SpaceX to Mars

This is amazing news from SpaceX. They plan to send the new Dragon capsule to Mars and land it on the surface within two years!!
A couple of years ago I would have said this guy was off his chump. If it was anyone but Elon Musk saying it, I still would. But he guy has a serious record for doing what he says he will in the area of space innovation. His was the first (and still only) commercial vehicle to be allowed to dock with the International Space Station to deliver supplies. His company is the first to re-land the main stage of a rocket after launching something to orbit, so that it can be reused (and therefore make space launches cheaper).

SpaceX eventually want to use the Dragon 2 as part of a vehicle to take humans to Mars

I don’t doubt he can do this. He’s been working on the new, big, booster for a while, along with the new, larger, man rated dragon capsule. Two years might be tight for finishing them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did it in four. I might be more surprised if he didn’t.Now don’t get me wrong, sending an unmanned capsule to land on Mars is a long, long way from sending people, let alone bringing them back. But in people’s psyche it will seem like a huge milestone towards it, actually the first time we could say we were progressing towards a human to Mars mission since the end of Apollo.

Go Elon!!

Trailing growing crops on Mars

Wageningen University & Research centre in the Netherlands was have published details of their second their second round of experiments growing a variety of crops in simulants of Mars and Lunar stimulants. Ten crops were harvested, including Tomatoes, peas, rye, garden rocket, radish and garden cress.

Both stimulants were provided by NASA, so should be pretty near the mark.

The results were unexpectedly positive, especially when freshly cut grass was added to the soil to add nutrients and aid drainage. The Mars results especially showed statistically similar results to the Terran control sample.

One important difference, though. The soil samples contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and Mercury, which if they find their way into the food produce, would make them a little hard to swallow (!). Nevertheless, this is very interesting news for potential Mars Farmers

The third stage of the experiment will be focused n food safety, including ensuring that these heavy elements don’t poison future colonists. This will be a crowd funded project

3-D Printing for Space

A 3-D printer has been taken up to the ISS, specially designed to be able to work in zero g, where gravity feeding of the formative material won’t work.

It’s been heralded as a potential new method of providing the station with spare parts without having to wait for delivery by the next available supply launch. However, reliance on this would mean the need to stockpile supplies of difference resources, metals, plastics etc, to cover the various tool, mechanisms, circuit boards etc might be needed. This could be a significant mass that would need to be launched and stored on the ISS and might not in itself be an efficiency saving.

However, there are three (off he top of my head) scenarios where in-situ 3D printing could be a major boon.

Delicate items: a rocket launch will always subject payloads to significant g-force, not to say vibration, and some items might not be able to survive the trip. Being able to build items on the space station would be a solution to this

Large payloads: some items may be too large or oddly shaped to fit within the launchers fairing. Albeit a large printer may need to be built in orbit first, but an ability to build large structures could vastly increase to range of things that could be done in orbit

Where resources are already available: the area that could gain most from 3D printing would likely be where there are already resources available, but delivery of finished articles is difficult. A Martian base could perhaps manufacture its own spare parts, structures and tools from locally available metals, sand, and synthesised plastics. Once this industry is perfected, the need to launch new hab units, return vehicles, greenhouses etc could be made redundant.

Of all new technologies in the pipeline, this could be the most vital for moving from a Martian visiting mission to constructing a permanent base.


NASA to start work on habitation module for interplanetary exploration vehicle

On 18th December President Obama signed a spending bill for NASA to cover the whole of 2016. The bill increased the NASA budget by over 10% from 2015, including $4  billion for the human exploration programme.

This included more than NASA had asked for by way of funding for the Space Launch System, the long awaited replacement for the Saturn V, and further funding for the Orion exploration capsule that will ride atop the SLS. Fuller details of this, and the schedule for Orion and SLS development and initial deployment, can be found in a good piece by Jason Davis of the Planetary Society.

It also included “…no less than $55,000,000 is provided for a habitation augmentation module to maximize the potential of the SLS/Orion architecture in deep space. NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018 and provide a report within 180 days after enactment, and annually thereafter, regarding the status and obligation of funding for the program.”

Wow, Obama wants to build an interplanetary spaceship, and he wants to build it now! That’s alright by me.

The Orion on its own is suitable for trips to the ISS and to lunar orbit. It hasn’t got enough crew space longer duration trips. Imagine sending the Appolo command module on a nine month trip and you get the picture.

But a purpose built habitation module attached to it could extend its useful range to near Earth asteroids and to Mars. With a nuclear propulsion system it might allow the asteroid belt and the Jupiter system to be reached.

An instruction to build a prototype is obviously early days and probably at a decade or two from building deployable hardware, but this definitely shows the right intentions? Very exciting stuff.

Why now? Obama is entering his final year as President, and presumably isn’t quite as concerned as he would otherwise have been to have the budget balance. He might also want to get this started now as his successor, Republican or Democrat, may not be as enthusiastic about extending human space exploration. Let’s hope that’s not the case.


Metal Hydrogen

British Scientists think they are close to creating Metal Hydrogen.

Hydrogen, in it’s natural state (in Earth conditions) is a gas, oh course. Even cooled right down, you get liquid hydrogen; I guess if you get down further you get Hydrogen ice.

But by squashing hydrogen between two gems at a staggering pressure of 3.5 million atmospheres, they have forced the hydrogen molecules to rearrange into a lattice that is close to being a (presumably solid) metal.

Liquid hydrogen has the highest ISP of any rocket fuel (that is, it’s pound for pound the most efficient. But it has some drawbacks

  •  It has to be stored under high pressure, and the storage and piping apparatus are therefore necessarily quite heavy, adding to the mass of the spacecraft
  • It is difficult to store over long periods, as is any cryogenic fuel
  • It’s prone to explode!

I haven’t read the exact properties of metal hydrogen, but if it easy to store, and either is easy to return back to it’s gaseous state or could react with an oxidiser directly, it could be a seriously good rocket fuel

Kevin Fong at the Royal Institute

We took our kids to the Royal Institute tonight to see the first of this years Christmas Lectures.

This years theme is how humans survive in space, which is especially appropriate given that Tim Peake has just started his stint on the ISS.

The lecture series is being given by Dr Kevin Fong, whom I think I came across some ten years ago when I was involved in the Mars Society. He did a very good job, my kids loved it, and I learnt a bit too. It will be interesting to see how the lectures look on TV over the next few weeks

It will also be interesting to see how Tim’s exploits inspire interest in space in British youth, though aside from my sons I don’t know how I’ll tell.

All this space…

This is Transorbital, the unofficial blog of the B4 Rocket Brigade.

You will see blog posts here by various people relaying the latest news on space technology developments and space related discoveries, commentaries on such, and general rumination and pontifications on human kinds future in space.

And anything else that’s fun.