Project Spartan Spear

I’m an advisor to a team of aerospace engineering students at San Jose State University. For their senior design project, they are designing a launch vehicle to take nanosatellites (specifically, 1U and 3U CubeSats) to orbit.  Project Spartan Spear now has a Kickstarter campaign which runs to Feb. 27.

My role as mentor/advisor is in computing and avionics. We have others who cover propulsion and structures, and manufacturing. During the first semester, the team of 7 students did preliminary design of the vehicle, including aerodynamic estimates, projected trajectory, and some early CAD and experiments dealing with components of the engine.  Frankly, a launch vehicle project is so overwhelming that the entire team is now focused on just getting the engine designed, built, and tested.  The bulk of it needs to be done by May 2015, when they graduate.  Experience with other senior design projects shows that they have a life of their own, and testing continues into the summer and fall. There website shows progress in CAD models and preliminary experiments.

This is one of three projects in the aerospace senior design class. In my biased opinion, this is the most intriguing and exciting.  (We actually had to turn students away at the beginning of the fall semester in order to balance the teams; the other two are nanosatellites.)

The difference between this and large launch vehicles like Falcon 9 or Atlas V is that on the large vehicles, CubeSats are treated as secondary payloads, subject to the rules of the primary that is funding the bulk of the launch costs.  This new concept allows CubeSats to be primary payloads, and effectively lets users/developers deploy them on their own schedule to their own selected orbits. Furthermore, this is an air-launch design, which reduces the environmental impact normally associated with launch pads; the impact is primarily as an airport user.

In effect, availability of this sort of launch vehicle allows businesses that understand space benefits and spin-offs to pursue iterative development. Rather than waiting 1 or 2 years between flight bookings, this allows a business to plan a cycle of weeks or months.  The ultimate hope is to service many customers, allowing for several launches per week.

The obvious applications of having such a launch vehicle are iterative development involving: small biologicals, materials, small electronics, etc.  Spartan Spear is a step toward getting regular access to  low Earth orbit , with the intent of jumpstarting product development cycles for these types of innovations, which ultimately will find their way into new terrestrial projects and manned space systems.

New year’s space resolutions and wish list

Dr. David Livingston, host of The Space Show, invited listeners to call in or e-mail in their space-related new year’s resolutions and wish lists on the January 18 show.  In my case, having just written up a 2014 year-in-review and looked at the spill-over into 2015 and beyond, it seemed like an interesting exercise.

So, being a big fan of the show, and being far more organized about what I write than what I say, I decided to e-mail in my list. This is what I sent him:

My personal resolutions:

  • Learn bi-propellant liquid propulsion.
    I am a trajectories and embedded computing person. I’ve been relying on others to develop better propulsion, but very little exists for small launch vehicles that can get a 3U to 6U CubeSat into LEO.  I am now working closely with students at San Jose State University with another senior propulsion engineer. (“Spartan Spear”; .)  I am finally starting to understand the detailed engineering of a H2O2/kerosene engine. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll see a static test fire.

Wish list:

  • Reuse of Falcon 9 first stage (Probability this year: 5%; next year: 50%; year after 90%)
  • Falcon Heavy launch to LEO this year (Probability: 90%)
  • Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is replaced by a two-step program of (1) sustained human presence on the Moon, and (2) human exploration of Mars and its moons. (Probability: 20%)
  • NASA/congressional commitment to Europa program (Probability: %50)
  • The space advocacy community finds traction with the majority of Americans on the value of space exploration and commerce.  (Probability: 10%)
  • NASA get its annual budget increased to $22-23 billion per year. (Probability: %3)
  • Nuclear fusion with net power out. (Probability 2015: 10%, 2016: 20%, 2017: 50%)

The last wish (nuclear fusion) was in response to caller Tim from Huntsville. Excellent suggestion.

The personal resolution is hopefully not too hard to keep since I am in the midst of a launch vehicle project now, and have a close up view of the propulsion. The challenge will be to understand the materials and chemistry aspects of the system, and incorporate them into computational models.

The wish list is comprised of a few important things I’d like to see happen during 2015; but for most of them, my level of confidence for them happening during the year is pretty low.

Note that I did not include “landing of a Falcon 9 first stage“; I specified “reuse“. That is the goal. Given the nearly successful landing on a barge in the Atlantic, I have no doubt that the landing will happen this year. However, the real goal is reuse of a stage. It’s on my wish list, but I do not expect to see it in 2015. (However, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.)

It should also be abundantly clear that I really want to see a Falcon Heavy launch this year. It’s been slipping for a while; I hope that this time it transitions from wish to reality.

At the end of the year, David’s current plan is to replay this particular show and hold us accountable for our resolutions (and wishes?). It will be an interesting retrospective.

Things to come: 2015 and beyond

[Updates: Jan 5 – 2015 add Venus Express.]

What are the important developments of space development and exploration to expect over the next few years?

The lists below are roughly divided into the expected and the possible/probable.

The expected events of 2015 and a few for 2016-2017 are presented in vaguely chronological order. Many of them are based on current missions which are close to completion.

A more open-ended set of lists are then provided for: spacecraft development, human space flight, launch vehicle development, and exploration mission concepts. It is impossible for these lists to be comprehensive; some of it is a matter of opinion as to importance. There is certainly a myriad of things that could be added, but the lists would then be of no use for focusing reader attention.

Furthermore, there are a lot of concepts that I would like to see pursued. In my opinion, many of them have considerable technical and economic merit. But they currently lack the critical mass of techincal and financial support to make them viable. As a result, I have not included them in the lists below. There are also a lot of good efforts which are operating “below the radar”. Depending on how they mature, they may show up on a future annual list.


  • SpaceX mission CRS-5 to the ISS is currently planned for Jan 6. Following initial main engine cut-off of the first stage, the stage will maneuver itself to a controlled landing on a floating platform.
  • The Deep Space Climate Observer (DSCOVR) will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 NET (no earlier than) Jan 29.
  • The ESA Venus Express is expected to fall into the Venusian atmosphere in January or February after 8 years of science data.
  • The Dawn spacecraft will arrive at asteroid Ceres on Mar 6, after a voyage from Vesta, which it visited from Jul 2011 to Sep 2012.
  • The Messenger spacecraft, has been in space for over 10 years, and conducted three flybys of Mercury before entering into orbit around it in March 2011. With its maneuvering propellant nearly exhausted, it is expected to impact the planet’s surface in March 2015.
  • As comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko rounds the Sun this spring, there are hopes that the Philae lander’s solar panels will re-charge, and bring it back to life.
  • LightSail-A, a test version of LightSail-1, is expected to launch in May 2015 as a NASA ELaNa CubeSat payload on an Atlas V. The spacecraft is built by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and funded by the Planetary Society.
  • Scott Kelly will spend a year on the International Space Station starting in Spring 2015 while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly remains on Earth. The pair gives scientists the opportunity to evaluate the effects of extended microgravity and space flight on the human body.
  • New Horizons is expected to perform a flyby of Pluto and its moons on Jul 14, 2015. Following the flyby, it will be on its way to other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs); a few candidate KBOs have been identified.
  • The Cygnus missions to the ISS in 2015 will be launched on a ULA Atlas V, while Orbital Science re-outfits its Antares rocket with a new engine.
  • A Falcon Heavy may see a demo flight in 2015. (See more under “Launch Vehicle Development.”)


  • Cassini is almost out of maneuvering propellant. It has been in space since October 1997, and arrived at Saturn on Jun 30, 2004. In Jan 2005, it dropped the Huygens lander onto the surface of Titan. Cassini will start its Grand Finale in late 2016, with several orbits between the planet and the innermost ring; in Sep 2017, it will dive into the planet’s atmosphere, probing the last secrets that the gas giant can offer it.
  • The Google Lunar XPRIZE plans to award $30 million in prizes for private teams that manage to land a robotic probe on the Moon and perform a series of specified tasks. The deadline was the end of calendar year 2015. On Dec 16, the XPRIZE organization extended the deadline to the end of 2016.

Spacecraft Development

  • A massive satellite constellation is being planned by WorldVu, a company with ties to either Google or SpaceX. (It seems to be in transition between the two.) In November, it asked manufactures to bid on 640 satellites of 125 kg each. The targeted use is global Internet coverage.
  • In pursuing its model of “agile aerospace”, Planet Labs will launch more flocks of Dove spacecraft, rapidly evolving the design to improved capabilities. Several were lost on the Antares launch failure in Oct 2014; however, Planet Labs has been able to rapidly fabricate additional spacecraft for an alternate launch.
  • Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are both working on spacecraft designs to scout near Earth asteroids, and eventually mine them. A Planetary Resources Arkyd spacecraft was manifested on the failed Antares launch in Oct 2014.

Human space flight

  • Contracts for the NASA Commercial Crew program were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing on Sep 16, 2014; both were capsule designs. The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser was not selected; nevertheless, it has interest from U.S. private and European parties. The SpaceX design is its Dragon Version 2, unveiled on May 29, 2014, and is based on experience with the first Dragon design. The Boeing CST-100 is being developed in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace.
  • The Mars One candidate pool has been reduced to 663, down from 1,058 at the beginning of 2014, and from 202,586 when the program first opened. A final round in 2015 is expected to select six teams of four people each. These teams will then spend a few months a year training together. Mars One currently has a Mars lander mission planned for 2018. In Dec 2014, ten university payloads for selected for the lander.

Launch vehicle development

  • Orbital Sciences will replace Antares rocket’s Aerojet AJ-26 engines (which are refubished Soviet NK-33 engines) with more powerful Russian Energomash RD-181 engines.
  • Falcon Heavy is essentially a Falcon 9 core vehicle with a couple of Falcon 9 first stages strapped to its sides. In doing this design, SpaceX has dramatically reduced the amount of launch vehicle development needed to bring it to launch. Whereas Falcon 9 can lift 13 metric tons to low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 53. A demo launch is expected sometime in 2015.
  • Firefly Space Systems, a launch start-up based on Texas, hopes to lift payloads up to 400 kg on its Alpha rocket in 2017.
  • The Blue Origin BE-4, a LOX/liquified natural gas (LNG) rocket engine still under development, has been selected to succeed the current RD-180 LOX/kerosene engines used on the ULA Atlas V.
  • Ariane 6 is expected to be a smaller rocket than Ariane 5, but more efficient and less costly to operate. It is now under pressure to streamline its development and manufacturing even further so that it can compete with SpaceX. The design is being done by a newly formed joint venture of Airbus and Safran, which develops solid rocket motors for Ariane.
  • Stratolaunch Systems, which is building the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, expects it can air-launch its three-stage rocket in 2018.
  • The British company Reaction Engines Ltd has been developing its SABRE engine technology, to be integrated into its Skylon single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, with possible visits to the ISS by 2022.

Exploration mission concepts

  • NASA is interested in a Europa mission. It wants to select instruments in April 2015, for development by 2016. Meanwhile, the mission needs to pass Congressional funding hurdles.
  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission is the NASA mission of record to redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the Moon, where humans will study it, and return samples. The mission is targeted for the 2020s. NASA is using it as a means to develop new technologies and gain spaceflight experience so that it can send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

2014 in review

Below are notable space developments that took place during 2014. Because of the length of the list, it has been broken into quarters.  In addition, some general undercurrents of space science that permeated the year are listed at the bottom.

If you recall the list for 2013, this one is a lot longer.

[Updates: Jan 1 – minor editing, but no new content. Jan 3 – fixes in Q3 for MAVEN and MOM. Jan 5 – Q4 add Venus Express.]

2014 Q1

  • The new year started with a small asteroid 2014 AA entering the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 1 over the mid-Atlantic. With a diameter of 2-3 meters, it was discovered 21 hours before  atmospheric entry.
  • Thaicom 6, a GEO communications satellite, was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 on Jan 6. The Falcon 9 first put it into a 90,000 km high super-synchronous elliptical transfer orbit, from which the satellite then did a plane change and later altitude adjustment back down to 36,000 km.
  • Orbital Sciences Cygnus made its first supply run to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch had initially been delayed by a solar storm. Launched on Jan 9, it arrived at the station on Jan 12.
  • The ESA Gaia telescope arrived at Earth-Moon L2 on Jan 16, beginning its 5-year mission to chart a 3-D map of the Milky Way galaxy.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft woke up from two years of hibernation on Jan 20.
  • After 10 years of operation, Opportunity is still roving the surface of Mars. The rover landed on Jan 25, 2004. Its twin rover Spirit landed on Jan 4, 2004, and continued to operate until getting stuck in late 2009; its last communication with Earth was on Mar 22, 2010. By the end of 2014, Opportunity had traveled over 40 km (25 mi).
  • Cosmonauts re-installed UrtheCast ultra HD cameras on the ISS on Jan 27, overcoming earlier telemetry problems. The cameras are on steerable platforms and part of a joint venture with Roscosmos.
  • On Feb 3, NASA released an image of a hexagonal jet stream swirling around the north pole of Saturn. This newest view was taken by Cassini on Nov 23, 2013. The spacecraft is seeing it with improved clarity because of Saturn’s tilt as it enters its summer season.
  • The first four Dove spacecraft of Flock1 were deployed from the ISS on Feb 11. In total, 28 members of the flock were deployed during the month.
  • The Chinese Yutu lunar rover, while unable to move, came out of sleep mode on Feb 11. Over the coming months, Chinese scientists would find that certain instruments, such as ground penetrating radar and infrared imaging systems, were functioning normally.
  • NASA’s NEOWISE, the resurrected WISE spacecraft sans liquid coolant, discovered its first comet, on Feb 14. Comet C/2014 C3 was found about 230 million km from Earth, unexpectedly in a retrograde orbit.
  • Silicon Valley start-up Skybox released a video taken by its SkySat-1 satellite, showing its ability to transmit real-time HD streams. The video shows aircraft and ground vehicles moving at a major airport.

2014 Q2

  • Enceladus, a geologically active moon of Saturn, may have a large liquid water sea under its south pole. The report published in the Apr 4 issue of Science, is based on hemispheric asymmetry data from Cassini.
  • In March, Titan Aerospace was in negotiations with Facebook to be acquired as a step toward world-wide Internet access. But by Apr 14, the New Mexico high altitude UAV maker had been acquired by Google.
  • Falcon 9R, the three-engine successor to Grasshopper, made its first free flight on Apr 17, reaching 250 meters. The F9R has legs similar to those to designed for Falcon 9 v1.1.
  • A Falcon 9 first stage soft splashdown was completed in rough Atlantic waves on Apr 18, while the upper stage carried a Dragon capsule to the ISS. The video stream from the first stage was corrupted, and in late April, SpaceX asked for help from MPEG video enthusiasts to restore the image stream. Months later, a partially restored video showed the engine retro-burn near the water creating waves, and deployment of landing legs before the stage hits the water.
  • Kepler 186f is the first Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone of another star. Described on Apr 17, it orbits a red dwarf every 130 days, but probably has iron, rock, ice, and liquid water as Earth does.
  • LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, came to a crashing end on the far side of the Moon. It used its last propellant to swoop down closer than ever before, to sample gas and dust near the lunar surface, and then brought its six-month mission to a close.
  • The B612 Foundation released a study on Apr 22 that found asteroids hit Earth much more frequently than previously thought, with city-destroying ability possibly once every 100 years.
  • The NASA High Definition Earth View (HDEV) experiment became operational on Apr 30. Cameras on the ISS allow real-time viewing of the Earth over the Internet (at least on the day side of the planet). A private venture UrtheCast also has cameras installed on the ISS, but for more targeted audiences.
  • KickSat, a CubeSat containing hundreds of small sprite spacecraft, failed to deploy them on May 4 after the KickSat master clock reset itself to deploy on May 16, about the time of re-entry. Probable cause is radiation.
  • NASA Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed to NASA Armstrong on May 13 in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon. Armstrong spent many years as a test pilot at the facility, including as an X-15 pilot. The center was originally named for Hugh Dryden, an aerodynamicist who had been NACA director and shepherded its transformation into NASA.
  • Google agreed to acquire Skybox on Jun 10 for $500 million, giving it the ability to keep Google Maps up-to-date and help with Internet access and disaster relief, areas in which it has keen interest.
  • A Russian Dnepr rocket launched 37 satellites from 17 countries on Jun 19. Most were CubeSats, including 11 from Planet Labs.
  • NASA tested a Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) on Jun 28. The test helped evaluate an atmospheric entry to Mars for payloads larger than the 2,000-pound Curiosity.

2014 Q3

  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) launched Jul 2 on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB to study atmospheric carbon-dioxide. It replaces the original OCO which was lost when the payload fairing failed to separate on a Taurus-XL vehicle in February 2009.
  • Frederick I. Ordway III, a rocketry pioneer, author, and adviser on the movie 2001, passed away on Jul 7 in Huntsville at age 87.
  • Angara, the first launch vehicle developed entirely in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, made its first launch, a suborbital test flight, on Jul 9.
  • A second Orbital Sciences Cygnus, headed to ISS on Jul 13. Named Janice for the late Shuttle astronaut and Orbital employee Janice Voss, it arrived at the ISS on Jul 16, carrying food, supplies, and experiments.
  • SpaceX launched a cluster of six Orbcomm satellites on Jul 14.
  • The DARPA Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program is intended to fly suborbital space flights to Mach 10 many times a day at less than $5 million per flight. On July 15, DARPA announce Phase 1 contracts to: Boeing with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic.
  • The final ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle ATV-5, named Georges Lemaître after Belgian astronomer, was launched on Jul 29, and docked with the ISS on Aug 12. It was the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane rocket.
  • AsiaSat 8 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Aug 5 to a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO. This was followed almost a month later by AsiaSat 6.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft reached its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, on Aug 6, and conducted a series of small engine burns so that it was traveling with the comet rather than chasing it. Shortly before arrival, it found that the comet may be two objects joined together. Since then, it has snapped images of gas jets and dust arising from the comet, and deployed the Philae lander. Rosetta was launched 10 years earlier, on Mar 2, 2004.
  • The Stardust spacecraft may have collected specks of dust from interstellar space, NASA acknowledged in August. Launched in February 1999, a sample return capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 16, 2006. The spacecraft itself continued to an encounter with Comet Tempel 1 in 2011.
  • Chasqui I, a Peruvian nanosatellite, was launched from the ISS by two Russian cosmonauts on their spacewalk on Aug 18. The 1U CubeSat is designed for Earth observation.
  • The Space Falcon 9R reusable test rocket detonated itself when its control systems failed to keep it with its test area on Aug 22. It had previously made several controlled lift-offs and landings at the SpaceX site in McGregor, TX.
  • Flock 1b, composed of 28 Planet Labs Dove imaging nanosatellites, were deployed from the ISS, starting in August, joining the 20 of Flock 1a, which were deployed earlier in the year. As opposed to other imaging satellites, the Flocks aim at providing daily update of the entire Earth, but at a lower resolution that more expensive satellites.
  • Two ESA Galileo global navigation satellites were placed into incorrect orbits, following launch by an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from French Guinea on Aug 22. One was later nudged back to a useful position by its thrusters over a period of days.
  • A 3D printed rocket injector was tested in at 20,000 lbf thrust engine at NASA Marshall on Aug 22. Instead of assembling 115 parts, the printed injector required only two.
  • While outside the ISS cleaning its windows in August, cosmonauts apparently discovered sea plankton on its surface, in spite of extreme temperature swings and harsh radiation. The current working theory is that the plankton floated up on air currents.
  • Several Planet Labs Dove CubeSats unexpectedly launched themselves from the ISS on Sep 5 while the crew was not looking. This was the second such incident. NanoRacks the provider of the CubeSat deployer believes it has identified the source of the problem.
  • AsiaSat 6 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Sep 7 into a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO.
  • Mars rover Curiosity finally reached the base of Mount Sharp on Sep 11.
  • The SpaceX CRS-4 mission began with launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. Among the payloads were crew supplies; ISS-RapidScat, a microwave scatterometer to support weather forecasting; SPINSAT, a technology demonstrator for electrically ignited solid propellant thrusters; a 3D printer; and 20 mice, dubbed the “Mousetronauts”, for studying the long-term effects of microgravity. The Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS on Sep 23.
  • The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 21 to study the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. The data from MAVEN will help answer what happened to gasses such as CO2 N2, and H2O as they escaped to space.
  • The ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 24. While largely a technology demonstrator, MOM carries instruments to detect methane, and measure the relative abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. Total cost to the time of launch was about US$73 million.

2014 Q4

  • Communication was lost with the STEREO-B spacecraft on Oct 1, after a planned reset as it drifted to the far side of the Sun. It is one of a pair of probes in the Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory mission.  STEREO-A, proceeds around the Sun slighter faster than the Earth; STEREO-B proceeds a bit more slowly. Launched in October 2006, the two spacecraft, plus Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) provide different perspectives of the Sun. Attempts are still being made to reconnect with STEREO-B.
  • Scientists reported in October that Cassini received in electric shock from Saturn’s moon Hyperion on Sep 26, 2005. A large potential difference between the moon and the spacecraft, coupled with Saturn’s magnetic field and a solar wind led to a 200-volt electric shock over 2,000 km.
  • The X37-B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3), a robotic winged spacecraft, landed at Vandenberg AFB on Oct 18, after being in space for 674 days. Launch was from Cape Canaveral in December 2012.
  • Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) swept past Mars on Oct 19, with a relative speed of about 56 km/sec, and enveloped the planet in its tail. Trajectories of orbiters around Mars were adjusted so that the planet would shield them from direct exposure, but they would later be able to take measurements. The comet nucleus was estimated between 400 and 700 meters in diameter.
  • The largest sunspot of the current solar cycle (which started in 2008) occurred in October, and measured almost 125,000 km across.
  • Along with Chang’e 4, a probe referred to as Chang’e 5-T1 was launched by a Chinese Long March 3C rocket on a lunar flyby mission on Oct 23; it included a return capsule to test atmospheric skip reentry technology. It also carried privately built German and Spanish experiments and instruments.
  • An Antares rocket destined for the ISS suddenly lost thrust on Oct 28, a few seconds after lift-off. This led a range safety officer to detonate the self-destruct mechanism on the rocket. The AJ-26 engines (Russian-built, Aerojet-refurbished) are at the center of investigations.
  • SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tourism vehicle, broke up in flight on Oct 31. The cause seems linked to premature activation of the vehicle’s unique feathering system, and perhaps crew error; but the NTSB investigation is not yet complete. The break-up seems unrelated to the new nylon/nitrous oxide engine.
  • A 3D printer built by Silicon Valley start-up Made in Space was finally installed on Nov. 17, and then started preliminary tests, including making a sample replacement part for itself. The printer was flown to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sep 21.
  • The ESA Philae lander separated from Rosetta, and landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov 12, but unfortunately settled in shadow. It found that the surface of the comet was covered in dust, and detected organics in the comet’s atmosphere.
  • The Beam Me to Mars project sent 90,000 messages to Mars on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4. Sponsored by space-funding company Uwingu, copies of the messages were also delivered to Congress, to NASA, and to UN.
  • Spikes of methane on Mars were observed by Curiosity over the past year, and reported by JPL in December. So far, it is unclear if they are biologic, geologic, or of other origin.
  • Orion, NASA’s multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) flew its unmanned Experimental Flight Test-1 on Dec 5, orbiting the Earth once before it was pushed to 3,600 miles altitude so that it could re-enter at nearly 2200 degrees C.
  • Venus Express, after 8 years of studying the Venusian atmosphere, finally exhausted its propellant in late November. The ESA probe began a slow fall into the atmosphere.
  • CARE, the Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made a suborbital test flight on Dec 18. It was launched by a new ISRO GSLV Mk.III, also making its first test flight.

Space Science Undercurrents

In addition to the events above…

  • Several solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) occurred during the year, and included some X-class flares. A few glanced off the Earth’s magnetic field, creating spectacular auroras. From space, these phenomena were studied by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO; and the pair of Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatories, STEREO-A and STEREO-B.
  • Several asteroids of varying size came within one Lunar Distance (1 LD) of the Earth. Because they are coming toward the Earth, they often are not noticed against the background of the sky until they are only a few days away.

When things go wrong

Orbital Science Antares launch failure on 2014-10-28. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
Orbital Science Antares launch failure on 2014-10-28. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“Space is hard, and today was a tough day.”

George T. Whitesides, CEO, Virgin Galactic October 31, 2014

[Note added 2014-11-05.]

This week was a terrible reminder that complex engineering projects that harness immense energies can go terribly wrong. No enterprise illustrates this like rocket propulsion.

  • On Tuesday, October 28, an Antares rocket was bound for the International Space Station. A few seconds after lift-off, there was clear trouble, leading a range safety officer to destroy to rocket.
  • On Friday, October 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was making its first powered flight using a new rocket engine. There was apparently an engine explosion a few seconds after it was dropped from WhiteKnightTwo mothership. One pilot was killed; another was able to deploy a parachute, but was seriously injured.

[11/5 – Note: “apparently” was not a strong enough word to express doubt about an engine explosion. Many news reports assumed this was what happened. However, certain credible witnesses (e.g., Stu Witt) reported that they did not detect such an event. Given the fourth NTSB briefing, the root cause is almost certainly not related to the engine.  When I wrote this, I did not want to take lots of time to explain why an “explosion” was in doubt. That was not the point of this article. But at the time, there seemed no simple way to say, “ignore that for now because it might not be correct”; at times like this, you know your writing skills are still lacking.]

And earlier this year,

  • On Friday, August 22, a SpaceX Falcon 9R rocket was testing improvements aimed at reliable pinpoint landing and reusability. A sensor failure provided faulty guidance information, tilting the rocket. An automated flight termination system detected that it was about to leave the test area, and cut the engine. Up to that point, the engine itself had performed without incident.

A rocket engine is a sustained chemical explosion which is shaped to lift objects or people to defy the gravity well of the Earth. From the moment of ignition, it provides an instantaneous kick which doesn’t let up until the propellant burns out, or in some cases, the engine is throttled and shut down. (By comparison, a nuclear fission reactor starts up slowly, heating its core, before it is brought on-line to provide electricity.)

As a result, starting a rocket engine is always dangerous. The bigger the engine, the greater the danger. The challenge to the rocket designer is to keep the propellants away from the ignition source until needed, only ignite within the engine chamber, and never let the sustained explosion spread to anywhere else. By the time the exploded propellants are converted into gas and pushed through to an expanding nozzle, they have accelerated from a virtual standstill to a few thousand meters/second in roughly the blink of an eye.

Thus, when failure happens, it is dramatic. Sometimes failure may not start with the rocket engine itself; it could start somewhere else. A weak structure may buckle, skewing stresses placed on the engine, leading to compromise of the containment of the controlled explosion. A control actuator may fail, causing the engine’s thrust to be off-center of the vehicle, and taking it off course; at that point, an automatic thrust termination system may take over, shutting off the engine or detonating the propellant.

Accident investigation boards are then convened to find out what went wrong. When loss of life is involved, it has a chilling effect on the entire space industry. The sobering truth is: failures are to be expected of any rocket test program. The trick is to catch them before they become catastrophic events.

The sooner failures are caught, the better. Given today’s computer aided design tools, design and simulation is intended to catch failure conditions before any manufacturing takes place. From there, component testing prior to assembly may weed out bad parts and build subsystem confidence. Some components require special tests, such as individual rocket engines, which are subjected to live fire static tests. This is followed by full vehicle or system integration and test.

Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, each subsequent test phase is more expensive than the previous one. If catastrophe strikes, not only do you lose the vehicle; you may lose the test facility.

Friday saw the loss of Scaled Composites pilot Michael Alsbury, who was helping pioneer private commercial space flight. In the past, NASA has had its share tragedy:

  • Shuttle Columbia crew / STS-107 (February 2003) – Husband, McCool, Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark, Ramon
  • Shuttle Challenger crew / STS-51-L (Jaunary 1986) – Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith, Scobee
  • X-15 pilot (November 1967) – Adams
  • Apollo 1 crew (January 1967) – Grissom, White, Chaffee

Space is hard. Rocket engine failures are hard lessons. Human physiology in space is hard as well, as are logistics for deep space flight.

Given the difficulty, when one endeavors on a program leading to space, it is important to understand why. Otherwise, it can easily not be worth the cost.

Apollo 11 — when tech needed innovation and a bit of piloting

By today’s standards, the landing by humans on the Moon was technologically primitive.

Keep in mind, the Apollo 11 mission happened before the Internet; in fact, the first two nodes of the ARPAnet, from which the Internet sprung, wouldn’t be connected until several months later. Apollo is credited with pushing micro-miniaturization of electronics. Without it, the Apollo Guidance Computer would not have been possible, or at least weighed many times more than it did. This machine, which aided the landing of the Eagle lunar module on the Moon, had 2048 words of memory, each word being 16 bits long. It had a clock speed at 2.048 MHz, about 1/500th to 1/1000th of current smartphones, which may have multiple processors at 1 to 2 GHz.

In the end, the computer was overloaded, and pilot Neil Armstrong took over to make a landing under manual control with read-out assistance from astrodynamicist Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. (The computer did not die; it was over-saturated with computation tasks, but continued to function.)

The landers that preceded Apollo to the Moon did not have digital computers.  The Surveyor series of landers had servos, which fed back to various spacecraft systems, resulting in soft landings.

Apollo Guidance Computer and display/keypad
Apollo Guidance Computer and display/keypad

Engineering design was dominated by drafting boards; computer graphics was in its primitive developmental stages, and along with it, interactive CAD of mechanical parts was barely beginning. The NASA STRuctual ANalysis program (NASTRAN) was under development during this time, finally being released to NASA in 1968, after the Saturn V was designed.

On the other hand, some things haven’t changed much. There is no miniaturization of a human crew. They need a certain amount of consumables, which must be stored for the trip. Rocket engines still use chemical propulsion. LOX/RP-1 (liquid oxygen and refined kerosene), the propellant combination used by the Saturn V first stage, is still a mainstay of launch vehicle design. The efficiency of translating chemicals into F=MA (or really F=v*dm/dt) has not appreciably changed.

And yet, with all the technology constraints and unchanging laws of physics, American primitive technology and ingenuity got humans to the surface of the Moon, and brought them safely back to Earth.  … And yet, 45 years later …..

That first landing did not go completely according to plan. Armstrong had to take over, with Aldrin’s assistance. Armstrong was under pressure to pick a safe spot quickly (which the automatic systems had not done), and put the craft down. By the time it landed, the Eagle had about 15-20 seconds of fuel left. Mission Control in Houston very likely had a sinking feeling that this could end badly; hence the comment about “a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

A re-enactment of the landing, based on radio transmissions, transcripts, and video, shows just how close they were to ending in disaster. (Kudos to Thamtech, LLC, for assembling the site together a couple of years ago.)

T + 45 years — the view from the pad

Sunday, July 20, marks the 45th anniversary of the Eagle landing at Tranquility Base on the Moon.

That journey started on July 16, 1969, with the launch of Apollo 11 from Launch Complex 39 (specfically Pad 39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, FL. The Saturn V rocket, with three stages and the Apollo spacecraft on top, stood 111 meters (363 feet) tall. The first stage tank had a diameter of 10.1 meters (33 feet).

It weighed 2950 metric tons (6.5 million lbm), and was lifted off the pad by 34 MN (meganewtons, 7.6 million lbf). The result is that it lifted off the pad relatively slowly. With a thrust-to-weight (T/W) ratio of 1.17, its acceleration off the pad was 1.66 m/s2 (5.45 ft/s2). (Recall that Earth’s surface gravity is 9.807 m/s2 (32.17 ft/s2).

As a result, compared to many other rockets, including the Space Shuttle, it feels a bit like slow motion. To that, add cameras that capture the launch at 500 frames per second (fps), and then play that back at a normal frame rate. The result is slowing down the motion by a factor of 16 to 20 (for 30 to 24 fps respectively). At this rate, you get to appreciate in detail the tremendous forces at play here.

Mark Gray, executive producer for Spacecraft Films, provided commentary for this clip of the launch at 500 fps. Posted five years ago, it gives amazing insight into the engineering that went into the pad, and the kind of forces at play when a Saturn V was ignited and lifted off.

In later decades, Pad 39A would see the launch of many Space Shuttle missions. In April 2014, the pad was leased to SpaceX, which is modifying it to support Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy launches.

And if you’re trying to find it, here it is.


With due respect to the “challenged” individuals who have impediments or roadblocks to performing certain tasks… some days, I feel like I am design-challenged. I may have a fair amount of understanding about a particular design goal and how it might be realized, but I can’t do the design.

To clarify, I operate in a couple of technical domains.  I’m doing fine in one (computer systems, especially computer software). But in the other, I have a sense of extreme frustration. Basically, I can’t do aerospace vehicle design.

I’ve come to the conclusion that to do reasonable design work, you need the appropriate 3D mechanical CAD tools, combined with simulation capability, such as static structural analysis, fluid flow, and thermal conductivity. Back of the envelope computation doesn’t cut it for a design that can be built.

What’s the problem with the CAD tools? They cost on the order of $7,000 for CAD and simulation capability. An aspiring designer cannot afford these tools. (This is not the same as having AutoCAD or Sketch-Up for drafting and design.) From here, the CAD system may generate instructions for manufacturing. In fact, for a more coordinated environment of design tools, database, and interface to manufacturing, the software tools may cost $50,000.

These tools are part of a design workflow. Other components of the workflow might include trajectory design and analysis, high fidelity CFD, design of the fuel system. For a vehicle design to work, the different parts of the workflow need to be able to talk to each other. That is, there are data formats and possibly signals agreed upon between tools.

All this introduces a set of workflow challenges. That is, the design-challenged individual may also be workflow-challenged.

To better size up the problem for a small aerospace entrepreneur, I’m hosting a session on “Aerospace Workflow Challenges” at the Hacker Dojo on June 29. I have more notes on the expectations of the session here.


A text-based countdown script in Python

Problem: You want to count down to an event (e.g., a rocket launch). But the web-based animated countdown consumes too much screen space and battery power (i.e., your laptop’s fan turns on when you go to that web page).

Solution: a text-based countdown in a small shell or console window. This one,, is written in Python 3. The project on GitHub is called DownPy.

I’ve tested this on Linux (Ubuntu 12.04) and Mac OS X Mavericks (10.9). It has no fancy appearance, and all it does is count down.  But that’s also why it barely takes any power.

If you want to try this in the next few days, here is an example.  This the command for counting down to the currently scheduled launch time of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2).

./ 2014-07-01 02:56 -z -7:00

If you’re a git user, then you should know how to clone the DownPy project. And if you aren’t, there is really only a single file. Make sure you have Python 3, copy the file, make it executable, and go for it!  Of course, you can also open multiple shell/command windows, and have a countdown for each different event you are interested in. (There are some Mars spacecraft encounters coming up.)

So now you how I spent one day of my weekend.  I came up with the basic date/time queries in Python earlier in the week. Then on the weekend, I created a loop that adjusts to lag and other compute load oddities.  By the evening, I had it reporting and rewriting on a single, non-scrolling line.

[More info on Python, including downloads.]

SpaceX Dragon V2

SpaceX unveiled the manned version of the Dragon capsule on Thursday evening, May 29. (Yes, about 2 weeks ago. [I’ve been busy.]) If you missed it, here is how SpaceX described Dragon V2.

The essentials

Judging from Internet reaction, people seem to be enamoured with it. You can read reactions to it elsewhere.  I’ll give you my impression.

  • The SuperDraco engines, which are used for landing the capsule on solid ground, are also the emergency launch escape system.  Unlike Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, where the escape tower was jettisoned at altitude after launch, the SuperDraco engines are integral to the spacecraft.  The placement of the engines dictated an altered shape for the capsule. They are presumably evolved from the Draco thrusters used for attitude control, but are 100 times more powerful. (As Elon said, “Hence, the ‘Super’.)
  • The large touch-screen panel, which can stowed away, is new to spacecraft design.  This indicates that the actual avionics which provide data to the display, are located elsewhere in the capsule — a major departure from previous manned spacecraft and aircraft design. I saw some comments that compared it to a Tesla touch-screen display.  I can believe that Tesla might produce some custom components for SpaceX; there is certainly technology sharing going on.  To me, the joystick looks like it could have been designed for a sports car.

Dragon V2 Interior

This is, in my judgement, an incomplete spacecraft, but a really impressive one.  The design is probably complete, but what was on display was a basic functional shell.  It looks roomy because there weren’t seven people in there, and the storage compartments for food and other crew consumables have not been installed yet. (Oxygen and water are likely provided by tanks on the perimeter out the capsule, but outside the cabin.) Presumably, the crew would spend some time in a shirt-sleeve environment rather than in helmeted pressure suits.  There will need to be space to stow suit gear away.


Not on display were the avionics and software for how to do a propulsive soft landing on ground. It stands to reason that SpaceX has an ambitious avionics and software program that encompasses real-time attitude dynamics and engine control. SpaceX has been doing landing tests with Grasshopper and Falcon V9R. Now it will add Dragon V2 to that effort.

A lander for Mars?

SpaceX designs most of its hardware with Mars in mind.  It is possible that this fundamental Dragon capsule design could be what lands on Mars.  There are, however, a couple caveats.

  1. The capsule would have to open up to the Martian atmosphere, de-pressurizing to vastly different conditions from what are inside the capsule upon landing.  Martian atmospheric pressure is about 1/100th of Earth sea level. The temperature radically colder than Earth, perhaps comparable in some cases to Antarctica.
  2. If the capsule is to be reusable on Mars, it probably is going to be powered by methane rather than the current hypergolic propellant. Methane can be produced on Mars. Other consumables would have to be produced as well.  That is, there needs to be a ground infrastructure for servicing a capsule before it could be reused.

In the final analysis

This is a low-Earth orbit vehicle for ferrying passengers to station such as the ISS or perhaps a Bigelow station, maintain a crew for at most a few days.  With few crew members, it could stay in orbit for a longer time.

It is a stepping stone in developing technology for Mars, not the final vehicle, but it is a fairly major one. A launch escape test later this year will demonstrate the SuperDraco engines and avionics in flight.

Footnote: Rick’s been busy

For those who wonder, what happened, why did I drop out of sight?, the answer is, I’ve been busy.

Outside of the day job, I’ve been helping coordinate activities on behalf of the Silicon Valley Space Center.  Specifically, we just completed a Space Entrepreneurship Series, a sequence of four meetings for aspiring space entrepreneurs. We consistently had 20+ attendees. Hopefully, this means a bumper crop of new space enterprises in the next year.

My day job is in the software group of a computing hardware design company. Sometimes, I get intriguing challenges, some of which call for really long days just because I can’t stop. The last few weeks have been like that.

To make life more interesting, a couple of space-related efforts I have helped on seem to have attracted attention.  More on those later.