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!
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).
The time has finally come for SpaceX to fly their crew-ready Dragon capsule on the first Demo mission for their client, NASA! This tremendously important milestone marks start of the next important phase in the effort to return American capacity for human spaceflight, which has been lost since the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
It was several years after the end of the famous shuttle missions that NASA realized the way forward would very likely be with private enterprise, and wisely awarded two contracts, to Boeing and SpaceX, for them to develop crew-rated craft and systems to safely bring astronauts to the ISS and return them safely to Earth. Of course, NASA has a long history of human space travel, and some very reasonable associated rules, regulations and certifications that must be achieved in order to qualify a vehicle for that task. Saturday’s flight will be a critical next step in that certification process, and if all goes well, it may result in a crew mission taking place in July of this year (though more likely closer to December).
While this mission will not have any humans aboard the craft, it will feature a mannequin in the stylish SpaceX flight suit, bristling with sensors to capture as much information as possible about the experience of the flight. The name of this figure? Ripley. Nice.
Flight Time: Liftoff is set for 2:49 a.m. EST (0749 GMT) Flight Location: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, from historic Pad 39A (Apollo missions, and final Shuttle flight were launched from this pad as well) Booster Recovery: on the autonomous robotic droneship Of Course I Still Love You
Affordable spaceflight is enabling a new golden age of mankind going to the stars. This has been possible in tremendous part due to the extremely important innovation by SpaceX of reusable boosters which can land after launch, as we all know. As if this was not enough, a newly emerging trend in the launches we have been seeing is that of rideshare, where multiple companies launch their projects on a single flight, thereby further reducing the cost to each organization.
Tonight, SpaceX has a launch planned on of one of their workhorse Falcon 9 boosters, and this will be the third flight for this proven craft. Previously it flew the Iridium-7 mission in July 2018 and the SAOCOM 1A mission in October. This mission will feature three payloads, arguably the most exciting of which being an Israeli lunar lander! The Beresheet robotic lunar lander is a joint project between SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, and if successful will make Israel only the 4th country ever to land on the moon – ranking them among China, Russia and the United States. After the successful launch today, the craft will undergo an 8 week journey before landing on the lunar surface. In Hebrew, ‘beresheet’ means ‘in the beginning’.
The other payload on this ride share launch consists of the PSN-6 communication satellite from the Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara as well as a U.S. Air Force satellite code named S5, intended to assist with identifying orbital debris which is an increasing problem.
The launch is scheduled for 8:45pm Eastern time, February 21st, from Cape Canaveral Air Force station (SLC-40), with a planned booster recovery on everyone’s favorite autonomous robotic droneship, Of Course I Still Love You!
You will be able to watch the launch live via the regular SpaceX production (embedded below) or on the SpaceIL Facebook page!