Tag: SpaceX


By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 9:56 pm

Because why not: raw (that is, shaky) footage of the splashdown of the SpaceX Dragon capsule from Sunday morning, taken by the SpaceX dive team:

SpaceFlightNow is reporting the capsule was recovered and will soon be on its way first to NASA, and then the SpaceX facilities in Texas.

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MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, SpaceX

The Dragon returns to the nest

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 1:38 pm

As I write this, moments ago, the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a two week mission to the International Space Station. Splashdown occurred at 19:22 UTC. Yay!

[UPDATE (20:30 UTC): SpaceX has a picture of the Dragon floating in the Pacific:

Click to ensmaugenate.]

This ends the first operational mission of the Dragon. It’s the first of twelve contracted by NASA to bring supplies up to and back from the ISS. There was no live coverage of the splashdown, unfortunately (and no, I don’t know why; I imagine that’ll come out soon) but NASA did get footage of the Dragin un-berthing from ISS. Here it is, sped up 15x:

I should add the "Enterprise leaving drydock" music from Star Trek II in there.

Anyway, congrats to everyone at SpaceX and NASA. I’ll note that while most of this mission went smoothly, there is still the issue of the engine that failed during launch, resulting in the loss of an ORBCOMM satellite secondary payload. Hopefully SpaceX will discuss this more during the mission wrap-up.

Image credit: SpaceX

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Frankenstorm and the Dragon

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 3:01 pm

Holy wow, check this out: I grabbed a screenshot from footage on October 26 of Hurricane Sandy from the International Space Station:

Yegads. Look at the storm center; you can see it towering above the cloud deck and feeder bands of the storm. As if that’s not cool enough, that bit of hardware on the left is actually the SpaceX Dragon capsule, berthed to the ISS since October 10. It is expected to undock and return to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Pacific ocean at 12:20 PDT.

Looking at this, I’m not sure if I should be awed or terrified. I think I’ll take a little of both.

[Update: Just to be clear, I am not making light of this hurricane. It’s already killed over 20 people in the Caribbean, and I noted how dangerous it is in my earlier post. As I said in a post about Hurricane Isaac: "Pictures of hurricanes from space are amazing. As always, there’s a fascinating dichotomy to pictures like this, a simultaneous ethereal beauty and repellent violence. Hurricanes are magnificent, and terrifying."]

Image credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Space Leap of Faith

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 11:44 am

On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!

Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.

I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).

But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:

Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.

This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.

First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.

Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.

But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.

And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.

Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.

That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.

We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.

SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D’oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA’s work on this as well.]

Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I’m talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]

The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).

My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.

And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.

We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.

My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.

Image credits: Baumgartner pic via Red Bull; orbit diagram via Wikimedia Commons.

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SpaceX set to launch Dragon to the ISS tonight!

By Phil Plait | October 7, 2012 7:00 am

[UPDATE: The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule successfully launched right on time, at 20:35 Eastern US time. 15 minutes later the Dragon was in orbit with its solar panels successfully deployed. Amazing. Next up: rendezvous with the ISS at 05:00 Eastern US time Wednesday morning.]

Tonight, Sunday, October 7, at 20:35 Eastern (US) time (or 00:35 UTC on the morning of October 8) the private company SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (PDF). Sitting on the top of the rocket is a Dragon capsule loaded with half a ton of supplies for the astronauts on the ISS.

This is very exciting! They have accomplished this amazing feat once before, back in May, as part of a demonstration flight. Because of that, NASA gave them a contract for twelve more flights, and this is the first one of those dozen – it’s designated Commercial Resupply Services-1 or just CRS-1.

[Click to tsiolkovskenate.]

That’s this mission’s Falcon 9 rocket there, lying on its side. As you can see, it’s quite a beast. As with all rockets, most of the main body you see there is for carrying fuel, and the payload, the Dragon, is at the very top.

Once launched, the Dragon will detach, and is scheduled to rendezvous with ISS on Wednesday, October 10. It’ll dock with the station and remain berthed there for two weeks. It’s carrying supplies, including equipment, hardware, and even clothes for the astronauts on board. Once all that is offloaded, the astronauts will load it back up with 350 kilos of material to bring back to Earth, including results from experiments and now-unneeded hardware.

I have my suspicions there might be a stowaway on board though. Anyone seen Bernadette lately?

Anyway, on October 28, the Dragon is scheduled to undock, do a de-orbit burn, and splash down in the Pacific off the coast of southern California.

A complete overview of the mission is available as a press kit (PDF; same link as above). It’s pretty good reading, so if you plan to watch you should give it a once-over.

If you do want to watch, there will be a live video stream both from SpaceX and NASA.

There’s also a nice collection of photos of the rocket on the SpaceX site, including this nice one of a test firing of the actual CRS-1 rocket sans Dragon:

Coooool. There’s also video of this short test burn:

This mission is really important. Well, they all are, of course, but it’s critical that SpaceX can show not only that they can do this, but that they can do it again. When I was in high school band, we’d rehearse the music, and if we played it perfectly the band instructor would say, "Let’s do it again to make sure that wasn’t by accident." The earlier Dragon mission was almost completely flawless, but it’s when you can do it again that you can really show you know your stuff.

My best wishes to the team st SpaceX. And I’ll be live-tweeting the event, so follow me on Twitter for that. I’ll update this blog post as I can and if needed, too.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Lo Stivale d'Italia

By Phil Plait | September 1, 2012 7:00 am

My Italian is a little rusty, so I hope I got the title right. Either way, here’s what I was referring to:

Isn’t that gorgeous? It’s Italy, of course, seen on August 18, 2012, at night by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The ISS was well to the southeast, probably over Libya or Egypt in Africa, when the astronaut took this shot facing northwest. I poked around a bit, and the ISS was in this position twice on that date. Once was during the day, and the other around local midnight, so that fits.

It’s pretty neat to see Italy from space; I’ve posted an image like this before (though the ISS was much more overhead for that one). In this one you can see the arc of green airglow caused by oxygen atoms about 100 kilometers up giving up energy after getting whacked by ultraviolet light from the Sun. To the left and along the top you can see some of the ISS structures, too.

I’ll note that on Thursday, August 23, NASA announced that the private company SpaceX had been approved for a dozen cargo flights to and from ISS; this comes after their successful demo mission in May. The first of these flights is scheduled for October 2012. Not only that, but the aerospace company XCOR will be opening a new facility in Florida, near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. XCOR is building a reusable suborbital spaceplane called Lynx, and expects to phase into orbital work eventually.

It’s exciting to see private industry getting involved! And it shows that, when it comes to space travel, America is still looking up.

Image credit: NASA. Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Fragile Oasis.

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NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2012 11:50 am

[Note (added at 18:00 MDT): Some folks are saying the headline here is misleading, and on further thought I see the point. It’s not that NASA selected SpaceX to return astronauts to space; it was one of three companies and in my opinion (based on scheduling) that they’ll be the first to do so. I don’t like changing headlines on posts for various reasons, so I’ve decided to keep this one intact and leave this note here at the top of the post so everyone sees it.]

BIG news: NASA announced this morning that it has awarded a total of $1.1 billion in grants to three different companies to put American astronauts back into space. The kicker: they chose SpaceX as the company, and their Falcon rocket as the vehicle, to be the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil… and this may happen as soon as 2015!

NASA retired the Space Shuttle last year, and has had to rely on foreign partners to launch American astronauts into orbit ever since. While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won’t be ready for quite some time.

In May, SpaceX showed that it can successfully launch an uncrewed rocket and capsule into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. Riding on the wave of this mission, NASA is giving SpaceX $440 million dollars to develop and build the hardware needed to launch humans into orbit.

SpaceX has created this (pretty cool) promo video with the highlights:

The Dragon capsule is already essentially ready to carry humans, but after the two Shuttle disasters, NASA has more stringent requirements for human safety that must be met. What this boils down to is an abort system that can carry the crew away safely in case of a catastrophic problem. SpaceX is designing a rocket system for the Dragon capsule that will have sufficient power to take it rapidly away from the Falcon rocket and get the astronauts on board back on Earth safely, which may involve either an ocean splashdown (which the Dragon capsule is designed for anyway) or the ability to touchdown on the ground on landing legs. It will also work at any point of the mission, from the moment of launch to just before achieving orbit.

SpaceX expects to have this system built and ready to go very soon – they announced they will be ready for their first crewed flight as early as 2015. That’s about the timeframe that’s been expected for a while now, but the company had to prove itself with the mission in May, and also win this new NASA contract. Between now and then they plan 10 cargo flights to the space station as well which will help iron out any equipment wrinkles and prep them for human flight.

This really is huge news. There has been a lot of rending of garments and tearing of hair online and in political speeches about NASA not being able to put humans in space. I have written about this myself many, many times, and as I’ve said I’m not convinced at this stage of history that NASA should be building rockets for the "routine" launching of people and supplies to orbit. Their job is to innovate and clear the path, to look ahead, while leaner, more flexible companies like SpaceX can follow. The United States is a long way yet from an actual launch of humans back into orbit, but this is a giant stride forward.

And there’s more: NASA also awarded the Sierra Nevada Corporation $212 million to continue to develop their Dream Chaser space plane, a vehicle that will be mounted on top of a rocket and capable of bringing humans to and from low Earth orbit as well. Testing of the Dream Chaser has been going pretty well, and the company expects to be able to start launching humans into space in 2016. This is also fantastic news! The more people we have building these vehicles, the better. And since Sierra Nevada’s HQ is down the road from me in Louisville, Colorado, this gives this news a little bit of an added kick for me.

Boeing actually received the largest share of the NASA grant, getting $460 million to develop their CST-100 spacecraft, which looks much like NASA’s Orion capsule (itself a capsule much like that of Apollo; a proven design). and can be mounted on a variety of rockets to launch humans to low-Earth orbit.

I hear so many people lamenting NASA’s lack of ability to launch humans into space. I agree, and think we should be doing this, but I think a lot of these complaints are misguided – a lot of these complaints are about private industry, saying NASA should be developing this tech. I disagree. I strongly feel that NASA partnering with private industry is the best and strongest way to get back into space and stay there. It’s the best of both worlds: NASA’s government backing and history gives them some stability which private enterprise may lack, and the companies themselves don’t have the massive bureaucratic overhead NASA is saddled with.

I just hope that with this, and with more success, both the White House and Congress will see that NASA and private industry are critical to our future in space, and fund these ventures as fully as possible. Our future in space is – for the moment – bright and alluring. May it always be so.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space, Top Post

Video: SpaceX Dragon mission highlights

By Phil Plait | July 18, 2012 12:02 pm

In May 2012, the private company SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit with a Dragon space capsule as its payload. In a history-making event, it docked with the International Space Station and a few days later successfully returned to Earth.

SpaceX put together a short video with the highlights from this amazing mission:

I am not at all embarrassed to admit that parts of this choked me up a little. As incredible as the engineering display was, the best parts of this video are where it shows the SpaceX employees cheering and celebrating the mission milestones. We may get wrapped up in the technical details of these things, but never forget that even in uncrewed missions, space exploration is a singularly human endeavor. I’m proud of these folks, and proud to be a part of species that always wants — always needs — to venture ever outward.

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SpaceX successfully tests new engine (VIDEO)

By Phil Plait | June 25, 2012 2:20 pm

SpaceX successfully launched the first privately owned rocket (Falcon 9) and space capsule (Dragon) to the International Space Station in May. The engine that propelled them there is called the Merlin, built by the company based on known technology and NASA heritage.

Several generations of Merlin engines have been made, and the newest, the 1D, was recently test fired in May at the SpaceX facility in Texas. This video of it is pretty darn cool. Turn the volume up!

The full firing was a bit over three minutes long. The 1D performed well by all accounts, and will be used for the first time next year on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocket. The 1D has the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any engine of its kind ever used, meaning it produces a lot of bang for its weight.

There will be two versions of this engine: one to be used on the first stage of the Falcon 9, and designed for use in air, and another for the second stage, to be used in a vacuum. The exhaust from an engine behaves differently in air (where the pressure of surrounding air changes the way the exhaust expands) versus in a vacuum, so different designs can be used to optimize the thrust. These will be used on the upgraded Falcon 9 as well as the in-production Falcon Heavy rocket.

I’m even more interested in the proposed Merlin 2, which SpaceX claims will have 1.7 – 1.9 million pounds of thrust — more than the Saturn V F5 engines did! These will be used on a future generation Falcon heavy-lift rocket.

Image credit: SpaceX

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MORE ABOUT: Merlin engine, SpaceX

I've been Streamified

By Phil Plait | June 2, 2012 12:00 pm

I was recently interviewed by Zane Claes and Mark Shore of "Let Us Present" and they’ve posted the segment on their site. We talk about where NASA is now and where it’s going, and how things like SpaceX play into that. I’m still trying to figure this all out myself; we’re in a funny time in the history of space exploration, where it’s hard to say exactly where we’ll be in a few years.

If you like the interview you can subscribe to their podcast. And I’ve written about space exploration many times; there’s a big ol’ list on my Debating Space post that’ll keep you busy for a while, too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Let Us Present, SpaceX

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