NASA and the Private Sector - Page 180
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Elon Musk wants to settle humans on Mars with his rocket company SpaceX. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, wants a trillion people living in space. But the chief executive of one private space company is approaching space exploration differently, and now aims to play a part in the search for life on Venus.
On Monday, scientists announced the astonishing discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists won’t know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.
As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, the private small rocket company founded in New Zealand, has been working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite, called Photon, that it plans to launch on its own Electron rocket as soon as 2023.
“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility. So I think we need to go and have a look there.”
Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets to space, putting small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the U.S. military. It also has a mission to the moon in the works with NASA, called CAPSTONE, scheduled to launch in early 2021.
The company began looking into the possibility of a mission to Venus last year, before it knew about the phosphine discovery. Although its Electron rocket is much smaller than the ones used by SpaceX and other competitors, it could send a space probe to Venus.
The company’s plan is to develop the mission in-house and mostly self-fund it, at a cost in the tens of millions of dollars. It is seeking other partners to defray the cost. The Photon spacecraft, a small, 660-pound satellite that had its first test flight to orbit this month, would launch when Earth and Venus align for the shortest journey, and arrive there in several months.
The spacecraft will be designed to fly past Venus and take measurements and pictures, rather than enter orbit. But it will be able to release a small probe weighing 82 pounds into the planet’s atmosphere, taking readings and looking for further evidence of life.
The probe would enter the atmosphere at about 6 miles per second, Mr. Beck said, falling through the skies of Venus with no parachute. As it travels through the region in the atmosphere where phosphine was discovered and airborne microbial life could be present, it would take readings and beam them back to Earth via the Photon spacecraft before being destroyed.
Rocket Lab is working with scientists on which scientific instruments the probe and spacecraft might carry, including Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the researchers involved in the discovery of phosphine. Although the probe could likely only carry a single instrument, there is a lot it could accomplish.
Dr. Seager said they could likely put an infrared spectrometer or “some kind of gas analyzer” on board to confirm the presence of phosphine and measure other gases.
“Looking for other gases that aren’t expected could also be a sign of life,” she said.
Dr. Seager is also part of a team working with Breakthrough Initiatives, which is funded by Yuri Milner, the Russian investor. Over the next six months, her team will study what sort of small, medium and large missions could be sent to Venus in the near future to look for life.
Rocket Lab’s modest mission is limited in what it can achieve. The probe will not survive long and it will likely not have a camera, meaning its scientific return will be brief even if meaningful.
NASA is considering a pair of larger missions to Venus, one called DAVINCI+, the other VERITAS, and each would have many more capabilities.
“When you spend 100 times more on a payload, then you will get more science out of it,” said Colin Wilson of the University of Oxford, who is part of a proposed European Venus orbiter called EnVision that aims to launch in 2032.
The trade-off, however, is speed. Rocket Lab could rapidly develop their mission, and be ready to launch years before government space agencies. And although its small mission may lack sophisticated capabilities, it would become the first mission designed to enter the Venusian atmosphere since the Soviet Union’s Vega 2 in 1985, yielding important new data.
“There’s just so much good science to do that we can’t do it all,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior science and exploration adviser at ESA. “So if other players come in and say we can go and do this, I don’t see any problem with that whatsoever.”
With yesterday’s phosphine announcement, Rocket Lab’s mission now has the exciting prospect of contributing to a major scientific discovery, and changing how researchers conduct planetary exploration. NASA sent astronauts to the Moon. SpaceX wants to land humans on Mars. Is Rocket Lab staking a claim for Venus?
“No,” Mr. Beck said, with a laugh. “Venus is hugely alluring. But as far as claiming planets, that’s not what I’m interested in.”
The Starlink satellite internet network that SpaceX is developing has been used in the field by Washington state emergency responders in recent weeks, the first early application of the company’s service to be disclosed.
Washington’s state military, which includes its emergency response division, began employing Starlink user terminals in early August to bring internet service to areas devastated by wildfires. User terminals are the small devices on the ground that connect to the satellites. The emergency division has seven Starlink user terminals, which it is deploying with early success.
“I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable” as Starlink, Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division, told CNBC in an interview Monday.
On September 17 2020 07:43 Sermokala wrote:
There is apparently a Probe by Europe and japan that is going to go by it on October 15th and then its going to pass 500 km away in august next year. They don't have too much confidence but its a possibility we might see confirmed life on another planet in 2020.
What does Bible say about life on other planets?
SpaceX’s Starship program has won $53 million from NASA to perform a full-scale test of orbital propellant transfer, taking the company and space agency’s relationship on the crucial technology to the next level.
NASA revealed the results of its fifth round of “Tipping Point” solicitations on October 14th, announcing awards of more than $370 million total to 14 separate companies. This year’s investments focused on three main categories: “cryogenic fluid management, lunar surface [operations], and closed-loop [i.e. autonomous] descent and landing capability demonstrations.”
In a fairly predictable outcome, the bulk (~$176 million) went to Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while the other half (~$189 million) was split among the twelve remaining companies. In an upset, however, SpaceX was awarded a substantial contract for a crucial aspect of Starship development.
Today’s Tipping Point contract is technically the second time NASA has awarded SpaceX funding for propellant transfer development. In October 2019, almost exactly one year ago, SpaceX won $3 million “to develop and test…cryogenic fluid coupler [prototypes] for large-scale in-space propellant transfer,” marking NASA’s first direct investment in Starship. It seems that NASA was thoroughly satisfied with the results of that icebreaker test – enough to fund a full demonstration of Starship propellant transfer to the tune of $53.2 million.
As Ars Technica’s Eric Berger notes, NASA investing eight figures in a SpaceX Starship propellant transfer demonstration – let alone some $250 million overall in four separate companies – comes as a major surprise. In doing so, NASA is effectively testing the tolerance of political stakeholders in programs like Orion and SLS – programs that exist more to preserve jobs and prop up Congressional stakeholders. If a magnitude(s)-cheaper and more capable solution like distributed launch and orbital refueling were demonstrated under NASA’s own purview, it might become a lot harder to defend heritage programs that have been hemorrhaging ~20% of the space agency’s annual budget for almost a decade.
NASA says that this round of Tipping Point contracts could last up to five years. Aside from a $41.6 million contract with Intuitive Machines to develop a Moon hopper spacecraft capable of propulsively hopping around the lunar surface, the most interesting awards are focused on “cryogenic fluid management.” Eta Space received $27 million for a “small-scale flight demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen fluid management system to be integrated with Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus and launched on an Electron rocket.
Lockheed Martin won $89.7 million for an “in-space demonstration mission using liquid hydrogen…to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management technologies.” ULA, of which Lockheed Martin is a member, was awarded $86.2 million to test “precise tank pressure control, tank-to-tank transfer, and multi-week propellant storage” with a Vulcan Centaur upper stage.
Finally, SpaceX won $53.2 million for a “large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of [liquid oxygen] between tanks on a Starship vehicle.” Notably, this seems to imply that NASA is effectively funding a single-ship orbital flight test in which a Starship prototype will (most likely) attempt to transfer liquid oxygen between its main LOx tank and a smaller ‘header’ tank.
Coming on the heels of an April 2020 contract that awarded SpaceX $135 million to develop a crewed Starship design optimized for Moon landings, NASA is beginning to put some serious money where its mouth is to develop a wide range of innovative solutions that may enable sustainable human space exploration.
Minutes after an adjacent highway was scheduled to reopen, SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship prototype – serial number 8 – attempted what was likely the first multi-engine Raptor test ever.
At 6:01 am, October 19th, Starship SN8’s trio of Raptor engines were barely unleashed, producing a large fireball indicative of a ‘preburner’ ignition test. One of the most complex rocket engines ever developed, Raptor relies on a maximally efficient but temperamental “full-flow staged combustion” cycle (FFSC), a concise name for the many, many steps required to turn liquid propellant into thrust.
Adding additional difficulty, Raptor’s full-flown staged combustion necessitates ignition of gaseous oxygen and methane in the combustion chamber. Given that the Raptor-powered Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster exclusively use cryogenic liquid methane and oxygen, a major challenge posed by FFSC is the need to efficiently turn that ultra-cold propellant into hot gas almost instantaneously. This is where gas generators (or preburners) come in.
In a full-flown staged combustion engine, both oxidizer and fuel require their own separate turbopumps, which then require their own preburners to create the pressures needed to power those turbopumps and the gas the combustion chamber ignites to produce thrust. A step further, to enable high combustion chamber pressure like Raptor’s 300+ bar (~4400+ psi), those preburners need to produce gas at far higher pressures to account for energy losses as those gases wind their way through the engine’s plumbing.
As a result, preburners are possibly the single most stressed system in an engine like Raptor. Unsurprisingly, this has often lead SpaceX to separately test each engine’s preburners as a sort of partial static fire before the actual engine ignition test. This is the test Starship SN8 attempted in the early morning on October 19th, representing Raptor’s very first multi-engine ignition event.
Curiously, moments before preburner ignition, one of the three Raptor engines appeared to command an aggressive jet-like vent of liquid oxygen identical to a vent seen just a few hours prior during the first aborted preburner test. There’s thus a chance that only two of SN8’s three Raptor engines successfully started their preburners
Raptor is the first FFSC engine in the world to fly and – as far as the duration of lifetime testing and volume production goes – is almost certainly the most advanced of the three FFSC programs to graduate to static fire tests. In other words, given that SN8’s test campaign is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted to operate multiple adjacent Raptor engines at the same time, it’s not a huge surprise that progress towards the first three-engine static fire has been cautious and halting. Mirroring its Sunday/Monday testing, SpaceX will put Starship SN8 through another preburner and/or static fire attempt between 9pm and 6am CDT (UTC-5) on October 19/20. Even more 9-6 test windows are scheduled on October 21st and 22nd.
Meanwhile, not long after Starship SN8’s first preburner test was completed, SpaceX teams rolled a section of five steel rings inside a small windbreak and stacked the first truly functional nosecone – already outfitted with forward flaps – atop it. If Starship SN8 survives its first full triple-Raptor preburner and static fire tests, that new nosecone will likely be rolled to the launch pad for in-situ installation, topping off the rocket ahead of a spectacular 15 km (~50,000 ft) flight test.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.
SOFIA has detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. Previous observations of the Moon’s surface detected some form of hydrogen, but were unable to distinguish between water and its close chemical relative, hydroxyl (OH). Data from this location reveal water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million – roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water – trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface. The results are published in the latest issue of Nature Astronomy.
“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunlit side of the Moon,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now we know it is there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant for deep space exploration.”
As a comparison, the Sahara desert has 100 times the amount of water than what SOFIA detected in the lunar soil. Despite the small amounts, the discovery raises new questions about how water is created and how it persists on the harsh, airless lunar surface.
This looks good for the Artemis program and subsequent ventures to the surface. Guess it not depends on extraction and purification techniques.