SpaceJibe

September 19, 2016

NASA is building the largest rocket of all time for a 2018 launch

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Mars, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 8:54 am
Artist's rendering of a blueprint of the completed Space Launch System. (NASA/MSFC)

Artist’s rendering of a blueprint of the completed Space Launch System. (NASA/MSFC)

NASA has worked on some inspiring interplanetary projects in the last few years, but few have been as ambitious as the simply-named Space Launch System, a new rocket that will be the largest ever built at 384 feet tall, surpassing even the mighty Saturn V(363 feet), the rocket that took humanity to the moon. It will also be more powerful, with20 percent more thrust using liquid hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. Last week, NASA announced that the Space Launch System, SLS for short, is on track to perform its first unmanned test launch in 2018. The larger goal is to carry humans into orbit around an asteroid, and then to Mars by the 2030s. After that, NASA says the rocket could be used to reach Saturn and Jupiter.

At the moment, even getting off the ground would be progress: since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been left without any domestic capability to launch American astronauts into space; instead it has been purchasing rides for them aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at high cost. While SpaceX and other private companies are working furiously to provide their own human passenger spacecraft for travel into Earth’s orbit, NASA wants to go even further. The agency has begun testing models of the SLSand initial construction of some the major components. It says the first test flight will have an initial cost of $7 billion. The SLS will also be reusing some leftover parts from the inventory of the retired Space Shuttle, including its engines.

However, as with many large NASA projects, the SLS has already been delayed from an initial flight in 2017, and lawmakers in Congress, who must approve NASA’s budget, areconcerned about further delays and cost overruns. Whether NASA is able to keep the project on track remains to be seen, but at the moment, it’s all systems go. Check out the progress and promise in photos and conceptual illustrations below.

NASA engineers used a 67.5-inch model to test how environmental factors including wind and water would affect the rocket on the launchpad. (Credit: NASA/LaRC)

NASA engineers used a 67.5-inch model to test how environmental factors including wind and water would affect the rocket on the launchpad. (Credit: NASA/LaRC)

 

Artist's rendering of the Space Launch System sitting on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (NASA/MSFC)

Artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System sitting on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (NASA/MSFC)

More awesome images here:

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June 23, 2016

NASA reveals the X-57, its electric plane project

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:57 pm

1466451753763Artist’s concept of the X-57. (NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.)

 

An electric plane project is in the works at NASA, and the new aircraft is called the X-57. It’s an initiative the space agency hopes will demonstrate that electric-powered aviation can be environmentally friendly, quiet, and quick.

Made out of a modified Italian-designed plane, the X-57 will have a skinny wing with a total of 14 battery-powered motors, and because it won’t run on gas, it won’t produce exhaust from burnt fossil fuels. NASA said that having multiple small engines means the X-57 will need less energy to cruise at a speed of 175 mph.

And while traditional fuel-burning airplanes need to cruise slower than their maximum speed to be the most fuel-efficient, the space agency says that that isn’t the case with an electric-powered plane.

Related: Solar Impulse 2 attempts fuel-free trans-Atlantic flight

The “X” designation in the plane’s name places it the tradition of experimental aircraft, with the first, the X-1, the name of the plane that broke the sound barrier in 1947 at the hands of Chuck Yeager.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, said in a statement.

Related: Hang glider aims to break long-distance flight record

The space agency may in fact make more than one aircraft in the program. “As many as five larger transport-scale X-planes also are planned as part of the initiative,” NASA says. The plane is also called Maxwell, named after James Clerk Maxwell, a vanguard in the study of electromagnetism.

The power of clean energy in aviation is in the spotlight lately, as the sun-powered aircraft Solar Impulse 2took off from New York’s Kennedy airport at 2:30 a.m. EDT Monday, on a daring trip across the Atlantic Ocean— the latest leg of a record-breaking solar-powered journey around the world meant to showcase the power of renewable energy.

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April 25, 2016

Air Force maglev sled breaks record at 633 mph

Filed under: Cool, Government Policies, Military — bferrari @ 8:49 am

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In the New Mexico desert last month, a rocket-powered magnetically-levitated sled broke a world record after it blasted down a track at 633 miles per hour, faster than the cruising speed of a 747.

The test occurred at Holloman Air Force Base on a special 2100-foot track on March 4. Air Force video shows the one-ton vehicle rocketing down the track, a fiery, dusty plume behind it.

“We have a magnetically-levitated sled, where we use a very cold liquid helium to essentially levitate the sled via superconducting magnetics,” Lt. Col. Shawn Morgenstern, the commander of the 846th Test Squadron, said in the video.

“The test today was significantly faster than any test that we’ve previously done,” Morgenstern added.

The Air Force said that the sled accelerated at a rate of 928 feet per second. Before this test, the sled had reached 513 mph.

Magnetic levitation systems allow for vehicles to travel in a very low-friction environment, permitting incredibly fast speeds— last year, a Japanese maglev train traveled at 374 mph. And Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has proposed a system called the Hyperloop that would use a related technology to move people or cargo at breathtaking speeds.

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December 26, 2015

China Just Flew This Gigantic Airship To the Edge Of Space

Filed under: Gadgets, Life, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 6:54 pm

The technology could have communications and military advantages for China.

China just flew a 250-foot airship to near the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar-powered behemoth can stay airborne for half a year and requires no fuel to get it more than 12 miles into the air—just fill it with helium and let it go; the sun powers it once it reaches its cruising altitude.

Airships predate airplanes, but have been largely supplanted by them. However, they remain superior for pretty much anything that doesn’t require the speed of a jet engine. They can hang around for months, they can carry large payloads, and they can fly way higher than most planes, because an airplane’s wing runs out of air to support it at such high altitudes.

This last property might be the reason China is testing the Yuanmeng airship. During its estimated two-day trial, the airship launched from Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, bristling with communications gear—”data relays, high-definition observation and spatial imaging” equipment—says the Chinese People’s Daily. The sedentary nature of the airship allows it to sit up at the edge of space and watch. It can surveil the ground, and it can also act as a base station to command fleets of military planes. In a pinch, the Yuanmeng airship could act as a stand-in for communications satellites.

Popular Science speculates on China’s plans for the technology:

Operating higher in near space means that the Yuanmeng would have constant line of sight over a hundred thousand square miles—an important requirement for radar and imaging. Increased sensor coverage means increased warning time against stealthy threats such as cruise missiles, giving Chinese forces a greater opportunity to detect and shoot down such threats. It would also be harder for fighters and surface-to-air missiles to attack near space objects.

They’re not perfect though. The People’s Daily spoke to Yu Quan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who told them that “The biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference in the day and night.” Because the airship is so close to space, it experiences space-like extremes of weather as it is baked by the sun and then frozen by the night.

Airships can solve many problems. In much the same way that regular oceangoing ships carry huge loads of goods from continent to continent, airships are also good for transporting goods. Even smaller airships can carry loads of 50 tons. And perhaps they could even replace passenger airplanes as providers of low-cost air travel. They might not be as fast, but they could be a lot more comfortable.

December 11, 2015

Google and NASA Hope Lightning-Fast Computers Will Unlock the Secrets of Nature

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Life, Military — bferrari @ 12:34 pm

Quantum computers can perform about 100 million times faster than today’s machines.

d-wave011

Google has a lot of computers. By many accounts, it has more computers than any other company in the world. Yet, even with so much horsepower at their disposal, Google’s researchers keep running into barriers when trying to solve certain complex problems, particularly those tied to artificial intelligence. Google, in effect, has been stumped.

“We have already encountered problems we would like to solve that are unfeasible with conventional computers,” John Giannandrea, a vice president for engineering at Google, said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We want to understand the future that may lie ahead of us in non-conventional computing.”

One type of machine Google has increasingly turned to for help is called a quantum computer. Such systems tap into the seemingly magical properties of quantum mechanics, the field of science that deals with how atoms and other tiny particles work. They can be used to solve problems that traditional computers simply can’t handle.

On Tuesday, Google issued its most optimistic statements to date around the technology, declaring that the still-primitive quantum machines will probably evolve into revolutionary systems for the computing industry and perhaps, for mankind. The event was held on the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is teaming with NASA and D-Wave Systems, a maker of quantum computers, to build a computing lab. Their work has been underway for a couple of years, but only recently—thanks to a larger, upgraded D-Wave machine—have the researchers seen truly promising results from experiments.

Google revealed on Tuesday that recent test calculations show that a D-Wave computer can obliterate the work of a standard computer chip in performing some tasks. In one test, the D-Wave machine needed just a single second to process calculations that would have taken a standard machine 10,000 years to solve. Overall, Google said the quantum machines appeared to perform 100 million times faster on certain problems. Such a speedup would be a true rarity in the history of computing.

Some serious caveats surround these accomplishments, however. D-Wave’s computer is far from a general-purpose machine. It can perform only a limited set of quantum calculations, and just a few people know how to shape problems suitably for the computer. As a result, Google has been relegated to running what amount to test operations on the D-Wave system, rather than the code used in the company’s day-to-day operations. “We need to make it easier to take a practical optimization problem as it occurs on some engineer’s desk,” Hartmut Neven, a director of engineering at Google, said at the event. “We need to make the input into the machine easier. That is not there yet.”

Google is using the tough optimization calculations in some of its advanced AI technology that everyday people touch. (Its photo-search tools and voice-recognition technology are among the most obvious examples.) But those calculations are done on thousands of interlinked traditional computers. The hope is that Google could someday turn to quantum computers to complement its standard systems and come up with more breakthroughs on as-of-yet unsolvable problems. “It may be several years before this kind of work makes a difference to Google products,” said Giannandrea.

The D-Wave machine, which is also being used by NASA with hopes of improving its simulation and encryption technology, relies on what are known as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike a typical binary digit that must be either a 1 or a zero, a qubit can be a 1, zero, or a state somewhere in between at any moment. It helps to have a degree or two in physics to fully understand how quantum computers work, but the upshot of the technology is that the machines can simultaneously consider an incredible number of possible solutions to a problem. This makes quantum computers well-suited for optimization problems, in which, for example, someone might be trying to find out the best way to route the traffic of thousands of planes going into and out of an airport. It so happens that much of today’s cutting-edge AI software relies on crunching similar sets of these tricky optimization problems.

Neven has spent the most time of any Google employee working with D-Wave machines, and he sees promise for them in areas such as improving battery technology, desalinization machines, and solar cells. The unique qualities of qubits may lend them to uncovering properties about materials, which could result in much more efficient industrial machines. “Because the operating system of nature, as far as we understand it, is quantum physics, you need a process that acts on quantum physics to describe parts of the universe,” Neven said. “Sooner or later, quantum computers will be the tool of choice to solve these problems.”

Quantum-Computer

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November 16, 2015

Hypersonic rocket engine could ‘revolutionize’ air travel

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships, Uncategorized — bferrari @ 6:08 pm

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British aerospace giant BAE Systems is betting big on hypersonic travel — something its potential new partner says could be a reality within two decades.

BAE is planning to invest £20.6 million ($31.8 million) in a 20% stake of Reaction Engines, a UK-based engineering firm which has developed what it calls “breakthrough” aerospace engine technology, which could potentially be used for a new generation of reusable space vehicles and, as a commercial offshoot, could revolutionize air travel.

An announcement on BAE’s website states that the partnership will allow collaboration on Reaction Engines’ SABRE technology — “a new aerospace engine class that combines both jet and rocket technologies with the potential to revolutionize hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.”

Along with hypersonic air travel, Mark Thomas, Reaction Engines’ managing director, told CNN’s Richard Quest that a reusable space plane that takes off and lands like an aircraft is “one of the concepts that could be made possible by this engine.”

sabre_notes_1l1

Five times the speed of sound
SABRE, which stands for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, is an air-breathing engine, which uses ultra-lightweight heat exchangers to cool very hot air streams — such as those encountered at hypersonic speeds.

The technology will “enable aircraft to operate easily at speeds of up to five times the speed of sound or fly directly into Earth orbit,” Reaction Engines says in a press release on its website.

Through its ability to use atmospheric oxygen for propulsion, the engine’s design negates the need for heavy fuel reserves on board, drastically reducing the weight of a SABRE-powered vehicle.

BAE’s statement says that SABRE can also “transition” to a rocket mode, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity — or 25 times the speed of sound.

Thomas describes the design as an “absolutely revolutionary… visionary concept.”

He explains that SABRE is, at heart, a rocket engine but can breathe air when in the atmosphere “so you don’t need to carry so much liquid oxygen on board your vehicle, it massively reduces the weight, and you can put that into vehicle design capability or payload.”

The company’s advanced heat exchanger, which can reduce hypersonic air temperature by over a thousand degrees in a hundredth of a second, is fundamental to the engine’s design.

“If you’re doing hypersonic speed the air is around 1000˚C (1832˚F) which is more typical of the air coming out the back of the engine than goes in the front,” he explains. “So you have to be able to cool that down really quickly.”

Breaking boundaries

The company is focusing on developing the engine and Thomas says BAE will help translate its potential into a range of workable applications.

“I think we’re two decades away from a passenger carrying vehicle but a (reusable) space access vehicle within ten to 15 years.”

BAE’s proposed 20% investment is pending the approval of Reaction Engines’ shareholders.

December 31, 2014

The Space Shuttle Atlantis viewed from the International Space Station.

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Military — bferrari @ 5:20 pm
Space Shuttle Atlantis as viewed from the International Space Station. (NASA/ESA)

Space Shuttle Atlantis as viewed from the International Space Station. (NASA/ESA)

July 18, 2014

Artist’s Concept of DARPA’s XS-1 Vehicle

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:24 pm
The U.S. military is developing the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane to launch space missions faster and cheaper than ever before. See photos and images of the DARPA-led XS-1 space plane project in this Space.com gallery. Pictured here: An artist's concept of DARPA's Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1).

The U.S. military is developing the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane to launch space missions faster and cheaper than ever before. See photos and images of the DARPA-led XS-1 space plane project in this Space.com gallery. Pictured here: An artist’s concept of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1).

June 13, 2014

Dream Chaser space plane prototype to fly again in 2014

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:43 pm
This illustration shows the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

This illustration shows the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

A protoype of a space plane being developed to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station will take to the skies again later this year.

The prototype of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser vehicle has already been through some drop tests and a free flight in 2013, which ended when the Dream Chaser skidded off the runway. The new series of flights will include several automated ones, followed by piloted trips, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s space systems division.

The reusable astronaut taxi is one of three designs competing for NASA dollars in the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The initiative aims to create a viable United States spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. At the moment, Russian Soyuz vehicles are the only spacecraft that can deliver astronauts into orbit. [See images of the Dream Chaser space plane]

Three companies – Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing – are funded through the Commercial Crew Program right now, but that pool of competitors could get smaller in the next phase of the program, which will be announced later this year.

“We believe we’re well positioned for that next phase, but in addition to that, I think what we’re doing is building a system [to attract] multiple clients,” Sirangelo told reporters during a news conference on Thursday.

Sierra Nevada aims to launch Dream Chaser into space for the first time in November 2016, company representatives have said.

Working in a former shuttle facility

Sirangelo delivered his comments while announcing a contract with Craig Technologies, an engineering and technical company that is leasing a 161,000-square-foot building in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which was formerly used for NASA shuttle logistics.

Craig will provide a piece of hardware that will help “move the Dream Chaser around and put it on its adapter for flight,” Sirangelo said. Called a “cradle,” the ground equipment device is intended to lift and move the spacecraft while it is being processed.

“This is the first of many different pieces of business we will be doing here,” Sirangelo said.

Dream Chaser will ride to orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket and return to Earth by making a landing on a runway, much like NASA’s space shuttles did before their retirement in 2011. Craig is expected to provide several other products and services to SNC, which Sirangelo said are being negotiated. The value of the contract was not disclosed.

‘We’re able to bring jobs’

In 2012, Craig also brokered a five-year Space Act Agreement with NASA for the agency to let it use 1,600 pieces of equipment that were once used to maintain and repair the shuttle.

Because the agreement required Craig to stay within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Kennedy Space Center, Craig signed a lease with Cape Canaveral Ventures for the nearby shuttle depot.

Since 2013, Craig (which has about 400 employees in the United States) has hired 150 employees, with 65 of those former shuttle workers. It also spent $2 million renovating the facility and hiring workers so far.

“The important message is we’re able to bring jobs, and keep that knowledge base, and retain that experience and that skilled work force that was here before,” Carol Craig, founder and CEO of Craig Technologies, said during the news conference. “That’s what we hope to bring to Mark and his team.”

Craig joins a list of about 40 companies that are participating in the Dream Chaser program. Sierra Nevada also has participated in missions such as NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, where it provided some of the systems that helped the rover land in the last minute of its so-called “seven minutes of terror” touchdown in 2012.

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June 6, 2014

SpaceX’s new Dragon capsule could be the future of space travel

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Life, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:00 pm
The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

Thursday evening, SpaceX revealed an upgraded version of its Dragon spacecraft, capable of carrying up to seven people at a time.

The company hopes to use the 15-foot-tall capsule to carry astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2017.

THE COMPANY HOPES TO CARRY ASTRONAUTS TO THE SPACE STATION BEGINNING IN 2017

Its timing is impeccable. Currently, NASA relies entirely on Russia for transporting its astronauts to the station. But, last month, Russia threatened to revoke accessdue to tensions between the two countries. And a few days ago, NASA announced that its latest purchase of six round-trip tickets to the space station, good through 2017, will be its last. (The tickets cost $76.3 million each.)

That brings us to SpaceX, the private company started by Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) in 2002. Since May 2012, the company has been using a previous version of the Dragon spacecraft to carry cargo to the space station — as part of NASA’s long-term plan to have private US companies take over the basics of space transport.

The latest Dragon V2 has a few upgrades on the old one: it lands with thrusters, instead of crashing into the ocean with parachutes, is more fully reusable, and, of course, can carry people. SpaceX will begin testing the craft over the next few years, with its first peopled flights coming in 2016.

(SpaceX)

(SpaceX)

In terms of hardware, the new Dragon’s biggest upgrade is a set of 8 thrusters, which are powerful enough to slow down the capsule, allowing controlled landings on Earth.

The Dragon will also carry parachutes in case of an equipment failure, but if the thrusters are successful, they’d be a huge step forward in space flight, eliminating the need for parachute-aided crash landings for a capsule for the first time.

Many components of the current Dragon can be used for multiple flights, but the new landing method will, in theory, make the whole capsule rapidly reusable, going through ten flights before needing to be heavily serviced.

“You can just reload propellant and fly again,” Elon Musk said during the announcement. Additionally, the new spacecraft’s improved heat shield is designed to deteriorate less as it enters the atmosphere, allowing for a greater number of reuses.

SpaceX is trying to make every component of its space flight program as reusable as possible. It recently launched a version of the Falcon 9 rocket — which will put Dragon in space — with a first stage that can land on metallic legs, potentially allowing for easier retrieval and reuse.

“This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space,” Musk said. “As long as we continue to throw away rockets and space craft, we will never have true access to space — it’ll always be incredibly expensive.”

It has room for seven people

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

The other chief upgrade of the Dragon is pretty obvious: it can carry people into space. But it goes further, outstripping Russia’s Soyuz rockets (which can transport three astronauts at a time) with a capacity of seven.

IT OUTSTRIPS RUSSIA’S SOYUZ ROCKETS, WHICH CAN TRANSPORT THREE ASTRONAUTS

SpaceX went with a minimalist aesthetic for the Dragon’s interior, putting nearly all the controls on touch screen panels that fold down during flight. It’s a far cry from the button-crammed cockpit of NASA’s space shuttle.

The craft also has a few other upgrades: it can dock autonomously with the International Space Station without needing to use the station’s robotic arm, and the Dragon’s trunk (which detaches before re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere) will be wrapped in solar panels, instead of having them on arms that extend outward.

 

What does the Dragon mean for the future of space travel?

(SpaceX)

(SpaceX)

All in all, the debut of this upgraded spacecraft is a very good sign for US space travel, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

For years, Congress has appropriated less money for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — created to fund the development of private space travel — than the $800 million requested annually.

THE DEBUT OF THIS UNGRADED SPACECRAFT COULDN’T HAVE COME AT A BETTER TIME

But the tensions with Russia seem to have added urgency to the goal. The transport won’t necessarily come via the Dragon capsule — less ballyhooed options like Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane are also in the running to win NASA’s contract — but the timely premiere of this craft can’t hurt. An upcoming NASA funding round will likely cut down the competition to one option, and SpaceX is clearly planning to win.

There are also intriguing signs that SpaceX envisions the Dragon being useful for future missions that go way beyond the space station. As Phil Plait points out, SpaceX’s press materials say the Dragon’s new thrusters will “enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

Missions to Mars, of course, are still a long way off. But the 2017 target date for private US missions to the space station is quickly approaching. SpaceX’s progress — with both its Dragon capsule and other launch technologies — are making it look more likely that they’ll hit the deadline.

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