Ever since Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family back in September of 2016, the general public and space community has been eagerly awaiting updates on its progress. Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.
Already this year, Musk announced that the BFR could be ready to make orbital launches by 2020 and showed the Main Body Tool that would build the BFR. And on Monday, September 17th – during a press conference at SpaceX headquarters in California – Musk announced who the first passenger aboard the BFR will be as it conducts its first lunar mission – the Japanese fashion innovator and globally recognized art curator, Yusaku Maezawa.
This is a proposed LEGO set designed by Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche (co-designer of the Saturn V set), consisting of three separate modules:
Block 5 Variant Falcon 9
For starters, you’ll get a Block 5 variant of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with its 9 Merlin engines, black interstage and titanium gridfins. The legs actually move up and down and lock in place for that rapid landing and easy reusablity. It also comes with a detachable upper stage with a variety of cargos. You can put a communications satellite into the detachable fairing, or a Dragon 2 capsule that’s ready to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere with its heat shield. 371 bricks
Then there’s a completely separate Falcon Heavy with its three detachable cores, each of which has its own landing legs. It has a detachable second stage with its Merlin Vacuum Engines and fuel tanks. At the top there’s a payload fairing, and inside that – this is the best part – there’s a tiny Tesla Roadster as a payload, so you can fly your car to space, just like Elon Musk. 453 bricks
And last but not least, the set comes with a SpaceX Transporter/Erector/Launcher that can hold and display either the Falcon 9 or the Falcon Heavy. You can clamp in either rocket and then raise or lower it, ready for launch. 759 bricks
If LEGO does decide to build this awesome set, it’ll consist of 1,583 pieces, and measure 64 cm high when fully constructed at 1:110 scale.
Now, I know you’re wondering where you can buy one of these, but you can’t. Instead, you’ve got to help convince LEGO that this is a set that they should consider putting into production at LEGO Ideas. At the time that I’m writing this article, they’ve gotten 3440 supporters to join the campaign. Because of all the support, LEGO has extended their campaign twice, and now they’ve got 589 days left to reach the 10,000 supporters.
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.
When Elon Musk of SpaceX tweets something interesting, it generates a wave of excitement. So when he tweeted recently that SpaceX might be working on a way to retrieve upper stages of their rockets, it set off a chain of intrigued responses.
SpaceX will try to bring rocket upper stage back from orbital velocity using a giant party balloon
SpaceX has been retrieving and reusing their lower stages for some time now, and it’s lowered the cost of launching payloads into space. But this is the first hint that they may try to do the same with upper stages.
Twitter responders wanted to know exactly what SpaceX has in mind, and what a “giant party balloon” might be. Musk hasn’t elaborated yet, but one of his Twitter followers had something interesting to add.
If you're proposing what I think you are, an ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator, then you and @SpaceX should come see what we have at the @UofMaryland . We've been working on this for awhile and just finished some testing pic.twitter.com/nJBvyUnzaK
Universe Today contacted Mr. Kupec to see if he could help us understand what Musk may have been getting at. But first, a little background.
An “ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator” is a bit of a mouthful. The ballistic coefficient measures how well a vehicle can overcome air resistance in flight. A high ballistic coefficient means a re-entry vehicle would not lose velocity quickly, and would reach Earth at high speeds. An ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator would lose speed quickly, meaning that a vehicle would be travelling at low, subsonic speeds before reaching the ground.
To recover an upper stage booster, low speeds are desirable, since they generate less heat. But according to Kupec, there’s another problem that must be overcome.
“What happens when these things slow down to landing velocities? If your center of gravity is offset significantly behind your center of drag, as would be the case with a returning upper stage, it can get unstable. If the center of gravity of the re-entry vehicle is too high, it can become inverted, which is obviously not desirable.”
So the trick is to lower the speed of the re-entry vehicle to the point where the heat generated by reentry isn’t damaging the booster, and to do it without causing the vehicle to invert or otherwise become unstable. This isn’t a problem for the main stage boosters that SpaceX now routinely recovers; they have their own retro-rockets to guide their descent and landing. But for the upper stage boosters, which reach orbital velocities, it’s an obstacle that has to be overcome.
“My research is specifically focused on how high you can push the center of gravity and still maintain the proper flight configuration,” said Kupec.
But what about the “giant party balloon” that Musk tweeted about?
Musk could be referring, in colorful terms, to what’s called a ballute. The word is a combination of the words balloon and parachute. They were invented in the 1950’s by Goodyear Aerospace. They can arrest the descent of entry vehicles and provide stability during the descent.
“…the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric…” – Professor Dave Akin, University of Maryland
Universe Today contacted Professor Dave Akin of the University of Maryland for some insight into Musk’s tweet. Professor Akin has been working on reentry systems for over 2 decades.
In an e-mail exchange, Professor Akin told us, “There have been concepts proposed for deploying a large balloon on a cable that is towed behind you on entry. The balloon lowers your ballistic coefficient, which means you decelerate higher in the atmosphere and the heat load is less.” So the key is to scrub your speed before you get closer to Earth, where the atmosphere is thicker and generates more heat.
But according to Professor Akin, this won’t necessarily be easy to do. “To get the two orders of magnitude reduction in ballistic coefficient that Elon has been talking about the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric, so it’s not going to be all that easy.”
But Musk’s track record shows he doesn’t shy away from things that aren’t easy.
Retrieving upper rocket stages isn’t all about lowering launch costs, it’s also about space junk. The European Space Agency estimates that there are over 29,000 pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, and some of that junk is spent upper stage boosters. There have been some collisions and accidents already, with some satellites being pushed into different orbits. In 2009, the Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite collided with each other, destroying both. If SpaceX can develop a way to retrieve its upper stage boosters, that means less space junk, and fewer potential collisions.
There’s a clear precedent for using balloons to manage reentry. With people like Professor Akin and Quinn Kupec working on it, SpaceX won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But they’ll still have a lot of work to do.
Musk tweeted one other thing shortly after his “giant party balloon” tweet:
In September of 2016, Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family. Known then as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – now know as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) – this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars someday. Since that time, the space community has eagerly waited for any news on how the preparations for this rocket are going.
Musk further inflamed people’s anticipation by recently announcing that the BFR would be ready to conduct orbital flights by as early as 2020. While admittedly an optimistic deadline, Musk indicated that his company was building the presently building the ship. And according to a recent post on Musk’s Instagram account, a key component (the main body tool) for making the BFR interplanetary spaceship has just been completed.
It is important to note, however, that what is being shown here is not actually a part of the rocket. As Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech noted, what we are seeing in the post is a tool “that SpaceX will use to fabricate the rocket from carbon fiber composite materials that are lighter than traditional materials. Flexible resin sheets of carbon fiber will be layered on the tool and then heated to cure them. After heating, you’re left with a solid section of rocket fuselage. It’s essentially a carbon fiber jig.”
Nevertheless, from the size of the tool itself, one gets a pretty clear idea of how large the final rocket will be. SpaceX chose to illustrate the scale of the tool by placing a Tesla next to it for scale. For some additional perspective, consider the cherry Tesla Roadster (driven by Starman) SpaceX launched with the Falcon Heavy‘s maiden flight.
Whereas the payload capsule was barely large enough to house it, this car looks like it could fit inside any rocket turned out by this tool easily, and with plenty of room to spare. And while cars are not exactly the BFR’s intended payload, it is good to know that it will be no slouch in that department!
When completed, the BFR will be the largest and most powerful rocket in the SpaceX rocket family. According to the company’s own specifications, it will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter and will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb).
And as Musk indicated during an interview with Jonathon Nolan at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, it will even outpace the rockets that won the Space Race for the US:
“This a very big booster and ship. The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
Once completed, Musk hopes to see the BFR performing service missions to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the International Space Station, to the Moon, and – of course – to Mars. In addition to sending colonists there as early as the next decade, Musk has also expressed interest in using the BFR to conduct space tourism – flying passengers in luxury accommodations to the Red Planet and back.
In the end, it is clear that Musk and the company he founded for the purpose of reigniting space exploration are determined to make all of this happen. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how far and how fast they progress.
About a week ago, it was revealed that the roughly 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested by Cambridge Analytica. This private data firm, which worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign, reportedly used this data build a software program that could predict and influence voter choices. Since that time, Facebook stock has taken a serious hit, investigations have been mounted, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself has come under fire.
In addition, this revelation has led many Facebook users to reconsider their privacy settings or cancel their accounts. One such person is Elon Musk. In a move that could prove rather harmful for the social media giant, Musk recently responded to the news by deleting the official Facebook pages for Tesla and SpaceX. And in a rather ironic twist, the announcement came via another social media giant – Elon Musk’s twitter account.
It all began after Musk responded to a tweet posted by Brian Acton, the famed programmer and entrepreneur who co-founded WhatsApp and is the founder of Signal (an encrypted communications app). In what was clearly an act of jest, he responded to Acton’s statement (“It is time”) and use of the trending hashtag (#deletefacebook), by inquiring “What’s Facebook?”
Naturally, no one was buying it, given that SpaceX and Facebook – and their respective CEOs) – have a rather colorful history of business relations. These include the failed launch that took place in September of 2016, where a Falcon 9 carrying a Israeli telecommunications satellite (which would have also been used by Facebook) exploded on the launch pad.
In response to the news, Zuckerberg posted a statement on Facebook that placed the blame for the failed launch squarely on Musk’s company:
“As I’m here in Africa, I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”
This old grudge was also raised on Twitter amidst the discussion about Facebook’s data breach, with a user reminding everyone about the incident. Musk brushed this aside, tweeting, “Yeah, my fault for being an idiot. We did give them a free launch to make up for it and I think they had some insurance.”
This led to a challenge being issued to Musk, where users wrote him and urged him to delete his company’s accounts. In what was arguably an attempt to keep the joke going, Musk responded by indicating that he didn’t know these accounts existed. He did, however, also promise to remove the accounts forthwith.
And it appears that Musk was true to his word. While SpaceX and Tesla still have Facebook pages and show up in searches, the official accounts appear to be gone. Musk chose to maintain the company’s official Instagram account though, and used the opportunity to once again stress that he had little use for Facebook:
“Instagram’s probably ok imo, so long as it stays fairly independent. I don’t use FB & never have, so don’t think I’m some kind of martyr or my companies are taking a huge blow. Also, we don’t advertise or pay for endorsements, so … don’t care.”
Well, martyr or not, Musk appears to have put his money where his mouth is. And of course, his twitter feed is still going strong and there is no indication he plans on turning that off anytime soon! And whether this was intended as as slight to Zuckerberg or a sincere expression of indifference, it is likely that Musk’s move could prompt more users to delete their accounts.
But of course, the social media giant will survive. And given Zuckerberg‘s and Musk‘s competing visions to provide global broadband internet access using satellites, its a certainty that the two entrepreneurs are not done with each other!
Elon Musk has a reputation for pushing the envelop and making bold declarations. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the intention of making spaceflight affordable through entirely reusable rockets. In April of 2014, his company achieved success with the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. And in February of this year, his company successfully launched its Falcon Heavy and managed to recover two of the three boosters.
But above and beyond Musk’s commitment to reusability, there is also his longer-term plans to use his proposed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to explore and colonize Mars. The topic of when this rocket will be ready to conduct launches was the subject of a recent interview between Musk and famed director Jonathon Nolan, which took place at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
During the interview, Musk reiterated his earlier statements that test flights would begin in 2019 and an orbital launch of the full BFR and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) would take place by 2020. And while this might seem like a very optimistic prediction (something Musk is famous for), this timeline does not seem entirely implausible given his company’s work on the necessary components and their success with reusability.
As Musk emphasized during the course of the interview:
“People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic. So I am trying to re-calibrate to some degree here. But I can tell what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars or interplanetary ship, right now, and I think we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short sort of up-and-down flights probably in the first half of next year.”
To break it down, the BFR – formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System – consists of a massive first stage booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (the BFS). Once the spacecraft is launched, the second stage would detach and use its thrusters to assume a parking orbit around Earth. The first stage would then guide itself back to its launchpad, take on a propellant tanker, and return to orbit.
The propellant tanker would then attach to the BFS and refuel it and return to Earth with the first stage. The BFS would then fire its thrusters again and make the journey to Mars with its payload and crew. While much of the technology and concepts have been tested and developed through the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the BFR is distinct from anything else SpaceX has built in a number of ways.
For one, it will be much larger (hence the nickname, Big F—— Rocket), have significantly more thrust, and be able carry a much larger payload. The BFR’s specifications were the subject of a presentation Musk made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress on September 28th, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Titled “Making Life Interplanetary“, his presentation outlined his vision for colonizing Mars and presented an overview of the ship that would make it happen.
According to Musk, the BFR will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. It will carry 110 tons (~99,700 kg) of propellant and will have an ascent mass of 150 tons (~136,000 kg) and a return mass of 50 tons (~45,300 kg). All told, it will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb)
“This a very big booster and ship,” said Musk. “The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
In addition, the BFR uses a new type of propellant and tanker system in order to refuel the spacecraft once its in orbit. This goes beyond what SpaceX is used to, but the company’s history of retrieving rockets and reusing them means the technical challenges this poses are not entirely new. By far, the greatest challenges will be those of cost and safety, since this will be only the third reusable second stage spacecraft in history.
The other two consist of the NASA Space Shuttles, which were officially retired in 2011, and the Soviet/Russian version of the Space Shuttle known as the Buran spacecraft. While the Buran only flew once (an uncrewed flight that took place in 1988), it remains the only Russian reusable spacecraft to have even been built or flown.
Where costs are concerned, the Space Shuttle Program provides a pretty good glimpse into what Musk and his company will be facing in the years ahead. According to estimates compiled in 2010 (shortly before the Space Shuttle was retired), the program cost a total of about $ 210 billion USD. Much of these costs were due to maintenance between launches and the costs of propellant, which will need to be kept low for the BFR to be economically viable.
Addressing the question of costs, Musk once again stressed how reusability will be key:
“What’s amazing about this ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work, is that we can reduce the marginal cost per flight dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today. This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry, it is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”
As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.
“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”
Beyond manufacturing and refurbishing costs, the BFR will also need to have an impeccable safety record if SpaceX is to have a hope of making money from it. In this respect, SpaceX hopes to follow a development process similar to what they did with the Falcon 9. Before conducting full launch tests to see if the first stage of the rocket could safely make it to orbit and then be retrieved, the company conducted short hop tests using their “Grasshopper” rocket.
According to the timeline Musk offered at the 2018 SXSW, the company will be using the spaceship that is currently being built to conduct suborbital tests as soon as 2019. Orbital launches, which may include both the booster and the spaceship, are expected to occur by 2020. At present, Musk’s earlier statements that the first flight of the BFR would take place by 2022 and the first crewed flight by 2024 still appear to be on.
For comparison, the Space Launch System (SLS) – which is NASA’s proposed means of getting to Mars – is scheduled to conduct its first launch in 2019 as well. Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), this launch will involve sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the Moon. EM-2, in which a crewed Orion capsule will delver the first module of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) to lunar orbit, will take place in 2022.
The ensuing missions will consist of more modules being delivered to lunar orbit to complete construction of the LOP-G, as well as the Deep Space Transport (DST). The first interplanetary trip to Mars, Exploration Mission 11 (EM-11), won’t to take place until 2033. So if Musk’s timelines are to be believed, SpaceX will be beating NASA to Mars, both in terms of uncrewed and crewed missions.
As for who will be enabling a permanent stay on both the Moon and Mars, that remains to be seen. And as Musk emphasized, he hopes that by showing that creating an interplanetary spaceship is possible, agencies and organizations all over the planet will mobilize to do the same. For all we know, the creation of the BFR could enable the creation of an entire fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems.
The South by Southwest Conference began on Friday, March 9th and will continue until Sunday, March 18th. And be sure to check out the video of the interview below:
The launch of the Falcon Heavy , which took place on Feb. 6th, 2018, was an historic event. After years of preparation, SpaceX successfully launched the heaviest vehicle in its arsenal, which has a lift capacity that is over twice as much as the next heaviest rocket (the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy). The launch also demonstrated SpaceX’s commitment to reusability, where two of the three cores were recovered afterwards.
In addition, the launch was a media frenzy as the heavy rocket deployed some very unusual cargo – a Tesla Roadster with Starman (an empty spacesuit) in the driver’s seat. In honor of this event, the company has released a video that showcases the highlights of the launch. Consistent with the theme of the launch, the video was set to David Bowie’s 1971 hit “Life on Mars”, and is quite emotional to watch!
The video begins by showing the crowds assembled outside of SpaceX’s launch site at Space Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. We then see Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and Starman being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy payload capsule. What follows is the rollout of the Falcon Heavy at Cape Canaveral, its deployment on the launch pad, and the rocket blasting off.
This is where things get emotional as Bowie’s song hits a crescendo and people on the ground and in the launch complex celebrate the successful launch. We are also treated to some footage of Starman and the Roadster being deployed once they reach orbit. As Starman floats in full view of Earth, we also see the successful recovery of two of the Falcon 9 cores, and the crashing at sea of the third.
While the video manages to cover all the major aspects of the launch, the real focus is definitely on the people who witnessed the event. As the video plays, you can see the anticipation and hope as the rocket is preparing for launch and the sense of elation that came from its success. This is in keeping with Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX, which he founded in 2002 to inspire public interest in renewed space exploration.
Why Falcon Heavy & Starman?
Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you. https://t.co/5STO7q4wro
“Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you.”
Of course, one can’t forget how the launch also signaled that SpaceX is one step closer to achieving Musk’s other dream – which is to reduce the cost associated with space launches by making rockets fully reusable and restoring domestic launch capability to the United States. Now that SpaceX is capable of lifting 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs), NASA won’t have to depend on Roscosmos to send crews and heavy payloads into orbit much longer.
A great celebratory eruption accompanied the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in early February. That launch was a big moment for people who are thoughtful about the long arc of humanity’s future. But the Tesla Roadster that was sent on a long voyage in space aboard that rocket is likely carrying some bacterial hitch-hikers.
A report from Purdue University suggests that, though unlikely, the Roadster may be carrying an unwelcome cargo of Earthly bacteria to any destination it reaches. But we’re talking science here, and science doesn’t necessarily shy away from the unlikely.
“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth.” – Alina Alexeenko, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University.
NASA takes spacecraft microbial contamination very seriously. The Office of Planetary Protection monitors and enforces spacecraft sterilization. Spreading Terran bacteria to other worlds is a no-no, for obvious reasons, so spacecraft are routinely sterilized to prevent any bacterial hitch-hikers. NASA uses the term “biological burden” to quantify how rigorously a spacecraft needs to be sterilized. Depending on a spacecraft’s mission and destination, the craft is subjected to increasingly stringent sterilization procedures.
If a craft is not likely to ever contact another body, then sterilization isn’t as strict. If the target is a place like Mars, where the presence of Martian life is undetermined, then the craft is prepared differently. When required, spacecraft and spacecraft components are treated in clean rooms like the one at Goddard Space Flight Center.
The clean rooms are strictly controlled environments, where staff wear protective suits, boots, hoodies, and surgical gloves. The air is filtered and the spacecraft are exposed to various types of sterilization. After sterilization, the spacecraft is handled carefully before launch to ensure it remains sterile. But the Tesla Roadster never visited such a place, since it’s destination is not another body.
The Tesla Roadster in space was certainly manufactured in a clean place, but there’s a big difference between clean and sterile. To use NASA’s terminology, the bacterial load of the Roadster is probably very high. But would those bacteria survive?
The atmosphere in space is most definitely hostile to life. The temperature extremes, the low pressure, and the radiation are all hazardous. But, some bacteria could survive by going dormant, and there are nooks and crannies in the Tesla where life could cling.
The Tesla is not predicted to come into contact with any other body, and certainly not Mars, which is definitely a destination in our Solar System that we want to protect from contamination. In fact, a more likely eventual destination for the Roadster is Earth, albeit millions of years from now. And in that case, according to Alina Alexeenko, a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University, any bacteria on the red Roadster is more like a back-up for life on Earth, in case we do something stupid before the car returns. “The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” she said.
But even if some bacteria survived for a while in some hidden recess somewhere on the Tesla Roadster, could it realistically survive for millions of years in space?
As far as NASA is concerned, length of time in space is one component of sterilization. Some missions are designed with the craft placed in a long-term orbit at the end of its mission, so that the space environment can eventually destroy any lingering bacterial life secreted away somewhere. Surely, if the Roadster does ever collide with Earth, and if it takes millions of years for that to happen, and if it’s not destroyed on re-entry, the car would be sterilized by its long-duration journey?
That seems to be the far more likely outcome. You never know for sure, but the space-faring Roadster is probably not a hazardous bio-threat, nor a back-up for life on Earth; those are pretty fanciful ideas.
Musk’s pretty red car is likely just a harmless, attention-grabbing bauble.
After multiple delays, SpaceX’s PAZ mission launched from from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenburg Air Force Base on the morning of Thursday, February 22nd. Shortly after it reached orbit, the rocket deployed its payload (the PAZ Earth Observing satellite) as well as and two Starlink demonstrations satellites that will test SpaceX’s ability to provide broadband internet service from orbit.
In addition, this launch was the first time that SpaceX would be attempting to “catch” the payload fairings from a Falcon 9 rocket using a retrieval ship. As part of their plan to make their rockets fully reusable, the rocket’s fairings were equipped with deployable chutes that would control their descent to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the newly-commissioned “Mr. Steven” retrieval ship would be waiting to catch them in its net.
As noted, the primary mission for this launch was the deployment of the the PAZ satellite to low-Earth orbit. This synthetic-aperture radar satellite was commisioned by Hisdesat, a Spanish commercial satellite company, for governmental and commercial use. Its purpose s to generate high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface, regardless of whether there are clouds covering the ground.
The secondary payload consisted of two experimental satellites – Microsat-2a and 2b – which are the first phase in SpaceX’s plan to deliver broadband internet service to the entire world. The plan calls for the deployment of more satellites in phases, reaching a total of 4,000 by 2024. However, it was the attempted retrieval of the rocket’s payload fairings that was of particular interest during the launch.
To be fair, this would not be the first time that SpaceX’s attempted to retrieve payload fairings. In March of 2017, SpaceX successfully recovered the fairings for one of their Falcon 9s, which allowed them to recoup an estimated $6 million dollars from that launch. At present, SpaceX indicates that the cost of an individual Falcon 9 launch is estimated to be around $62 million.
If the payload fairings could be recovered regularly, that means that the company could stand to recoup an additional 10% from every individual Falcon 9 launch. These additional savings would not only make the company more competitive, but could allow for additional mission profiles that are currently considered too expensive.
Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.
On Thursday Morning, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted a picture of Mr. Steven taking to sea on Instagram with the following statement:
“Going to try to catch the giant fairing (nosecone) of Falcon 9 as it falls back from space at about eight times the speed of sound. It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship with basically a giant catcher’s mitt welded on tries to catch it.”
The launch, which was covered via webcast, went as planned. After taking off amid clear skies, the Falcon 9 reached orbit and deployed the PAZ satellite without incident, and the two Starlink satellites were deployed shortly thereafter. However, the webcast ended without providing any information about the status of the retrieval of the payload fairings.
At 7:14 am, Musk tweeted an update about the attempted retrieval, indicating that the fairings had landed in the ocean a few hundred meters from where Mr. Steven was waiting to catch them. While unsuccessful, Musk was optimistic about future attempts to retrieve payload fairings, saying:
“Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.”
As always, Musks seems undeterred by a setback and the company is moving ahead with its plans for expanded reusability. If successful, future attempts at retrieval are likely to involve the second stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Given all the possibilities that this will allow for, there are many who want to see Musk’s latest venture to succeed.
In the meantime, check out this webcast of the launch: