Last week, Elon Musk gave a presentation on the state of the Starship project, standing directly in front of a beautiful, soon to be functional full scale prototype of the ship itself, from their Boca Chica facility. The video below is entirely worth a watch, and the Q&A portion is actually much more illuminating and detailed than the main presentation so be sure to stick around for that portion as well.
SpaceX continues to do incredible work on a schedule to boggle the mind. The voices which are sometimes pitched against them, out of ignorance, confusion or disbelief, are growing ever quieter as it becomes clear that “space is hard” is no longer a viable excuse for mediocre performance, embarrassing budget over-runs, and 50 year old disposable technology.
The next 6 months are sure to be incredibly important for SpaceX, and arguably mankind depending on your level of agreement with their philosophy. Not only should the crew dragon program begin launching actual humans to the Space Station, but we will likely see the first sub-orbital tests of Starship, with the Super Heavy booster soon to follow. Elon reminded everyone that the window for the light of consciousness on this planet to leave for the stars took 4.5 billion years to open, and it won’t be open for long so we have a responsibility to seize the moment. He also mentioned that they will commence building a fleet of ships as fast as they can. I often speculate about what he knows, that we do not! At least, one can have faith that if there is any way possible to save conscious thought, he’s the one most likely to succeed at that mission.
SpaceX is at it again, this time with a successful second ‘hop test’ of their Starhopper prototype craft. This rather glib name doesn’t do justice to the astonishing spectacle which was the completely perfect 57 second flight of their ‘water tower’ shaped demo craft. Using a single super powerful new Raptor engine, the craft lifted off to a height of 500′, then maneuvered smoothly sideways another 150′ using almost entirely the thrust vector from that single engine as it was precisely adjusted and pivoted. During this entire portion of the flight, a beautiful mach diamond in the supersonic exhaust plume is visible coming from the engine – be sure to watch the embedded video below. As a finale, in a move we have come to expect from them, Starhopper touched down gently on a nearby landing pad, precisely in the middle of the tidy target area.
What’s the big deal, you may ask? This flight:
Demonstrated the thrust vector control capability of the Raptor engine
Was the first significant flight of a liquid methane powered rocket
Continued to diminish fears of launch failures through its perfection
Brought attention of politicians, who are taking notice of the money this work brings to districts
Further encouraged NASA to issue notices that upcoming flights should not be entirely reliant on the SLS.
Perhaps the most exciting part of all this, however, is the extremely strong step this test takes on the path to Mars. The Starship program of SpaceX is their bid to affordably transport tons and tons of material to the Red Planet, and eventually humans as well. The incredible success they have had developing this new technology from whole cloth, on a razor thin budget and on timetables that boggle the mind of ‘old space’ gives us all reason to hope that they (he) may actually be able to pull it off! And on a timescale that the author may actually get to see.
The good folks over at The Planetary Society have been engaged in some monumental citizen science, having recently launched their solar sail experimental demo craft on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 25th 2019. After reaching the target orbit, and running several days of status checks, the boxing ring sized solar sail was successfully deployed on July 23rd! What is more important still is that on July 31st the sail achieved the goal of raising the orbit of the craft using only the power of the photons impacting upon it, thereby proving the effectiveness of solar sailing for the first time in history.
It makes me tremendously happy to see Bill Nye continuing to do important work, and to try so hard to be the science advocate that society needs. I hope he keeps up the good fight, and now that the cost barriers to these sorts of scientific achievements are getting lower by the month, we should be seeing more excellent crowd funded work from both his organization, as well as others around the world. An excellent bit of forward motion and positive news for a change!
In the latest round of good news surrounding humanities restored interest in leaving Earth for greener shores, a new study helps justify taking a few cases of your favorite Bordeaux along for the trip. The Beth Israel Deaconess Center at Harvard University claims that resveratrol, a well known component of red wine which comes from the skins of the grapes, may help contribute to retaining muscle mass and tone as astronauts spend increasingly long times in reduced-G environments. Specifically, their study considered how to assist the first crews to reach Mars to better tolerate the 40% of Earth normal gravity that they will live and work with as new residents of our second home.
The study by the Beth Israel Deaconess Center, conducted so far on rats, found that taking resveratrol supplements (the most boring way to intake resveratrol) resulted in “a significant increase in muscle weight, myofiber (or muscle cell) size, and a protection of muscle composition”. These results are exciting for a number of reasons: Mars research specifically continues to increase at the highest academic levels, solutions are being found to human frailty in non-Earth environments, and the solutions are potentially natural ones allowing us to achieve needed results through diet, exercise and habit change rather than massive artificial modification.
Stay tuned for more important scientific papers, you can be sure, on how we can meet the challenge of the stars!
Set your kronoforms folks, because the next SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch is on the books for Monday, the 24th of June at 11:30pm Eastern. As always, there is no such thing as a ‘regular’ launch that doesn’t also have a lot of side-stories and goals to accomplish. Even though SpaceX has started to make this all look easy, they are accomplishing so much with every single launch it’s important to keep that in mind always!
This time around, they will be lofting 24 small government and academic satellites into orbit during what is codenamed the STP-2 mission, for the US Air Force. The launch, however, is more about certifying the use of previously-flown boosters for USAF missions which is a big deal. Those brand new to the spaceflight field may already take booster reuse as a given, but the idea that we are now far enough along with that technology that it is getting certified by the biggest of big government shows how important and recognized it has become. In many ways, this will further solidify that any launch system which is not reusable is simply not to be considered viable in the near future.
The upper stage, which houses and deploys the satellites, will itself be performing a grueling set of maneuvers requiring “four separate upper-stage engine burns, three separate deployment orbits, a final propulsive passivation maneuver, and a total mission duration of over six hours.” (teslarati). This will serve to further validate the capabilities of the launch system in the eyes of the USAF.
Because SpaceX is never content to just accomplish one extraordinary goal with their launch, they have also just announced that the center core booster will now be landing on Of Course I Still Love You at a distance of over 1240km out in the Atlantic ocean, instead of a modest 40km from shore which is more typical. OCISLY is being towed out there even now by tugboat Hollywood (Current Position Report), given the extreme distance. This will be an extremely risky and challenging recovery, and this distance breaks the previous SpaceX record for drone ship landing by over 30%.
This is such an important mission for SpaceX, they have a whole website all about it! Be sure to go there for more incredible info on the launch, the various items in the payload, and the hardware we all love. Of course watch the webcast if you can. A Falcon Heavy launch should be appreciated as the incredible breakthrough it is, every time.
The Curiosity Mars Rover, run by NASA, has been having great success with its primary mission objectives of late. The little rover has been exploring Gale Crater, around the base of a minor Mars mountain, named Mount Sharp, a site which appears to have been an ancient Martian lake. The discovery of high concentrations of clay minerals in two new drill samples taken in the region appear to confirm those suspicions, and lend further strength to the image of Mars once having been a watery planet, capable of harboring forms of life we might recognize.
The rover took a pretty excellent ‘selfie’ on May 12, 2019, in which the two recent drill sites are included so as to give a notion of place to all of this abstracted science that is taking place up there. While this pretty much confirms that Gale Crater once contained a ‘significant’ amount of water, and that the rocks in the nearby area likely formed through a familiar process of sedimentation in those ancient lakes, it still doesn’t get us closer to actual proof of any life forms. The search continues!
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College London)
The NASA Insights Lander, a new resident of Mars, has as one of it’s primary missions the monitoring of potential seismic events which can provide additional detail about the Martian interior. Insight’s seismometer was placed on the planet’s surface on December 19th, 2018, since which time it has registered three other signals, on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). The exciting event took place on Sol 128, and was the largest of all signals so far detected, making it likely to be connected to a real Marsquake.
While the idea of earthquakes is all too familiar to residents of Earth, those are caused by faults created through the movement of tectonic plates. On Mars, which does not have tectonic plates, the quakes are thought to be caused by an ongoing cooling and contraction process which results in stress and similar quake phenomenon. Learning more about that process will help us to better understand our neighbor planet. And, I like to speculate, the more we learn about the interior of Mars, the better chance we may have of restarting the core some day, and re-inducing a magnetic field to contribute to terraforming efforts. But that’s a little way down the road!
(Image Reference: C-Space / phys.org)
As China continues to grow as a leading superpower in the new century, they have set their sights at space along with just about everything else. And – they are already making some impressive inroads. A few days back, on April 17, 2019 the brand new “Mars Base 1” opened in the Gobi desert, with the goal of simulating a habitat on the red planet. The initial visitors to this facility are teenage students, with the goal of exposing them to and instilling in them the excitement and wonder of a multi-planetary society; at least I would hope that is the goal because it’s a good one!
The base will also be open for tourism soon as well, going to show that China appears to be embracing a more open approach to their space-faring ambitions, and are sharing the steps along the way with educational and economic forces. These two aspects are sure to be force-multipliers to their efforts, and are really the only way to make these sorts of bold projects work, as we enter the second Space Race. Let’s hope the US is taking a hard look at other competitor nations and making sure we not only keep up but stay in the lead. As the Gazette is fond to report, local hero Elon Musk and his SpaceX technology of reusable rockets was the catalyst for this new era, but now, like the T-800 arm and chip, once people know something can be done it is usually a small matter to replicate it. Most other serious space programs in the world are now focusing on re-usability (except for NASA’s SLS, which will hopefully be defunded and scrapped soon). Pushing ahead quickly with a lunar base and then extending the mission to Mars, with the full visibility of the public and the backing of corporate sponsors, is I believe the best, fastest and most likely to succeed path through this new complex landscape!
What do you get when you have two little moons, and the sun is in just the right spot? Why, a pair of partial solar eclipses of course! The Curiosity rover on Mars has done a fantastic job of capturing the path of each of the moons of Mars, Phobos (March 26) and Deimos (March 17), passing in front of the sun. The mighty little rover used it’s “Mastcam” and a solar filter to be able to stare directly at the sun and record the fantastic footage.
This observation is important for several reasons. From a scientific point of view, the precise orbit of the moons of Mars had been a little tricky for astronomers to work out prior to having so much hardware over at the red planet. Observations such as this continue to shore up our understanding of the behavior of these bodies.
But what is of more immediate importance is the societal impact that observations such as this can have on the growing understanding and awareness of Mars among the general population. The ability to tie regular events that we experience here on Earth to those same events that are being experienced on another planet helps to make that distant place feel more familiar, and hopefully one day, like home.
NASA is hard at work on their new Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to make planet-fall in early 2021. Bundled with this rover is an extra added bonus, of a small exploration-ready helicopter! The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) will mark the first time a human craft has flown on another planet. The potential for exploration is hard to overstate – while the rover programs have been tremendously successful, they are hampered by careful and deliberate navigation of difficult terrain, one inch at a time. An airborne solution suddenly releases scientists from that 2-dimensional constraint, and will open new avenues of research and discovery.
Of course – it also presents technical and AI-related challenges, because the copter must be able to maneuver autonomously in large part, due to the communication delay with the red planet.
What, you may ask, of the atmosphere? Well, that’s a great point! Mars has an atmosphere which is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, but it turns out that is still sufficient for the proposed little copter to take flight. It simply requires blades which are larger, more rigid, and which rotate quite a bit faster than an Earthly counterpart. For more excellent detail, see NASA’s 10 things article all about the copter!
As a summary of the engineering required for the craft, the body of which will be about the size of a softball:
* The Mars Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to tip.
* At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter.
* The blades are much stiffer than any terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be.
* The helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).