SpaceX delivers world’s 1st inflatable room for astronauts

By MARCIA DUNN | April 10, 2016 | 12:05 PM EDT

In this frame taken from video from NASA TV, the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship is captured by a robot arm from the International Space Station, Sunday April 10, 2016. A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday, two days after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Station astronauts used a big robot arm to capture the Dragon, orbiting 260 miles above Earth. (NASA TV via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX has made good on a high-priority delivery: the world’s first inflatable room for astronauts.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday, two days after launching from Cape Canaveral. Station astronauts used a robot arm to capture the Dragon, orbiting 250 miles above Earth.

The Dragon holds 7,000 pounds of freight, including the soft-sided compartment built by Bigelow Aerospace. The pioneering pod — packed tightly for launch — should swell to the size of a small bedroom once filled with air next month.

It will be attached to the space station this Saturday, but won’t be inflated until the end of May. The technology could change the way astronauts live in space: NASA envisions inflatable habitats in a couple decades at Mars, while Bigelow Aerospace aims to launch a pair of inflatable space stations in just four years for commercial lease.

For now, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — BEAM for short — will remain mostly off-limits to the six-man station crew. NASA wants to see how the experimental chamber functions, so the hatch will stay sealed except when astronauts enter a few times a year to collect measurements and swap out sensors.

This is SpaceX’s first delivery for NASA in a year. A launch accident last June put shipments on hold.

SpaceX flight controllers at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, applauded when the hefty station arm plucked Dragon from orbit. A few hours later, the capsule was bolted securely into place.

“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” announced British astronaut Timothy Peake, who made the grab. “There are smiles all around here,” NASA’s Mission Control replied. “Nice job capturing that Dragon.”

SpaceX is still reveling in the success of Friday’s booster landing at sea.

For the first time, a leftover booster came to a solid vertical touchdown on a floating platform. SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk wants to reuse boosters to save money, a process that he says will open access to space for more people in more places, like Mars. His ambition is to establish a city on Mars.

NASA also has Mars in its sights and looks to send astronauts there in the 2030s. In order to focus on that objective, the space agency has hired U.S. companies like SpaceX to deliver cargo and, as early as next year, astronauts to the space station. U.S. astronauts currently have to hitch rides on Russian rockets.

In a sign of these new commercial space times, a Dragon capsule is sharing the station for the first time with Orbital ATK’s supply ship named Cygnus, already parked there two weeks. This is also the first time in five years that the compound has six docking ports occupied: Dragon, Cygnus, two Russian Progress freighters and two Russian Soyuz crew capsules.

The Dragon will remain at the station for a month before returning to Earth with science samples, many of them from one-year spaceman Scott Kelly. He ended his historic mission last month. Cygnus will stick around a little longer.

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NASA’s wild new plan to hunt for life on Mars would test SpaceX in ways never done before

Jessica Orwig

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

There are 99 Mars rocks on Earth, but they’re not the kind that scientists need in order to resolve the all-too-intriguing  mystery of whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.

So far, all efforts to answer this question have painted a picture of an ancient Mars once covered in water with a thicker atmosphere and warmer temperatures — a world similar to Earth. But no signs of past or present life have been found, yet.

That’s why a team of scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California have come up with a wild notion to do what has never been done before: transport rocks currently on Mars to Earth.

NASA has been seriously considering a sample-return mission like this for a while, ranking it as the highest-priority big-budget mission for the future in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey. The return mission that NASA envisioned in 2013 would cost $6 billion, but the team at NASA’s Ames Research Center thinks they might have found a cheaper way.

Enter the “Red Dragon” mission, which would see NASA team up with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, once again, for an epic mission of engineering firsts, including the first time anyone will have launched a vehicle off the surface of Mars.

spaceXSpaceX Photos

The project would launch a modified version of SpaceX’s current Dragon spacecraft to the Red Planet by as early as 2022, hence the project name “Red Dragon.”

The project is “technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist,” NASA senior systems aerospace engineer Andy Gonzales told NBC News.

Why we need to get Mars rocks back to Earth

Right now, the only Mars rocks available to scientist are not really rocks at all. They’re meteorites that were flung into space by a powerful impact and later plummeted to Earth at blazing speeds of more than 160,000 miles per hour.

However, this sort of rough, bumpy ride might have destroyed any valuable evidence within the rocks that could point to past life on Mars. And while NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently drilling into the Martian surface in search for signs of ancient alien life, it has come up empty-handed.

To determine, once and for all, whether Mars once harbored a thriving ecosystem on its watery and warm former self, scientists need to get their hands on Martian rocks that are sitting on the surface right now.

mars waterESO/M. KornmesserIllustration of what Mars might have looked like covered in water billions of years ago.

“Red Dragon” would follow NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to launch a rover similar to Curiosity to Mars in 2020 — if the project is fully funded.

The Dragon spacecraft would then retrieve the samples taken by the Mars 2020 rover, store them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would then launch the samples back to Earth, as described in the graphic below:

red dragon mission conceptNASA Ames Research Center/Red Dragon Internal Study Team

Gonzales and his team have not approached SpaceX yet to see if Elon Musk and his company would actually be interested in such a mission. First, the team needs to get NASA to approve the concept and fund the mission, which was first proposed last year.

Despite no funding in site, Gonzales is still actively pushing for the project, which he discussed last week during a NASA Future In-Space Operations working group. Gonzales told NBC News that his team has not estimated the total cost of “Red Dragon” but they suspect it will cost less than NASA’s $6 billion mission envisioned in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey.

Stunning images reveal SpaceX’s revolutionary approach to landing on Mars

Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX has big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home.

And as mind-blowing as these innovative ideas are, the video animations and illustrations that bring Space X’s goals to life are equally impressive.

But these animations and illustrations aren’t just fiction and propaganda: They are a way for SpaceX to envision the future and make it a reality.

For example, in 2011 SpaceX released a videoshowing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space — something that had never been done before. And in 2015, SpaceX began attempting to land their rockets exactly how they had envisioned in the video.

(Neither of the two attempted landings, so far, have succeeded.)

And if you check out the latest photos and illustrations on SpaceX’s Flickr account, you’ll see something that is even cooler than landing a rocket on Earth: Landing a spacecraft on Mars. And judging from the illustrations, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a super-simple approach that has never been tried before.

This is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceXSpaceX Photos

SpaceX will first send its Dragon capsule to Mars before transporting a crew on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time and is currently being tested by SpaceX for its debut launch, scheduled for 2017.

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceXSpaceX on Flickr

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so simple parachutes won’t slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn’t be a problem heat-wise.

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

But there’s still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars’s atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you’d have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacexSpaceX Photo on Flickr

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceXSpaceX Photo on Flickr

The last major Mars landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process “7 minutes of terror” because that’s how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

SpaceX has not announced when it plans to first send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars. However, there is a project called “Red Dragon” that NASA is considering and would involve sending a Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and then return them to Earth. This project has not yet been selected for funding by NASA but if funded could launch as early as 2022.

  • Jessica Orwig

 

Inflatable space elevator gets a lift

Top floor, please.Thoth Technologies

Technically speaking, getting to space hasn’t become any easier over the past half century or so. It still requires using huge rockets to create a massive enough amount of force to push a payload beyond the grip of Earth’s gravity.

Enter the concept of the space elevator, which uses much simpler gravity-defying technologies to access space.

So far, most space elevator concepts have been the stuff of sci-fi, and any plans to actually build one have remained on the rather distant horizon. But “push button” access to space took a step toward reality in late July when the US Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to a Canadian company for its invention of an inflatable space elevator tower.

Thoth Technology, based in Pembroke, Ontario, devised a tower design using pressurized segments that reach up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) into the stratosphere where a platform could be constructed for purposes of communications, tourism or as a launch platform for reaching space. Unlike blasting off from near sea level, as most space launches do now, getting into orbit or beyond from the top of a space elevator more than 20 times taller than the highest structures on Earth would be more like an aircraft takeoff.

“Astronauts would ascend to 20 km by electrical elevator. From the top of the tower, space planes will launch in a single stage to orbit, returning to the top of the tower for refueling and re- flight,” Brendan Quine, the inventor, said in a statement.

This elevator is far less ambitious than others we’ve reported on like plans from Japan’s Obayashi Corporation, which hopes to extend a space  elevator quarter of the way to the moon by 2050.

The company sees space elevators leading to a new era of space travel when paired with other new technologies like self-landing rockets of the kind that SpaceX is working on.

Getting to that point will involve some new innovations that this patent doesn’t really address, however. The invention here is focused on the construction of the tower itself, but how to construct and maintain a strong, reliable elevator cable 12 miles long is the real challenge in the space elevator universe. In fact, it’s the focus of a space elevator conference taking place later this month.

The patent does suggest “the mechanism for elevating and lowering cars may be provided by frictional contact, at least one winch mechanism located along the length of the elevator core structure, or by inductive means” but each of those mechanisms would still need to be invented or customized to this design.

For now, we’re stuck having to ride fire to space, but the “slow space” movement is well under way and the invention of the new genre of space elevator music can’t be far behind.

                                                    Image result for space elevator

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It’s a new space race with China to the Moon and Mars

 By Richard Sammon,

Courtesy NASA

 

Concept rendering of the Orion, NASA’s spacecraft for deep-space exploration.

A new space race looms on the horizon.

The goal: Putting men on the moon again (and maybe women this time, too), echoing the expensive and exhilarating missions that led to Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the lunar surface in 1969.

A return to the moon seems likely sometime late in the 2020s – more than 50 years after the first trip there. It would be followed, sometime in the 2030s, by a manned flight to Mars, using a lunar base as a departure point.

A U.S.-led team will reach the moon first, just as Americans outpaced the Soviets last time. But China will be nipping at NASA’s heels, poised to win the new race if budget cuts or problems – either political or scientific – disrupt America’s timetable.
So why is a costly return to space under consideration even as many members of Congress are looking to cut federal spending and trim the budget deficit? One factor to weigh is that NASA’s budget won’t be much different than it is now, about $18 billion a year. Private companies will kick in billions more, as will countries eager to partner with the U.S.

Another consideration: There is vast potential for scientific gains in health care, technology and telecommunications. Medical experiments, a boon for universities and private companies that partner with NASA, will help astronauts deal with the effects of prolonged weightlessness. Here on Earth, those studies may lead to advances in treating bone and muscle problems in older people.

And there’s a good chance that space missions will lead to the creation of new products that will find uses in daily life. The first era of space exploration brought a number of advances that are now taken for granted: Memory foam for mattresses and pillows. Cordless power tools. Scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses. Even freeze-dried food.

The renewed interest in space travel will also create a string of business opportunities for companies of all sizes. At one end of the scale, SpaceX is getting $1.6 billion to develop and fly rockets. The company, just one of the joint ventures pushed by NASA’s brass, has had a mixed track record so far.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and others will work on lucrative contracts for space vehicles to carry humans and cargo, and will provide other major components and gear. While those giant firms will land much of the space program’s main work, the contracts will require countless subcontractors to provide parts and perform some tasks.

Nearly every state will benefit to a degree, though the bulk of the work will be in states with existing space industry ties: Florida and Texas, of course, but also Alabama, California, Maryland and Virginia.

 

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The IXS Enterprise “Warp Ship”

 

The image above is Dutch designer Mark Rademaker’s CGI design concept; created to illustrate how NASA engineer Harold White’s IXS Enterprise “Warp ship” might look. White has been researching into possible methods of propelling space craft beyond the speed of light. The strongest theory involves the disruption of space-time in front and behind the craft. White claims he has calculated a plausible method that improves upon an earlier theory by physicist Miguel Alcubierre, and is working towards a proof of concept for the idea. Rademaker’s design shows large rings that would be used to create a “warp bubble” and was originally submitted for the Star Trek “Ships of the Line” 2014 calendar.

Warp propulsion is based on a theory that an object (like a spaceship) can move at speeds many times faster than the speed of light to go vast distances through space. It’s currently believed that if something reaches light speed, it would transform into energy and thus cease being whatever it used to be.

Not only that, but the fuel cost and time it would take to travel would make space voyages pretty unrealistic. However, warp propulsion gets around these obstacles by placing a spaceship within a warp field “bubble” of normal space, while the space surrounding the bubble moves extremely fast — basically warping the fabric of space-time.

Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for NASA Engineering Directorate Harold White says creating technology to accomplish warp propulsion (a warp drive) is absolutely possible, and he’s even started work on creating it.

White explains that his team is currently working on complex math equations to help create and discover microscopic instances of these “warp bubbles.” If the results from his team’s experiments prove successful, it could be possible to create a warp engine capable of interstellar space travel. For perspective, he uses the example of traveling to Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to Earth) in just two weeks in Earth time.

[Image credit: Mark Rademaker]

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Reusable Rockets Could Change The Economics Of Going Into Orbit.

EVERYTHING about space flight is superlative. Even relatively modest rockets are hundreds of feet high. The biggest (the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the Moon) remains the most powerful vehicle ever built. But space flight is superlatively expensive, too. One reason is that, for all their technological sophistication, rockets are one-shot wonders. After they have fired their engines for a few minutes they are left to fall back to Earth, usually splashing ignominiously into the ocean.

 

Rocket scientists have therefore long dreamed of making something able to fly more than once. Such a reusable machine, they hope, would slash the cost of getting into space. The only one built so far, America’s space shuttle, proved a dangerous and costly disappointment, killing two of its crews and never coming close to the cost savings its designers had intended. But hope springs eternal, and several of America’s privately run “New Space” firms are planning to try again.

The most notable are the four landing legs folded up along the side of its first stage. If everything goes to plan, once that stage has finished its job and detached itself from the rest of the rocket, it will fire its engines again. Instead of crashing into the sea, it will make a controlled descent, deploy its legs, slow almost to a stop off the coast of Cape Canaveral, and then drop itself delicately into the drink. Mr Musk gives himself a slightly-less-than-even chance of pulling this off.

Will you walk with me, Grasshopper?

If it does work, though, it will be the most dramatic demonstration yet of technology that the firm has been working on for several years. In 2012 SpaceX began flying an unwieldy-looking legged test rocket called Grasshopper. This was able to hover, manoeuvre around in mid-air, and land itself back on the pad that launched it.

Then, last September, it attempted to organise the controlled descent of a legless first stage. In what the firm’s engineers call a useful failure, the rocket’s engines restarted as planned, but as the stage descended it began spinning, flinging its remaining fuel against the walls of its tanks and starving its motors, causing it to crash.

This week’s test is intended to end up with the rocket in the ocean, chiefly for safety reasons in case something does go wrong. But SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to have the first stage fly all the way back to the pad it was launched from, and to land itself facing upwards. It will then be taken away, serviced, refilled with rocket fuel and readied to fly again. The firm wants, one day, to recover the Falcon’s second stage, too—though the greater altitude and speed the second stage reaches makes this a far tougher proposition.

Still, being the biggest, the first stage is the most expensive part, so retrieving it should make a huge difference to launch costs. SpaceX already offers some of the lowest prices in the business. Its launch costs of $56m are around half those of its competitors. Mr Musk has said in the past that a reusable rocket could cut those costs by at least half again.

If SpaceX can make its technology work, that will be the biggest advance in rocketry for decades. Whether it will translate into higher demand for space flight is less clear. Jeff Foust, who edits the Space Review, an industry newsletter, argues that even dramatically lower launch costs will do little to change the economics of the industry, at least for the governments and firms that make up almost all of its current customers. Launch costs, as Mr Foust points out, are but a small part of the total cost of developing, building and running a satellite network.

Mike Gold, an executive at Bigelow Aerospace, a firm that makes inflatable space stations—and which has an agreement with SpaceX to launch its products—thinks that most of the interest will come from people and organisations so far denied access to space. “Putting a big rocket like the Falcon in range of mid-size companies, research institutions and even wealthy private individuals, that’s a game-changer,” he says. “When the laser was first invented, no one had any idea what it might be used for. Today they’re everywhere. We’re still at that early stage with cheap rockets.”

Perhaps. But although SpaceX is a commercial firm, simple profitability is not its only goal. Mr Musk has been perfectly frank about his long-term aim: “to die on Mars, preferably not on impact.” After the Falcon 9, the firm plans a beefier version called the Falcon Heavy. That, in turn, would be a dress rehearsal for something called the Mars Colonial Transporter.

Mr Musk wants to build a machine that would let him offer prospective colonists a (one-way) trip to the Martian surface for about $500,000—or, as he puts it, roughly the cost of a nice house in California. Perfecting reusability is essential for achieving that dream.

If you build it, will they come?

Hard-headed commentators may roll their eyes at such ambition. And history suggests reusability is difficult to do properly. The shuttle itself, for instance, was intended to fly every week. In the end, it made only 135 trips over the course of 30 years. There is a credible case that it proved more expensive, in the long run, than old-fashioned throwaway rockets would have done. Yet SpaceX has already shaken up an industry once mired in stifling conservatism. A successful fully reusable rocket would just be the latest example in a long tradition of it confounding its critics.