Monday, September 29, 2008

SpaceX Did It -- Falcon 1 Made it to Space

By Aaron Rowe

SpaceX has made history. Its privately developed rocket has made it into space.

After three failed launches, the company founded by Elon Musk worked all of the bugs out of their Falcon 1 launch vehicles.

The entire spectacle was broadcast live from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft showed our planet shrinking in the distance and the empty first stage engine falling back to Earth.

As the rocket ascended, cheers rang out during every crucial step of the launch sequence, and at the final stage their headquarters in Hawthorne, California erupted in excitement. ( viewed the launch over the Internet on SpaceX's live webcast.)

The tensest moment came just before stage separation. At that critical juncture, the third launch attempt had failed. This time, it worked out perfectly.

Eight minutes after leaving the ground, Falcon 1 reached a speed of 5200 meters per second and passed above the International Space Station.

"I don't know what to say... because my mind is just blown," said Musk, during a brief address to his staff after the successful launch. "This is just the first step of many."

The feat is a giant leap forward for privately-funded space ventures, and follows the spectacular 2004 suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne. (See related Wired Science story: "Space Visionaries Prove Naysayers Wrong - Again".)

Musk seemed almost overcome with emotion. In the coming years, his company will try to make space transportation ten times cheaper and more reliable.

After making a fortune as the co-founder of PayPal, he recruited some of the best aerospace engineers in the world and challenged them to build a launch vehicle from scratch.

SpaceX had scrubbed its fourth launch attempt just a week earlier to swap out a liquid oxygen feed line, signaling the extreme caution of the group after three failed tries.

Falcon 1's first flight in 2006 lasted less than a minute, the second flight in 2007 fired for 7.5 minutes, and the third flight last month encountered a staging separation anomaly just shy of three minutes.

The team's analysis of Flight 3 suggested they didn't wait long enough after the first-stage engine was done firing to separate it from the second stage.

The recently beefed-up, first-stage Merlin engine had more kick in it than the previous version of the engine, and after separation still had enough energy to run into the second stage above it, sending it tumbling off course.

The solution: add more of a delay after the first-stage engine stops firing before separation to ensure a clean break.

With Flight 4 under its belt, SpaceX is gearing up for additional launches in 2009. Flight 5 could fly as soon as January, Flight 6 parts are on order and Flight 7 production will begin in early 2009.

Falcon 1 is a two stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen enriched rocket-grade kerosene, using two engines designed by SpaceX itself.

The first stage is powered by a single Merlin 1C engine, based partly on the engine used in the Apollo lunar lander. The engine uses a so-called open cycle system, in which some of the propellant is used to power the engine pumps and then exhausted separately, while the rest of the propellant flows through the main combustion chamber.

The first stage carries a parachute and is designed to be recoverable, although this has not yet worked out in practice.

The second stage uses a single SpaceX-designed Kestrel engine, also fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene, but with a simpler design and significantly less power. It is not recoverable.

In addition to Falcon 1, SpaceX is planning a second model two-stage, Merlin-powered rocket known as Falcon 9. It is expected to cost $35 million USD, and is designed to boost 9,900 kg to low earth orbit, and 4,900 kg to geostationary transfer orbit. SpaceX is also planning a Falcon 9 Heavy model capable of carrying bigger payloads, and also a space craft with a pressurized cabin unit known as Dragon.

"We're going to get Falcon 9 to orbit next year," said Musk. "The future of SpaceX is really great."

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Inflatable Surveillance Balls for Mars

By Corey Binns

By next fall, NASA plans to launch its biggest Red Planet rover yet, the $1.8-billion, SUV-size Mars Research Laboratory. Even though the MRL will be able to haul five times as much equipment as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that are already on Mars, a group of Swedish researchers say that they could accomplish far more if accompanied by a squad of helper ’bots. Fredrik Bruhn, the CEO of Ångström Aerospace Corporation, and his colleagues have designed the small inflatable scouts to assist bigger, less mobile rovers in their hunt for signs of microbial life on Mars.

Each foot-wide, 11-pound ball can roll up to 62 miles, snap photos at any angle, and take soil samples, drawing its power from the solar panels on its shell. Unlike wheeled rovers, the rounded scouts have fewer motors to repair, never flip over, and are easier to seal from dust. Plus, they rarely get stuck. “The beauty of the system is it needs very little energy to go around rocks, so unless you’re landing on a surface that looks like a bed of nails, it should be fine,” Bruhn says.

In 2004, Bruhn helped found Swedish company Rotundus, whose Earth-based GroundBot is now test-patrolling a harbor in Stockholm. By using GroundBot’s pendulum-propulsion mechanism, swapping in a radiation-proof computer, and designing a lightweight, inflatable shell, he thinks he could produce four of the Mars balls for as little as $6 million. “We just need to assemble the bits and pieces and test it,” says Bruhn, who shows his design to NASA officials this month.

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Russian "Space Junk" - Caught In The Act

Written by Tammy Plotner

While imaging the Large Magellanic Cloud, astrophotographer Doug Robertson got a real surprise when he went to process his data…. He'd accidentally recorded the uncontrolled return of the intermediate stage of a recent Russian rocket launch that just put three GLOSNASS satellites into orbit.

Eyewitnesses in Adelaide, Australia were astounded when a huge fireball lit up the skies shortly after midnight local time. The initial response was believed to be attributed to meteoric activity, but the 45 second event broke into several pieces and traveled along a parallel trajectory. Hearing the news, Robertson checked his photographic data and sure enough, during the time stamp of 12:12:38am, he'd caught the event. Like all good astronomers, the initial reaction is to immediately report and wait for an answer.

According to the Publicity Officer of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, Tony Beresford: "Last night at around 00:18CST sept 27 or 14:48 UT Sept. 26, an intermediate stage of a recent Russian launch that put 3 GLOSNASS satellites into orbit, re-entered the atmosphere and became visible travelling N-S over Adelaide. I had a full report from a person who saw the pass from Hallett Cove immediately after the event. It was an expected uncontrolled re-entry. The rocket stage had broken into several pieces. This aspect seems similar to other re-entries reported to me over the years. It took nearly a minute to pass over. A Sunday Mail reporter who rang this morning said they had a least a dozen reports. Some of the reports incorrectly used the term "meteor shower" to describe what they saw. Some meteors could give the same phenomena of multiple bodies on parallel paths, but that is not a meteor shower!!"

Is returning "space junk" a problem? You bet. In a very comprehensive article done by Nancy a few months ago called Space Debris Illustrated: The Problem in Pictures, she clearly illustrated how spent booster stages and discards from spacecraft could turn into a serious problem for future spaceflight if left unmonitored and uncontrolled. While the Russian return was expected, it's still just another indicator of a mounting problem - inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth .

According to NASA Shuttle program director John Shannon, "Next month's shuttle flight to the Hubble Space Telescope faces an increased risk of getting hit by space junk because it will be in a higher, more littered orbit than usual. New number-crunching puts the odds of a catastrophic strike by orbital debris including bits of space junk at about 1-in-185 during Atlantis' upcoming mission to Hubble. That compares to 1-in-300 odds for a shuttle flight to the International Space Station."

Thankfully for everyone concerned there was no impact on the Shenzhou-7 mission - just a little late night excitement. Said Robertson, "Unfortunately I didn't witness this naked eye. But as you see that main fragment/track looks extremely bright. Although rough, the crop clearly shows the number of fragments/debris surrounding the brighter tracks - reminded me off the shuttle disaster a few years ago. Glad it wasn't anything to do with the manned Chinese mission. Wish I had put down my coffee and stepped outside a bit earlier to see it!"

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Neil Armstrong makes rare speech as NASA turns 50

Neil Armstrong walks on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong has urged NASA to focus on humanity’s future in space (Image:NASA)
Neil Armstrong walks on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong has urged NASA to focus on humanity’s future in space (Image:NASA)

David Shiga

In a rare public appearance, Neil Armstrong yesterday urged NASA to set its sights on developing new capabilities for future generations, with a goal of human settlement in the universe around us.

The first man on the moon, now 78 years old, was speaking at a celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary, hosted by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

He praised NASA for what it has accomplished so far. "Our knowledge of the universe around us has increased a thousand fold and more," he said. "We learned that Homo sapiens was not forever imprisoned by the gravitational field of Earth ... We've seen deeply into our universe and looked backward nearly to the beginning of time."

According to Armstrong, NASA is carrying out one of the most important roles of government, which is to inspire its citizens "to love, to learn, to strive to participate in and contribute to societal progress", he said. "Our highest and most important hope is that the human race will improve its intelligence, its character, and its wisdom.”

But NASA ought now to be aiming to provide future generations with the means for living beyond Earth’s boundaries, Armstrong believes. It is about more than "just going faster and higher and further", he said. "Our goal – indeed our responsibility – is to develop new options for future generations: options in expanding human knowledge, exploration, human settlements and resource development, outside in the universe around us."

Humans on Mars

Another legendary astronaut, John Glenn, also spoke at the event. Glenn, who was the first American to orbit Earth, complained that insufficient funding for NASA means that it is not able to properly use the $100 billion International Space Station for the biotechnology, materials science, and other research it was intended to allow.

NASA was forced to cut funding for this research to pay for President Bush's vision of human Moon and Mars missions. That vision "was great except for one thing – the money didn't follow," Glenn said.

Also speaking at the event was NASA chief Mike Griffin, who lamented the other accomplishments that NASA might have made if better decisions had been taken in the past. "We're not, on our 50th anniversary, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first [human] landing on Mars – and we could have been," he said.

That is a consequence of the nation having lost its focus, he said, noting the irony of the Apollo-era spacecraft sitting in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum today. "There's nothing odd at looking at 40-year-old hardware in museums and admiring it and respecting it,” he said, “but only in American aerospace, of which I am aware, can we go to a museum and look at certain artifacts and wish that we could still do as well."

Looking forward, Griffin boasted that the nearly complete International Space Station will be “an engineering and scientific accomplishment beyond anything yet achieved by the human race."

He also said that present budgets make it possible to land humans on Mars within 30 years – if the money is directed unwaveringly towards that goal. "I know that to be true – it's available in the technology, and it's available in the budget, but it requires that we act with unusual persistence for Americans and that we stay the course," he said.

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Earth's Magnetic Field Reversals Illuminated By Lava Flows Study

Polarity reversals have occurred hundreds of times at irregular intervals throughout the planet's history – most recently about 780,000 years ago – but scientists are still trying to understand how and why. (Credit: iStockphoto/Tobias Machhaus)

Earth's north magnetic pole is shifting and weakening. Ancient lava flows are guiding a better understanding of what generates and controls the Earth's magnetic field – and what may drive it to occasionally reverse direction.

The main magnetic field, generated by turbulent currents within the deep mass of molten iron of the Earth's outer core, periodically flips its direction, such that a compass needle would point south rather than north. Such polarity reversals have occurred hundreds of times at irregular intervals throughout the planet's history – most recently about 780,000 years ago – but scientists are still trying to understand how and why.

A new study of ancient volcanic rocks, reported in the Sept. 26 issue of the journal Science, shows that a second magnetic field source may help determine how and whether the main field reverses direction. This second field, which may originate in the shallow core just below the rocky mantle layer of the Earth, becomes important when the main north-south field weakens, as it does prior to reversing, says Brad Singer, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Singer teamed up with paleomagnetist Kenneth Hoffman, who has been researching field reversals for over 30 years, to analyze ancient lava flows from Tahiti and western Germany in order to study past patterns of the Earth's magnetic field. The magnetism of iron-rich minerals in molten lava orients along the prevailing field, then becomes locked into place as the lava cools and hardens.

"When the lava flows erupt and cool in the Earth's magnetic field, they acquire a memory of the magnetic field at that time," says Singer. "It's very difficult to destroy that in a lava flow once it's formed. You then have a recording of what the paleofield direction was like on Earth."

Hoffman, of both California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and UW-Madison, and Singer are focusing on rocks that contain evidence of times that the main north-south field has weakened, which is one sign that the polarity may flip direction. By carefully determining the ages of these lava flows, they have mapped out the shallow core field during multiple "reversal attempts" when the main field has weakened during the past million years.

During those periods of time, weakening of the main field reveals "virtual poles," regions of strong magnetism within the shallow core field. For example, Singer says, "If you were on Tahiti when those eruptions were taking place, your compass needle would point to not the North Pole, not the South Pole, but Australia."

The scientists believe the shallow core field may play a role in determining whether the main field polarity flips while weakened or whether it recovers its strength without reversing. "Mapping this field during transitional states may hold the key to understanding what happens in Earth's core when the field weakens to a point where it can actually reverse," Hoffman says.

Current evidence suggests we are now approaching one of these transitional states because the main magnetic field is relatively weak and rapidly decreasing, he says. While the last polarity reversal occurred several hundred thousand years ago, the next might come within only a few thousand years.

"Right now, historic records show that the strength of the magnetic field is declining very rapidly. From a quick back-of-the-envelope prediction, in 1,500 years the field will be as weak as it's ever been and we could go into a state of polarity reversal," says Singer. "One broad goal of our research is to provide some predictive capability for what could happen and what could be the signs of the next reversal."

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Big Oil wins this round; offshore ban is gone

(Photo of offshore oil platform from Flickr and photographer absolutwade/Beau Wade)

Washington Report: Big Oil has won, at least for now. After spending millions on lobbying, and taking advantage of the rise in gas prices to win over two powerful advocates, President Bush and John McCain, it has two-thirds of the country believing we need to drill offshore – and drill now. Not to mention those omnipresent American Petroleum Institute ads of an annoying woman of indeterminate age in a black pantsuit who strides across the U.S. map as if she owns it, telling us Congress has put most of the oil reserves in the U.S. off bounds. Well, they aren’t anymore. For the first time in 26 years, Congress has let the moratorium on offshore drilling expire. Starting Oct. 1 oil rigs technically could spring up just 3 miles offshore, except within 150 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast, which was placed off-limits by a 2006 law. Also gone is the ban on oil shale in the West. It’s a huge step backward for the environment and a win for fossil fuels. Not satisfied, some lawmakers continue to push their drilling agendas. Republicans want to give the states a portion of the royalties (which some gulf states had and lost) and speed up leasing and permitting. Democrats from Massachusetts want to make sure to protect the Georges Bank fishing grounds (“shellfish, not Shell Oil”) and national marine sanctuaries from drilling. A new president and Congress could reinstate the ban. (E&E News PM)

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