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:
The Ares I rocket, scrapped during President Obama‘s overhaul of NASA, may be making a comeback. Two rocket-makers say that they have reached a plan to salvage the design of Ares I and use it to compete in the private competition to provide post-shuttle space taxi service to NASA.
The partners are Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis (ATK) and the European company Astrium, which builds Ariane 5 rockets to carry satellites into space. Today they are announcing their collaboration on the new 300-foot rocket.
The new rocket, named Liberty, would be much cheaper than the Ares I, because the unfinished NASA-designed upper stage of the Ares I would be replaced with the first stage of the Ariane 5, which has been launched successfully 41 consecutive times. The lower stage of the Liberty, a longer version of the shuttle booster built by ATK, would be almost unchanged from the Ares I. [The New York Times]
To truly go ahead with the project, the two companies will need to snag at least some of the $200 million in funding NASA is set to give next month to private companies developing space taxi technology. Giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as newer private space companies like SpaceX, are all competing for these dollars and contracts.
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.
80beats: SpaceX Gets First Commercial Permit to Make Orbital Round-Trips
80beats: Gallery: Boeing Joins Start-up Companies in the Private Space Race
80beats: SpaceX Success! Falcon 9 Rocket Launches Into Orbit
DISCOVER: Launching Into the Age of Private Spaceflight
DISCOVER: NASA Braces for Course Correction
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]
Just two weeks after the first solo flight of Virgin Galactic’s space tourist ship, the company’s bigwigs gathered again to celebrate the completion of the two-mile, 200-foot wide runway of the world’s first commercial spaceport.
Spaceport America is the world’s first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft. The celebration of its nearly-two-mile-long runway comes less than two weeks after another major step for Virgin Galactic: the first solo glide flight of its space tourism rocket ship. [ABC News]
Virgin Galactic has taken its suborbital spaceship, the VSS Enterprise, for its first spin. On Sunday, the Enterprise was carried to an altitude of 45,000 feet by a larger “mothership,” and was then successfully released for a long, slow glide back to the Mojave Air and Space Port. The solo test flight is a step towards the day when the Enterprise will carry not only test pilots but also six space tourists up to the edge of space, where they’ll experience a few precious moments of weightlessness and a killer view.
When it eventually enters service, Enterprise will be carried to its launch altitude by the “Eve” carrier plane before being released in mid-air. Enterprise will then ignite its single hybrid rocket engine to make the ascent to space. Although Eve and Enterprise have made several test flights together, Sunday was the first time the spaceplane had been released at altitude. [BBC News]
Hit the jump for more info and video footage of the historic flight.
Finally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.
Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.
The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.
With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]
Russian company Orbital Technologies has announced its plans to build a commercial space station (to be named the commercial space station, if you can believe that), which would also serve as a “space-hotel” for visiting tourists. The company claims the venture will launch in 2016.
“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of Orbital Technologies. [Los Angeles Times]
The station will be able to host up to seven passengers in its homey capsule, free of extraneous scientific instruments and pesky astronauts and cosmonauts. It will be built by RSC Energia, the same company that builds the Soyuz passenger capsules and the Progress cargo ships used by the Russian space agency. It will follow the same orbit as the International Space Station, and will be able to dock with shuttles from around the world.
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 fourth nation to put a person in space, after Russia/USSR, the United States, and China, could be… Denmark?
Denmark indeed. Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the leaders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, plan to fire a test flight of their HEAT-1X rocket from the European nation early next week.
This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future [Universe Today].
The capsule stands about 10 yards tall, and its top is a clear glass dome through which the standing passenger can enjoy the trip to space. (Or at least, try to enjoy it: The cramped passenger will have only minimal arm movement, just enough to operate necessities like a camera, escape hatch, and vomit bag.) The rocket would carry the capsule to the edge of space, where the passenger will be temporarily weightless, and then it will fall in a parachute-slowed descent.