Tiny rocket company targets 100 launches a year

Preparing for launch
Preparing for launch

Alone in the Mojave desert, the tiny rocket stood barely as tall as a basketball goal backboard. Launch control was a laptop inside a nearby bunker, and the small gathering of aerospace engineers and investors seemed almost like a rocket hobby club as it watched the vehicle soar to about 5,000 feet before parachuting back to Earth. But this scene may have represented something much more than that. With its small-scale test Saturday, the company Vector Space Systems took another step toward upending the rapidly expanding small satellite launch market.

…Within about five years Vector intends to launch as many as 100 of its 13-meter-tall Wolverine vehicles annually, with a capability to put a 50kg satellite into low-Earth orbit. The company aims to fill a niche below the current generation of launchers being developed by companies such as RocketLab and Virgin Galactic, with rockets capable of delivering 200 to 250kg satellites to low-Earth orbit.

So far, it seems like a good bet. On Tuesday morning, Vector announced that it has acquired its first customer, Finnish-based Iceye, to conduct 21 launches of the company’s commercial synthetic aperture radar satellite constellation. “Getting your satellite into orbit is one of the biggest challenges for new-space companies, but there just isn’t the launch capacity right now,” Iceye Chief Executive Rafal Modrzewski said in a news release.

The two companies are already working together. According to Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector Space Systems, Saturday’s test flight in Mojave, California, carried a prototype of an Iceye microsatellite core computing and communications systems to see if it would survive launch conditions (it did). Vector’s sub-scale launcher, named the P-20, also tested some prototype upper stage engines…

Vector remains on track for its first orbital launch in 2018, Cantrell said, and the company aims to increase the launch cadence to about 100 vehicles per year by 2020 or 2021. Perhaps the biggest issue is range constraints — making sure the company has clearance from launch site officials. While Vector may do some launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it will primarily operate from Alaska, which has a much less crowded range. That works out well, Cantrell said, because many of the polar orbits desired by customers are easier to reach from northern latitude launch sites.

Good luck, gang. No need to rely on being the biggest to be profitable.

China tests new rocket before launch of 2nd space station


Republican version of space exploration

China on Sunday recovered an experimental probe launched aboard a new generation rocket, marking another milestone in its increasingly ambitious space program that envisions a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.

Space program authorities said the spaceship’s landing on the vast Inner Mongolian steppe keeps China on schedule to place its second space station into orbit later this year.

The launch of the spaceship aboard the newly developed Long March 7 rocket on Saturday was hailed as a breakthrough in the use of safer, more environmentally friendly fuels. The launch also marked the first use of the massive new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan…

A source of enormous national pride, China’s military-backed space program plans a total of 20 space missions this year at a time when the U.S. and other countries’ programs are seeking new roles

China plans to launch a mission to land a rover on Mars by 2020, attempting to recreate the success of the U.S. Viking 1 mission that landed a rover on the planet four decades ago.

The Republican-controlled Congress has called for further United States research on SUVs weighing over 4 tons and using tractor treads instead of tires. They feel this is a cost-effective alternative to actually repairing our crappy highways.

So – no money for real space rangers.

Trail of a Minotaur


Click to enlargeChris Cook Photography

Star trails arc above a moonlit beach and jetty in this serene sea and night skyscape. Captured on November 19, the single time exposure looks south down the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA. But the longest and brightest trail is a Minotaur 1 rocket, a stage separation and exhaust plume visible along the rocket’s fiery path toward low Earth orbit.

The multi-stage Minotaur was launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at 8:15 pm Eastern Time in Virginia, about 400 miles away. On board were a remarkable 29 satellites destined for low Earth orbit, including a small cubesat built by high school students…

Lovely photo, great technique, praiseworthy mission.

Dumbest engineers of the year

A Proton-M rocket crashed headlong into the ground shortly after take off on July 2. According to independent website Russian Space Web, which has been monitoring Russian media since the crash, reports that crash investigators examining the wreckage had found the angular velocity sensors had been installed the wrong way up.

According to the website, the sensors are marked with an arrow which is supposed to point upwards. However, several sensors were found among the wreckage were found to be pointing the other way. It’s thought that the signals picked up by the wrongly installed sensors threw the rocket’s flight control system into disarray, causing the rocket to turn upside down shortly after take off, and crash roughly a kilometer from the launchpad…

The crash, which reportedly caused a crater up to 200 m (650 ft) across, posed a significant risk as it failed to clear the launch complex at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. However, no one was hurt as a result of the crash.

The question isn’t one of stupidity – but ignorance. Any number of engineering firms, research projects, realized long ago that the best way to prevent human error like this is to design every component so they only fit into place when installed correctly. Apparently no one notified the Russian Space Agency.

Easy-peasy.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to be the first Iranian in space

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared that he is ready to be the first Iranian in space.

The news follows Iran’s announcement last week that it had successfully launched a monkey into space and retrieved it alive.

Officials hailed the launch as a major step towards their goal of sending humans into space, although the idea of putting the President himself into orbit surely comes as something of a surprise.

I am ready to be the first human to be sent to space by Iranian scientists,” Ahmadinejad said on the sidelines of an exhibition of space achievements in Tehran, according to the Mehr news agency.

“Sending living things into space is the result of Iranian efforts and the dedication of thousands of Iranian scientists…”

Iran’s monkey launch added to Western concerns about the country’s space programme because the same rocket technology could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

The last sentence is worth including if for nothing else than to point out what hypocrites the real military giants on this planet always are. You can carry that all the way down to the most dangerous country in the Middle East. You know, the one with hundreds of atomic weapons.

Milestone: Launch of private rocket heralds new era


 
A new era in space exploration dawned Tuesday as a slender rocket shot into the dark Florida sky before sunrise, carrying the first private spacecraft bound for the International Space Station…

The unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3:44 a.m., carrying 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and scientific experiments on a demonstration mission to gauge the company’s ability to safely and efficiently deliver supplies to astronauts staffing the orbiting station…

Tuesday’s launch marks the culmination of six years of preparation to bring commercial flights to the space station following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet last year. It’s backed by entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal…

The rocket launched without a hitch following a flawless countdown that came three days after a faulty valve on one of the rocket’s engines forced a last-second postponement.

At 180 feet tall and 12 feet around, the Falcon 9 rocket is tiny in comparison to the football-field-long Saturn V rockets that carried Apollo spacecraft into orbit. It carries the company’s Dragon cargo capsule capable of carrying 13,228 pounds of supplies into orbit…

The capsule is scheduled to perform a series of maneuvers that should bring it within reach of the space station’s robotic arm on Friday. If NASA gives the go-ahead, the crew will use the arm to attach the capsule to the station and begin unloading supplies, according to SpaceX.

It will remain attached to the station for two weeks before it plummets back into the atmosphere and splashes into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

Bravo!

Republican Senator + dead NASA project = $500 million pork

Thanks to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), taxpayers are footing a $500 million bill for a NASA rocket that the agency has no plans or desire to continue developing. The Orlando Sentinel reports that pork legislation inserted into a spending bill by Shelby earlier this year [2010] is requiring NASA to spend millions on the canceled Ares I rocket program through March, even while the agency can’t find funds to begin a much-needed modernization of the famed Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida:

At the root of the problem is a 70-word sentence inserted into the 2010 budget — by lawmakers seeking to protect Ares I jobs in their home states — that bars NASA from shutting down the program until Congress passed a new budget a year later. […]

But Congress never passed a 2011 budget and instead voted this month to extend the 2010 budget until March — so NASA still must abide by the 2010 language.[…]

The language that keeps Constellation going was inserted into the 2010 budget last year by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who sought to protect the program and Ares jobs at Marshall Space Flight Center in his home state.

His office confirmed that the language was still in effect but did not respond to e-mails seeking details.

Nearly all of the money for the program will go to two defense contractors building the Ares rocket, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Lockheed Martin, with ATK receiving the bulk. Defense contractors have been a consistent source of financial support for Shelby’s campaigns, contributing to him at higher rates than to other politicians in his state. In particular, Shelby’s 2010 reelection campaign was the top recipient of funds from ATK’s PAC, receiving the maximum $10,000. And the company’s employees appear to have given more to Shelby than to any other politician in the 2010 election cycle.

Shelby certainly has a flair for the dramatic when it comes to extracting pork money for defense contractors in his state. In a “nearly unprecedented” move in February, Shelby placed a blanket hold on every single presidential nominees being considered by the Senate — more than 70 in total, including “top Intelligence officers at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security as well as the number three civilian at the Pentagon” — in order to pressure to Obama administration to do the bidding of Northrop Grumman on a $40 billion contract for which they were being considered.

One of the hilarious aspects of KoolAid Party derring-do will be butting head-to-head with the Republican establishment over serious money. That is, after all, what it’s about for Republicans and most Democrats.

First-timers who stood up and rejected the first Republican call for obedience – and voted against extensions to the Patriot Act, presumably from libertarian sentiments – were smacked down for the re-vote. The same has already begun with silly attempts to stop pork – while old hands like Shelby simply re-route their tactics.

True Believers will continue to funnel their dollars and beliefs to cynical politicians who will take every penny, add it to the larger pile coming from corporate treasuries and carry on as they feel they are so ordained from on high. The seat of political power ain’t moving from Wall Street to Main Street. Not yet.

Pentagon too lazy to explain “mystery rocket” off California coast

The Pentagon is unable to explain images of what witnesses took to be a high-altitude rocket launched off the coast of southern California at sunset Monday, officials said.

But John Pike, a defense expert who is director of GlobalSecurity.org, said he believes he has solved the mystery.

“It’s clearly an airplane contrail,” Pike said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s an optical illusion that looks like it’s going up, whereas in reality it’s going towards the camera. The tip of the contrail is moving far too slowly to be a rocket. When it’s illuminated by the sunset, you can see hundreds of miles of it … all the way to the horizon.

“Why the government is so badly organized that they can’t get somebody out there to explain it and make this story go away … I think that’s the real story,” Pike added. “I mean, it’s insane that with all the money we are spending, all these technically competent people, that they can’t get somebody out there to explain what is incredibly obvious…”

The Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, and California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Jane Harman — whose coastal districts are closest to the offshore contrails — were at a loss to explain the images.

“The FAA ran radar replays of a large area west of Los Angeles based on media reports of the possible missile launch at approximately 5 p.m. (PT) on Monday. The radar replays did not reveal any fast moving, unidentified targets in that area,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “The FAA did not receive reports … of unusual sightings from pilots who were flying in the area on Monday afternoon. “The FAA did not approve any commercial space launches around the area Monday,” he added.

The Feds have mostly come up empty because they’re all bloody afraid that one or another secret agency did something behind their collective butts. If they accept conventional wisdom that it’s a simple optical illusion – and something devious is proven – they’d rather look like ignoranuses than agencies not in on the secret.