Sierra Nevada Corporation Developing Dream Chaser Version for Stratolaunch

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has announced a design for an integrated system for human spaceflight that can be launched to low Earth orbit (LEO) using Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture and a scale version of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable, lifting-body spacecraft capable of crewed or autonomous flight. Dream Chaser is the only lifting-body spacecraft capable of a runway landing, anywhere in the world. Stratolaunch Systems is a Paul G. Allen project dedicated to developing an air-launch system that will revolutionize space transportation by providing orbital access to space at lower costs, with greater safety and more flexibility.

As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC’s full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Chuck Beames, president, Vulcan Aerospace Corp and executive director for Stratolaunch Systems said, “Combining a scaled version of SNC’s Dream Chaser with the Stratolaunch air launch system could provide a highly responsive capability with the potential to reach a variety of LEO destinations and return astronauts or payloads to a U.S. runway within 24 hours.”

“This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

In addition to supporting development of human spaceflight capability, SNC studied satellite launch options and mechanisms, as well as point-to-point transportation options using the Stratolaunch launch system with a Dream Chaser spacecraft derivative. The Stratolaunch system is uniquely designed to allow for maximum operational flexibility and payload delivery from several possible operational sites, while minimizing mission constraints such as range availability and weather.

SpaceX Announces Progress on Reusable Rocket

SpaceX released the following statement July 23:

Following last week’s successful launch of six ORBCOMM satellites, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able to consistently reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.

After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position. The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.

At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment. However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.

We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9, but with a low probability of success. Flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.

SpaceX Completes Qualification Testing of SuperDraco Thruster for Launch Escape System on Dragon Spacecraft

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announced that it has completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster, an engine that will power the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system and enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.

The qualification testing program took place over the last month at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The program included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.

The SuperDraco is an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to maneuver in orbit and during re-entry. SuperDracos will be used on the crew version of the Dragon spacecraft as part of the vehicle’s launch escape system; they will also enable propulsive landing on land.  Each SuperDraco produces 16,000 pounds of thrust and can be restarted multiple times if necessary.  In addition, the engines have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.

The SuperDraco engine chamber is manufactured using state-of-the-art direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), otherwise known as 3D printing.  The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability.

“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO.  “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”

Unlike previous launch escape systems that were jettisoned after the first few minutes of launch, SpaceX’s launch system is integrated into the Dragon spacecraft.  Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch.

As a result, Dragon will be able to provide astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the ascent trajectory, not just in the first few minutes.  In addition, the eight SuperDracos provide redundancy, so that even if one engine fails an escape can still be carried out successfully.

The first flight demonstration of the SuperDraco will be part of the upcoming pad abort test under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. The pad abort will be the first test of SpaceX’s new launch escape system and is currently expected to take place later this year.

National Space Society Congratulates SpaceX on the Success of CRS-3 and the First Flight of the Falcon 9R

The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) congratulates SpaceX on the successful launch of Commercial Resupply Services 3 (CRS-3) from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 18th at 3:25 pm EDT.  NSS Executive Senior Operating Officer Bruce Pittman said, “The successful reusability tests of the Falcon 9 v1.1 during the CRS-3 mission are a vital step on the path to dramatically reducing the cost of access to space.”

The National Space Society will present two special awards to SpaceX at their 2014 International Space Development Conference (ISDC).  Elon Musk, SpaceX Chief Designer and CTO, will accept the Robert A Heinlein Memorial Award.  Gwynne R. Shotwell, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, will accept the Space Pioneer Award for the Entrepreneurial Business category.

The Dragon capsule berthed with the ISS at 9:06 AM EDT Sunday April 20th.  This is the first flight of the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 to the ISS, and the fourth overall flight of the v1.1 version.  In addition to carrying a record up mass (cargo) to the ISS, the Falcon 9 v1.1 demonstrated for the first time the unfolding of the landing legs on the first stage.   CRS-3 was part of a series of tests of reusable spacecraft technology that are planned to eventually lead to the full re-use of the Falcon 9.   If this occurs, it will drive a revolution in access to space via lowering launch costs.

The Dragon capsule pressurized area carried a record of one GLACIER and two MERLIN freezers for transporting experiment samples, a replacement Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), or in everyday English, a spacesuit, plus additional supplies of food, water, and personal items.  The unpressurized Dragon trunk contained the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) and the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) package made up of four commercial HD cameras.  Dragon also brought VEG-01, a plant growth chamber to the ISS, where it will be used for experimental food production.

As expected for this early test flight, SpaceX did not recover the first stage, which “soft landed” in the ocean.  At this time it appears that CRS-3 met SpaceX’s reusability milestones, including first stage re-ignition to slow the first stage on its return.  Reusability tests of the Falcon 9 will continue throughout 2014, with a target of full first stage reuse by the end of 2014 or early 2015.

On Thursday April 17th the SpaceX Falcon 9R flew for the first time from McGregor, Texas, to a height of 250 m [VIDEO BELOW].  The Falcon 9R is a 3-engine successor to the single-engine “Grasshopper” and will continue the development of reusable SpaceX rocket technology.  Later this summer the Falcon 9R will move to Spaceport America in New Mexico for high-altitude test flights.

MIT team proposes storing extra rocket fuel in space for future missions

By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

Future lunar missions may be fueled by gas stations in space, according to MIT engineers: A spacecraft might dock at a propellant depot, somewhere between the Earth and the Moon, and pick up extra rocket fuel before making its way to the lunar surface.

Orbiting way stations could reduce the fuel a spacecraft needs to carry from Earth — and with less fuel onboard, a rocket could launch heavier payloads, such as large scientific experiments.

Over the last few decades, scientists have proposed various designs, such as building a fuel-manufacturing station on the Moon and sending tankers to refill floating depots. But most ideas have come with hefty price tags, requiring long-term investment.

The MIT team has come up with two cost-efficient depot designs that do not require such long-term commitment. Both designs take advantage of the fact that each lunar mission carries a supply of “contingency propellant” — fuel that’s meant to be used only in emergencies. In most cases, this backup fuel goes unused, and is either left on the Moon or burned up as the crew re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Instead, the MIT team proposes using contingency propellant from past missions to fuel future spacecraft. For instance, as a mission heads back to Earth, it may drop a tank of contingency propellant at a depot before heading home. The next mission can pick up the fuel tank on its way to the Moon as its own emergency supply. If it ends up not needing the extra propellant, it can also drop it at the depot for the next mission — an arrangement that the team refers to as a “steady-state” approach.

A depot may also accumulate contingency propellant from multiple missions, part of an approach the researchers call “stockpiling.” Spacecraft heading to the Moon would carry contingency propellant as they normally would, dropping the tank at a depot on the way back to Earth if it’s not needed; over time, the depot builds up a large fuel supply. This way, if a large lunar mission launches in the future, its rocket wouldn’t need a huge fuel supply to launch the heavier payload. Instead, it can stop at the depot to collect the stockpiled propellant to fuel its landing on the Moon.

“Whatever rockets you use, you’d like to take full advantage of your lifting capacity,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Most of what we launch from the Earth is propellant. So whatever you can save, there’s that much more payload you can take with you.”

Hoffman and his students — Koki Ho, Katherine Gerhard, Austin Nicholas, and Alexander Buck — outline their depot architecture in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Pickup and drop-off in space

The researchers came up with a basic mission strategy to return humans to the Moon, one slightly different from that of the Apollo missions. During the Apollo era, spacecraft circled close to the lunar equator — a route that required little change in direction, and little fuel to stay on track. In the future, lunar missions may take a more flexible approach, with the freedom to change course to explore farther reaches of the Moon — such as the polar caps, for evidence of water — a strategy that would require each spacecraft to carry extra fuel to change orbits.

Working under the assumption of a more global exploration strategy, the researchers designed a basic architecture involving a series of stand-alone missions, each exploring the surface of the Moon for seven to 14 days. This mission plan requires that a spacecraft returning to Earth must change its orbital plane when needed. Under this basic scenario, missions could operate under existing infrastructure, without fuel depots, meaning that each spacecraft would carry its own supply of contingency propellant.

The researchers then drew up two depot designs to improve the efficiency of the basic scenario. In both designs, depots would be stationed at Lagrange points — regions in space between the Earth, Moon, and sun that maintain gravitational equilibrium. Objects at these points remain in place, keeping the same relative position with respect to the Earth and the Moon.

Hoffman says that ideally, transferring fuel between the depot and a spacecraft would simply involve astronauts or a robotic arm picking up a tank. The alternative — siphoning fuel from tank to tank like you would for your car — is a bit trickier, as liquid tends to float in a gravity-free environment. But, Hoffman says, it’s doable.

“In building the International Space Station, every time a new module is added, we’ve had to hook up new fluid connections,” Hoffman says. “It’s not a trivial design problem, but it can be done.”

‘Creating value … against political uncertainty’

The main drawbacks for both depot designs include maintenance; keeping depots within the Lagrange point; and preventing a phenomenon, called “boil-off,” in which fuel that’s not kept at cold-enough temperatures can boil away. If scientists can find ways around these challenges, Hoffman says, gas stations in space could be an efficient way to support large lunar explorations.

“One of the problems with large space programs is, you invest a huge amount in building up the infrastructure, and then a program gets canceled,” Hoffman says. “With depot architectures, you’re creating value which is robust against political uncertainty.”

The paper came out of two MIT classes taught by Hoffman: 16.851 (Satellite Engineering) and 16.89 (Space Systems Engineering), in which students also looked at redesigning a lunar lander and evaluated different approaches to landing on the Moon.

James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, says the group’s two approaches optimize the possibility of both near-lunar missions and more ambitious, longer-duration missions to more distant destinations.

“Currently, NASA is once again considering circumlunar human operations and developing architectures for moving on to Mars,” Head says. “So this paper is extremely important and timely in the context of developing NASA plans for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

See also on the NSS website: Orbital Propellant Depots: Building the Interplanetary Highway.

First Falcon Heavy Launch Delayed Until Next Year

Aviation Week reports:

Although it was initially slated to debut this year, SpaceX founder, CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk says the company’s production schedule is too tight to support a test flight of the heavy-lift rocket from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in 2014.

“We need to find three additional cores that we could produce, send them through testing and then fly without disrupting our launch manifest,” Musk said in a Feb. 20 interview. “I’m hopeful we’ll have Falcon Heavy cores produced approximately around the end of the year. But just to get through test and qualification, I think it’s probably going to be sometime early next year when we launch.”

Elon Musk’s Plans for Mars

From CBS This Morning: 2-minute video after 30-second advertisement.

Transcript after about 40 seconds:

“We’ve got to restore American ability to transport astronauts with domestic vehicles, and that’s what we hope to do in about two years.

“The next step beyond that is to maybe send people beyond low Earth orbit to a loop around the Moon, possibly land on the Moon — although I’m not super interested in the Moon personally because obviously we’ve done that and we know we can — but maybe just to prove the capability.

“Then we need to develop a much larger vehicle which would be sort of what I call a large colonial transport system. This would really be — we’re talking about rockets on a scale, a bigger scale than has ever been done before, that make the Apollo Moon rocket look small. And they would have to launch very frequently as well.

“That’s what’s needed in order to send millions of people and millions of tons of cargo to Mars, which is the minimum level to have a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

“We might be able to complete that [rocket] in about 10 or 12 years, and hopefully the first people we’d send to Mars would be around the middle of the next decade.”