Posts Tagged ‘Elon Musk’

RAF Pilot Set to Join Branson Satellite Programme

October 6, 2019

There were a couple of really great, fascinating science stories in Friday’s I newspaper, which I’d like to cover before I get to the political stuff of attacking and refuting Boris Johnson, the Tories, and other right-wing nonsense.

One of these was the report that the RAF had selected a pilot to join the crews set to fly Cosmic Girl, an adapted 747 developed by Branson’s company, Virgin Orbit, send satellites into space. The article by Ewan Somerville, titled ‘RAF pilot gets space wings as first to join satellite programme’ on page 15 of the newspaper for Friday, 4th October 2019, ran

The Royal Air Force is heading for new heights after selecting its first pilot to join a space programme.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard has been assigned to a new £30m Ministry of Defence project. He will swap the cockpit of a Typhoon jet to fly a modified 747-400 plane, called Cosmic Girl, to launch satellites into orbit from mid-air, marking a “significant step” for British space endeavours.

A partnership between the RAF and space company Virgin Orbit to develop space technology, a response to billions of dollars being spent by the US, China and India, was unveiled at the Air Space Power conference in July.

Flt Lt Stannard hailed the programme a “truly unique opportunity” adding: “This programme is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space so it’s a real privilege to be part of it and I’m looking forward to bring the skills and knowledge I gain back to the RAF.”

Over three years, Flt Lt Stannard will join several test pilots to send satellites into space from 30,000ft using a launcher attached to the Boeing 747’s fuselage. Freed from the need to launch from the ground, hi-tech satellites, developed by Britain, weighing only 300kg and described by Flt Lt Stannard as “the size of a washing machine”, could be launched from anywhere worldwide.

The RAF already has a similar small satellite, Carbonite 2, in orbit and plans for a “constellation” of them to provide HD imaging, video and secure communications. 

The mission is design to ensure Britain is not target by foreign powers for lacking its own space capabilities. It comes as the UK is due to send eight military personnel to join Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led coalition to deter “hostile acts in space” over the next 12 months.

I’m another British satellite launcher is being developed, even if the plane is made by Boeing, an American company. I’m also glad that the RAF have supplied an officer, as previous efforts to get a Brit into space have been hampered by squabbling within the armed forces. Before Helen Sharman became the first British person to go into space with the Russians to Mir, Britain was offered the opportunity by the Americans of sending an astronaut to go aboard the space shuttle. The army, air force and navy all put their men forward, and the scheme failed because of the wrangling over which one should be chosen.

I am not, however, altogether optimistic about this project as it’s a space company owned by Beardie Branson. How long has his company, Virgin Galactic, been claiming that ‘next year’ they’ll send the first tourists into space? Since the 1990s! I can see this one similarly stretching on for years. I have far more confidence in Orbex and their spaceship and launch complex now being built in Scotland.

As for using an aircraft as the first stage to send spacecraft into orbit, this was extensively discussed by the aircraft designers David Ashcroft and Patrick Collins in their book Your Spaceflight Manual: How You Could Be A Tourist in Space Within Twenty Years (London: Headline 1990). After discussing some of the classic spaceplane concepts of the past, like the XIB rocket plane and the Dynosoar, they also describe the design by the French aerospace company, Dassault, of 1964-7. This would have consisted of a supersonic jet capable of reaching Mach 4 as the first stage. The second stage would have been a rocket which would have flown at Mach 8, and used fuel from the first stage launcher. The whole vehicle was designed to be reusable.

The two authors also proposed their own designs for composite, two-stage spaceplanes, Spacecab and SpaceBus. These would have consisted of a jet-propelled first stage, which would piggy-back a much smaller rocket-driven orbiter. They estimated that Spacebus’ cost per flight would be higher than that of a 747, but much, much less than the space shuttle. It would be an estimated $250,000 against the Shuttle’s $300 million. Space bus was designed to carry 50 passengers, at a cost to each of $5,000. The pair also estimated that it would need $2bn to fund the development of a prototype Spacecab, and believed that the total development cost would be $10bn, the same as the similar Sanger concept then being developed in Germany. Although expensive, this would have been less than the $20bn set aside for the construction of the Freedom Space Station.

It’s a pity Ashcrofts and Collins’ spaceplane was not developed, though hardly unsurprising. Space research is very expensive, and the British government has traditionally been very reluctant to spend anything on space research since the cancellation of Black Arrow in 1975. The pair were also writing at the end of the 1980s, when there was little interest in the private development of spaceflight. This changed with the X-Prize in the 1990s so that we now have several private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ outfits, competing to develop launchers, as well as Orbex. Hopefully, sooner or later, someone will start taking paying passengers into space and developing space industry. But somehow I doubt it’ll be Branson.

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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Plans to Take Us Back to the Moon

May 12, 2019

One of the other interesting pieces in yesterday’s I for 11th May 2019 was David Parsley’s article, ‘Amazon tycoons furthest delivery – putting people back on the Moon’. As the headline says, this is about the plans by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a crewed mission to the Moon within the next five years. The article runs

The man who made billions from sending parcels around Earth is taking one giant leap towards the Moon.

The world’s richest man and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos aims to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his first small step.

Mr Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will initially land an unmanned robotic ship about the size of a small house, but would also help Nasa to meet its target to put humans back on the surface of Earth’s satellite in five years’ time.

“We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago,” said Mr Bezos. “It’s time to back to the Moon, this time to stay.”

Known as Blue Moon, the reusable lunar lander is capable of carrying four rovers and uses a newly designed rocket engine powerful enough to carry up to 6.5 metric tons of cargo on the 238,000-mile journey.

Mr Bezos, who is worth £100bn, unveiled a model of one of Blue Moon’s proposed rovers, which was roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BD-7 which can blast 10,000 lb of thrust.

“We have been given a gift – this nearby body called the Moon,” Mr Bezos added.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence called on Nasa to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary”, four years earlier than planned.

Blue Origin said the group would “share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth”. Based in Kent, Washington, the group is also developing the New Shepherd rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for commercial satellite launches. It is aiming to deliver the New Glenn rocket by 2021, while launching humans in a suborbital flight later this year aboard New Shepherd.

Elon Musk also develops plans to take humans to Mars with his company SpaceX. He previously set the first cargo-carrying Mars mission for 2022 and a crewed mission for 2024.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson achieved Virgin Galactic’s first manned flight last year and plans to launch the first space tourism flights later this year. (p. 13).

This is very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to Bezos to take humanity back to the Moon, and Musk to send us to Mars. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Branson to take tourists into space, as he’s been promising that ‘soon’ or ‘next year’ for decades.

However, I’d like Bezos to pay his Amazon workers a living wage first. From what I gather, the peeps working at his warehouses really are paid starvation wages. Which, I ‘spose, is how he get to be worth £100 billion. But he can afford to earn a little less, and workers a lot more. Sending people into space does not mean ignoring or exploiting the folks back on Earth. If he gives his workers a proper wage, then I’ll be behind him and his plans to take humanity to the planets 100 per cent.

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

Branson’s Spaceplane and Kubrick’s 2001: The Legacy of a Vision

October 11, 2018

Today’s I also carried a picture of Richard Branson hanging out of the portholes of one his spaceplanes, waving a model of the craft he claims will shortly take paying passengers for a trip into space.

This follows his announcement yesterday that, after over a decade of delays, one of his spacecraft will launch sometime in the next few weeks. And then, a few months after that, Branson himself would take a journey into the High Frontier. There’s supposed to be a race on between Branson, Bezos and Musk over which will be the first private company to send people into space.

I’ve got my doubts that it will be Branson. He’s been telling the world that his Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be taking people up there in a year’s time since the late ’90s. For a moment, it did look as though he might actually do it, until one of the spaceships crashed due to a design fault, killing one of the co-pilots. Moreover, investors and those worried about the state of the NHS should look very carefully at what else is going on in Branson’s empire when he makes these announcements. There was a story in Private Eye a few months ago about how Branson uses them to direct attention away from other projects, which might be controversial. He was quoted as saying that he made one announcement, that his planes were ready to fly, to distract people from the fact that his private healthcare division, Virgin Health, had just one a whole slew of NHS contracts and was ready to open several clinics around the country.

And several times in the past Virgin has had problems with its finances to the tune of hundreds of millions or so. Private Eye was threatened several times with a libel action from Branson, claiming it was all false. The Eye later ran a story about this, quoting Branson himself as saying that he tried to silence the satirical paper because it was true, but he didn’t want the public, investors or the banks knowing because it would stop him getting more money from the banks.

Now that he’s declaring that they’re nearly all set and raring to go, we’re entitled to ask whether this is really the case, or is it just another distraction from him eating up more of our precious NHS, or the possible collapse of one of his other companies.

As for the spacecraft itself, I was struck by the similarity between it and the Orion spaceplane of Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As you can see from the cover for the DVD version of Kubrick’s epic, the two look very similar.

And I’m not surprised, as this shows the very thorough research Kubrick did to get the look of the space vehicles just right. Clarke’s a Hard SF writer, which means that his fictions are based in scientific fact, although often with more than a little extrapolation and fantasy. There are, after all, no real black alien monoliths in the solar system, which form stargates to alien realities. Kubrick also wanted to make the greatest SF movie ever, and so he turned from relying on artists to real space scientists and engineers to design the spacecraft.

Which is why the spacecraft in 2001 – the spaceplane, orbital space station, Moon shuttle and the Discovery spacecraft itself – look utterly convincing as well as cool. The film was shot in Britain, and as well as using experts from NASA and American aerospace companies, he also used British firms, especially for the one-person space pods.

I think if Branson really wanted to get into space, he would have been better off ringing Kubrick up for a few hints about spacecraft design. He’d also have been in the enviable position of being in charge of the first company whose promotional film would have won and academy award.

Branson may be set to go into space, but Kubrick and Clarke got their first. And it was awesome.

And here’s a video from YouTube showing a bit of the spaceplane from 2001.

Elon Musk’s Launch of Sports Car into Space, and Fear Factory’s Version of ‘Cars’

February 10, 2018

And now for something a bit lighter.

This week, Elon Musk’s Space-X company launched a sports car into space, complete with a dummy pilot. This was supposedly inspired by David Bowie’s Starman, and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. You probably saw the pictures in the paper.

What it reminded me most strongly of, however, was the video for Fear Factory’s version of the Gary Numan hit, Cars. Fear Factory are an American Heavy Metal/Industrial band, and Numan himself appears in the video as a driver of a car in space.

The video includes scenes of the band driving through a futuristic network of brightly tunnels, while alphanumerics scroll down the screen, which is clearly inspired by The Matrix trilogy. Then Numan himself drives at speed through a city. He’s also driving a car in space and collides with a satellite. This is then followed by the scenes of a crash, and the lead singer walking towards an upturned car from which a woman and the firemen are fleeing. It ends with a shot of the other wrecked car in space floating away.

And in between the lead singer inserts one of the band’s CDs into the car’s player, and there’s a creepy kid in the back, who looks just like he came out of Village of the Damned.

Take a look at the video, and see the similarities between it and Musk’s venture. He really should have had this on his playlist, as well as Bowie and Iggy Pop.