SpaceX’s Dragon: The Dawn of a New Age for Space Exploration?

SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)
SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)

This morning, at 12:44 a.m. PDT, a rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. It wasn’t the biggest of rockets; it wasn’t carrying a particularly exciting payload, either. But it may well represent a crossroads in spaceflight history.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, saw a perfect launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Sporting nine Merlin engines — engines designed and built in-house — the rocket blasted off exactly as planned even though the first launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed. The “failed” attempt — that was aborted automatically in the last second due to a faulty valve in number 5 engine — was actually a success unto itself; a means of ensuring the launch abort systems were working as they should.

But Saturday is a distant memory as, at right at this moment, there’s an unmanned spacecraft chasing after the International Space Station set for a historic orbital rendezvous in three days time. The Falcon 9 operated as it should and so has the Dragon capsule. So far.

Assuming everything else goes to plan, what does this mission mean for the future of spaceflight?

This is no silver bullet to solve all our spaceflight woes, but it could be the start of something a little bit special. Elon Musk, Internet entrepraneur and SpaceX CEO, has no qualms about thinking big. His enthusiasm for space exploration is infectious and his eye for applying a business model to rocket science is, so far, genius. In a world driven by politics and money, he’s found a way of tying the two together to give the noble effort of pushing mankind’s frontiers an accelerated start. He’s eying Mars. If SpaceX can build rockets and spaceships, perhaps companies, governments and institutions will buy his company’s services to travel through interplanetary space.

Does this mean Mars “taxi rides” are in our future? Perhaps.

But spaceflight history is littered with failed start-ups, accidents and expense, so time will only tell how far SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies can push mankind’s exploration envelope.

I can’t help but be enthusiastic for Musk’s endeavour, however. Remember Sept. 28, 2008, when SpaceX became the first company to launch its own rocket into orbit? That was only four short years ago.

It may be too early to get excited over seeing the Dragon docked to the ISS, but the importance of such an event shouldn’t be ignored. Once SpaceX proves it can be done, this could be a paradigm shift. Space exploration could be driven by enterprise and exploration, potentially transforming us into a multi-planetary species.

Listen to the “Which Way, LA” show hosted by Warren Olney where we discuss SpaceX and commercial space.

Ares I-X: The Beginning And The End For Constellation?

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The 327 ft tall Ares I-X is currently waiting inside Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for its delayed 4.2 mile rollout to the launchpad. Originally scheduled for Monday, the rollout was postponed by 24 hours when engineers spotted a nitrogen gas leak on Oct. 14th. It would appear the problem has been rectified and we can look forward to seeing the tallest rocket on the planet roll out to Pad 39B by Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the Ares I-X test flight is generating little excitement, even though NASA is heralding the scheduled Oct. 27th launch as “the First Flight of a New Era.” When there’s talk that the Constellation Program might be scrapped all together to allow for a cheaper alternative, there’s little wonder that even the most excited space flight enthusiasts are looking at the slender white frame of the Ares I-X thinking, will this be the only launch of the Constellation Program?

This negativity isn’t unfounded either. As we await the final report from the Augustine Commission (to be delivered to the White House later this week), one of the conclusions could be that Constellation is more hassle for NASA to complete rather than to scrap.

In this case Ares I-X will have become a very expensive firework.

Although it is unlikely the White House will decide on a course of action before Oct. 27th, I can’t help but think the outcome of Constellation would have been decided before the Ares I-X has even blasted off. No matter how well the four-stage test rocket performs during its 28 mile-high suborbital flight, the project could still be shelved.

But what if there are several options for NASA as the Commission Report summary suggests? Could the Ares I-X launch be the decision maker?

The Oct. 27th launch will be an amazing event in itself (and I’m dead excited to see that monster thunder into the skies), and unless an overlooked technical problem rears its ugly head, we’ll see the test launch of a brand new rocket system. What’s not awesome about that? If the Ares I-X blasts off perfectly, and the Ares design is proven to be free from vibrations and other design flaws, could a proof of concept sway the decision in favour of keeping Constellation in development? Possibly.

Regardless of the conclusions to come out of the Augustine Commission, the launch of Ares I-X will mark a crossroads for manned spaceflight. History will be written, but will history favour the Constellation Program? I don’t think I could place a bet either way.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

What Have I Done? Worlds Media Adopt “Brian the Bat”!

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The one day I’m on the road and can’t find an Internet connection was bound to be the very same day that the mother of all headline news breaks! “Brian the Bat” has been adopted by the mainstream media. Naturally, many websites and news sources picked up the tragic end of the little broken-winged free-tail bat that attempted to stow away on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 launch on Sunday. However, after pondering the little guy’s fate on Sunday, I did what I normally do when talking about a cute little furry animal… I named him.

For some reason that even I cannot explain, I tend to call animals “Brian” if I can’t think of another name, so it seemed only natural to call the Discovery bat, Brian. Now it seems the mainstream media has been paying attention to the random Twitterings about Brian.

I first got news from @Barstein that one of Norway’s largest papers (thank you Geir, for writing the article!), Dagbladet, had picked up the news, attributing Astroengine.com with the naming (awesome). I have yet to translate and read the article fully, but I will do in a short while (Starbucks ‘net connection permitting). Dagbladet then followed up with “Her dør flaggermusa Brian” (“Brian the bat dies here”).

I was already overwhelmed that a major Norwegian paper would celebrate Brian’s final hours, but then I find out that the Daily Mail Online (one of the biggest UK newspapers) also reported about Brian the Bat!

Wow, all because I call small furry animals “Brian”. The power of Twitter and blogging appears to be rather strong! Although I would have liked Astroengine’s international media début to be focused on some extreme astrophysics theory, I am honoured that I might have played a small roll in personalizing this unfortunate Florida free-tailed bat, possibly boosting his memory the world over. He paid the ultimate price for our push to the stars, Brian should be remembered for that…

UPDATE (4pm): The largest UK tabloid newspaper, The Sun has just published an article called “It’s a giant leap for batkind” mentioning that the bat’s name was Brian. I was a little disappointed not to have a link to the original article at first, but I’m actually very glad, Astroengine might blow a fuse if I got a link from one of those sites!

In Memory of Brian, the Discovery Bat

The bat, clinging to Discovery's external tank on Sunday's shuttle launch (©NASA/Collect Space/Brian the Bat)
The bat, clinging to Discovery's external tank on Sunday's shuttle launch (©NASA/Collect Space/Brian the Bat)

As the Sun set over Florida, NASA ground staff hurried to complete preparations for space shuttle Discovery’s launch just before 8pm EST on Sunday. Fortunately, the countdown went as planned and Discovery is now on its way to install the remaining solar panels in the International Space Station’s solar array. The launch itself was strangely captivating, probably because this was the sixth launch date that has been set (continuously postponed due to valve problems and, most recently, a hydrogen leak). However, there was another reason that interested me, a bat had been discovered, hanging onto the the shuttle’s external fuel tank, refusing to budge…
Continue reading “In Memory of Brian, the Discovery Bat”

Shuttle Discovery Launch Success!

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At 19:47 EST, the STS-119 mission began with the successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission had been delayed by a week due to a hydrogen leak outside Discovery’s external fuel tank (compounding the extended delay caused by valve problems), but the fault was repaired, allowing NASA to perform a flawless launch today.

Space Shuttle Discovery's trail catches the sunset above Florida (Spaceflight Now UStream)
Space Shuttle Discovery's trail catches the sunset above Florida (Spaceflight Now UStream)

STS-119 will install the fourth and final set of solar arrays to the ISS. In May, the space station crew will grow to six, so additional solar power will be required. Interestingly, once completed, the station will become the second brightest object in the night sky.

Good luck Discovery!

For developing news on STS-119, check out the coverage on the Universe Today »

Replacing Warheads With Telescopes

Left: The first ever rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 2 (based on the V-2 weapon design), was in July 1950. Right: The Kepler space telescope launches onboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, March 2009 (NASA)
Left: The first ever rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 2 (based on the V-2 weapon design), was in July 1950. Right: The Kepler space telescope launches onboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, March 2009 (NASA)

Kepler, the exoplanet-hunting space telescope, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on top of a Delta II rocket at 10:49 pm EST. In a word: awesome. Unfortunately I missed lift off, but it was good to watch NASA TV as the flames from the first stage receded into the black. Obviously today’s event will come as a huge relief to NASA having lost the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO) last month when the Taurus XL upper stage fairing failed to separate, locking the satellite in a doomed sub-orbital trajectory, crashing into the Antarctic Ocean.

The highest any rocket had gone before: A 1947 US V-2 rocket, with nose cone camera, captures the limb of the Earth (NASA)
The highest any rocket had gone before: A 1947 US V-2 rocket, with nose cone camera, captures the limb of the Earth (NASA)

On checking out the NASA homepage, the headline news was obviously about Kepler, but underneath was a fascinating image (left). From the NASA Image of the Day, there’s a vintage piece of spaceflight history. Two images, one facing north, the other south, shows the first view from an altitude of over 100 miles (160 km). The pictures were taken by a camera in the nose cone of an experimental V-2 rocket launched by the US on March 7th, 1947. The V-2 technology, as used by Nazi Germany in World War II, had been captured after the war and developed by US scientists. In this case, the V-2 nose cone housed a camera, rather than an explosive warhead, to carry out the first high altitude atmospheric observations.

The camera returned a series of images to the Earth, and these striking panoramas were constructed, covering a million square miles of our planet’s surface. This was the first time a rocket had been used for rudimentary space science; before this time, rockets only had military applications.

62 years later, almost to the day, a Delta II carries one of the most ambitious NASA projects into orbit, to begin another peaceful application, not studying the atmosphere of our own planet, but to search for other Earths orbiting distant stars.

How far we’ve come

For more about Kepler’s launch and exciting mission, check out Anne Minard’s article on the Universe Today, “Success: Kepler Lifts Off to Look for Other Earths