Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Virgin Galactic Unveils New Vehicles

Virgin Galactic has just unveiled SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), the first set of vehicles they will use to offer commercial sub-orbital spaceflights.

Sir Richard Branson had this to say about the significance of the moment:

“Finally, I think it’s very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project. If we do, I believe we’ll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector.

So, Burt, congratulations on designing and building a system that will allow thousands of people to realize their dreams and that will act as a catalyst to transform human access to space. In your usual way, you have also managed to create something which is breathtakingly beautiful – so Burt, please come up and join me onstage, and let’s take a look.”
The first WK2 'mothership' will be named after Sir Richard's mother, Eve, whilst the first SS2 will be called Enterprise (after the main starship in the Star Trek shows and movies).

For Australian space tourists there is further good news as Spencer Travel will be representing Virgin Galactic in Australia and offering space tours to Australians. One Australian woman (see bottom of article) has already made it into the Founders list (the first 100 passengers). It has been reported by that Sir Richard would like to see their second spaceport setup in Australia:
“What part Australia has to play in the commercialisation of space, beyond supplying astronauts, remains to be seen. Branson said in 2006 that he would like to see the company's second spaceport set up in Australia.”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Victoria Crater on Mars

A friend showed me NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day archive, and I particularly liked this composite shot of Victoria Crater on Mars.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Moon 2.0 - the Google Lunar XPrize

Google and the X PRIZE Foundation have announced a new X PRIZE competition to land a robotic rover on the Moon. The first two teams who succeed in doing so will share in a US$30 million prize.

“The $30 million prize purse is segmented into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million Second Prize and $5 million in bonus prizes.
To win the Grand Prize, a team must successfully soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, rove on the lunar surface for a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images and data back to the Earth.
To win the Second Prize, a team must land their spacecraft on the Moon, rove and transmit data back to Earth.
Bonus prizes will be won by successfully completing additional mission tasks such as roving longer distances (> 5,000 meters), imaging man made artifacts (e.g. Apollo hardware), discovering water ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night (approximately 14.5 Earth days). The competing lunar spacecraft will be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras, and will send images and data to Earth, which the public will be able to view on the Google Lunar X PRIZE website.”
They also (of course!) have a video spruiking the worthy nature of the competition:

There is a catch, they want you to get there soon!
“The Grand Prize is $20 million until December 31st 2012; thereafter it will drop to $15 million until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation.
Second place will be available until December 31st 2014 at which point the competition will be terminated unless extended by Google and the X PRIZE Foundation.”
For NASA's take on exploring the Moon, have a look at their Constellation program.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Space Adventures finds Singapore spaceport slow going

Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures has commented on their planned Singapore spaceport project at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore and said:

“There is not enough local support... we are still looking for local partners to help finance the Singapore project but it certainly remains a possibility and we are still working through it right now,”
As this was going to be the closest commercial spaceport to Australia I was pretty excited about this, but it looks like things are going slow at the moment. Anderson seemed upbeat however about the possibility of a spaceport coming off somewhere in Asia
“We are still looking at different locations but we've been working pretty heavily in the Emirates and also in Asia.”

“It hasn't happened yet and we're obviously looking at a lot of other options but somewhere in Asia is a critical market for us and hopefully in the next few months we would find the right place to do it.”
I wonder whether they would consider talking to some folks about Darwin? It is further from the equator, which makes launches more energy intensive (but which for sub-orbital doesn't matter that much), but it provides an excellent location in terms of remoteness, whilst next to a small city with an important place in aviation history and great tourism industry. Launches would be limited to the dry season, but that is true of most of Asia.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Space Settlement and War

A reminder of why we need to look at space as a global alternative to resource wars.

The tipping point when space investment becomes the logical default for resource exploitation is some way off, but when it is reached we can expect everyone to want a piece of space.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

EADS Astrium announces new suborbital vehicle

European space company EADS Astrium has announced plans for a new suborbital hybrid jet/rocket space vehicle. This is the same group behind the Ariane rockets and the European contribution to the ISS, so they have a demonstrated capacity in developing space vehicles and solutions.

“The Astrium space jet will take off and land conventionally from a standard airport using its jet engines. However, once the craft is airborne at an altitude of about 12 km, the rocket engines will be ignited to give sufficient acceleration to reach 100 km. In only 80 seconds the craft will have climbed to 60 km altitude. The highly innovative seats balance themselves to minimize the effects of acceleration and deceleration, ensuring the greatest passenger comfort and safety. The rocket propulsion system is then shut down as the ship’s inertia carries it on to over 100 km, where passengers will become one of the very few to experience zero gravity in space.”
Below is a CG mock-up of what the cabin will look like during the journey. The experience looks remarkably similar to the one promised by Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne, although the two vehicles are vastly different technically.

However, the two craft are both solving the same business problem, essentially slinging an empty tube with a few people in it just high enough that it qualifies as 'space' (i.e. 100km) and then safely returning to Earth, all from a reasonably standard airport. Here are some photos of the interior mockup they provided at their press conference in Paris.

Virgin Galactic look to be building a safer vehicle; the return mechanism is fairly passive (meaning less to go wrong), the capacity of jet engines to re-start after a spending an extended period 'down' in the freezing/boiling vacuum of space is unknown and they launch from and return to custom-built spaceports. EADS Astrium is still confident of winning a large piece of the space tourism market:
“We are counting on some 20,000 space tourists by the year 2020. We want to serve a third of them. We have faith in this market.”
Francois Auque, CEO of Astrium (from SMH)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Shuttle Mission STS-117 Docking Video

In case you're wondering just what goes on during a docking between the space shuttle and the International Space Station, here is a great video (edited) of Shuttle Atlantis docking with the ISS a couple of days ago: