In the past twenty years, one of the biggest developments to take place in the realm of space exploration has been the growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace). As a result of growing demand and declining costs, more companies are coming to the fore to offer launch services that are making space more accessible and cost-effective.
One such company is the space delivery services company Aevum, an Alabama-based startup specializing in Autonomous Launch Vehicles (AuLVs). On Dec. 3rd, 2020, Aevum unveiled their prototype vehicle, the RAVN-X. Once operational, this autonomous suborbital spaceplane will be able to send satellites and other small payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in just three hours.
SpaceX is getting closer to the day when it will be able to make good on its promise of conducting regular missions to orbit, the Moon, and to Mars. At the heart of all this is the progress they are making with their Starship and Super Heavy launch system. In recent weeks, Musk’s commercial space company conducted two successful 150 m (500 ft) hop tests with the SN5 and SN6 prototypes at the Boca Chica launch facility in southern Texas.
Based on the latest announcements to come out of SpaceX, it appears that this recent string of successes has emboldened Musk and his company. Previously, Musk indicated that he was planning on making several more small hop tests and that the SN8 would attempt a 20 km (12 mi) flight sometime next year. More recent indications, however, suggest that Musk wants to conduct this high-altitude test before the end of October.
Today, there is no shortage of people who want to see humans go to Mars in their lifetime. Moreover, many want to go there themselves, and some even want to stay! It goes without saying that this proposed endeavor presents all kinds of challenges (the word Herculean comes to mind!) This is especially true when it comes to feeding future missions to Mars, not to mention permanent residents.
Regular resupply missions to Mars are simply not feasible, which means astronauts and settlers will have to grow their own food. To inspire ideas for how this could be done, and what the resulting meals would be like, Vera Mulyani and the organization she founded (Mars City Design) created the Martian Feast Gala. This annual event showcases what a Martian Menu could consist of and illustrates how every challenge is an opportunity to get creative!
For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out the minimum number of satellites that would be able to see every point on Earth. This question is motivated in part by the growing problem of space debris, but also by considerations of cost and efficiency. By the mid-1980s, researcher John E. Draim proposed a solution to this problem in a series of studies, claiming that a four-satellite constellation was all that was needed.
Unfortunately, his solution simply wasn’t practical at the time since a tremendous amount of propellant would be needed to keep the satellites in orbit. But thanks to a recent collaborative study, a team of researchers has found the right combination of factors to make a four-satellite constellation possible. Their findings could drive advances in telecommunication, navigation, and remote sensing while also reducing costs.
One of the chief aims of space agencies and commercial aerospace these days is reducing the associated costs of space exploration. When it comes right down to it, it is still very expensive to send rockets into orbit, never mind sending them beyond Earth. But it’s not just the cost of sending payloads into space (and the pollution it causes) that concerns agencies like NASA.
There is also the cost (economic as well as environmental) associated with aviation. Jet fuel is not cheap either, and commercial air travel accounts for 4 to 9% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (and is on the rise). For this reason, NASA has partnered with the commercial industry to develop electric aircraft, which they hope will provide a fuel- and- cost-efficient alternative to commercial jets by 2035.
Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by multi-billionaire (and founder of Amazon) Jeff Bezos, is looking to make its presence felt in the rapidly expanding NewSpace industry. To this end, Blue Origin has spent years developing a fleet of reusable rockets that they hope will someday rival those of their greatest competitor, SpaceX.
So far, these efforts have led to the New Shepard rocket, which can send payloads (and soon, space tourists) to suborbital altitudes. In the coming years, Blue Origin hopes to go farther with their New Glenn rocket, a reusable launch vehicle capable of reaching Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The company recently released a new video of the New Glenn, which showcased the designs latest features and specifications.
Time capsules are a fun and time-honored way to preserve pieces of the past. In most cases, they include photographs, mementos and other items of personal value, things that give future generations a sense of what life was like in the past. But what if we intend to preserve the memories and experiences of an entire species for thousands of years? What would we choose to squirrel away then, and where would be place it?
That’s precisely what researchers from the Molecular Information Systems Lab at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft had in mind when they announced their #MemoriesInDNA project. This project invites people to submit photos that will be encoded in DNA and stored for millennia. And thanks to a new partnership with the Arch Mission Foundation, this capsule will be sent to the Moon in 2020!
When it comes to the growth of the private aerospace sector (aka. NewSpace), one of the more ambitious and exciting elements is the prospect of space tourism. Between SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, proposals include flying customers to suborbital altitudes, flying them to the Moon, or even as far as Mars. And beyond the three NewSpace giants, several smaller companies are looking for a piece of the pie.
One such company is the Japanese startup PD AeroSpace, a Nagoya-based aerospace developer that is looking to provide commercial space launch services, intercontinental transportation, and sub-orbital flights in the near future. Intrinsic to this vision is the development of a unique space plane that will be able to fly tourists to suborbital altitude by 2023.
Of all challenges presented by space exploration – and to be fair, there are many! – one of the greatest is the cost. When it comes right down to it, launching disposable rockets from Earth and getting them to the point where they can achieve escape velocity and reach space is expensive. In addition, these rockets need to be big, powerful and hold a lot of fuel to lift spacecraft or cargo.
For this reason, so many efforts in the past few decades have been focused on reducing the cost of individual launches. There are many ways to make launch vehicles cheaper, ranging from reusable rockets to reusable spacecraft (i.e., the Space Shuttle). But to Jonathan Yaney, the founder of SpinLaunch, a real cost-cutting solution is to propel smaller payloads into orbit using a space catapult instead.
The concept of a space catapult is simple and has been explored at length since the dawn of the Space Age. Also known as a mass driver or coilgun, the concept relies on a set of powerful electromagnetic rails to accelerate spacecraft or payloads to escape velocity and launch them horizontally. Since the 1960s, NASA has been exploring the concept as an alternative to conducting rocket launches.
In addition, NASA has continued developing this technology through the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Here, engineers have been working on ways to launch spacecraft horizontally using scramjets on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. A good example of this is the Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System which uses the same technology as a maglev train to accelerate a small space plane into orbit.
Another variation on the concept involves a centrifuge, where the spacecraft or cargo is accelerated on a circular track until it reaches escape velocity (and then launches). This concept was proposed by Dr. Derek Tidman – a physicist who specialized in electrothermal and electromagnetic acceleration – in the 1990s. Known as the Slingatron, this version of the space catapult is currently being researched by HyperV Technologies.
However, these ideas were never adopted because vast improvements in electromagnetic induction technology were needed to achieve the speed necessary to put heavy payloads into space. But thanks to advancements in high-speed maglev trains, recent attempts to create Hyperloop pods and tracks, and the growth of the commercial aerospace market, the time may be ripe to revisit this concept.
Such is the hope of Jonathan Yaney, an aerospace enthusiast with a long history of co-founding startups. As he describes himself, Yaney is a “serial entrepreneur” who has spent the past 15 years founding companies in the fields of consulting, IT, construction, and aerospace. Now, he has established SpinLaunch for the sake of launching satellites into space.
And while Yaney has been known for being rather recluse, TechCrunch recently secured an exclusive interview and gained access to the company hangar. According to multiple sources they cite, Yaney and the company he founded are launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $30 million in Series A funding to develop the catapult technology. In the course of the interview, Yaney expressed his vision for space exploration as follows:
“Since the dawn of space exploration, rockets have been the only way to access space. Yet in 70 years, the technology has only made small incremental advances. To truly commercialize and industrialize space, we need 10x tech improvement.”
According to a source cited by TechCrunch, SpinLaunch’s design would involve a centrifuge that accelerates payloads to speeds of up to 4,828 km/h (3,000 mph). Additionally, the cargo could be equipped with supplemental rockets to escape Earth’s atmosphere. By replacing rocket boosters with a kinetic launch system, SpinLaunch’s concept would rely on principles similar to those explored by NASA.
But as he went on to explain, the method his company is exploring is different. “SpinLaunch employs a rotational acceleration method, harnessing angular momentum to gradually accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds,” he said. “This approach employs a dramatically lower cost architecture with much lower power.” Utilizing this technology, Yaney estimates that the costs of individual launches could be reduced to $500,000 – essentially, by a factor of 10 to 200.
According to Bloomberg Financial, not much more is known about the company or its founder beyond a brief description. However, according to SEC documents cited by TechCrunch, Yaney managed to raise $1 million in equity in 2014 and $2.9 million in 2015. The same documents indicate that he was $2.2 million in debt by mid-2017 and another $2 million in debt by late 2017.
Luckily, the Hawaii state senate introduced a bill last month that proposed issuing $25 million in bonds to assist SpinLaunch with constructing its space catapult. Hawaii also hopes to gain construction contracts for the launch system as part of its commitment to making space accessible. As it states in the bill:
“[T]he department of budget and finance, with the approval of the governor, is authorized to issue special purpose revenue bonds in a total amount not to exceed $25,000,000, in one or more series, for the purpose of assisting SpinLaunch Inc., a Delaware corporation, in financing the costs relating to the planning, design, construction, equipping, acquisition of land, including easements or other interests therein, and other tangible assets for an electrically powered, kinetic launch system to transport small satellites into low Earth orbit.”
In the meantime, Yaney is looking to the public and several big venture capital firms to raise the revenue he needs to make his vision a reality. Of course, beyond the issue of financing, several technical barriers still need to be addressed before a space catapult could be realized. The most obvious of these is how to overcome the air resistance produced by Earth’s dense atmosphere.
However, Yaney was optimistic in his interview with TechCrunch, claiming that his company is investigating these and other challenges:
“During the last three years, the core technology has been developed, prototyped, tested and most of the tech risk retired. The remaining challenges are in the construction and associated areas that all very large hardware development and construction projects face.”
There’s no indication of when such a system might be complete, but that’s to be expected at this point. However, with the support of the Hawaiian government and some additional capital, his company is likely to secure its Series A funding and begin moving to the next phase of development. Much like the Hyperloop, this concept may prove to be one of those ideas that keep advancing because of the people who are willing to make it happen!
And be sure to check out this video about SpinLaunch’s crowdfunding campaign, courtesy of Scott Manley:
In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced the launch of their private space venture. Known as Stratolaunch Systems, this Seattle-based company was founded with the intention of developing air-launch-to-orbit systems. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier flying rockets to launch altitude as cost-effective means of delivering small payloads to orbit.
On Thursday, May 31st, the company unveiled their launch vehicle, the Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”). Consisting of two 747 hulls mated together, this aircraft is the the largest in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). This plane will make its first test flight in a few days time, and the company hopes to make its first commercial launch by 2019.
The rollout of the Roc – which took place at the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California – was a media circus. In addition to being the first time that the public got to see the aircraft since construction began, the occasion marked the beginning of several tests which will take place over the coming days – including fueling tests, engine runs, taxi tests, and its first test flight.
“We’re excited to announce that Stratolaunch aircraft has reached a major milestone in its journey toward providing convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. Today, we’re moving the Stratolaunch aircraft out of the hangar – for the first time ever – to conduct aircraft fueling tests. This marks the completion of the initial aircraft construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase.”
Measuring about 72.5 meters (238 ft) from nose to tail, the aircraft also stands 15.24 meters (50 ft) tall, measured from the ground to the top of the vertical tail. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 589,670 kg (1.3 million lbs), meaning that it is capable of airlifting payloads of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 lbs). These kinds of payloads mean that it will be capable of flying rockets and heavy space planes to launch altitude.
Last fall, the company announced their plan to conduct a launch using a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle, a three-stage rocket used to deploy small satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). This agreement was part of a multi-year collaboration between the two companies, which would see the former combining their aircraft with the latter’s extensive air-launch experience.
First unveiled in 1990, the Pegasus XL quickly established itself as a cost-effective means for launching small payloads to LEO. These typically would consist of small satellites weighing up to 443 kg (977 lbs) from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft. Since then, the Pegasus has carried out 43 space launch missions and successfully placed a total of 94 satellites into orbit for various reasons – ranging from scientific research and communications to defense.
In time, the company plans to explore a wide range of launch vehicles that can provide flexibility in terms of missions and payloads. But in the meantime, they will be conducting ground and flight line testing from the Mojave Air and Space Port to ensure that Roc is capable of doing all it was designed for. If all goes well, they plan to make their first commercial launch by 2019.
“This marks a historic step in our work to achieve Paul G. Allen’s vision of normalizing access to low Earth orbit,” said Floyd. “It is proud day for us at Stratolaunch, for our partners at Scaled Composites, and for our founder Paul Allen. We have a lot of exciting activity ahead as we enter the testing process, and we look forward to sharing our progress during the coming months.”
One of the hallmarks of the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) industry has been the development of cost-saving measures. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has looked to reusable rocket technology, other companies have sought to reduce costs with Single-Stage-to-Orbit (SSTO) rockets and plug-in payloads. Air-launch-to-orbit systems are just another way in which space is becoming more accessible.
And be sure to check out this video of the Roc’s unveiling: