This morning’s launch of SpaceX’s third Dragon capsule has the twittersphere all a-flutter. Falcon 9′s blastoff from Cape Canaveral initially appeared to be a success. Read More
It’s been a rocky few years for spaceflight. NASA’s budget isn’t getting any bigger. And though the Space Shuttle program was expensive, dangerous, and kept better designs from being developed, once it ended last year, US astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets, which are themselves not too reliable. But this morning’s launch of SpaceX’s first International Space Station supply rocket was a bright spot.
NASA is betting on the private sector to bring about the next great space age. It has made grants to various private space flight companies, including PayPal founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, colloquially known as SpaceX, to develop space taxi technologies and supply the International Space Station.
And early this morning, after an aborted launch attempt on Sunday, SpaceX’s first rocket left Earth, carrying a capsule bound for the space station. You can watch the unmanned vehicle take off in the video above, and you can hear in the excitement in the NASA launch commentator’s voice as the fiery ship takes off through the night.
One private space company says it may claim a portion of the coveted Google Lunar X Prize in the near future–all it has to do is land a robot on the moon, travel roughly 1,640 feet, and then send data back to Earth.
The company, Astrobotic Technology, announced this week that it’s getting serious about the moon mission–it reserved a seat for its robot on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Currently scheduled to launch in December 2013, the rocket will shuttle the company’s Red Rover to lunar orbit, where Astrobotic Technology hopes to complete the tasks set for it to claim $24 million of the $30 million prize.
So far, this is how the itinerary should play out:
UPDATE: SpaceX just announced via Twitter that the Dragon successfully splashed down in the Pacific: “SpaceX is the first commercial company to reenter a spacecraft from space!”
Liftoff! As I write this, the Dragon capsule by private space company SpaceX is orbiting the Earth, having been blasted successfully in space by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
The rise to orbit served as a test run for future resupply flights to the International Space Station. Before today’s launch, SpaceX’s millionaire founder, Elon Musk, observed that a successful ascent would demonstrate that the Dragon could reach the space station, even if it didn’t later re-enter the atmosphere and make its scheduled splashdown in the Pacific. [MSNBC]
Shortly—a little after 2 p.m. Eastern—the capsule is scheduled to conclude its orbits of the planet and attempt reentry. If SpaceX is successful it will become the first private company to accomplish what only government space agencies have achieved to this point. This test is unmanned. But if it and others succeed, SpaceX hopes it will someday soon be blasting humans into space in preparation for trips to the ISS.
The rocket is a pipsqueak compared with the space shuttle it will partially replace – measuring 157 feet with the capsule and weighing 735,000 pounds. The much larger shuttle was needed to fly parts up to the $100 billon international space station, but the fleet is being retired because of its age and because its job is largely done. [Washington Post]
SpaceX’s Twitter feed has links to images from Dragon’s on-board camera. We’ll update you when the capsule attempts its reentry.
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In a bit of good news for private citizens dreaming of trips to orbit, the Federal Aviation Administration has just declared that trips aboard private spaceships needn’t be one-way.
The private space company SpaceX received the FAA’s first-ever commercial license permitting the re-entry of a spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, which will allow a December test of its “space taxi” to proceed. In June, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and a mock-up Dragon crew capsule. The next step is to send the rocket and capsule up to orbit, and then bring them safely back down to Earth with a splash-down landing in the Pacific Ocean. That test is currently scheduled for December 7.
The Dragon is controlled during descent using “Draco” rockets and SpaceX say it should be capable of landing within a small distance – say a few hundred metres – of a designated point. The company hopes to bring it down on land once initial flights have proved the system. [Register]
NASA this week made what may be one of the last decisions it will ever make about the space shuttle program, selecting a backup crew in case it needs to make a rescue mission for the last scheduled shuttle flight in February. While the space shuttle’s close draws nearer, the race to replace it gets stronger.
Now Boeing has entered the fray, unveiling the design of a spacecraft it will build for the task of taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The ship could be ready by 2015. Boeing joins both the companies trying to build crafts to meet NASA’s needs and those of space tourists who dream of leaving the planet.
Here’s a (non-comprehensive) refresher:
Boeing’s ship would be called the Crew Space Transportation-100, and would carry seven passengers. Like all the private space competing to carry NASA astronauts, Boeing is competing for NASA money. It won $18 million this February for the project, making it one of five companies to get seed money at that time.
Its venture is also a collaboration with Space Adventures, a space tourism firm. If NASA chooses to send up only four astronauts at a time, that leaves three empty seats.
If NASA chooses Boeing’s spaceship for the job, Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures will sell the open seats when they are available. Space Adventures has organized eight trips to the space station for seven space enthusiasts on a three-person Soyuz rocket owned by the Russian government. [Los Angeles Times]
2. Sierra Nevada
DISCOVER’s September cover story followed the dreamers at Sierra Nevada who are behind the Dream Chaser space vehicle. Their design is actually taken from an experimental one called the HL-20, which NASA investigated as a possible space shuttle replacement or space station rescue vehicle before tabling the idea. The Dream Chaser relies on another piece of NASA tech to get it into orbit: the proven Atlas V rocket.
Sierra Nevada received $20 million from NASA this year to develop the reusable craft.
The Falcon 9 rocket blasted away from its Florida launch pad this afternoon, marking a major victory for the private space company SpaceX. The company, founded by the daring entrepreneur Elon Musk, hopes to build space taxis for NASA that can ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station.
As we reported earlier today, Musk downplayed expectations for the test launch. But judging from the company’s live webcast, the procedure appeared to go remarkably well. Three minutes after liftoff the two stages of the rocket separated and the second stage’s engines ignited; nine minutes after liftoff the rocket achieved Earth orbit.
SpaceX verified that the rocket reached orbit, but hasn’t released any further information yet (stay tuned for details). If all continued to go as planned, SpaceX engineers are now studying the dummy version of the crew module, called the Dragon Spacecraft, that went up with the rocket and is now orbiting the planet. The plan called for Dragon to make several orbits and then reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where SpaceX could retrieve it for study.
Today’s successful launch also gives a boost to President Obama’s proposal to let private space companies take over the routine tasks of space flight, allowing NASA to set its sights higher–a plan that has been met with considerable opposition. Following the Falcon 9′s launch, NASA administrator Charles Bolden praised the company in a statement:
“Congratulations to Space X on today’s launch of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Space X’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station.” [NASA]
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The scene is set at Cape Canaveral: Atop the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket sits a dummy of the Dragon Spacecraft capsule that could one day taxi cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This will be the first launch of the the rocket, built by the privately-owned company SpaceX and funded in part by a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The Falcon 9 should take off between 11 this morning and 3 in the afternoon (eastern daylight time), though the company has reserved a second launch window for tomorrow. Currently, a live feed of the launch pad shows the rocket primed to go, but announces a launch delay of unknown duration.
SpaceX’s ultimate goals for this test, as described on the company’s website: “launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft.” This is a pretty big wish list, since many first launches have failed, including several of SpaceX’s own early attempts with the Falcon 9′s predecessor, the smaller Falcon 1 rocket. So SpaceX company founder Elon Musk hedged his bets when asked what he expected from the Falcon 9′s debut launch.
Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket didn’t get off the ground this weekend, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for excitement. Musk’s company SpaceX completed a successful test-fire of the rocket’s engines, paving the way for a possible real launch in less than a month.
Saturday’s 3.5-second ‘static’ firing of the Falcon’s nine kerosene and liquid oxygen-burning motors took place on a refurbished oceanside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida [ABC News]. Success came on the second try for SpaceX. The company’s first attempt came last Tuesday, but launch technicians aborted with two seconds to go. Now the company has passed the hot fire test, and it says the real Falcon 9 launch could happen as early as April 12. However, the accomplishment won’t come easy: SpaceX’s previous rocket, the Falcon 1, took four attempts before it achieved complete success.
You can’t cancel an enormous federal program without hitting pushback, and President Obama is hitting plenty of it over his proposal to end NASA’s Constellation program. In January his budget proposal put forth no funding for Constellation, the space shuttle successor program that included the Ares rockets, Orion crew capsule, and plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA would become more reliant on private companies to ferry its astronauts to the space station, and would explore new ideas for visiting Mars or nearby asteroids. But the proposal has already ruffled lots of feathers, prompting the President to say he will hold a conference to further outline his plan.
First, many high-profile space experts balked at the proposal. Former astronaut Tom Jones said Obama was surrendering human spaceflight, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon, was equally displeased. “It’s bad for the country,” Schmitt said. “This administration really does not believe in American exceptionalism” [Washington Post]. Dissent wasn’t universal; DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait, for one, praised the possibilities for commercial space-faring.