Northern Lights by Drone? You Won’t Believe Your Eyes


Northern lights over Iceland filmed by Icelandic photographer Oli Haukur using a drone. Don’t forget to expand the screen.

I knew the era of real-time northern lights video was upon us. I just didn’t think drones would get into the act this soon. What was I thinking? They’re perfect for the job! If watching the aurora ever made you feel like you could fly, well now you can in Oli Haukur’s moving, real-time footage of an amazing aurora display filmed by drone.

Oli Haukur operates the drone and camera during a test run. Credit: Oli Hauku / OZZO Photography
Oli Haukur operates the drone and camera during a test run. Credit: Oli Hauku / OZZO Photography

Haukur hooked up a Sony a7S II digital camera and ultra-wide Sigma 20mm f/1.4 lens onto his DJI Matrice 600 hexacopter. The light from the gibbous moon illuminates the rugged shoreline and crashing waves of the Reykjanes Peninsula (The Steamy Peninsula) as while green curtains of aurora flicker above.

The Sony camera is shown attached to the drone. To capture the aurora, Haukur used a fast lens, high ISO and set the frame rate to 25 frames per second (fps) or 1/25th of a second per frame. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography
The Sony camera is shown attached to the drone. To capture the aurora, Haukur used a fast lens, high ISO and set the frame rate to 25 frames per second (fps) or 1/25th of a second per frame. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography

When the camera ascends over a sea stack, you can see gulls take off below, surprised by the mechanical bird buzzing just above their heads. Breathtaking. You might notice at the same time a flash of light — this is from the lighthouse beacon seen earlier in the video.

To capture his the footage, Haukur used a “fast” lens (one that needs only a small amount of light to make a picture) and an ISO of 25,600. The camera is capable of ISO 400,000, but the lower ISO provided greater resolution and color quality.

Moonlight provided all the light needed to bring out the landscape.

The drone used to make the night flight. Credit: Oli Haukur
The drone used to make the night flight and aurora recording is seen up close on takeoff. Haukur, of Rejkyavik, Iceland, works as a freelance photographer and filmmaker as well as providing professional drone services in that country. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography

Remember when ISO 1600 or 3200 was as far you dared to go before the image turned to a grainy mush? Last year Canon released a camera that can literally see in the dark with a top ISO over 4,000,000! There’s no question we’ll be seeing more live aurora and drone aurora video in the coming months. Haukur plans additional shoots this winter and early next spring. Living in Iceland, which lies almost directly beneath the permanent auroral oval, you can schedule these sort of things!

Am I allowed one tiny criticism? I want more — a minute and a half is barely enough! Haukur shot plenty but released only a taste to social media to prove it could be done and share the joy. Let’s hope he compiles the rest and makes it available for us to lose our selves in soon.

NASA’s New X-Plane Program to Bring Quiet Supersonic Flight

An illustration of what a quiet supersonic passenger aircraft might look like. Image: Lockheed Martin.

NASA has plans to develop new supersonic passenger aircraft that are not only quieter, but also greener and less expensive to operate. If NASA’s 2017 budget is approved, the agency will re-start their X-Plane program, the same program which was responsible for the first supersonic flight almost 70 years ago. And if all goes according to plan, the first test-model could be flying as soon as 2020.

The problem with supersonic flight—and the reason it’s banned— is the uber-loud boom that it creates. When an aircraft passes the speed of sound, a shockwave is created in the air it passes through. This shockwave can travel up to 40 kilometres (25 miles), and can even break windows. NASA thinks new aircraft designs can prevent this, and it starts with abandoning the ‘tube and wings’ model that current passenger aircraft design adheres to. It’s hoped that new designs will avoid the sonic booms that cause so much disturbance, and instead produce more of a soft thump, or supersonic ‘heartbeat.’

Another illustration of what a quiet supersonic aircraft might look like. Image: NASA/Boeing.
Another illustration of what a quiet supersonic aircraft might look like. Image: NASA/Boeing.

The image above shows what a hybrid wing-body aircraft might look like. Rather than a tube with wings attached, this design uses a unified body and wings built together. It’s powered by turbofan engines, and has vertical fins on the rear to direct sound up and away from the ground. (Just don’t ask for a window seat.)

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has been chosen to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST.) They will have about 17 months to produce a design, which will then lead to a more detailed designing, building, and testing of a new QueSST jet, about half the size of a production aircraft. This aircraft will then have to undergo analytical testing and wind-tunnel validation.

After the design and build of QueSST will come the Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) phase. During the LBFD phase, NASA will seek community input on the aircraft’s performance and noise factor.

But noise reduction is not the only goal of NASA’s new X-Plane program. NASA administrator Charles Bolden acknowledged this when he said, “NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter—all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently.” 

NASA has been working in recent years to reduce aircraft fuel consumption by 15%, and engine nitrogen oxide emissions by 75%. These goals are part of their Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, which began in 2009. Other goals of ERA include reducing aircraft drag by 8% and aircraft weight by 10%. These goals dovetail nicely with their revamped X-Plane initiative.

It’s hard to bet against NASA. They’re one of the most effective organizations on Earth, and when they set goals, they tend to meet them. If their X-Plane program can achieve its goals, it will be a win for aircraft design, for paying customers, and for the environment.

For a look at the history of the X-Plane project, look here.

Buster the Dummy Strapped in for Mile High SpaceX Dragon Flight Test

SpaceX and NASA are just days away from a crucial test of a crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a launch failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Buster the Dummy is already strapped into his seat aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon test vehicle for what is called the Pad Abort Test, that is currently slated for Wednesday, May 6.

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Boeing was also selected by NASA to build the CST-100 spaceship to provide a second, independent crew space taxi capability to the ISS during 2017.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in May 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The SpaceX Dragon and trunk together stand about 20 feet tall and are positioned atop the launch mount at SLC-40 for what is clearly labeled as a development test to learn how the Dragon, engines and abort system perform.

Buster will soar along inside the Dragon that will be rapidly propelled to nearly a mile high height solely under the power of eight SpaceX SuperDraco engines.

The trunk will then separate, parachutes will be deployed and the capsule will splashdown about a mile offshore from Florida in the Atlantic Ocean, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during a May 1, 2015 press briefing on the pad abort test at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The entire test will take about a minute and a half and recovery teams will retrieve Dragon from the ocean and bring it back on shore for detailed analysis.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV. The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT. The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

The test is designed to simulate an emergency escape abort scenario from the test stand at the launch pad in the unlikely case of booster failing at liftoff or other scenario that would threaten astronauts inside the spacecraft.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety, according to Koenigsmann.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

SpaceX and NASA hope to refurbish and reuse the same Dragon capsule for another abort test at high altitude later this year. The timing of the in flight abort test hinges on the outcome of the pad abort test.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Beside Buster the dummy, who is human-sized, the Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

“There’s a lot of instrumentation on this flight – a lot,” Koenigsmann said. “Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck. At the end of the day, that’s the point of tests, to get lots of data.”

Buster will be accelerated to a force of about 4 to 4½ times the force of Earth’s gravity, noted Koenigsmann.

The pad abort test is being done under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

“The point is to gather data – you don’t have to have a flawless test to be successful,” Cowart said.

The second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

“Whatever happens to Falcon 9, you will be able to pull out the astronauts and land them safely on this crew Dragon,” said Koenigsmann. “In my opinion, this will make it the safest vehicle that you can possibly fly.”

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as the worlds privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014 news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

By Boots or Bots? How Shall We Explore?

With robotic spacecraft, we have explored, discovered and expanded our understanding of the Solar System and the Universe at large. Our five senses have long since reached their limits and cannot reveal the presence of new objects or properties without the assistance of extraordinary sensors and optics. Data is returned and is transformed into a format that humans can interpret.

Humans remain confined to low-Earth orbit and forty-three years have passed since humans last escaped the bonds of Earth’s gravity. NASA’s budget is divided between human endeavors and robotic and each year there is a struggle to find balance between development of software and hardware to launch humans or carry robotic surrogates. Year after year, humans continue to advance robotic capabilities and artificial intelligence (A.I.), and with each passing year, it becomes less clear how we will fit ourselves into the future exploration of the Solar System and beyond.

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong photographed Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. The Apollo 13 astronauts hold the record as having been the most distant humans from Earth - 249,205 miles. Since December 1972, 42 years, the furthest humans have traveled from Earth is 347 miles - to service the Hubble space telescope. The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity Rover resides at least 34 million miles and as far as 249 million from Earth, while the Voyager 1 probe is 12,141,887,500 miles from Earth. Having traveled billions of miles and peered through billions of light years of space, NASA robotic vehicles have rewritten astronomical textbooks.(Photo Credits: NASA)
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong photographed Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. The Apollo 13 astronauts hold the record as having been the most distant humans from Earth – 249,205 miles. Since December 1972, 42 years, the furthest humans have traveled from Earth is 347 miles (equivalent to SF to LA) – to service the Hubble space telescope. The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity Rover resides at least 34 million miles and as far as 249 million from Earth, while the Voyager 1 probe is 12,141,887,500 miles from Earth. Having traveled billions of miles and peered into billions of light years of space, NASA robotic vehicles have rewritten astronomical textbooks.(Photo Credits: NASA)

Is it a race in which we are unwittingly partaking that places us against our inventions? And like the aftermath of the Kasparov versus Deep Blue chess match, are we destined to accept a segregation as necessary? Allow robotics, with or without A.I., to do what they do best – explore space and other worlds?

In May 1997, Garry Kasparov accepted a rematch with Deep Blue and lost. In the 17 years since the defeat, the supercomputing power has increased by a factor of 50,000 (FLOPS). Furthermore, Chess software has steadily improved. Advances in space robotics have not relied on sheer computing performance but rather from steady advances in reliability, memory storage, nanotechnology, material science, software and more. (Photo Credit: Reuters)
In May 1997, Garry Kasparov accepted a rematch with Deep Blue and lost. In the 17 years since the defeat, super-computing power has increased by a factor of 50,000 (FLOPS). Furthermore, Chess software has steadily improved. Advances in space robotics have not relied on sheer computing performance but rather from steady advances in reliability, memory storage, nanotechnology, material science, software and more. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

Should we continue to find new ways and better ways to plug ourselves into our surrogates and appreciate with greater detail what they sense and touch? Consider how naturally our children engross themselves in games and virtual reality and how difficult it is to separate them from the technology. Or is this just a prelude and are we all antecedents of future Captain Kirks and Jean Luc Picards?

The NASA 2015 budget passed on December 13, 2014, a part of the Continuing Resolution & Omnibus Bill (HR 83). Distribution of funds, percent of the total budget, percent change relative to the 2014 budget and relative to the White House proposed 2015 budget are shown. (Credit: T.Reyes)
The NASA 2015 budget passed on December 13, 2014, as part of the Continuing Resolution & Omnibus Bill (HR 83). Each  chart segment lists the allocated funds, the percent of the total budget, the percent change relative to NASA’s 2014 budget and percent change relative to the 2015 White House budget request. (Credit: T.Reyes)

Approximately 55% of the NASA budget is in the realm of human spaceflight (HSF). This includes specific funds for Orion and SLS and half measures of supporting segments of the NASA agency, such as Cross-Agency Support, Construction and Maintenance. In contrast, appropriations for robotic missions – project development, operations, R&D – represent 39% of the budget.

The appropriation of funds has always favored human spaceflight, primarily because HSF requires costlier, heavier and more complex systems to maintain humans in the hostile environment of space. And while NASA budgets are not nearly weighted 2-to-1 in favor of human spaceflight, few would contest that the return on investment (ROI) is over 2-to-1 in favor of robotic driven exploration of space. And many would scoff at this ratio and counter that 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 is closer to the advantage robots have over humans.

For NASA enthusiasts, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Texas representative Lamar Smith chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the 113th Congress have raised CSPAN coverage to episodes of high drama. The lines of questioning and decision making define the line in the sand between Capital Hill and the White House's vision of NASA's future. (Credit: CSPAN,Getty Images)
For NASA enthusiasts, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Texas representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the 113th Congress, have raised CSPAN coverage to moments of high drama. The lines of questioning and decision making define the line in the sand between Capital Hill and the White House’s vision of NASA’s future. (Credit: CSPAN,Getty Images)

Politics play a significantly bigger role in the choice of appropriations to HSF compared to robotic missions. The latter is distributed among smaller budget projects and operations and HSF has always involved large expensive programs lasting decades. The big programs attract the interest of public officials wanting to bring capital and jobs to their districts or states.

NASA appropriations are complicated further by a rift between the White House and Capitol Hill along party lines. The Democrat-controlled White House has favored robotics and the use of private enterprise to advance NASA while Republicans on the Hill have supported the big human spaceflight projects; further complications are due to political divisions over the issue of Climate Change. How the two parties treat NASA is the opposite to, at least, how the public perceives the party platforms – smaller government or more social programs, less spending and supporting private enterprise. This tug of war is clearly seen in the NASA budget pie chart.

The House reduced the White House request for NASA Space Technology by 15% while increasing the funds for Orion and SLS by 16%. Space Technology represents funds that NASA would use to develop the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which the Obama administration favors as a foundation for the first use of SLS as part of a human mission to an asteroid. In contrast, the House appropriated $100 million to the Europa mission concept. Due to the delays of Orion and SLS development and anemic funding of ARM, the first use of SLS could be to send a probe to Europa.

While HSF appropriations for Space Ops & Exploration (effectively HSF) increased ~6% – $300 million, NASA Science gained ~2% – $100 million over the 2014 appropriations; ultimately set by Capitol Hill legislators. The Planetary Society, which is the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) staunchest supporter, has expressed satisfaction that the Planetary Science budget has nearly reached their recommended $1.5 billion. However, the increase is delivered with the requirement that $100 million shall be used for Europa concept development and is also in contrast to cutbacks in other segments of the SMD budget.

Note also that NASA Education and Public Outreach (EPO) received a significant boost from Republican controlled Capital Hill. In addition to the specific funding – a 2% increase over 2014 and 34% over the White House request, there is $42 million given specifically to the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for EPO. The Obama Adminstration has attempted to reduce NASA EPO in favor of a consolidated government approach to improve effectiveness and reduce government.

The drive to explore beyond Earth’s orbit and set foot on new worlds is not just a question of finances. In retrospect, it was not finances at all and our remaining shackles to Earth was a choice of vision. Today, politicians and administrators cannot proclaim ‘Let’s do it again! Let’s make a better Shuttle or a better Space Station.’ There is no choice but to go beyond Earth orbit, but where?

From the Soyuz capsule, Space Shuttle Endeavour during Expedition 27 is docked to the International Space Station 220 miles above the Earth. Before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, plans were underway to develop the next generation spacecraft that would lower the cost of human spaceflight and make trips routine. Forty years have passed since the Saturn rocket last flew and four years since the last Shuttle. Supporters on Capital Hill appear resigned to accept a replacement for the Shuttle, while inhernently safer, will cost $600 million per launch excluding the cost of the payload. SLS is destined to server both humand spaceflight and robotic missions. (Photo Credit: NASA)
From a Soyuz capsule, Space Shuttle Endeavour, during Expedition 27, is docked to the ISS, 220 miles above the Earth. Before even Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, plans were underway for the next generation spacecraft that would lower the cost of human spaceflight and make trips routine. Forty years have passed since the last Saturn rocket launch and four years since the last Shuttle. Legislators on Capital Hill appear ready to accept a replacement for the Shuttle that, while inherently safer, will cost $600 million per launch excluding the cost of the payload. The Space Launch System (SLS) is destined to serve both human spaceflight and robotic missions. (Photo Credit: NASA)

While the International Space Station program, led by NASA, now maintains a continued human presence in outer space, more people ask the question, ‘why aren’t we there yet?’ Why haven’t we stepped upon Mars or the Moon again, or anything other than Earth or floating in the void of low-Earth orbit. The answer now resides in museums and in the habitat orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes.

The retired Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station represent the funds expended on human spaceflight over the last 40 years, which is equivalent to the funds and the time necessary to send humans to Mars. Some would argue that the funds and time expended could have meant multiple human missions to Mars and maybe even a permanent presence. But the American human spaceflight program chose a less costly path, one more achievable – staying close to home.

Mars, the forbidden planet? No. The Amazing planet? Yes. Forboding? Perhaps. Radiation exposure, electronic or mechanical mishaps and years of zero or low gravity are the perils that the first Mars explorations face. But humanity's vision of landing on Mars remain just illustrations from the 1950s and 60s. Robotics encapsulated in the Mars Exploration Rover and Curiosity Rover has taken a select few virtually within arms length of the Martian surface through the panoramic views used to navigate the rovers from millions of miles away. (Photo Credit: Franklin Dixon, June 12, 1964 (left), MGM (right))
Mars, the forbidden planet? No. The Amazing planet? Yes. Foreboding? Perhaps. Radiation exposure, electronic or mechanical mishaps and years of zero or low gravity are the perils that the first Mars explorers face. But humanity’s vision of landing on Mars remains just illustrations from the ’50s and ’60s. A select few – Mars Rover navigators – have experienced the surface of Mars in virtual reality. (Photo Credits: Franklin Dixon, June 12, 1964 (left), MGM (right))

Ultimately, the goal is Mars. Administrators at NASA and others have become comfortable with this proclamation. However, some would say that it is treated more as a resignation. Presidents have been defining the objectives of human spaceflight and then redefining them. The Moon, Lagrangian Points or asteroids as waypoints to eventually land humans on Mars. Partial plans and roadmaps have been constructed by NASA and now politicians have mandated a roadmap. And politicians forced continuation of development of a big rocket; one which needs a clear path to justify its cost to taxpayers. One does need a big rocket to get anywhere beyond low-Earth orbit. However, a cancellation of the Constellation program – to build the replacement for the Shuttle and a new human-rated spacecraft – has meant delays and even more cost overruns.

During the ten years that have transpired to replace the Space Shuttle, with at least five more years remaining, events beyond the control of NASA and the federal government have taken place. Private enterprise is developing several new approaches to lofting payloads to Earth orbit and beyond. More countries have taken on the challenge. Spearheading this activity, independent of NASA or Washington plans, has been Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX).

The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for Tuesday, December 5, 2015 and will include the return to Earth of the 1st stage Falcon core. Previous attempts landed the core into the Atlantic while this latest attempt will use a barge to attempt a full recovery. The successful soft landing and reuse of Falcon cores will be a major milestone in the history of spaceflight. (Photo Credits: SpaceX)
The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for Tuesday, December 5, 2015 and will include the return to Earth of the 1st stage Falcon core. Previous attempts landed the core into the Atlantic while this latest attempt will use a barge to attempt a full recovery. The successful soft landing and reuse of Falcon cores will be a major milestone in the history of spaceflight. (Photo Credits: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and soon to be Falcon Heavy represent alternatives to what was originally envisioned in the Constellation program with Ares I and Ares V. Falcon Heavy will not have the capability of an Ares V but at roughly $100 million per flight versus $600 million per flight for what Ares V has become – the Space Launch System (SLS) – there are those that would argue that ‘time is up.’ NASA has taken too long and the cost of SLS is not justifiable now that private enterprise has developed something cheaper and done so faster. Is Falcon Nine and Heavy “better”, as in NASA administrator Dan Golden’s proclamation – ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’? Is it better than SLS technology? Is it better simply because its cheaper for lifting each pound of payload? Is it better because it is arriving ready-to-use sooner than SLS?

Humans will always depend on robotic launch vehicles, capsules and habitats laden with technological wonders to make our spaceflight possible. However, once we step out beyond Earth orbit and onto other worlds, what shall we do? From Carl Sagan to Steve Squyres, NASA scientists have stated that a trained astronaut could do in just weeks what the Mars rovers have required years to accomplish. How long will this hold up and is it really true?

Man versus Machine? All missions whether robotic or human spaceflight benefit mankind but the question is raised: how will human boots fit into the exploration of the universe that robotics has made possible. (Photo Credits: NASA, Illustration - J.Schmidt)
Man versus Machine? All missions whether robotic or human spaceflight benefit mankind but the question is raised: how will human boots fit into the exploration of the universe that robotics has made possible. (Photo Credits: NASA, Illustration – J.Schmidt)

Since Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue, there have been 8 two-year periods representing the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits. This is a factor of 256. Arguably, computers have grown 100 times more powerful in the 17 years. However, robotics is not just electronics. It is the confluence of several technologies that have steadily developed over the 40 years that Shuttle technology stood still and at least 20 years that Space Station designs were locked into technological choices. Advances in material science, nano-technology, electro-optics, and software development are equally important.

While human decision making has been capable of spinning its wheels and then making poor choices and logistical errors, the development of robotics altogether is a juggernaut. While appropriations for human spaceflight have always surpassed robotics, advances in robotics have been driven by government investments across numerous agencies and by private enterprise. The noted futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who predicts the arrival of the Singularity by around 2045 (his arrival date is not exact) has emphasized that the surpassing of human intellect by machines is inevitable due to the “The Law of Accelerating Returns”. Technological development is a juggernaut.

In the same year that NASA was founded, 1958, the term Singularity was first used by mathematician John von Neumann to describe the arrival of artificial intelligence that surpasses humans.

Unknowingly, this is the foot race that NASA has been in since its creation. The mechanisms and electronics that facilitated landing men on the surface of the Moon never stopped advancing. And in that time span, human decisions and plans for NASA never stopped vacillating or stop locking existing technology into designs; suffering delays and cost overruns before launching humans to space.

David Hardy's illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics leads one to ask who shall reside inside such a future vessel - robotic surrogates or human beings. (Credit: D. Hardy)
David Hardy’s illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society – a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics leads one to wonder who shall reside inside such vessels of the future – robotic surrogates or human beings or something in between. (Credit: D. Hardy)

So are we destined to arrive on Mars and roam its surface like retired geologists and biologists wandering in the desert with a poking stick or rock hammer? Have we wasted too much time and has the window passed in which human exploration can make discoveries that robotics cannot accomplish faster, better and cheaper? Will Mars just become an art colony where humans can experience new sunrises and setting moons? Or will we segregate ourselves from our robotic surrogates and appreciate our limited skills and go forth into the Universe? Or will we mind meld with robotics and master our own biology just moments after taking our first feeble steps beyond the Earth?

An excerpt of page 3 of NASA's FY15 Agency Mission Planning Model (AMPM). The figure emphasizes the list of planned projects and missions for human spaceflight (HEOMD) and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) which represents robotic development and missions. The comparison shows the cost advantage of robotics over human spaceflight. The robotic missions will amount to hundreds of years of combined mission lifetime in comparison to the HEOMD missions that are still limited to months by individual astronauts in flight.(Credit: NASA)
An excerpt of page 3 of NASA’s FY15 Agency Mission Planning Model (AMPM[alt]); a 20 year plan. This figure emphasizes the list of planned projects and missions for human spaceflight (HEOMD), orange, and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), green, representing robotic development and missions. The lopsided list is indicative of the cost advantage of robotics over human spaceflight. The robotic missions will amount to hundreds of years of combined mission lifetime in comparison to the HEOMD missions that are still limited to months by individual astronauts in flight.(Credit: NASA)
References:

The CROmnibus Is Here with Strong Funding for NASA & NSF (AAS)

NASA Gets Big Increase in FY2015 Omnibus, NOAA Satellites Do OK (SpacePolicyOnline.com)

Here’s How Planetary Science Will Spend Its $1.44 Billion in 2015 (Planetary Society)

Mr. Fusion? Compact Fusion Reactor Will be Available in 5 Years Says Lockheed-Martin

The Farnsworth Fusor; Pons and Fleishmann. It seems the trail to fusion energy has long gone cold — stone cold, that is, and not cold as in cold fusion. Despite the promise of fusion providing a sustainable and safe energy source, fusion reactors are not a dime a dozen and they won’t be replacing coal fired power plants any time soon. Or will they? Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works announced a prototype compact fusion reactor that could be ready within five years. This revelation has raised eyebrows and sparked moments of enthusiasm.

But, let’s considers this story and where it all fits in both the history and future.

For every Skunk Works project that has made the runway such as the Stealth Fighter or SR-71 Blackbird, there are untold others that never see the light of day. This adds to the surprise and mystery of Lockheed-Martin’s willingness to release images and a detailed narrative describing a compact fusion reactor project. The impact that such a device would have on humanity can be imagined … and at the same time one imagines how much is unimaginable.

Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the worlds first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought "breakeven" point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)
Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the world’s first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought “breakeven” point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)

The program manager of the Skunk Works’ compact fusion reactor experiment is Tom Maguire. Maguire and his team places emphasis on the turn-around time for modifying and testing the compact fusion device. With the confidence they are expressing in their design and the ability to quickly build, test and modify, they are claiming only five years will be needed to reach a prototype.

What exactly the prototype represents was left unexplained, however. Maguire continues by saying that in 10 years, the device will be seen in military applications and in 20 years it will be delivered to the world as a replacement for the dirty energy sources that are in use today. Military apps at 10 years means that the device will be too expensive initially for civilian operations but such military use would improve performance and lower costs which could lead to the 20 year milestone moment if all goes as planned.

Their system uses magnetic confinement, the same basic principle behind the tokamak toroidal plasma confinement system that has received the greatest attention and government funding for over 50 years.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)
The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently under construction in Europe under the assumption that it will be the first net energy producing fusion generator ever. It is funded by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But there are cost over-runs and its price has gone from $5 billion to $50 billion.

ITER is scheduled to begin initial testing in 2019 about the time Lockheed-Martin’s compact fusion reactor prototype is expected. If Lockheed-Martin succeeds in their quest, they will effectively have skunked ITER and laid to waste a $50 billion international effort at likely 1/1000th the cost.

There are a few reasons Lockheed-Martin has gone out on a limb. Consider the potential. One ton of Uranium used in Fission reactors has as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal. But fission reactors produce radioactive waste and are a finite resource without breeder reactors, themselves a nuclear proliferation risk. Fusion produces 3 to 4 times more energy per reaction than fission. Additionally, the fuel — isotopes of hydrogen — is available from sea water — which is nearly limitless — and the byproducts are far less radioactive than with fission. Fusion generators once developed could provide our energy needs for millions of years.

More pragmatically, corporations promote their R&D. They are in a constant state of competition. They present a profile that ranges from the practical to the cutting edge to instill confidence in their Washington coffers. Furthermore, their competitors have high profile individuals and projects. A fusion project demonstrates that Lockheed-Martin is doing more than creating better mouse-traps.

To date, no nuclear fusion reactor has achieved breakeven. This is when the fusion device outputs as much energy as is input to operate it. Magnetic confinement such as the various tokamak designs, Lawrence Livermore’s laser-based inertial confinement method, and even the simple Philo Farnsworth Fusor can all claim to be generating energy from fusion reactions. They are just all spending more energy than their devices output.

An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)
An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)

The fusor, invented in the 1960s by Farnsworth and Hirsh, is a electrostatic plasma confinement system. It uses electric fields to confine and accelerate ions through a central point at which some ions will collide with sufficient energy to fuse. Although the voltage needed is readily achieved by amateurs – about 4000 volts – not uncommon in household devices, no fusor has reached breakeven and theoretically never will. The challenge to reaching breakeven involves not just energy/temperature but also plasma densities. Replicating conditions that exist in the core of stars in a controllable way is not easy. Nevertheless, there is a robust community of “fusioneers” around the world and linked by the internet.

Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorian in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorean in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

It remains to be seen who, what and when a viable fusion reactor will be demonstrated. With Lockheed-Martin’s latest announcement, once again, fusion energy is “just around the corner.” But many skeptics remain who will quickly state that commercial fusion energy remains 50 years in the future. So long as Maguire’s team meets milestones with expected performance improvements, their work will go on. The potential of fusion energy remains too great to dismiss categorically.

Source: Lockheed-Martin Products Page, Compact Fusion

SpaceX Starts 2014 With Spectacular Private Rocket Success Delivering Thai Satellite to Orbit – Gallery

SpaceX began 2014 with a spectacular big bang for private space today, Jan. 6, when the firms next generation Falcon 9 rocket blasted off for the first time this year and successfully delivered the Thaicom 6 commercial broadcasting satellite to its target orbit.

The new, next generation Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 5:06 p.m. EST (2206 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida with the Thai payload.

The sunset SpaceX launch from the Florida Space Coast took place precisely on time with ignition of the nine Merlin 1-D first stage engines at Space Launch Complex 40.

TCom6-01

The launch was broadcast live via a SpaceX webcast.

The nine engines on the 224 foot tall Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust, about 50% more than the initial Falcon 9.

The second stage Merlin vacuum engine fired twice as planned.

The first firing began approximately 184 seconds into flight and lasted five minutes and 35 second to deliver Thaicom 6 into its parking orbit.

Clearing the strongback, the Thaicom 6/Falcon 9 mission roars from the pad in its quest for supergeosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Clearing the strongback, the Thaicom 6/Falcon 9 mission roars from the pad in its quest for supergeosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

The engine relit for a second burn eighteen minutes later and lasted just over one minute to carry the satellite to its final geostationary transfer orbit.

The restart of the Falcon 9 second stage is a requirement for all geostationary transfer missions.

Falcon 9 rocket soar to space with Thaicom 6 commercial satellite on Jan 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert
Falcon 9 rocket soars to space with Thaicom 6 commercial satellite on Jan 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert

31 minutes after liftoff the Thaicom 6 spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and was placed into the desired geosynchronous transfer orbit of 295 x 90,000 km geosynchronous at 22.5 degrees inclination.

SpaceX said in a statement that, “The Falcon 9 launch vehicle performed as expected, meeting 100% of mission objectives.”

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the first stage booster on this mission, SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin told me. “We may try on the next flight.”

Thaicom 6 commercial broadcasting satellite in geosynchronous orbit, artists concept
Thaicom 6 commercial broadcasting satellite in geosynchronous orbit, artists concept

This marks the second launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 in just over a month, following closely on the heels of the maiden flight from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 3 with another commercial satellite, namely SES-8.

“Today’s successful launch of the THAICOM 6 satellite marks the eighth successful flight in a row for Falcon 9,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. “SpaceX greatly appreciates THAICOM’s support throughout this campaign and we look forward to a busy launch schedule in 2014.”

Both the Thaicom-6 and SES-8 satellites were built by Orbital Sciences, one of SpaceX’s chief competitors in the commercial space race, making for strange bedfellows.

Thaicom 6 patch
Thaicom 6 patch

Indeed it’s a very busy week for private rockets.

Orbital Sciences is poised to launch their Antares rocket in less than 48 hours on Wednesday, Jan. 8 on a commercial resupply mission for NASA that’s bound for the international Space Station (ISS).

The new Falcon 9 is the key to fulfilling SpaceX’s future launch manifest of nearly 50 payloads worth billions of dollars for a diverse customer base.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next gen Falcon 9 will also launch the human rated SpaceX Dragon to the ISS in a bid to restore America’s human spaceflight capability.

A pair of critical Falcon 9/Dragon abort tests are planned for 2014. Read my new article and discussion with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – here.

The next SpaceX Dragon cargo launch to the ISS is currently scheduled for Feb. 22, said SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin told Universe Today.

Sunset launch of Falcon 9 with Thiacom 6 broadcast satellite on Jan 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL.   Credit: Jeff Seibert
Sunset launch of Falcon 9 with Thiacom 6 broadcast satellite on Jan 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert
Almost clear of the catenary wires, the Thaicom 6/Falcon 9 mission streaks to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Almost clear of the catenary wires, the Thaicom 6/Falcon 9 mission streaks to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 8 launch, Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 7-9: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 8” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Falcon 9 rocket disappears into the clouds following blastoff on Jan. 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert
Falcon 9 rocket disappears into the clouds following blastoff on Jan. 6, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert
Blastoff of 1st Falcon 9 rocket in 2014 with Thaicom 6 commercial satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL on Jan. 6. Credit: SpaceX
Blastoff of 1st Falcon 9 rocket in 2014 with Thaicom 6 commercial satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL on Jan. 6. Credit: SpaceX

Private American Rockets Blast Open 2014 & Commercial Space Race with Big Bangs on Jan. 6 & 7

Seaside panoramic view of an Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences at Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Blastoff for the ISS is slated for Jan. 7, 2014 at 1:55 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
UPDATE – Frigid Weather Delays Antares Launch to Jan. 8[/caption]

The status quo in space flight operations is no more.

Private American rockets are leading the charge of overdue change into the innovative ‘Commercial Space Race’ by blasting 2014 open with a pair of ‘Big Bang fireworks’ just a day apart on Jan. 6 and Jan. 7.

A dynamic duo of US aerospace firms – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – are each poised to launch their own recently developed private boosters in the first week of the new year and aiming to dramatically cut costs.

And to top that off, the rockets are thundering aloft from two different spaceports located some 800 miles apart along the US East coast – weather permitting of course given the monster snow storm and frigid arctic air – akin to Mars – bearing down at this very moment on the big populations centers of the Atlantic coast region.

UPDATE ALERT – Antares Launch just postponed to Wed, Jan 8 at 1:32 p.m.due to extremely cold weather forecast. Back up day is Jan. 9

Both companies are revolutionizing access to space for both government entities as well as commercial companies doing lucrative business in space.

The implications of vastly reducing expenses for space travel and space commerce are far reaching and imperative – especially in the face of static and declining budgets mandated by politicians worldwide.

Except for China, which just landed its first rover on the Moon, is investing mightily in space and science and reaping strong economic growth.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is first on deck with their next generation Falcon 9 rocket poised to soar on Monday, Jan. 6, with a highly valuable international payload – the Thiacom-6 commercial broadcasting satellite.

Note: This launch has just been postponed from Jan. 3 according to a brief statement I received from the USAF 45th Space Wing. Apparently due to concerns with the rocket – better safe than sorry.

Orbital Sciences follows up quickly on Tuesday, Jan. 7, with their two stage Antares rocket carrying the firm’s own Cygnus cargo vessel on its first operational commercial resupply mission for NASA – that’s bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 two stage rocket is slated to launch from complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, likely at dusk.

The original Jan. 3 Falcon 9 evening time launch had been scheduled for 5:50 p.m. Thaicom-6 will be placed into an elliptical supersynchronous transfer orbit.

The commercial space race sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. The Thaicom-6 satellite was built by Orbital Sciences.

This marks only the 2nd launch of the newly upgraded Falcon 9 from Florida. Read my eyewitness reports about the thunderous maiden liftoff barely a month ago on Dec. 3, 2013 with the SES-8 commercial telecom satellite – starting here.

The new Falcon 9 is the key to achieving SpaceX’s future launch manifest of some 50 payloads worth billions of dollars.

The next gen Falcon 9 will also launch the human rated SpaceX Dragon to the ISS. But first the Dragon and Falcon 9 must successfully achieve a pair of abort tests planned for 2014. Read my new article and discussion with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – here.

The Jan. 7 Antares liftoff is currently scheduled for 1:55 p.m. EST from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Island, Virginia.

Antares rocket slated for Jan. 7, 2014 launch undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops, Virginia, during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares rocket slated for Jan. 7, 2014 launch undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops, Virginia, during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Antares launch comes on the heels of the completely successful demonstration flight to the space station by Orbital Sciences in September 2013.

This flight was originally scheduled for mid-December 2013 in prime time but was postponed due to the urgent repairs required to get the ISS cooling system back in full operation.

And although it’s now moved to daylight by reason of orbital mechanics, the liftoff could still easily be visible to millions of residents along a wide swath of the US East Coast spanning from North Carolina to New York City – weather permitting.

Antares Launch from Virginia– Maximum Elevation Map  The Antares daytime launch will be visible to millions of spectators across a wide area of the Eastern US -weather permitting. This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Antares rocket will reach during the Jan 7, 2014 launch depending on your location along the US east coast. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Antares Launch from Virginia– Maximum Elevation Map
The Antares daytime launch will be visible to millions of spectators across a wide area of the Eastern US -weather permitting. This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Antares rocket will reach during the Jan 7, 2014 launch depending on your location along the US east coast. Credit: Orbital Sciences

I’ll be covering the Antares launch, dubbed Orb-1, from on site at NASA Wallops – watch for my continuing reports.

The Cygnus logistics vessel will carry a total of 2,780 pounds of supplies to the station, including vital science experiments to expand the research capability of the Expedition 38 crew members aboard the orbiting laboratory, crew provisions, spare parts and experiment hardware, says NASA.

Also packed aboard the Antares/Cygnus flight are a batch of student experiments involving life sciences topics ranging from amoeba reproduction to calcium in the bones to salamanders.

“The 23 experiments flying next week [on Antares/Cygnus] are the culmination of 8,700 students engaged in real experiment design, and 1,800 proposals received by student teams,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein told Universe Today. Goldstein is the Center Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE),which is sponsoring and organizing the student experiments.

This rocket volley is but the opening salvo of shots heard reverberating round the world that will surely “rock” the space industry to its core by cutting the steep cost of access to space.

“This is really rocking the industry. Everybody has to look out,” said Martin Halliwell, SES chief technical officer during a recent media briefing with Elon Musk, including Universe Today.

Both the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus vehicles were developed from the start with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership.

The goal was to restore America’s cargo and crew capabilities to low Earth orbit and the ISS that was totally lost following the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles.

After a slow start, both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have succeeded in bringing their new rockets and delivery vehicles safely on line.

SpaceX next Dragon cargo launch to the ISS is currently scheduled for Feb. 22, said SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin to Universe Today.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 8 launch, Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 7-9: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 8” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Mike Whalen of Orbital Sciences and Ken Kremer of Universe Today pose at the base of the Antares rocket 1st stage now slated for liftoff on Jan. 7, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Mike Whalen of Orbital Sciences and Ken Kremer of Universe Today pose at the base of the Antares rocket 1st stage now slated for liftoff on Jan. 8, 2014 (after weather delay) at NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

What’s Ahead for Human Rated SpaceX Dragon in 2014 – Musk tells Universe Today

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch of Dragon spacecraft on March 1, 2013 to the ISS from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.- shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. During 2014, SpaceX plans two flight tests simulating human crewed Dragon emergency abort scenarios launching from right here at pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A trio of American companies – SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada – are working diligently to restore America’s capability to launch humans into low Earth orbit from US soil, aided by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public-private partnership.

We’ve been following the solid progress made by all three companies. Here we’ll focus on two crucial test flights planned by SpaceX in 2014 to human rate and launch the crewed version of their entry into the commercial crew ‘space taxi’ sweepstakes, namely the Dragon spacecraft.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak about the upcoming test flights with the head of SpaceX, Elon Musk.

So I asked Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, about “what’s ahead in 2014”; specifically related to a pair of critical “abort tests” that he hopes to conduct with the human rated “version of our Dragon spacecraft.”

“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests next year in 2014,” Musk told me.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite  from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to planned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two abort flight tests in 2014 involve demonstrating the ability of the Dragon spacecraft abort system to lift an uncrewed spacecraft clear of a simulated launch emergency.

The crewed Dragon – also known as DragonRider – will be capable of lofting up to seven astronauts to the ISS and remaining docked for at least 180 days.

First a brief overview of the goals of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It was started in the wake of the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program which flew its final human crews to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2011.

“NASA has tasked SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to develop spacecraft capable of safely transporting humans to the space station, returning that capability to the United States where it belongs,’ says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Since 2011, US astronauts have been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsules to hitch a ride to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

The abort tests are essential for demonstrating that the Dragon vehicle will activate thrusters and separate in a split second from a potentially deadly exploding rocket fireball to save astronauts lives in the event of a real life emergency – either directly on the launch pad or in flight.

“We are aiming to do at least the pad abort test next year [in 2014] with version 2 of our Dragon spacecraft that would carry astronauts,” Musk told me.

This is the Dragon mock-up that will be used for an upcoming pad abort test on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
This is the Dragon mock-up that will be used for an upcoming pad abort test on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX plans to launch the crewed Dragon atop the human rated version of their own developed Falcon 9 next generation rocket, which is also being simultaneously developed to achieve all of NASA’s human rating requirements.

The initial pad abort test will test the ability of the full-size Dragon to safely push away and escape in case of a failure of its Falcon 9 booster rocket in the moments around launch, right at the launch pad.

“The purpose of the pad abort test is to demonstrate Dragon has enough total impulse (thrust) to safely abort,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin informed me.

For that test, Dragon will use its pusher escape abort thrusters to lift the Dragon safely away from the failing rocket. The vehicle will be positioned on a structural facsimile of the Dragon trunk in which the actual Falcon 9/Dragon interfaces will be represented by mockups.

This test will be conducted on SpaceX’s launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

The second Dragon flight test involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives. The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted landing into the Atlantic Ocean.

“Assuming all goes well we expect to launch the high altitude abort test towards the end of next year,” Musk explained.

The second test will use the upgraded next generation version of the Falcon 9 that was successfully launched just weeks ago on its maiden mission from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 3. Read my earlier reports – starting here.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. The upgraded Falcon 9 will be used to launch the human rated SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date, SpaceX has already successfully launched the original cargo version of the Dragon a total of three times. And each one docked as planned at the ISS.

The last cargo Dragon blasted off on March 1, 2013. Read my prior articles starting – here.

The next cargo Dragon bound for the ISS is due to lift off on Feb. 22, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL.

SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013. Credit: NASA
SpaceX Dragon berthing at ISS on March 3, 2013. Credit: NASA

Orbital Sciences – the commercial ISS cargo competitor to SpaceX – plans to launch its Cygnus cargo vehicle on the Orb-1 mission bound for the ISS on Jan. 7 atop the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Watch for my on site reports from NASA Wallops.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program’s goal is launching American astronauts from U.S. soil within the next four years – by 2017 to the ISS.

The 2017 launch date is dependent on funding from the US federal government that will enable each of the firms to accomplish a specified series of milestones. NASA payments are only made after each companies milestones are successfully achieved.

SpaceX was awarded $440 million in the third round of funding in the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCAP) initiative which runs through the third quarter of 2014. As of November 2013, NASA said SpaceX had accomplished 9 of 15 milestones and was on track to complete all on time.

Musk hopes to launch an initial Dragon orbital test flight with a human crew of SpaceX test pilots perhaps as early as sometime in 2015 – if funding and all else goes well.

Either a US commercial ‘space taxi’ or the Orion exploration capsule could have blasted off with American astronauts much sooner – if not for the continuing year-by-year slashes to NASA’s overall budget forced by the so called ‘political leaders’ of all parties in Washington, DC.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss Falcon 9/SES-8 launch by SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss SpaceX upcoming flight plans by SpaceX Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 7 launch, Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 6-8: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 7”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

High-Flying Balloon Dispute Follows ‘World View’ Announcement

The newly announced World View balloon flight concept shares a number of “striking” similarities to an older proposal for ‘near-space flight experience’ balloon rides, according to the head of the zero2infinity Inbloon project.

Both concepts are competing in the nascent high-altitude balloon market, which would see these craft fly high in the stratosphere with paying clients and/or payloads on board. Some of them would be paying tourists to look at the view, while others would be institutions looking to get above most of the Earth’s atmosphere for scientific and other purposes.

The groundwork for zero2infinity’s Inbloon has been in the works since about 2002, founder Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales said. So far, the Spanish company has run three test flights with micro versions of its balloon; the last one was in September. A ride high in the atmosphere would (when it happens) cost the equivalent of $150,000 (110,000 Euros).

World View — backed by Arizona’s Paragon Space Development Corp., which is involved in several startup space projects — announced in late October that it would offer rides to the high atmosphere for $75,000 each. Few details were provided, but Paragon president Jane Poynter told Universe Today that more announcements will come. She added that the company has been thinking about this kind of work seriously for at least a decade.

The companies were in talks for Paragon to provide life support systems for Inbloon, Urdiales said, but Paragon decided to go its own route. The World View announcement came shortly after Urdiales was told of Paragon’s decision, he added.

“We were speaking to them for a couple of years. They learned about our business and what we were doing,” Urdiales said in late October.

“A month ago or so, they said ‘We’re not going to be able to supply you. We don’t think we’re going to be able to export this to Spain.’ And then we said, ‘Fine, we’re talking to other suppliers’ … and then they launched this thing. The commonalities are striking.”

As examples, Urdiales said a lot of the marketing language was similar and that the artists’ concepts of the balloon designs for the two companies also appeared to be about the same. He added, however, that he is not planning to pursue any formal action because he would rather focus on running safe flights. The first human-rated Inbloon flight is expected in 2014, he said.

“The hard part is getting the investment, and doing the flight. Both things are pretty hard, and require a level of integrity. Otherwise the tests don’t work and you break something and you [could] kill people.”

World View told Universe Today that Paragon has been pursuing this idea independently for years, long before they heard of Urdiales’ plans. The company did not comment on Urdiales’ claims about previous business talks.

World View Experience.mp4 from World View on Vimeo.

“Let me start by emphasizing that we are not duplicating anyone’s plans. The World View concept has been an interest of ours for many years,” Paragon’s Poynter told Universe Today in an e-mail.

“It is worth mentioning, I think, that the idea of human flight using high altitude balloons is not a recent development. In fact, the origins of this idea date back to the 1950s with the work of Otto Winzen and others.  As for our own origins, [co-founder] Taber [MacCallum] went to high-altitude balloon launches as a child, as his father is an astrophysicist and was studying gamma-ray astronomy using high-altitude balloon launches of telescopes.

“That experience translated,” she added, “later in life, to Paragon’s work on a commercial airship project a decade ago for tourism and cargo. We began developing World View long before we heard about Jose and his initiative. In fact, we’ve been looking at commercial uses of lighter-than-air craft for a long time.”

The URL for World View, worldviewexperience.com, was registered Aug. 24, 2013, according to public domain records. Inbloon’s URL, inbloon.com, was registered May 6, 2009.

Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft: 46 Years and Still Soaring High


In just a couple of days a Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Roman Romanenko within the TMA-07M capsule on a two-day trip to the ISS. While many improvements have been made to the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft since the first launch in 1966, the bottom line is that the Soyuz have become the world’s most used launch vehicles due to their consistent performance and relatively low cost.

Here, CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield talks about the Soyuz, briefly describing the strengths of the Russian technology that will once again take him and fellow Expedition 34/35 crew members to the ISS, where in March of next year he will become the first Canadian to take command of the Station.

“This is a safe and reliable and proven way to leave the Earth, and each successive Soyuz is different; each one has small changes. The role of the astronaut is to learn those small changes… and learn to apply them.”

– Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

The T version of the Soyuz craft began flying manned missions in 1980 and in 1986 the TM versions were transporting crews to Mir. The TMA upgrade addressed previous astronaut/cosmonaut height restrictions and permits the Soyuz to be used as a lifeboat for ISS crews, if necessary.

Find out more about the long history of the Soyuz spacecraft here, and read more about today’s Soyuz rollout here.

Video: CSA. Inset image: NASA/Carla Cioffi