Tomorrow NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to begin an eight month journey to the red planet. Today we take a look at it’s predecessors the highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers.
Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)
Launched in 2003 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to explore the surface and geology of Mars. The two rovers were launching within a month of each other and used an airbag landing to arrive on the surface of Mars eight months later in early 2004.
Each rover was designed to operate for 90 sols (Sol is a day on Mars, which is almost 40m longer than a day on earth). The rovers far exceeded there designed life with Spirit finally giving up after ~2208 sols. Opportunity is still operational today over 2777 sols after arriving on the planet.
The rovers have provided a wealth of information from the surface of Mars and have demonstrated that we can operate in distant environments for extended periods of time.
While the rovers have been active for a long time they certainly have had some luck along the way and have to rest during the winter months due to not having enough solar energy to charge the battery.
Several times during the mission NASA noticed that the power levels on the rovers suddenly increased having declined due to the buildup of dust on the solar panels. They determine later that these were because of wind gusts called dust devil’s that had hit the rover cleaning off the dust, this was confirmed in 2010 when Opportunity spotted a wind gust (dust devil).
Since arriving on the planet each of the rovers has sent back a large amount of pictures, including panoramic views of the environment around the rover. These images are available on NASA’s Mars Rover web site.
We don’t know how much longer Opportunity will operate for, soon it will enter it’s next winter hibernation period. However as long as it has power, is communicating and NASA has funding we can expect more from the amazing rover.
This week the new Budget was signed into law and NASA’s funding for the Commercial Crew development has been slashed. So what does this mean for the future?
As we are currently looking at Commercial Space and the different teams who are involved it seems appropriate to review this further and see what real impact this has.
The final budget for Commercial Crew has come out at $406 million which is less then half the original $850 million requested. The Senate and House appropriations committees passed legislation calling for commercial crew funding levels of $500 million and $312 million, respectively. A conference committee between lawmakers agreed to a compromise budget at $406 million.
This has serious implications for the Commercial Crew Development program, NASA currently has four companies working towards milestones each which has specific financial rewards associated with them. While the money for the current set of milestones is already secure the reduce budget does have implications for future milestones. Either NASA will have to reduce the number of companies they are working with or slow down the pace of development. Neither of these options is ideal as it results in the US and NASA not having a crew capability for longer.
Given that NASA are currently paying $63 million per flight to the space station and have at least 4 crew per year launching by 2015 NASA would have spent between $1 billion and $2 billion getting crew there. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden cautioned legislators that reducing the funding would likely add another 2 years to the program meaning that at the current rate another $500 million to $1 billion will be spent on Soyuz flights.
Several of the companies that are currently working towards Commercial Crew have stated that they can launch for less than the $63 million so this new budget makes no sense for the future of US access to space or the goal of reducing costs.
Personally I hope that none of the companies will stop the work they have begun on Commercial Crew and will step up and show the government that they can reduce the cost of access to space and once again give the US the access to space that it has given up at the present time.
Today we continue our look at Commercial Space with Boeing and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.
Working with Bigelow the CST-100 will provide crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station. The CST-100 was first announced by Robert Bigelow in June 2010, just last month NASA announced that Boeing had signed an agreement to use one of the Shuttle OPF buildings as there construction site for the CST modules.
Drawing on their expertise with the Apollo, Space Shuttle and ISS they have quickly demonstrated that they can deliver on the design and with the recent funding from NASA have several milestones that have to be achieved as they work towards being operational by 2015. Clearly the partnership with Bigelow will benefit both companies; as Boeing will have a second destination for CST and Bigelow will have a supplier for their stations.
Boeing have recently been conducting drop tests of their test module to evaluate the design of the airbag cushioning system that will be deployed just before landing. So far Boeing are the only company to use this design and will be interested to see how different the landing will be to some of the other modules. I think overall SpaceX’s design seems to offer the best solution for landing but only time will tell as they continue to test and actual use the systems.
Boeing has designed CST to be compatible with Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9 with Atlas V being the initial launch vehicle during testing.
At present there is no set date for when orbital testing will be performed.
Today we look at Blue Origin and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.
Blue Origin are working on the New Shepherd sub-orbital craft to provide customer’s trip to the edge of space, allow a period of time of weightlessness before returning to the launch site. Unlike Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this will be a capsule based craft and will return using parachutes.
In the future they are will be launching the Biconic Space Vehicle for orbital operations. This craft will use some of the components from New Shepherd as well as a re-usable first stage booster. From what I can determine neither of these have actually been built and I was not able to determine when they would be. SpaceX recently announced that they are working on re-usable booster components to reduce costs but as yet have no date when they would even begin testing.
While Blue Origin are making progress they seem to be a long way behind some of the other players in the CCDev/CCDev2 arena and while coming later to the industry shouldn’t hurt them too much as we need more competition they will have a lot more to prove at that point to catch up.
Now we move onto the NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev/CCDev2) providers.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)
SNC are currently working on the Dream Chaser spacecraft, designed to lift off on top a man-rated launcher with Delta-V as the current preferred booster. The craft is designed to transport up to seven astronauts as well as cargo. Exact weight’s are not currently available.
The ship will dock with the space station and then glide back to a landing once the mission is complete. Due to it’s design it should be able to land at any commercial airstrip and unlike the Space Shuttle it’s reaction control system uses ethanol and therefore can be handled immediately after landing.
Dream Chaser has several other advantages over the shuttle, first it is designed to last as long as 210 days in space, where as the shuttle only allowed a couple of weeks. Second the heat shield is made up of ablative tiles ( created by NASA ) which can be replaced in large groups and don’t need to be replaced as often.
As with the COTS program CCDev and CCDev2 are milestone driven programs, SNC have recently announced that they have achieved several of the early milestones and are working towards drop tests using Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft in 2012.
With the creation of the CCDev/CCDev2 programs the future for spaceflight is very exciting and will only result in cheaper missions for everyone.
As we continue our look at the Commercial Space Industry we turn out focus on Bigelow Aerospace.
Unlike SpaceX and Orbital, Bigelow is focusing on creating Orbital Space Stations using inflatable technologies to drastically increase the usable space available once on orbit.
So far they have launched the Genesis 1 and 2 modules and from a recently email conversation with Bigelow have determined that both are still operating in orbit today.
They are currently working on the BA330 Station, each will have roughly 330 cubic meters of internal space and multiple modules can be linked together to provide larger complexes.
As Bigelow are concentrating on the development of Space Stations not launch vehicles they do not currently have a way of getting crew to the stations. They have recently been linked with Boeing who are working on the CST100 crew vehicle ( we will discuss this soon ).
Today we continue our look at the Commercial Space Industry and what Orbital Sciences Corporation has to offer.
Orbital Sciences Corporation
Orbital is not a new comer to the Space Launch business having been started in 1982 and completed 62 space launch missions since. They currently offer the air launched Pegasus rocket, the ground launched Taurus and Minotaur, all of which are Solid Fuel rockets.
They are in the process of creating the Taurus II rocket which will be a combination of Solid and Liquid fueled stages and Cygnus space capsule as part of the NASA COTS program.
Orbital are due to conduct their first test launch of Taurus II early next year and barring any problems Cygnus be middle of 2012.
I have no doubt that they will be successful with the Taurus II and look forward to the benefits having multiple providers will offer NASA and commercial industry in the future.
This morning during the press conference for the Soyuz docking Bill Gerstenmaier NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations confirmed that SpaceX had provided them with the final Dragon Spacecraft software which will be used for orbital operations. NASA are now reviewing the software and Bill estimated that they should be able to set an actual launch date for the next demo mission in about a month.
The reason the test has been delayed several times is because NASA, the Russian Space Agency, SpaceX and the other partners need to be 100% sure that Dragon will not pose any problems to the Space Station when it approaches. As with any project these things can take time and it is better to delay the test and be sure everything is working as needed than rush it and end up causing bigger problems.
NASA made sure that they wouldn’t need to rush the Commercial Resupply Services (CSR) by taking up over a years worth of supplies on the last shuttle launch.
Yesterday I mentioned the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as my preferred launch vehicle for the Mars Rover mission. I have been watching with increased interested the development of the commercial launch business as companies like SpaceX, Orbital and others progress towards supplying the Space Station and offering launch capabilities to the broader industry.
At the moment SpaceX have made the most progress with a new rocket but they have only had a few launches so how can we say that?
If you look at what they have achieved since they started in 2002 then it is hard not to be impressed. They started off with the Falcon 1 which has lunched 5 times so far and while the first three mission ended in failure the last two where successful and put SpaceX on the map with the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit.
Since then the main focus has been on the creation of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon Space Capsule, again SpaceX has delivered so far, of the two Falcon 9 launches attempted so far both have been successful. On the second SpaceX achieved another first by launching their Dragon space capsule and successfully returning to earth becoming the first commercial company to do it.
Early next year SpaceX will once again launch Dragon this time on a mission to the Space Station, this is the second test missions as part of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program. Once they have demonstrated the ability to successfully launch Dragon to the space station and dock they will then begin contracted deliveries to the Space Station.
Recently SpaceX have made two other announcements regarding the future of the Falcon Rockets. First they announced the creation of the Falcon Heavy which will have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently in use today. Second they announced plans to start testing return to launch site abilities for the first and second stages of the rocket which if they can achieve it successfully will drastically reduce the cost of launching to space.
All in all I believe SpaceX has a great future and their success will only benefit the America Space industry and start to lower the costs of getting into space for everyone.
Tomorrow we continue with Orbital and take a look at their offering in the Commercial Space Arena.
As I said yesterday we could learn a lot from Russia and how they handled the Progress accident in August, however it would be remiss of me not to talk about the Phobos-Grunt mission that is currently stuck in low earth orbit (LEO) and not communicating.
There can be no doubt that space missions are dangerous business, the fact that you strap spacecraft and people to the bottom of a large cylinder and then mix dangerous chemicals together to produce thrust to launch them from 0 to 17,000+ mph in 8 minutes is going to be risky for some time.
For those who don’t know Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt mission last week which was supposed to travel to Mars’ moon Phobos and return with samples taken from the surface. However after launch they were not able to communicate with the spacecraft and it never left LEO. All attempts to contact the craft since have failed and now it could potentially crash back to ever in early December. Most of the toxic fuel on board should burn up on re-entry but that is not ALL therefore there is still potential for it to cause damage.
Later this month NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) from Cape Canaveral and hopefully everything goes well. However the mission is not cheap at well over two billion US dollars to build there is a lot that could go wrong.
So why do I care? I think the future for space missions is to build cheaper machines but more of them, if we launched six smaller rovers to Mars that could work together to achieve the ultimate goal then even if we lost one or two we could still complete the mission even if it took longer.
How would you get them all there? SpaceX (www.spacex.com) have published their rocket prices, my proposal for the first mission would be to fit within the weight structure of the Falcon Heavy launchers and send the craft two at a time during a 6 week launch window. Once they arrive at Mars they would land in close proximity to each other. The landers would then serve as the communication relay back to earth, giving redundancy to the system. While this does cost more it again reduces the risk to the mission by not putting everything on a single Launcher or Lander.
How would they work together? One of the rovers would serve as the Master rover issuing commands to all the others to complete the tasks required. Should the Master fail at any point another will take over the responsibility.