuel Seeks Safer Spaceflight By Finally Moving Off Toxic Hydrazine

Spaceflight is inherently dangerous. It takes a certain type of person to willingly strap into what’s essentially a refined bomb and hope for the best. But what might not be so obvious is that the risks involved aren’t limited to those who are personally making the trip. The construction and testing of space-bound vehicles poses just as much danger to engineers here on the ground as it does to the astronauts in orbit. Arguably, more so. Far more individuals have given their lives developing rocket technology than have ever died in the cockpit of one of them.

Reddish brown exhaust of hydrazine thrusters

Ultimately, this is because of the enormous amount of energy stored in the propellants required to make a rocket fly. Ground support personnel need to exercise great care even when dealing with “safe” propellants, such as the classic combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other end of the spectrum you have chemicals that are so unstable and toxic that they can’t be handled without special training and equipment.

One of the most dangerous chemicals ever used in rocket propulsion is hydrazine; and yet from the Second World War to the present day, it’s been considered something of an occupational hazard of spaceflight. While American launch vehicles largely moved away from using it as a primary propellant, hydrazine is still commonly used for smaller thrusters on spacecraft.

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon exploded in April during ground tests, the release of approximately one and a half tons of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants required an environmental cleanup at the site.

But soon, that might change. NASA has been working on a project they call the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) which is specifically designed to reduce modern spacecraft’s dependency on hydrazine. In collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the space agency has spearheaded the development of a new propellant that promises to not just replace hydrazine, but in some scenarios even outperform it.

So what’s so good about this new wonder fuel, called AF-M315E? To really understand why NASA is so eager to power future craft with something new, we first have to look at the situation we’re in currently.

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See Starlink’s “Space Train” Before It Leaves The Station

Have you looked up into the night sky recently and seen a bizarre line of luminous dots? Have you noticed an uptick in the number of UFO reports mentioned in the news and social media? If so, you may have already been touched by what many have come to affectionately call Elon Musk’s “Space Train”: a line of tightly grouped Starlink satellites that are making their way around the globe.

Some have wondered what’s so unique about the Starlink satellites that allows them to be visible from the ground by the naked eye, but that’s actually nothing new. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, for both the observer and the spacecraft in question. The trick is having the object in space catch the light from the Sun when it has, from the observer’s point of view, already set. It’s essentially the same reason the Moon shines at night, but on a far smaller scale.

The ISS as it travels through Earth’s night and day

The phenomena is known as “satellite flare”, and chasing them is a favorite pastime of avid sky watchers. If you know when and where to look on a clear night, you can easily spot the International Space Station as it zips across the sky thanks to this principle. NASA even offers a service which uses email or SMS to tell you when the ISS should be visible from your location.

What makes the Starlink satellites unique isn’t that we can see them from the ground, but that there’s so many of them flying in a straight line. The initial launch released 60 satellites in a far tighter formation than we’ve ever seen before; Elon even warned that collisions between the individual Starlink satellites wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The cumulative effect of these close proximity satellite flares is a bit startling, and understandably has people concerned about what the night sky might look like when all 12,000 Starlink satellites are in orbit.

The good news is, the effect is only temporary. As the satellites spread out and begin individual maneuvers, that long line in the sky will fade away. But before Elon’s “Space Train” departs for good, let’s look at how it was created, and how you can still catch a glimpse of this unique phenomena.

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There And Back Again: A Falcon 9 Launch Story

It’s true that I’m not known for keeping particularly regular hours, but even I had my doubts about this plan. We’d go to sleep around midnight, wake up at 3 AM, drive up the coast aimlessly, then turn around and attend a full-day event where we’d have to maintain at least some semblance of professionalism. It was a bad idea, terrible even. But there I was at 11:30 PM sitting in a Waffle House with Thomas, the Supplyframe videographer, getting dangerously close to signing off on it.

Officially we were there to cover the Cornell Cup Finals being held at Kennedy Space Center, but as it so happens, our arrival in Florida perfectly coincided with the launch of CRS-17, SpaceX’s latest International Space Station resupply mission. Technically this was not part of our assignment. But really, what choice did we have?

Even if our respective bosses didn’t see it as a wasted opportunity, we had to consider the locals. In the few hours we’d been here, it seemed the launch was all anyone wanted to talk about. Everyone from the airport shuttle driver to the waitress who brought us our hash browns reminded us a rocket would be lifting off soon. If we didn’t go, then come Friday afternoon we’d be the only people in Cape Canaveral who didn’t have a personal account of the event. By all indications, an unforgivable cultural faux pas in central Florida.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that we didn’t actually need any convincing to go on this adventure. We had the supreme good fortune of finding ourselves in the vicinity of Kennedy Space Center a few hours before they were going to send a rocket thundering off into the black, and there was no way we could just sleep through it. No, there was never any choice in the matter. We were going.

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Everything We Know About SpaceX’s Starlink Network

When it comes to SpaceX, or perhaps more accurately its somewhat eccentric founder and CEO Elon Musk, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. For as many incredible successes SpaceX has had, there’s an equal number of projects or ideas which get quietly delayed or shelved entirely once it becomes clear the technical challenges are greater than anticipated. There’s also Elon’s particular brand of humor to contend with; most people assumed his claim that the first Falcon Heavy payload would be his own personal Tesla Roadster was a joke until he Tweeted the first shots of it being installed inside the rocket’s fairing.

So a few years ago when Elon first mentioned Starlink, SpaceX’s plan for providing worldwide high-speed Internet access via a mega-constellation of as many as 12,000 individual satellites, it’s no surprise that many met the claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. The profitability of Starlink was intrinsically linked to SpaceX’s ability to substantially lower the cost of getting to orbit through reusable launch vehicles, a capability the company had yet to successfully demonstrate. It seemed like a classic cart before the horse scenario.

But today, not only has SpaceX begun regularly reusing the latest version of their Falcon 9 rocket, but Starlink satellites will soon be in orbit around the Earth. They’re early prototypes that aren’t as capable as the final production versions, and with only 60 of them on the first launch it’s still a far cry from thousands of satellites which would be required for the system to reach operational status, but there’s no question they’re real.

During a media call on May 15th, Elon Musk let slip more technical information about the Starlink satellites than we’ve ever had before, giving us the first solid details on the satellites themselves, what the company’s goals are, and even a rough idea when the network might become operational.

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