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An artist's rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

An artist’s rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

The Planetary Society is a club which believes we should spend more resources exploring space.  I used to be a member back in the halcyon days when I could afford their annual dues, but alas, I have merely been following their exploits lately.  Mostly they are a political action committee: they use their money to hire lobbyists to remind recalcitrant leaders of the many, many benefits of space exploration. Also they showcase celebrity explorers, scientists, and astronomers (or other famous folk) in order to popularize space research to the fickle and forgetful public.

FINAL-LOGO-_426-C-Teal

Well, that’s what they do most of the time…Sometimes they spearhead astonishing James Bond schemes of their own.  The most recent of these grand plans involved buying a converted Soviet ICBM and using it to launch a solar sail into outer space!  Sadly (yet somehow predictably) the Russians sold the Society a dodgy bum missile which failed after a minute and a half of flight and exploded over the Arctic Ocean.  This happened ten years ago, and despite the abysmal failure, I felt honored to be part of it!  When did you last cooperate on a project which would make Blowfeld jealous? (I exempt mention of my tax dollars which go to NASA—you federal scientists are awesome and I want you to keep it up, but I am talking about a private club right now).

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

Anyway I bring all of this up, because the Society has scraped together enough pocket change to try again (even without my annual $37.00 membership fee).   In five days they are launching a test flight which will pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail launch in 2016!  The Society learned certain things from the failure a decade ago, most notably “do not trust the Russians” (a lesson which is written upon the very landscapes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the extent that it is visible from space, but which was still somehow lost on the Planetary Society until they actually purchased an ICBM).

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

This time they are buying aerospace capacity from more reputable sources—the US Air Force (for the upcoming test flight) and SpaceX for the full mission.  I mention all of this in order to direct your attention to the test flight on May 20th (EDT) which Ferrebeekeeper will definitely revisit and to also point you toward the Kickstarter funding project for next year’s full fledge flight!  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always spend it launching a high tech sail the size of a New York apartment into space (well, maybe the actual spacecraft will be larger than that once it unfurls from its breadbox size cubesat).  Aside from buying stunning original artwork, what could be a better use of your petty cash?

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing.   In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically.  Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures.  Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started.  Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist).   SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).

The grasshopper blasts off--or maybe lands?

The grasshopper blasts off–or maybe lands?

The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper).  If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year.   As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court.  Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!

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