SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

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HP Inkjet Printer Trains for Space

The International Space Station is one of our leading frontiers of science and engineering, but it’s easy to forget that an exotic orbiting laboratory has basic needs shared with every terrestrial workplace. This includes humble office equipment like a printer. (The ink-on-paper kind.) And if you thought your office IT is slow to update their list of approved equipment, consider the standard issue NASA space printer draws from a stock of modified Epson Stylus 800s first flown on a space shuttle almost twenty years ago. HP signed on to provide a replacement, partnering with Simplexity who outlined their work as a case study upgrading HP’s OfficeJet 5740 design into the HP Envy ISS.

Simplexity provided more engineering detail than HP’s less technical page. Core parts of inkjet printing are already well suited for space and required no modification. Their low power consumption is valued when all power comes from solar panels, and ink flow is already controlled via methods independent of gravity. Most of the engineering work focused on paper handling in zero gravity, similar to the work necessary for its Epson predecessor. To verify gravity-independent operation on earth, Simplexity started by mounting their test units upside-down and worked their way up to testing in the cabin of an aircraft in free fall.

CollectSpace has a writeup with details outside Simplexity’s scope, covering why ISS needs a printer plus additional modifications made in the interest of crew safety. Standard injection-molded plastic parts were remade with an even more fire-resistant formulation of plastic. The fax/scanner portion of the device was removed due to concerns around its glass bed. Absorbent mats were attached inside the printer to catch any stray ink droplets.

NASA commissioned a production run for 50 printers, the first of which was delivered by SpaceX last week on board their CRS-14 mission. When it wears out, a future resupply mission will deliver its replacement drawn from this stock of space printers. Maybe a new inkjet printer isn’t as exciting as 3D printing in space or exploring space debris cleanup, but it’s still a part of keeping our orbital laboratory running.

[via Engadget]


Space Garbage Truck Takes Out the Trash

On April 2nd, 2018 a Falcon 9 rocketed skywards towards the International Space Station. The launch itself went off without a hitch, and the Dragon spacecraft delivered its payload of supplies and spare parts. But alongside the usual deliveries, CRS-14 brought a particularly interesting experiment to the International Space Station.

Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS is a demonstration mission that aims to test a number of techniques for tackling the increasingly serious problem of “space junk”. Earth orbit is filled with old spacecraft and bits of various man-made hardware that have turned some areas of space into a literal minefield. While there have been plenty of ideas floated as to how to handle this growing issue, RemoveDEBRIS will be testing some of these methods under real-world conditions.

The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will do this by launching two CubeSats as test targets, which it will then (hopefully) eliminate in a practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. If successful, these techniques could eventually become standard operating procedure on future missions.

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Lost In Space: How Materials Degrade In Space

Hackaday readers are well aware of the problems caused by materials left exposed to the environment over time, whether that be oxidized contact pads on circuit boards or plastics made brittle from long exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Now consider the perils faced by materials on the International Space Station (ISS), launched beginning in 1998 and planned to be used until 2028. That’s a total of 30 years in an environment of unfiltered sunlight, extreme temperatures, micrometeoroids, and even problems caused by oxygen. What about the exposure faced by the newly launched Tesla Roadster, an entirely non-space hardened vehicle on a million-year orbit around the sun? How are the materials which make up the ISS and the Roadster affected by the harsh space environment?

Fortunately, we’ve been doing experiments since the 1970s in Earth orbit which can give us answers. The missions and experiments themselves are as interesting as the results so let’s look at how we put materials into orbit to be tested against the rigors of space.

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SpaceX Joins in the Long History of Catching Stuff from Space

On February 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully delivered into orbit an Earth-observation satellite operated by the Spanish company Hisdesat. Compared to the media coverage received by the launch of the Tesla-laden Falcon Heavy earlier in the month, this mission got very little attention. But that’s hardly surprising. With respect to Hisdesat, the payload this time around was not terribly exciting, and even the normally dramatic landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage was skipped in favor of simply allowing the booster to crash into the ocean.

As far as SpaceX launches go, this one was about as low-key as they come. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time some readers are even hearing about it. But while it didn’t invoke the same media circus as the images of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin traveling into deep space, there was still a historic “first” performed during this mission.

In an effort to increase the re-usability of the Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX attempted to catch the payload fairing (essentially a large protective nose cone) with a huge net as it fell from space. The most interesting thing about this new chapter in the quest for a fully reusable rocket system is that while SpaceX is generally considered to be pioneers in the world of bringing hardware back from space, this particular trick dates all the way back to the 1960’s.

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Predicting Starman’s Return To Earth

There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he’ll have to wait several million years until the Yarkovsky effect brings him around to Earth again.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, SpaceX recently launched a car into space. This caused much consternation and hand-wringing, but we got some really cool pictures of side boosters landing simultaneously. The test launch for the Falcon Heavy successfully lobbed a Tesla Roadster into deep space with an orbit extending out into the asteroid belt. During the launch coverage, SpaceX said the car would orbit for Billions of years. This might not be true; a recent analysis of the random walk of cars revealed a significant probability of hitting Earth or Venus over the next Million years.

The analysis of the Tesla Roadster relies on the ephemerides provided by JPL’s Horizons database (2018-017A), and predicts the orbit over several hundred years. In the short term — a thousand years or so — there is little chance of a collision with anything. In 2091, however, the Tesla will find itself approaching Earth, and after that, the predicted orbits change drastically. As an aside, we should totally bring the Tesla back in 2091.

Even though the Tesla Roadster, its payload adapter, and the booster are inert objects floating in space right now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t forces acting on it. For small objects orbiting near the sun, the Yarkovsky effect is a huge influence on the orbit when measured on a timescale of millennia. In short, the Yarkovsky effect is a consequence of a spinning object being heated by the sun. As an object (a Tesla, or an asteroid) rotates, the side facing the sun heats up. As this side faces away from the sun, this heat is radiated out, imparting a tiny, tiny force. This force, over a period of millions of years, can send the Tesla into resonances with other planets, eventually sending it crashing into Earth, Venus, or the Sun.

The authors of this paper find there is a 6% chance the Tesla will collide with Earth and a 2.5% chance it will collide with Venus in the next one Million years. In three Million years, the probability of a collision with Earth is 11%. These are, according to the authors, extremely preliminary calculations and more observations are needed. If the Tesla were to hit the Earth, it’s doubtful whatever species populates the planet would notice; the mass of the Tesla is only 1250 Kg, and Earth flies through meteoroids weighing that much very frequently.

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.


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.