In September of 2019, SpaceX unveiled the first Starship prototype, the first of several test vehicles that would validate the design of the next-generation spacecraft that would fulfill Musk’s promise of making commercial flights to the Moon and Mars. And while there was a bit of a setback in November of 2019 after the Mk. 1 suffered a structural failure, Musk indicated that the company would be moving forward with other prototypes.
As Musk explained at the time, this would consist of the Mk. 3 prototype conducting an orbital test flight to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) sometime in 2020. According to recent filings made with the FCC, this test could be happening as early as mid-March and will involve the vehicle launching from the company’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and flying to an altitude of 20 km (12.6 mi) before landing.
Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule launched successfully, but a mishap prevented it from docking with the ISS. The ship is undamaged and will return and land at its designated location, according to officials. This could delay the planned crewed flight of the Starliner next summer.
The X-37B, the US Air Force’s experimental, Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has come back down to Earth after 780 days. It landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019, at 3:51 a.m. after breaking its own record for time in space. The X-37B has now spent 2,865 total days in orbit.
SpaceX is getting closer to its making its next big leap with the Starship super-heavy launch system. With hover tests now complete, the public is eagerly awaiting the completion of the full-scale prototypes and for orbital testing to begin. Never one to disappoint, Elon Musk has been posting regular updates on Twitter showcasing the latest progress of the Starship Mk.1 and Mk.2.
When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of systems will come into play. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is also the Orion capsule. This is the vehicle that will take astronauts to the Moon again as part of Project Artemis (which is currently slated for 2024) and facilitate missions to Mars by the 2030s.
In preparation, the Orion capsule is being put through its paces to show that it’s up to the challenge. This past Tuesday, July 2nd, NASA successfully conducted the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, bringing the Orion one step closer to completion. The launch took place during the early morning hours and involved the capsule being launched from NASA’s Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral aboard a modified Peacekeeper missile.
NASA has announced that the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is ready for its first demo flight. After discussions with SpaceX, both NASA and Elon Musk’s private space company determined that it was time for Dragon to fly. The date for the flight is March 2nd.
The long-anticipated first flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon is almost here. Early in January, the Crew Dragon was rolled out of its hangar at Kennedy Space Center, and on January 24th it performed a brief static firing as part of its testing. The Crew Dragon’s inaugural flight, called Demo-1, is not far off.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX has given us a date for Demo-1, but we’re getting close.
In an announcement sure to make you quiver with delight, Elon Musk says that SpaceX could begin short-hop test flights of its Starship prototype as early as next Spring. The Starship, which looks like something from a 1950’s sci-fi novel cover (awesome!) is intended to carry people to the Moon and Mars. When the spacecraft design was originally announced in 2016, it was called the Mars Colonial Transporter, and it sent shockwaves through the community.
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:
The aerospike engine is a time-honored concept. In the past, NASA tested the concept extensively on the ground and hoped to incorporate it into the Space Shuttle and their next-generation Venture Star program (a Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SSTO) vehicle). However, due to budget constraints, the Space Shuttle ended up being equipped with bell-shaped nozzles instead, and the Venture Star never saw the light of day.
But thanks to New Mexico-based aerospace company ARCA, the aerospike engine is getting a new lease on life. This coming August, they will conduct a test flight of the aerospike engine using their Demonstrator 3 rocket, which will constitute the first space flight of the engine. If all goes well, it will be a major step towards the creation of a fleet of Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SSTO) rockets.
What makes the aerospike engine appealing is the fact that it offers efficient thrust over a wide range of altitudes, and is also more fuel-efficient than current engines. With traditional bell-shaped nozzles, reliable thrust tends to occur only at sea level. Beyond that, the engine isn’t capable of taking advantage of decreases in atmospheric pressure since the gases are contained by the nozzle.
In contrast, the aerospike engine’s exhaust is capable of expanding from sea level all the way up to space, which ensures both fuel-efficiency and a high degree of specific impulse (Isp) at all flight levels. Already, ARCA and NASA have scheduled ground and vacuum tests for the engine. But in the meantime, they also want to gather data on how it performs in flight. This is where the Demonstrator 3 test comes into play.
In addition to testing the engine’s efficiency, it will also test the aerospike’s super-cold fuel storage technology. Basically, the engine relies on a decomposing 70% concentration of hydrogen peroxide at a temperature of only 250 °C to generate thrust. The byproduct of this is oxygen and water, which makes the aerospike the most environmentally-friendly rocket concept to date. As Dumitru Popescu, the CEO of ARCA, said in a recent statement:
“By sending the Demonstrator 3 rocket in space using a super cold engine, with only 250 °C instead of 3500 °C in the reaction chamber, paired with the aerospike technology, we are going to demonstrate the impressive potential of the aerospike.”
Ultimately, the goal here is to demonstrate that SSTO rockets are feasible, which ARCA is exploring with their Haas 2CA concept. The latest in the Haas rocket family, named in honor of Austrian-Romanian rocketry pioneer Conrad Haas, this launch vehicle uses hydrogen peroxide and kerosene for fuel and is capable of generating 22,900 kg (50,500 lbs) of thrust at sea level, and about 33,565 kg (74,000 lbs) in a vacuum.
Compared to multi-stage rockets, SSTOs offer both lower costs and greater flexibility when it comes to launching small payloads into orbit. According to estimates produced by Space Works and Eurostat, this small satellite market will be growing by $5.3 billion in the next decade. As such, aerospace companies that can offer competitive launch rates and flexibility will be able to take advantage of this growth.
The company unveiled the Haas 2CA back in March of 2017 at their company headquarters in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In 2018, ARCA hopes to conduct their first test launch of the Haas 2CA from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. But before that can happen, the company needs to make sure the aerospike engine performs as well as expected. As Popescu explained:
“The Haas 2CA Single Stage to Orbit is just the beginning of a new generation of space vehicle, shaped by innovation that will generate lower cost. We are going to answer one of the industry’s most asked questions: can an aerospike deliver in flight the pressure compensation generated by altitude variation and deliver the expected performance by saving fuel? We want to pick up where NASA left off and prove that this technology is actually the way to go for space flights.”
The test flight, which will take place at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert, will consist of a suborbital space flight that will take the Demonstrator 3 up to an altitude of 100 km. If this flight is achieved, ARCA will have demonstrated that the engine technology is flight qualified, that SSTO rockets are feasible, and that super cold engines paired with aerospike technology will allow for environmentally friendly suborbital rockets.
The test will also be a milestone for the commercial aerospace industry, which was founded on the desires to make space more accessible and lowering the costs associated with individual launches. And as Popescu was sure to indicate, the best way to do this is not to merely improve upon existing concepts, but leverage cutting-edge and time-tested technologies to create new ones.
“We are confident that the aerospike engine combined with composite material fuel tanks and dense fuels will significantly lower the costs for orbital and suborbital launches,” he said. “We truly believe that the answer for cost reduction of space flight is innovation, not trying to make old technologies a little bit more efficient. This will never generate significant price drop of space launches, but merely small improvements. With this philosophy in mind we expect to increase the registered value of our company from its current $20 million to at least $200 millions by 2019.”
The development of SSTOs are just one way that the commercial aerospace industry is making space exploration more economical. Other examples include SpaceX’s developments of reusable rockets, and Rocketlab‘s use of lightweight materials to create two-stage disposable rockets.
These measures are not only allowing for the commercialization of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), but are opening up possibilities that were previously thought to be impossible for the time being – like space-based solar power and space habitats!
Stay tuned for more on this and other upcoming tests. And be sure to check out this video on how ARCA is preparing for the upcoming aerospike test flight, courtesy of ARCA: