In recent years, one of the most impressive developments for space exploration has been the rise of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace). Beyond fulfilling contracts with space agencies like NASA to provide commercial and crewed launch services, private aerospace companies are also fostering innovation that is helping to reduce the cost of sending payloads to space.
Take RocketLab, the US/NZ-based small satellite launch company that has broken new ground with its Electron rocket. In a further bid to reduce the costs of individual launches, RocketLab announced last year that it would begin recovering and reusing the spent boosters of its rockets. Recently, the company took a big step by successfully retrieving the first stage of an Electron after it delivered a payload to orbit.
It has been said that within the next quarter century, the world’s first trillionaires will emerge. It is also predicted that much of their wealth will stem from asteroid mining, a burgeoning space industry where minerals and volatile compounds will be harvested from Near-Earth Asteroids. This industry promises to flood the market with ample supplies of precious metals like gold, silver and platinum.
Beyond Earth, there’s the long-term prospect of the Main Asteroid Belt, which would provide even greater abundance. This is one of the reasons why NASA’s Psyche mission to explore the metal asteroid of the same name in the Main Belt has many people excited. While the exploration of this body could tell us much about the history of the Solar System, it could also be a source of riches someday.
There is no doubt that our world is in the midst of a climate crisis. Between increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, rising temperatures and sea levels, ocean acidification, species extinctions, waste production, diminishing supplies of fresh water, drought, severe weather, and all of the resulting fallout, the “Anthropocene” is not shaping up too well.
It is little wonder then why luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin, and Elon Musk believe that we must look off-world to ensure our survival. However, there are those who caution that in so doing, humans will simply shift our burdens onto new locations. Addressing this possibility, two distinguished researchers recently published a paper where they suggest that we should set aside “wilderness” spaces” in our Solar System today.
In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced the creation of Stratolaunch Systems. With the goal of reducing the associated costs of space launches, the company set out to create the world’s largest air-launch-to-orbit system. After many years, these efforts bore fruit with the unveiling of the massive Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch air carrier in the Summer of 2017.
Similar in principle to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this behemoth is designed to deploy rockets from high altitudes so they can send payloads to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). After multiple tests involving engine preburns and taxiing on the runway, the aircraft made its inaugural flight last weekend (Saturday, April 13th) and flew for two and half hours before safely landing again in the Mojave Desert.
Getting to the International Space Station is no easy task. Generally speaking, it involves loading up a space capsule with several tons of cargo and then expending millions of liters of fuel to get it into orbit. This process is time consuming and very expensive. And what if astronauts want to send some things back? Currently, their only option for return capability is provided by the same cargo capsules that are sent up to them.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has gotten its wings and is set to soar to the International Space Station (ISS) in about a month. NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting a liftoff on Feb. 7 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Dragon is a commercially developed unmanned cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA. The Dragon spacecraft will launch atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies.
The Feb. 7 demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – represents the first test of NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.
Following the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle after Atlantis final flight in July 2011, NASA has no choice but to rely on private companies to loft virtually all of the US share of supplies and equipment to the ISS.
The Feb. 7 flight will be the first Dragon mission actually tasked to dock to the ISS and is also the first time that the Dragon will fly with deployable solar arrays. The twin arrays are the primary power source for the Dragon. They will be deployed a few minutes after launch, following Dragon separation from the Falcon 9 second stage.
The solar arrays can generate up to 5000 watts of power on a long term basis to run the sensors and communications systems, drive the heating and cooling systems and recharge the battery pack.
SpaceX designed, developed and manufactured the solar arrays in house with their own team of engineers. As with all space hardware, the arrays have been rigorously tested for hundreds of hours under the utterly harsh conditions that simulate the unforgiving environment of outer space, including thermal, vacuum, vibration, structural and electrical testing.
The two arrays were then shipped to Florida and have been attached to the side of the Dragon’s bottom trunk at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch processing facilities. They are housed behind protective shielding until commanded to deploy in flight.
Video Caption: SpaceX testing of the Dragon solar arrays. Credit: SpaceX
I’ve toured the SpaceX facilities several times and seen the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule launching on Feb. 7. The young age and enthusiasm of the employees is impressive and quite evident.
NASA recently granted SpaceX the permission to combine the next two COTS demonstration flights into one mission and dock the Dragon at the ISS if all the rendezvous practice activities in the vicinity of the ISS are completed flawlessly.
The ISS crew is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Dragon, for whch they have long trained.
“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a televised interview from on board the ISS earlier this week.
The ISS crew will grapple the Dragon with the station’s robotic arm when it comes within reach and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.
“From the standpoint of a pilot it is a fun, interesting, very dynamic activity and we are very much looking forward to it,” Burbank said. “It is the start of a new era, having commercial vehicles that come to Station.”
Burbank is a US astronaut and captured stunning images of Comet Lovejoy from the ISS just before Christmas, collected here.