One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.
For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.
On March 30, 2017, SpaceX performed a pretty routine rocket launch. The payload was a communications satellite called SES-10, owned by a company in Luxembourg. And if all goes well, the satellite will eventually make its way to a high orbit of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) and deliver broadcasting and television services to Latin America.
For all intents and purposes, this is an absolutely normal, routine, and maybe even boring event in the space industry. Another chemical rocket blasted off another communications satellite to join the thousands of satellites that have come before.
Of course, as you probably know, this wasn’t a routine launch. It was the first step in one of the most important achievements in space flight – launch reusability. This was the second time the 14-story Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off and pushed a payload into orbit. Not Falcon 9s in general, but this specific rocket was reused.
In a previous life, this booster blasted off on April 8, 2016 carrying CRS-8, SpaceX’s 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, released its payload, re-entered the atmosphere and returned to a floating robotic barge in the Atlantic Ocean called Of Course I Still Love You. That’s a reference to an amazing series of books by Iain M. Banks.
Why is this such an amazing accomplishment? What does the future hold for reusability? And who else is working on this?
Developing a rocket that could be reused has been one of the holy grails of the space industry, and yet, many considered it an engineering accomplishment that could never be achieved. Trust me, people have tried in the past.
Portions of the space shuttle were reused – the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters. And a few decades ago, NASA tried to develop the X-33 as a single stage reusable rocket, but ultimately canceled the program.
To reuse a rocket makes total sense. It’s not like you throw out your car when you return from a road trip. You don’t destroy your transatlantic airliner when you arrive in Europe. You check it out, do a little maintenance, refuel it, fill it with passengers and then fly it again.
According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage costs about $30 million. If you could perform maintenance, and then refill it with fuel, you’d bring down subsequent launches to a few hundred thousand dollars.
SpaceX is still working out what a “flight-tested” launch will cost on a reused Falcon 9 will cost, but it should turn into a significant discount on SpaceX’s already aggressive prices. If other launch providers think they’re getting undercut today, just wait until SpaceX really gets cranking with these reused rockets.
For most kinds of equipment, you want them to have been re-used many times. Cars need to be taken to the test track, airplanes are flown on many flights before passengers ever climb inside. SpaceX will have an opportunity to test out each rocket many times, figuring out where they fail, and then re-engineering those components. This makes for more durable and safer launch hardware, which I suspect is the actual goal here – safety, not cost.
In addition to the first stage, SpaceX also re-used the satellite fairing. This is the covering that makes the payload more aerodynamic while the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere. The fairing is usually ejected and burns up on re-entry, but SpaceX has figured out how to recover that too, saving a few more million.
SpaceX’s goals are even more ambitious. In addition to the first stage booster and launch fairing, SpaceX is looking to reuse the second stage booster. This is a much more complicated challenge, because the second stage is going much faster and needs to lose a lot more velocity. In late 2014, they put their plans on hold for a second stage reuse.
SpaceX’s next big milestone will be to decrease the reuse time. From almost a year to under 24 hours.
Sometime this year, SpaceX is expected to do the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. A launch system that looks like it’s made up of 3 Falcon-9 rockets bolted together. Since that’s basically what it is.
The center booster is a reinforced Falcon-9, with two additional Falcon-9s as strap-on boosters. Once the Falcon Heavy lifts off, the three boosters will detach and will individually land back on Earth, ready for reassembly and reuse. This system will be capable of carrying 54,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX is hoping to take the technology one more step and have the upper stage return to Earth.
Imagine it. Three boosters and upper stage and payload fairing all returning to Earth and getting reused.
And waiting in the wings, of course, is SpaceX’s huge Interplanetary Transport System, announced by Elon Musk in September of 2016. The super-heavy lift vehicle will be capable of carrying 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit.
For comparison, the Apollo era Saturn V could carry 140,000 kg into low Earth orbit, so this thing will be much much bigger. But unlike the Saturn V, it’ll be capable of returning to Earth, and landing on its launch pad, ready for reuse.
SpaceX just crossed a milestone, but they’re not the only player in this field.
Perhaps the biggest competitor to SpaceX comes from another internet entrepreneur: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the 2nd richest man in the world after Bill Gates. Bezos founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin in Seattle, which had been working in relative obscurity for the last decade. But in the last few years, they demonstrated their technology for reusable rocket flight, and laid out their plans for competing with SpaceX.
In April 2015, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket on a suborbital trajectory. It went up to an altitude of about 100 km, and then came back down and landed on its launch pad again. It made a second flight in November 2015, a third flight in April 2016, and a fourth flight in June 2016.
That does sound exciting, but keep in mind that reaching 100 km in altitude requires vastly less energy than what the Spacex Falcon 9 requires. Suborbital and orbital are two totally milestones. The New Shepard will be used to carry paying tourists to the edge of space, where they can float around weightlessly in the vomit of the other passengers.
But Blue Origin isn’t done. In September 2016, they announced their plans for the follow-on New Glenn rocket. And this will compete head to head with SpaceX. Scheduled to launch by 2020, like, within 3 years or so, the New Glenn will be an absolute monster, capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. This will be comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s Space Launch System.
Like the Falcon 9, the New Glenn will return to its launch pad, ready for a planned reuse of 100 flights.
A decade ago, the established United Launch Alliance – a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin – was firmly in the camp of disposable launch systems, but even they’re coming around to the competition from SpaceX. In 2014, they began an alliance with Blue Origin to develop the Vulcan rocket.
The Vulcan will be more of a traditional rocket, but some of its engines will detach in mid-flight, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes and be recaptured by helicopters as they’re returning to the Earth. Since the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket, this will provide some cost savings.
There’s another level of reusability that’s still in the realm of science fiction: single stage to orbit. That’s where a rocket blasts off, flies to space, returns to Earth, refuels and does it all over again. There are some companies working on this, but it’ll be the topic for another episode.
Now that SpaceX has successfully launched a first stage booster for the second time, this is going to become the new normal. The rocket companies are going to be fine tuning their designs, focusing on efficiency, reliability, and turnaround time.
These changes will bring down the costs of launching payloads to orbit. That’ll mean it’s possible to launch satellites that were too expensive in the past. New scientific platforms, communications systems, and even human flights become more reasonable and commonplace.
Of course, we still need to take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what I talked about is still under development. That said, SpaceX just reused a rocket. They took a rocket that already launched a satellite, and used it to launch another satellite.
It’s a pretty exciting time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Now you know how I feel about this accomplishment, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re at the edge of a whole new era in space exploration, or is this more of the same? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.
“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.
Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.
Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.
“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.
The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.
“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”
“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.
Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.
“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.
In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.
Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.
“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”
ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.
Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.
Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.
And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”
“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.
How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?
“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.
“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”
ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.
“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”
Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.
“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”
“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”
The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.
“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”
Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.
“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”
More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.
Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.
Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
One of the most fascinating stories in modern astronomy involves the pursuit of a world that never was.
Tomorrow marks the 135th anniversary of the total solar eclipse of July 29th, 1878. With a maximum totality of 3 minutes 11 seconds, this eclipse traced a path across western Canada and the United States from the territory of Montana to Louisiana.
A curious band of astronomers also lay in wait along the path of totality, searching for an elusive world known as Vulcan.
Long before Star Trek or Mr. Spock, Vulcan was a hypothetical world thought to inhabit the region between the planet Mercury and the Sun.
The tale of Vulcan is the story of the birth of modern predictive astronomy. Vulcan was a reality to 18th century astronomers- it can be seen and the astronomy textbooks and contemporary art and culture of the day. Urbain J.J. Le Verrier proposed the existence of the planet in 1859 to explain the anomalous precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury. Le Verrier was a voice to be taken seriously — he had performed a similar feat of calculation to lead observers to the discovery of the planet Neptune from the Berlin Observatory on the night of September 23, 1846. Almost overnight, Le Verrier had single-handedly boosted astronomy into the realm of a science with real predictive power.
The idea of Vulcan gained traction when a French doctor and amateur astronomer Edmond Lescarbault claimed to have seen the tiny world transit the Sun while viewing it through his 95 millimetre refractor on the sunny afternoon of March 26th, 1859. Keep in mind, this was an era when solar observations were carried out via the hazardous method of viewing the Sun through a smoked or oil-filled filter, or the via safer technique of projecting the disk and sketching it onto a piece of paper.
A visiting Le Verrier was sufficiently impressed by Lescarbault’s observation, and went as far as to calculate and publish orbital tables for Vulcan. Soon, astronomers everywhere were “seeing dots” pass in front of the Sun. Astronomer F. A. R. Russell spotted an object transiting the Sun from London on January, 29th, 1860. Sightings continued over the decades, including a claim by an observer based near Peckeloh Germany to have witnessed a transit of Vulcan on April 4th, 1876.
Incidentally, we are not immune to this effect of “contagious observations” even today — for example, when Comet Holmes brightened to naked eye visibility in October 2007, spurious reports of other comets brightening flooded message boards, and a similar psychological phenomena occurred after amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley recorded an impact on Jupiter in 2010. Though the event that triggered the initial observation was real, the claims of impacts on other bodies in the solar system that soon followed turned out to be bogus.
Still, reports of the planet Vulcan were substantial enough for astronomers to mount an expedition to the territory of Wyoming in an attempt to catch dim Vulcan near the Sun during the brief moments of totality. Participants include Simon Newcomb of the Naval Observatory, James Craig Watson and Lewis Swift. Inventor Thomas Edison was also on hand, stationed at Rawlins, Wyoming hoping to test his new-fangled invention known as a tasimeter to measure the heat of the solar corona.
Conditions were austere, to say the least. Although the teams endured dust storms that nearly threatened to cut their expeditions short, the morning of the 29th dawned, as one newspaper reported, “as slick and clean as a Cheyenne free-lunch table.” Totality began just after 4 PM local, as observers near the tiny town of Separation, Wyoming swung their instruments into action.
Such a quest is difficult under the best of circumstances. Observers had to sweep the area within 3 degrees of the Sun (six times the diameter of a Full Moon) quickly during the fleeting moments of totality with their narrow field refractors, looking for a +4th magnitude star or fainter among the established star fields.
In the end, the expedition was both a success and a failure. Watson & Swift both claimed to have identified a +5th magnitude object similar in brightness to the nearby star Theta Cancri. Astronomer Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters later cast doubt on the sighting and the whole Vulcan affair, claiming that “I refuse to go on a wild goose chase after Le Verrier’s mythical birds!”
And speaking of birds, Edison ran into another eclipse phenomenon while testing his device, when chickens, fooled by the approaching false dusk came home to roost at the onset of totality!
But such is the life of an eclipse-chaser. Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity explained the precession of Mercury’s orbit in 1916 and did away with a need for Vulcan entirely.
But is the idea of intra-Mercurial worldlets down for the count?
Amazingly, the quest for objects inside Mercury’s orbit goes on today, and the jury is still out. Dubbed Vulcanoids, modern day hunters still probe the inner solar system for tiny asteroids that may inhabit the region close to the Sun. In 2002, NASA conducted a series of high altitude flights out of the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, sweeping the sky near the Sun for Vulcanoids at dawn and dusk. Now, there’s a job to be envious of — an F-18 flying astronomer!
NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft was also on the lookout for Vulcanoids on its six year trek through the inner solar system prior to orbital insertion on March 18th, 2011.
Thus far, these hunts have turned up naught. But one of the most fascinating quests is still ongoing and being carried out by veteran eclipse-chaser Landon Curt Noll.
Mr. Noll last conducted a sweep for Vulcanoids during total phases of the long duration total solar eclipse of July 22nd, 2009 across the Far East. He uses a deep sky imaging system, taking pictures in the near-IR to accomplish this search. Using this near-IR imaging technique during a total solar eclipse requires a stable platform, and thus performing this feat at sea or via an airborne platform is out. Such a rig has been successful in catching the extremely thin crescent Moon at the moment it reaches New phase.
To date, no convincing Vulcanoid candidates have been found. Mr. Noll also notes that the European Space Agency/NASA’s joint Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft has, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the possibility of Vulcanoids brighter than +8th magnitude near the Sun. Modern searches during eclipses conducted in this fashion scan the sky between wavelengths of 780 to 1100 nanometres down to magnitude +13.5. Mr. Noll told Universe Today that “Our improved orbital models show that objects as small as 50m in diameter could reside in a zone 0.08 A.U. to 0.18 AU (1.2 to 2.7 million kilometers) from the Sun.” He also stated that, “there is plenty of ‘room’ for (Vulcanoids) in the 50 metre to 20 kilometre range.”
Mr. Noll plans to resume his hunt during the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse spanning the continental United States. Totality for this eclipse will have a maximum duration of 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Circumstances during the next solar eclipse (a hybrid annular-total crossing central Africa on November 3rd, 2013) will be much more difficult, with a max totality located out to sea of only 1 minute and 40 seconds.
Still, we think it’s amazing that the quest for Vulcan (or at least Vulcanoids) is alive and well and being spearheaded by adventurous and innovative amateur astronomers. In the words of Vulcan’s native fictional son, may it “Live Long & Prosper!”
Add IBM to the list of entities eagerly counting down to Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment of the famed franchise, which opens up in theaters May 17. Researchers at the computing giant are so excited that they created atomic images of Star Trek symbols.
Users of the Star Trek: Into Darkness app available on iOS and Android can see images of the USS Enterprise, a Vulcan hand salute and, of course, the logo for the movie itself — spelled out in individual atoms.
“These images were made by precisely moving hundreds of atoms with a two-ton microscope, operating at a temperature of -268 Celsius and magnified 100 million times,” IBM stated.
To show off just how good they think they are at this, IBM also released “the world’s smallest movie”, called A Boy and His Atom, where they play a stop-motion movie using the same moving-atoms technique. Check out the results below:
“Moving atoms is one thing; you can do that with the wave of your hand. Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” stated Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research’s principal investigator.
“This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world and show everyday people the challenges and fun science can create.”
As a quick science reminder, an atom is a unit of matter with a nucleus that is surrounded by electrons. That’s the simple explanation, but there’s a lot to explore even within that basic concept: electron transitions, subatomic particles and what happens if a piece of matter encounters a piece of antimatter.
The votes have been tallied and the results are in from the SETI Institute’s Pluto Rocks Poll: “Vulcan” and “Cerberus” have come out on top for names for Pluto’s most recently-discovered moons, P4 and P5.
During a Google+ Hangout today, SETI Institute senior scientist Mark Showalter — who discovered the moons and opened up the poll — talked with SETI astronomer Franck Marchis and MSNBC’s Alan Boyle about the voting results. Showalter admitted that he wasn’t quite sure how well the whole internet poll thing would work out, but he’s pleased with the results.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said Showalter. “As we all know the internet can be an unruly place… but by and large this process has gone very smoothly. I feel the results are fair.”
As far as having a name from the Star Trek universe be used for an actual astronomical object?
“Vulcan works,” Showalter said. “He’s got a family tie to the whole story. Pluto and Zeus were brothers, and Vulcan is a son of Pluto.”
The other winning name, Cerberus, is currently used for an asteroid. So because the IAU typically tries to avoid confusion with two objects sharing the same exact name, Showalter said he will use the Greek version of the spelling: Kerberos.
Cerberus (or Kerberos) is the name of the giant three-headed dog that guards the gates to the underworld in Greek mythology.
Now that the international public has spoken, the next step will be to submit these names to the International Astronomical Union for official approval, a process that could take 1–2 months.
(Although who knows… maybe Bill can help move that process along as well?)
Read more about the names on the Pluto Rocks ballot here, and watch the full recorded Google+ Hangout below: