It’s an exciting time for space exploration! All around the world, national space agencies are sending missions to deep-space and preparing to send astronauts to orbit and the Moon. At the same time, the commercial aerospace industry (NewSpace) is expanding to include more launch providers and service new markets. These developments are adding up and making space more cost-effective and accessible.
One such development of the emergence of reusable rockets, which are reducing the cost of individuals launches down considerably. Earlier this month (Dec. 15th), the European Space Agency (ESA) contracted with aerospace giant ArianeGroup to develop a reusable rocket. As part of the Themis Program, the ESA will use this rocket to evaluate the technologies involved for potential use on future European launch vehicles.
In the summer of 2017, the company Rocket Lab officially tossed its hat into the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) ring with the first test flights of their two-stage Electron Rocket. Dedicated to providing cost-effective launch services for the small satellite market, the company began conducting commercial launches from their complexes in New Zealand and California using the lightweight Electron.
Looking to cut the costs associated with individual launches further, Rocket Lab has decided to pursue reusability as well. In early March, before the isolation orders were issued, the company achieved a major milestone when it conducted a successful mid-air recovery of the test stage of an Electron Rocket – which involved a helicopter catching the test stage after its parachute deployed.
A Chinese company is planning to launch a rocket with a reusable booster in 2021. The company is called i-Space, and the rocket is called Hyperbola-2. They’ve already developed and launched another rocket, called Hyperbola.
In 2006, Peter Beck founded the US and New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab with the vision of reducing the costs of individual launches. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have sought to do this through the development of reusable rockets, Beck’s vision was to create a launch service that would use small rockets to send light payloads into orbit with regular frequency.
However, in a recent statement, Mr. Beck revealed that his company plans to begin recovering and reusing the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. This change in direction will allow Rocket Lab to further increase the frequency of its launches by eliminating the need to build first stage rockets from scratch for every individual mission.
SpaceX has made some amazing accomplishments in the past few years, all of which have been in keeping with Elon Musk’s promise to cut the costs of space exploration. And with all the excitement surrounding the Starship Hopper and its first hop tests, there was one very important accomplishment that seems to have faded into the background a little.
Luckily, SpaceX reminded everyone about it this week, as the company conducted the second successful launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But what was especially impressive this time around is the fact that they managed to retrieve all three of the Falcon Heavy’s rocket boosters, as well as the payload fairings.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern space age is the way private aerospace companies (aka. NewSpace) is playing a role like never before. With every passing year, more and more small launch providers are being founded. And between the largest companies – SpaceX and Blue Origin – competition is heating up to see who will secure the most lucrative contracts and make it to Mars first!
In order to ensure they remain competitive, Blue Origin indicated that it would be following SpaceX’s lead by recovering its first-stage rocket boosters at sea. To this end, the company has acquired a used Danish vessel known as Stena Freighter, which recently arrived in Florida. Much like SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), this vessel will be used to retrieve spent rockets after they deliver their cargo to space.
One of the defining characteristics of the renewed age of space exploration is the way that private aerospace companies are participating like never before. In addition to major companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance, there are countless companies that are looking to reduce the costs of individual missions and provide launch services to the public and private sector.
One such company is EXOS Aerospace Systems & Technologies, Inc., a leading developer of reusable space launch vehicles. This past summer, the company conducted a Pathfinder test flight with their Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE (SARGE) rocket. The successful launch and recovery has validated the SARGE platform and was a major step towards EXOS’s long term plans to send small packages into orbit using reusable rockets.
When it comes to the new era of space exploration, one of the primary focuses has been on cutting costs. By reducing the costs associated with individual launches, space agencies and private aerospace companies will not only be able to commercialize Low Earth-Orbit (LEO), but also mount far more in the way of exploration missions and maybe even colonize space.
Several methods have been proposed so far for reducing launch costs, which include reusable rockets and single-stage-to-orbit rockets. However, a team of engineers from the University of Glasgow and the Ukraine recently proposed an entirely different idea that could make launching small payloads affordable – a self-eating rocket! This “autophage” rocket could easily send small satellites into space more easily and more affordably.
The study which describes how they built and tested the “autophage” engine recently appeared in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets under the title “Autophage Engines: Toward a Throttleable Solid Motor“. The team was led by Vitaly Yemets and Patrick Harkness – a Professor from the Oles Honchar Dnipro National University in the Ukraine and a Senior Lecturer from the University of Glasgow, respectively.
Together, the team addressed one the most pressing issues when it comes to rockets today. This has to do with the fact that storage tanks, which contain the rocket’s propellants as they climb, weight many times the spacecraft’s payload. This reduces the efficiency of the launch vehicle and also adds to the problem of space debris, since these fuel tanks are disposable and fall away when spent.
As Dr Patrick Harkness, who led Glasgow’s contribution to the work, explained in a recent University of Glasgow press release:
“Over the last decade, Glasgow has become a centre of excellence for the UK space industry, particularly in small satellites known as ‘CubeSats’, which provide researchers with affordable access to space-based experiments. There’s also potential for the UK’s planned spaceport to be based in Scotland. However, launch vehicles tend to be large because you need a large amount of propellant to reach space. If you try to scale down, the volume of propellant falls more quickly than the mass of the structure, so there is a limit to how small you can go. You will be left with a vehicle that is smaller but, proportionately, too heavy to reach an orbital speed.”
In contrast, an autophage engine consumes its own structure during ascent, so more cargo capacity could be freed-up and less debris would enter orbit. The propellant consists of a solid fuel rod (made of a solid plastic like polyethylene) on the outside and an oxidizer on the inside. By driving the rod into a hot engine, the fuel and oxidizer are vaporized to create gas that then flows into the combustion chamber to produce thrust.
“A rocket powered by an autophage engine would be different,” said Dr. Harkness. “The propellant rod itself would make up the body of the rocket, and as the vehicle climbed the engine would work its way up, consuming the body from base to tip. That would mean that the rocket structure would actually be consumed as fuel, so we wouldn’t face the same problems of excessive structural mass. We could size the launch vehicles to match our small satellites, and offer more rapid and more targeted access to space.”
The research team also showed that the engine could be throttled by simply varying the speed at which the rod is driven into the engine, which is something rare in a solid motor. During the lab tests, the team has been able to sustain rocket operations for 60 seconds at a time. As Dr. Harkness said, the team hopes to build on this and eventually conduct a launch test:
“While we’re still at an early stage of development, we have an effective engine testbed in the laboratory in Dnipro, and we are working with our colleagues there to improve it still further. The next step is to secure further funding to investigate how the engine could be incorporated into a launch vehicle.”
Another challenge of the modern space age is how to deliver additional payloads and satellites into orbit without creating more in the way of orbital clutter. By introducing an engine that can make for cheap launches that also has no disposable parts, the autophage could be a game-changing technology, one which is right up there with fully-recoverable rockets.
The research team also consisted of Mykola Dron and Anatoly Pashkov – a Professor and Senior Researcher from Oles Honchar Dnipro National University – and Kevin Worrall and Michael Middleton – a Research Associate and M.S. student from the University of Glasgow.
In recent decades, China’s space program has advanced considerably. In addition to deploying their first space station (Tiangong-1) and developing a modern rockets (the Long March 5), the nation has also sent robotic mission to the lunar surface and plans to conduct crewed missions there in the coming years. To this end, China is looking to create a new series of rockets that will enable them to explore the Moon and maybe even Mars.
One of the rockets they use to accomplish these goals is known as the Long-March 8, which is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021. According to a statement made by the chief rocket designer (Long Lehao) during a recent space conference in Harbin, China, the rocket will also include a reusable first stage. This latest announcement shows that China is also pursuing reusable launch vehicles to lower costs and increase their presence in space.
According to the China Space Report, the Long March 8 (Changzheng 8, or CZ-8) is a medium-lift vehicle intended for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) missions – i.e. where payloads are delivered to a nearly polar orbit around a planet. Consisting of two stages and two boosters, this rocket will reportedly have a payload capacity of 3000 to 4,500 kg (6600 to 9900 lbs) to SSO.
The first stages on this rocket are believed to be based on the first-stage of the Long March 7, which are powered by two single-chamber YF-100, 1,200 kN-thrust engines fueled by LOX/kerosene. Based on Long’s statement, the first stages and boosters are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing (similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets).
However, according to Bao Weimin, the director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Long March 8 will use different technologies that those employed by SpaceX. The purpose of this rocket will be to provide commercial launch services to customers from around the world.
As Long indicated during the course of the conference (according to China Daily):
“China’s aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry.”
In addition, Long also emphasized that China will be making efforts to address an ongoing problem with its younger Long March rockets, which is controlling where they fall. Currently, landing areas have to be are evacuated at every launch since these rockets rely on toxic chemicals. And with launches becoming more frequent, controlling where these rockets fall is becoming a major priority.
“As the current Long March 2, 3, 4 series rockets are fueled by toxic propellants, they cannot be recycled,” said Long. “But we are developing technologies to precisely control the fall of the rocket remains to ensure safety.”
Lastly, Long indicated what lies ahead for China’s space program and commercial spaceflight. By 2025, he claimed, reusable carriers will be developed for conducting suborbital space flights. By 2030, China National Space Agency will be conducting launches with rockets that rely on two reusable stages and will have achieved complete reusability by 2035. He also hinted how by 2040, China will be using reusable carrier rockets that will rely on hybrid-power sources.
All of this will allow for cheaper and more efficient launch services, facilitate spaceflight for private citizens, and allow for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These goals are in keeping with what space agencies like NASA and private aerospace companies like SpaceX have in mind for the coming decades. In this sense, China is indicating that it intends to parallel other major powers in space by following a similar path.
One of the greatest challenges of modern spaceflight is finding a way to make launching rockets into space commercially viable. Reduced costs will not only mean more launches, but the ability to conduct more ambitious programs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. To this end, many private aerospace companies are investing in reusability, where the first-stages of a rocket and even entire vehicles are retrieved after launch and reused.
In recent years, Elon Musk has become famous for his development of reusable first-stage boosters and fairings. But Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has also been no slouch when it comes to making the company’s fleet of rockets reusable. On Sunday, April 29th, the company is passing another milestone with the 8th test flight of the New Shephard rocket, an event which is being live-streamed.
As a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle, the New Shephard is crucial to Blue Origins’ vision of commercial spaceflight and space tourism. Consisting of a pressurized capsule aboard a booster, the combined vehicle launches vertically and accelerates for two and a half minutes before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates and floats into suborbit while the booster returns to Earth under its own power and with the help of parachutes.
Launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT. Livestream info to come. @BlueOrigin#GradatimFerociterpic.twitter.com/zAYpAGWB8C
Named in honor of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, the rocket’s crew capsule has room for six people. These will consist of customers looking to take a flight to suborbital altitudes and experience the sensation of weightlessness. As they state on their website:
“The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”
The announcement for the 8th test launch came on Friday, April. 27th, when Bezos tweeted that “launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT.” The launch would take place at the company’s suborbital launch and engine test site near the town of Van Horn in West Texas.
As with the previous New Shepard test launch, which took place on Dec. 12th, 2017, the crew for this mission would be the mannequin known as “Mannequin Skywalker” (check out the video of this flight below). As with the previous uncrewed flight, Mannequin Skywalker will be testing the capsule’s safety restrains in advance of a crewed test flight.
At 0526 (0826 PST), Bezos tweeted that the flight window – which was originally set for 0845 CDT (0630 PDT) – had been delayed due to thunderstorm over West Texas. At 0950 CDT (0750 PDT), Bezos issued a follow-up tweet that the liftoff target was now 1113 CDT (0913 PST). Live streaming will begin 15 minutes before the launch, which you can watch by going to Blue Origin’s website.
If successful, this launch test will place Blue Origin one step closer to conducting space tourism. As Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, recently indicated in an interview with CNBC, he hopes the company will begin these launches by the end of this year. In addition, he said that the company continues to pursue the development of engine technology, which it hopes United Launch Alliance will use on its Vulcan rockets as well.
Be sure to check out the live-steam of the launch, and feel free to enjoy this video of the New Shepard conducting a space tourism flight while you’re waiting: