Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Next Impossible Rocket Engine or the Most Important Ever?

Do you remember the electromagnetic or EM drive from the 20-teens (which was first conceptualized in 2001)? While most engines that seem to defy common laws of physics tend to fall away when measured carefully, the EM drive actually delivered thrust when thoroughly tested. Among the groups studying it, the Chinese Academy of Sciences built a model and verified that at an input power of 2.5kW, their EmDrive thruster provided 720mN of thrust.  (720 milliNewtons isn't much thrust, about 2.5 ounces in the imperial system, but perhaps it could be further optimized).  

Later tests showed that the engine wasn't doing any new kind of physics and the idea faded away. The big selling idea was that it didn't use exhaust in an action/reaction system like conventional engines.

The goal of the engine is, of course, to get rid of the requirement for fuel to expel. All rockets require that action/reaction momentum transfer to work, and eject something, whether hot gasses in the case of virtually every rocket you see, or atomic-sized particles in ion engines. Even the fusion engines that seem to be the grail a large sector is pushing toward need to bring massive amounts of hydrogen (deuterium or tritium) to fuse and eject. 

The topic has come up again with the emergence of a new company called Exodus Technologies co-founded by Charles Buhler, who helped establish the Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center. The company claims to have found a way to manipulate electrostatic fields to produce an asymmetry - more force in a required direction. Not milliNewtons, like the EM drive, but more electrostatic repulsion than the weight of the engine. That is, more than the force of gravity. It can lift itself. 

Image from a talk in which Dr. Buhler presented his findings at a recent Alternative Propulsion Energy Conference (APEC).

We could be talking about hours to the moon instead of days, or days to Mars instead of months. That would totally revolutionize space travel. From the Exodus Technologies website:

Like chemical rockets, Exodus propulsion devices create momentum for a spacecraft's motion. However, Exodus' platform uses the interaction of electrostatic fields to harness the momentum found in electricity rather than in a chemical reaction.

The process of generating the Exodus Effect(TM) is repeatable, predictable, published and well-understood. After being released from a 2-year national security hold, the first patent describing the Exodus Effect(TM) has finally been issued by the USPTO. Both acceleration and thrust (Newtons) are quantifiable and supported by 3rd-party validations. These facts are what separate Exodus from the pack.

The key breakthrough appears to be creating asymmetrical fields by using an asymmetrical array of capacitors and high voltage.

Of the couple of videos I watched on the subject this seemed best to me:

Similarly, of the couple of articles I used in preparing this piece, I think this one from the Debrief was the best.

The way I look at this, in light of the EM drive, is that this is the first step, but as Richard Feynman once said, in science, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” There needs to be lots of review of this. I don't know how, but the most likely case is they missed something and it's wrong. Is it possible there's an aspect to electromagnetics that nobody has thought of or perhaps just never noticed before? Absolutely. This is where the saying that science is self-correcting comes from. Get more people looking at what they did, more groups building and testing things and either verify it or show where it's wrong. 

Also from the Debrief article, the summary to APEC.



Saturday, June 22, 2024

Guess Who's Delayed Again?

Right. Starliner with Butch and Suni. It was only Tuesday that they delayed it again, until this coming Tuesday, the 25th. This time they didn't specify a date, saying only "in July."

Not long after last night's post, Ars Technica posted the headline, "NASA indefinitely delays return of Starliner to review propulsion data." 

Which pretty much says it all. 

The announcement followed two days of long meetings to review the readiness of the spacecraft, developed by Boeing, to fly NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to Earth. According to sources, these meetings included high-level participation from senior leaders at the agency, including Associate Administrator Jim Free.

It seems pretty clear that the people at this meeting weren't comfortable with all the contingencies that Butch and Suni might encounter during a return flight to Earth, including safely undocking from the space station, maneuvering away, performing a de-orbit burn, separating the crew capsule from the service module, and then flying through the planet's atmosphere before landing under parachutes in a New Mexico desert. 

This is despite repeatedly saying Starliner is cleared to come home "in case of an emergency." Which makes me wonder what are the percentage odds of surviving they're talking about here? When they say "emergency" does that mean the ISS has been hit by a large chunk of space junk (or space rock) and is going to crash and burn? Would that mean the chances of surviving if they stay on the ISS are pretty much zero, but the chance of surviving reentry on Starliner are simply just greater than zero? Like 2%? 25%? Or do they mean the odds of the Starliner surviving aren't the 99.9 % they'd prefer (pure speculation here) but with some luck and some test pilot skills, they should be fine?  

Either way, Eric Berger at Ars points out something I didn't know. 

[T]his vehicle is only rated for a 45-day stay at the space station, and that clock began ticking on June 6. 

Note they say "rated for" not scheduled. I count that to be July 25th. 



Friday, June 21, 2024

Rocket Lab Joins the Elite Club - in First Place!

Rocket Lab had a momentous launch on Thursday afternoon (UTC and EDT) from their launch complex on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, successfully launching five satellites for France-based internet of things (IOT) company, KinĂ©is. The launch was at 6:13 a.m. NZST on Friday, June 21 (that was Thursday, June 20 at 2:13 p.m. US EDT, or 1813 UTC on June 20).

The big deal is that this was the 50th successful launch for Rocket Lab's Electron, a number that puts them in elite company. Furthermore, they are the fastest ever to achieve that milestone, just seven years after the vehicle’s debut in May 2017 and months ahead of the time it took SpaceX. 

A graph of commercially-developed, orbital-class rockets and how quickly they reached or approached 50 launches. Image credit: Rocket Lab

Prior to Electron’s 50th launch, Sir Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, said he and his team are immensely proud of reaching this milestone in the time that they did.

“Out of all the commercially developed rockets in the world, Electron reaching 50, we did it in the fastest amount of time. So, we scaled faster to 50 than anybody else, faster than the Falcon 9, faster than Pegasus, faster than anything else commercially,” Beck said. “And that’s a really hard thing to do because whether it’s a giant rocket or a little rocket, the scaling element is the same and it’s super, super hard.”

Congratulatory tweet about the launch. Dark at 6:13 AM? Don't forget it's the second day of winter there.

It's worth noting that when Peter Beck started down the road to this moment, there not only was no company called Rocket Lab, there was no launch industry, and very little space industry at all in New Zealand. Rocket Lab essentially started the entire space industry in the country. While they've become a multinational corporation and started launching from Virginia, they still do most of their launches from their original launch complex on the Mahia peninsula. 

The Electron is a small rocket, and while they're launching regularly for a group of customers including U.S. agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Space Force as well as preparing for a planetary mission to Mars with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as the ride to space, they're also working hard on development of their bigger, booster, Neutron.  

Congratulations to Sir Beck and the entire team at Rocket Lab. 



Thursday, June 20, 2024

It's the Summer Solstice

As I started typing this we passed the exact minute of this years summer solstice, 4:51PM EDT. It's now officially summer, and today is the longest day of the year. I sometimes wonder if anyone has ever measured that with the extremely accurate clocks we have these days. There's always some wobble to the Earth such that times can move around with days milliseconds longer or shorter than predicted. Today is supposed to be 1.2175 milliseconds shorter than 24 hours. 

The sunrise/sunset app I have on my phone (really old - I think it's not supported anymore) says sunrise this morning was in the minute it calls 6:26 AM. The earliest sunrise of the year was called 6:25 AM and the phone app said sunrise was 6:25 from June 1 until yesterday. Sunrises will get later every morning from here until the new year. Sunset, meanwhile is 8:22 and doesn't reach the latest sunset of the year, 8:23, until June 27 and stays there until July 5th. After that, sunsets get earlier until around the end of November. 

You were expecting symmetry?

It's there, but not what you expect. Sunrise and sunset don't both smoothly get earlier and later reaching their min/max on the solstice. Earliest sunrise is before the solstice, latest sunset is after. In the summer. In the winter, the earliest sunset is before the solstice, late November/early December and latest sunrise is after it - the first week of January. That seems like mirror image symmetry. 

I went looking through the blog history searching for articles on this and found that I haven't written about the summer solstice before, but have written about the winter solstice a few times. It's probably at least partly because I greatly prefer our winter over our summer, so I look forward to the winter solstice more. Back when Mrs. Graybeard and I used to ride our bikes together a standard line was about being tired of summer by the time we got to the first day.



Wednesday, June 19, 2024

FAA Ends Public Comment on Starship Expansion on Cape

As part of approval for SpaceX adding a second Starship launch complex on the Kennedy Space Center, the FAA has been soliciting comments from everyone. The results are to be considered in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Payload Space carries the story.  

Frankly, the comments surprised me because I've never met people who feel this way. It seems those who commented think the average two launches in a week of a Falcon 9 are too loud and too much to bear. They're afraid of destruction from the sounds and are worried the much bigger Starship/SuperHeavy will be far worse.

“Every time that there is a Falcon 9 launch, depending on where the wind is coming from, you can hear a fairly potent rattling of windows,” said Pablo Deleon, a resident of Cape Canaveral.

As they see it, the noise complaints can’t be solved with earplugs and quiet hours. Many commenters voiced concerns about infrastructural damage that could come with the added launch frequency.

“We need to come up with a mitigation plan to where we don’t destroy our beloved structures in the area in the name of progress in space exploration,” said Brad Whitmore, a resident of Cocoa Village, 20 miles from the launch site.

The first comment about fairly potent window rattling is something I view as a feature, not a bug, but I'm also around 30 to 35 miles from the launch pads and we enjoy the launch rumble. It figures to be louder as you get closer to the pad. We have noticed that when the weather conditions and trajectory are just right for a "really good" rumble, our patio doors will shake enough to rattle. Mrs. Graybeard put a toothpick between them and silenced it.

At least one other commenter said that the EIS the FAA approved for Boca Chica was bad and doesn't want to see anything like that here. 

“In Boca Chica, the FAA has taken the position that deluge waste water from Starship craft is indistinguishable from stormwater… and this is in direct contradiction of the Clean Water Act,” said Eric Roesch, a frequent watcher of federal approvals in the oil and gas industry.

Let's see: SuperHeavy burns methane with oxygen - both are liquidized for better handling - and it's about as simple a chemical equation to balance as you'll ever find.

CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O

Methane and oxygen burn to produce carbon dioxide (plant food) and water (also good for plants). What else is in the waste water? Maybe bits of dirt that were under the launch pad? Maybe flakes of paint? That should be all there is, so what's in there that's so much worse than stormwater runoff that I'm missing?

A particularly pretty photo of an evening Falcon 9 launch, January 2023. Image credit: Trevor Mahlmann

The few quotes acknowledged, my perspective is entirely different. There's a handful of places in the world where you can watch rockets launch from your yard. I've been blessed enough to watch a couple of launches from the Cape itself with the required pass to get there. After the first minute, it doesn't look extremely different than from my yard. Of all the places in the world where you can watch them, we're the only place with a launch rate well over 100 in a year. China might be close, but they drop boosters on populated areas and we don't. 

The Cape has been America's primary launch facility since the start of the space program, and the creation of NASA. I moved here in the early years of the space shuttle program and every place I worked, people would go outside to watch a shuttle launch, spending a few minutes watching until the SRBs were dropped instead of taking a regular break time. 

I consider it practically a privilege to live here. They seem to consider it an annoyance.



Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Starliner is Getting Unnerving

I was going to say Starliner is starting to get on my nerves, but it's already living there. It's starting to seriously creep me out. 

NASA and Boeing have delayed Starliner's return to Earth yet again. Originally set to have returned by now, the 18th, it was delayed four days to Saturday the 22nd and now has been delayed to next Tuesday, the 25th, "to review all available data about the performance of the Starliner spacecraft before clearing the vehicle to return to Earth." 

During a news conference on Tuesday, the program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, said the four-day delay in the spacecraft's return would "give our team a little bit more time to look at the data, do some analysis, and make sure we're really ready to come home." 

They've been working around two hardware issues throughout the mission and really since before launch. The big one was the helium leak that started while on the launch pad and delayed the launch, yet again. Then, during the trip to the Space Station, another five helium leaks were detected. Followed by the failure of five of the vehicle's 28 reaction-control system thrusters as Starliner approached the station. 

Since then, engineers from NASA and Boeing have been studying these two problems. They took an important step toward better understanding both on Saturday, June 15, when Starliner was powered up for a thruster test.

During this test, engineers found that helium leak rates inside Starliner's Service Module were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered on. Although the precise cause of the leak is not fully understood—it is possibly due to a seal in the flange between the thruster and manifold—the lower leak rate gave engineers confidence they could manage the loss of helium. Even before this decrease in the leak, Starliner had large reserves of helium, officials said.

Maybe it's just me, but when I hear the helium leak rates were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered, I wonder if the rates will be higher than that previous rate the next time they turn it on. That is, getting worse with time instead of better. A corollary of Murphy's Law I've seen many times is "problems that go away by themselves come back by themselves." Remember Murphy's Law is one of the few laws of nature NOT documented by physicists that's as rock solid and unbreakable as the laws of physics are. 

The object of this mission is to certify the Starliner to go into regular crew rotations, and getting that certification doesn't seem be a foregone conclusion.  

The first opportunity for Boeing to fly one of these operational missions is early 2025, likely in February or March. NASA will soon need to decide whether to give this slot to Starliner or SpaceX's Dragon vehicle for the Crew-10 mission—NASA's 10th operational flight on Dragon.

That mission is being referred to as Starliner-1 now, but the question there of "do we assign the known, respected, Dragon or this new Starliner?" isn't looking like a lock for Starliner. If Dragon gets that mission, it probably pushes Starliner back six months until August or September. 

"We haven't looked too much ahead to Starliner-1," he said. "We've got to go address the helium leaks. We're not gonna go fly another mission like this with the helium leaks, and we've got to go understand what the rendezvous profile is doing that's causing the thrusters to have low thrust, and then be deselected by the flight control team."

Although Starliner's first crewed flight has challenged NASA and Boeing, Stich said the process has not been frustrating. “I would not characterize it as frustration," he said Tuesday. "I would characterize it as learning.”

Starliner arriving at the ISS on Thursday, June 6, soon to be two weeks ago. Image credit NASA TV.



Monday, June 17, 2024

The Sun's Magnetic Field is Flipping

Perhaps you've heard about it with some anxious comments that the sun's magnetic field is undergoing a reversal. These magnetic field reversals occur near the peak of every solar cycle, and have happened approximately every 11 years for all of human history and all of Earth's history. 

Dr. Scott McIntosh, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) was given a hint by a mentor when he started studying the sun there. For years, it was known there were spots on the sun that were bright in the Extreme Ultra Violet spectrum. His mentor, Dr. Gurman, said to find and track those spots, adding, "you might find something interesting." That led to the best prediction of this solar cycle that was published before cycle 25 really got started. His predictions for our current cycle were based on the prediction for the magnetic field (Hale cycle) flipping sooner than it really did which is why he predicted it being stronger than it has been. He's rather interested in predicting when this cycle is going to end and the beginning of cycle 26 is going to be seen.

The pattern, analyzed over the preceding cycles looks like this:

Screen capture from one of his regular videos for the Front Range 6 Meter Group on groups. io

The alternating patterns of colors converging toward the middle, then changing to the opposite color is as prominent as can be. (Call whichever color you like magnetic north or south). When both the red and blue diagonal lines converge at the equator, that's the Termination Event for the cycle. The red and blue areas are plotted with the year on the horizontal axis and latitude on the sun on the vertical. The solar equator, latitude zero, is the middle line. The other two horizontal lines are +/- 60 degrees. The complete cycle, called the Hale Cycle is two sunspot cycles, or averaging 22 years. 

The green plot above the magnetic plot is the smoothed sunspot number and the date goes from 1945 on the left to 2025 on the right. The second green curve from the left is cycle 19, the most active cycle ever observed. The second from the right is the previous cycle, 24, the weakest in a hundred years.

There's a lot that can be learned just from this one screen capture from Scott's March presentation. Note in particular that the dashed lines between termination events are not equally spaced. Cycle 23 (2nd from the right) is wider - longer - than 24 and much longer than 22 that preceded it. The second lowest cycle, the one right after cycle 19 (third from left) lasts longer than the one after it. These convergences toward the equator are mirrored in the sunspot distribution. As the cycle starts, the spots are higher up on the disk, and as it progresses, they show up progressively lower in latitude.

(Image credit: Future)

Another thing you might conclude from the image is that the field doesn't just suddenly flip. Those sloped lines are years long. In fact, looking at the red and blue lines, it's probably better to not think of it as flipping, but as constantly changing.

To those trying to scare you about this, at roughly 11 years per flip it's not a short term effect, but in the big picture it happens regularly often enough so that with a modicum of luck we all get to live through several of these field flips.



Sunday, June 16, 2024

In Honor of Father's Day

And prove positive (yet again!) that I often don't think that when I'm putting a piece together on Saturday night the next day is a Named Day. 


Just a couple of father's day facts.  Every time I've seen stats on this, as far back as I can recall, they say Mother's Day is the busiest phone day of the year:

"Each Mother’s Day, there are about 122 million phone calls made, according to Florida Blue, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association."
Likewise, every time I've looked, Father's Day has the most collect calls of the year:
The tradition of making collect calls on Father’s Day can be attributed to the desire to connect with loved ones despite the distance. People often make these calls when they are unable to travel to be with their fathers, whether due to work commitments, financial limitations, or geographical barriers. By reaching out in this manner, individuals can bridge the physical gap and convey their affection and appreciation.

So my message is simple: I hope you enjoyed your day.  Whether you had a barbecue or not; did some shooting or fishing or not. Or Absolutely Nothing. 

There's an old joke that goes something like "act my age? I've never been this age, how am I supposed to know how to act?" I have a similar issue with Father's day. I'm a grandfather, so do I call my son to wish him a Happy Father's Day, or does he call me?

And if your kids still make collect calls, I hope you paid for the call. 

 

 

Saturday, June 15, 2024

A Little Ham Radio Backstory

Since the only space-related stories I can come across today aren't really "news" in the "man bites dog" or unexpected sense, but more routine and even expected stories like Starliner's stay on the ISS is being extended again from Tuesday, June 18 to Saturday June 22, I thought I'd relay a little story of my ham radio related stuff.  

If you're not interested in ham radio geekdom, have a nice day and check back tomorrow. 

Those of you who are also hams have probably figured out by now (possibly by my saying it) that I'm kind of a "wallpaper chaser" - going after honestly nearly-meaningless accomplishments like working all the US states, or the DX Century Club (DXCC), which is confirmed contacts with 100 countries. Any one of those certificates, with $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. With the exception that it's not the paper itself I'm pursuing, it's the accomplishment itself. I don't have a lot of that wallpaper in the radio room, but one of the first few posts (post #6) on the blog was about what I called my Lifetime Achievement Award in Ham Radio, 5BDXCC, short for Five Band DXCC. 

This November, nearly 14 years later, I've another three bands up to 8BDXCC and I'm more than halfway to my ninth band.  Why 14 years? A combination of things including not having made up my mind to chase it.

The ninth band where I'm currently around 60% of the way to DXCC is the VHF band at 50 MHz, called 6 meters, which used to be just below VHF TV channel 2 in the PD days (Pre-Digital TV). In terms of the other most common paper that people chase on 6, WAS (or Worked All States), I have all states confirmed except for Alaska, and they're the hardest state to get from Florida. With every Florida station I've spoken with, Hawaii or Alaska are the last ones they ever get to complete WAS. (I posted the story of how I got Hawaii last November)

There's another piece of paper that is unique to 6m named for the guy who was the first person to define and achieve it, Fred Fish. It's the Fred Fish Memorial Award, or FFMA, and depends on something non-hams won't know. The world is divided into what are called Maidenhead Grids, that are 1 degree in latitude by 2 degrees in longitude. That means the US is divided into a lot of these grid squares, and to achieve the FFMA requires confirmed contacts with all of the grid squares in the lower 48 contiguous states. There are 488 of these grid squares. Some of them are in big states but have very little population, some of them have very, very little dry land.

When I started playing on 6m, I was dimly aware of the FFMA, and got a paper map like this from Icom at a hamfest. I put 1 and 1 together and started checking off the grid squares that I worked. I never gave a thought to chasing the FFMA, but within a fairly short time, patterns started to emerge in what I worked. 

If you look at the protruding land on Florida's east coast, Cape Canaveral, you'll see the number 98. To the left of that, in the Gulf south of Louisiana, you'll see the much larger font EL. Those are put together, with letters first, and called grid EL98. That's where I live, but fairly close to the dividing line with EL97. I started making marks on this paper map to keep track of activity: a single mark meant Worked, and a second mark was added when it was Confirmed. Within a short time of doing this, I started to see a large arc. At the north, it was around where the large red squares marked EM and FM touched EN and FN respectively. To the west, it tended to arc south from around Indiana into Texas. Slowly and gradually more of the grid squares filled in, affected by (1) radio propagation distances and (2) population density. No matter how good the propagation, if nobody lives or travels there, you're not going to get a contact.

This past fall, I watched a video by a ham in Arizona on how he decided to pursue the FFMA and went from having around 100 grid squares to the full 488 in "under 1500 days" - just over four years. His way of approaching the task was very much like the way I think of doing things, and before I knew it, I was gathering information and starting down the road. I had an advantage starting over him - he had 100 grids confirmed. I had a little over 200 confirmed, like maybe 225, but his station was better than mine to start with and he did some additional improvements I'm not likely to be able to do.

Well, it seems that I've used up a lot of space without once getting to the story I wanted to tell tonight, about the reality of the propagation we're getting as we go into the peak years of this solar cycle. I've noted several people saying they think it's the worst spring through June they can recall. It seems that way to me as well.

Stay tuned for a part 2.



Friday, June 14, 2024

US Space Force Opens a New Round of Bidding for Launch Contracts

By itself, it's not really headline news that the US Space Force is announcing another round of launch contracts is open to be bid on. Yeah, it's not constant stuff that they do every day, but it's still done fairly often. The news here is the contractors being considered.  In particular, Blue Origin and their still never-flown New Glenn. 

The US Space Force announced Thursday that Blue Origin will compete with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for at least 30 military launch contracts over the next five years. These launch contracts have a combined value of up to $5.6 billion.

This is the first of two major contract decisions the Space Force will make this year as the military seeks to foster more competition among its roster of launch providers, and reduce its reliance on just one or two companies.

For over a decade after the formation of United Launch Alliance from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ULA was the pentagon's sole launch provider. In 2018, SpaceX started launching military payloads for the military. 

The approach for this new round of contracts, known as NSSL Phase 3, is different from the way the military previously bought launch services. Instead of grouping all national security launches into one monolithic contract, the Space Force is dividing them into two classifications: Lane 1 and Lane 2. 

The concept is that Lane 1 is smaller payloads to LEO. These launches will include smaller tech demos, experiments, and launches for the military’s new constellation of missile tracking and data relay satellites. While small satellites, this could eventually include hundreds or thousands of spacecraft managed by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency. Lane 2 is for bigger payloads.

This fall, the Space Force will award up to three contracts for Lane 2, which covers the government's most sensitive national security satellites, which require "complex security and integration requirements." These are often large, heavy spacecraft weighing many tons and sometimes needing to go to orbits thousands of miles from Earth. The Space Force will require Lane 2 contractors to go through a more extensive certification process than required in Lane 1.

“Today marks the beginning of this innovative, dual-lane approach to launch service acquisition, whereby Lane 1 serves our commercial-like missions that can accept more risk and Lane 2 provides our traditional, full mission assurance for the most stressing heavy-lift launches of our most risk-averse missions," said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

The bidders also had to substantiate their plan to launch the rocket they proposed to use for Lane 1 missions by December 15 of this year. The selections are the two you'd expect - SpaceX Falcon Heavy (and Falcon 9 where it can lift the payload), along with ULA's new Vulcan - plus Blue Origin's New Glenn. The Vulcan has flown successfully once and may have its Cert-2 (certification) flight "No Earlier Than" this September. New Glenn has never flown but Blue Origin has also listed its first flight, which I'm assuming is their Cert-1 mission, as NET September. 

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for the Space Force's assured access to space division. “Our strategy accounted for this by allowing on-ramp opportunities every year, and we expect increasing competition and diversity as new providers and systems complete development."

The Space Force plans to open up the first on-ramp opportunity for Lane 1 as soon as the end of this year. Companies with medium-lift rockets in earlier stages of development, such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and Stoke Space, will have the chance to join ULA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin in the Lane 1 pool at that time. The structure of the NSSL Phase 3 contracts allow the Pentagon to take advantage of emerging launch capabilities as soon as they become available, according to Calvelli.

First New Glenn on the pad at Launch Complex 36 for testing earlier this year. Image credit: Blue Origin.

I was a bit confused by the language of saying Lane 1 was for smaller, LEO satellites and other small payloads, then putting Falcon Heavy, Vulcan and New Glenn in Lane 1 when they clearly seem to be the ones necessary for Lane 2, but perhaps that means they become Lane 2 when it becomes real, and can also do Lane 1 missions, but Lane 1 contractors can't do Lane 2. Or something. 



Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ed Stone - 50 Years Leading Voyager 1 & 2 - RIP

Ed Stone, who served as the project scientist for NASA's groundbreaking Voyager missions from 1972 to 2022, died on Sunday (June 9) at the age of 88

"Ed Stone was a trailblazer who dared mighty things in space. He was a dear friend to all who knew him, and a cherished mentor to me personally," Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in NASA's obituary for Stone, which the agency posted on Tuesday (June 11). 

"Ed took humanity on a planetary tour of our solar system and beyond, sending NASA where no spacecraft had gone before," Fox added. "His legacy has left a tremendous and profound impact on NASA, the scientific community, and the world. My condolences to his family and everyone who loved him. Thank you, Ed, for everything."

I've written a lot on the Voyagers over the years, and remember watching on TV when they both launched. I think of the Voyagers as probably the most significant thing humanity has ever done - certainly in the top couple of things. Yes, bigger than leaving some footprints on the moon and then giving it up to live in Low Earth Orbit. In a way, Apollo was before its time, but it was a wonderful thing to watch, too. It's just that the people fighting Apollo seemed to have the main message of, "why are you spending money on that when you could be spending it on me?" (Or spending it on us, or on our pet project?) 

The Voyagers are approaching the 50th year of their missions and as we experienced from last November until just a few weeks ago in May, they're requiring more regular attention. Honestly, it's nearly a miracle they're still usable to the extent they are as they approach year 47 in space, but both probes are still returning data. 

Voyager 1 is currently more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from home, and its twin is about 13 billion miles (21 billion km) into the void. That's about 162 and 136 Earth-sun distances (or astronomical units), respectively.

Still, it's sobering to realize that with 47 years in space, the farther probe, Voyager 1 is currently 22 hours, 37 minutes and change away at light speed. I'll call it 22-1/2 light hours away. The nearest stars are just over four light years away. Assuming it's even going in the right direction, it'll take Voyager 1 almost 77,000 years to get to the Alpha/Proxima Centauri star system. 

That's why some sort of "warp drive" or other totally new propulsion system has to be developed to make expanding beyond the solar system remotely feasible. 

If you're inclined to read it, here's a link to NASA's obituary for Ed Stone.

Ed Stone in the foreground at a press conference for the PBS special, "The Farthest" released in 2017. Rahoul Ghose, PBS photo.



Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What NASA Wants and Expects from Starship Testing

Eric Berger at Ars Technica speculates that few people if any were happier with Starship's flight test IFT-4 last week than a NASA engineer named Catherine Koerner. 

In remarks after the spaceflight, Koerner praised the "incredible" video of the Starship rocket and its Super Heavy booster returning to Earth, with each making a soft landing. "That was very promising, and a very, very successful engineering test," she added, speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board.

A former flight director, Koerner now manages development of the "exploration systems" that will support the Artemis missions for NASA—a hugely influential position within the space agency. This includes the Space Launch System rocket, NASA's Orion spacecraft, spacesuits, and the Starship vehicle that will land on the Moon.

That's a lot to be overseeing, and it's not all going spectacularly smoothly. There are many reasons to be concerned with the announced date of September 2026 for the Artemis III mission that will land on the moon. While IFT-4 demonstrated a lot of progress there is still much to do to ensure a successful moon landing. Much of that has little or nothing to do with SpaceX and Starship.

Depending on where they work and how high up the "org tree" they are, engineers can spend as much - or more - time contingency planning as they do designing. As part of trying to make those plans, NASA and SpaceX have raised the the possibility of modifying the Artemis III mission. Instead of landing on the Moon, a crew would launch in the Orion spacecraft and rendezvous with Starship in low-Earth orbit. This would essentially be a repeat of the Apollo 9 mission, buying down risk by carrying out some of the essential parts of the Artemis III mission, making fewer "first time we ever try this" aspects for the landing mission.

Officially, NASA maintains that the agency will fly a crewed lunar landing, the Artemis III mission, in September 2026. But almost no one in the space community regards that launch date as more than aspirational. Some of my best sources have put the most likely range of dates for such a mission from 2028 to 2032. A modified Artemis III mission, in low-Earth orbit, would therefore bridge a gap between Artemis II and an eventual landing.

NASA hasn't announced any final plans and there is much to wait on. What's the status on Orion's heat shield issues? Part of the waiting is to see how Artemis II progresses and what happens with Starship and spacesuit development

During her remarks, Koerner was also asked what SpaceX's next major milestone is and when it would need to be completed for NASA to remain on track for a lunar landing in 2026. "Their next big milestone test, from a contract perspective, is the cryogenic transfer test," she said. "That is going to be early next year."

Some details about the Starship propellant transfer test. Image credit: NASA

This timeline is consistent with what NASA's Human Landing System program manager, Lisa Watson-Morgan recently told Ars. It provides a useful benchmark to evaluate Starship's progress in NASA's eyes. The "prop transfer demo" is a fairly complex mission that involves the launch of a "Starship target" from the Starbase facility in South Texas. Then a second vehicle, the "Starship chaser," will launch and meet the target in orbit and rendezvous. The chaser will then transfer a quantity of propellant to the target spaceship.

The test will entail a lot of technology, including docking mechanisms, navigation sensors, quick disconnects, and more. If SpaceX completes this test during the first quarter of 2025, NASA will at least theoretically have a path forward to a crewed lunar landing in 2026.


There has been a flurry of reports the next test flight will be in July, but I haven't seen a date mentioned. July 6th would a month after the last test flight and that's three weeks before the end of the month so it doesn't take much delay to make it two months after IFT-4. Since the booster landed on target 12 miles off the Boca Chica beach, the booster for IFT-5 will be expected to work better than that, and yes, it sounds like they intend to catch the booster with the mechazilla arms. Booster 12 has been in Mega Bay 1 since January, and is awaiting static fire.  

Don't forget that one engine on the booster failed before it cleared the tower and another blew up  during its landing burn before settling onto the Gulf waters. That's being looked into, too.

The ship is a different matter. While Ship 29 was nothing short of astonishing, surviving part of a flap being burned off, it landed "several km" from its target. Ship 30 has to address those issues starting with, "let's not melt this time."

Because of these issues, Ship 30 is already getting its heat shield tiles and underlying blankets removed and eventually replaced. The underlying blankets would be replaced by a new ablative material that may have debuted on Ship 29. As stated by Elon Musk, the tiles are getting upgraded to a newer, much stronger design. Even though Ship 29 completed the flip and burn maneuver, it was a couple of kilometers off target due to the flap damage. 

Starship 29 and Super Heavy B11 before last Thursday's (June 6) IFT-4. Image credit to Elon Musk at X



Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Wait... What Time is it?

Sorry, everyone.  The day got away from me. Bizarrely busy with a problem with my ham station upgrade (last post, I think), an aborted grocery run across town in the heaviest rain we've had this season, and more.  

So, as usual in times like this, some "funnin' around." 





Monday, June 10, 2024

NASA and Boeing Extend Starliner's Mission

When Starliner docked at the ISS on last Thursday, June 6, they expected to spend a week there, departing on June 13. NASA and Boeing have joined in extending their mission to NET (No Earlier Than) next Tuesday, June 18th.

"...The additional time in orbit will allow the crew to perform a spacewalk on Thursday, June 13, while engineers complete #Starliner systems checkouts," NASA ISS officials said on Sunday (June 9) via X.

It took a long time for Starliner to get to this mission, with two unmanned missions instead of one and then numerous problems with the spacecraft that had to be addressed before it was deemed ready to fly. The mission has not been problem-free, with additional small helium leaks and a few misbehaving thrusters, such that the first attempt to dock failed and it took an additional hour or so before they successfully docked at the ISS. Mission planners and crew consider these problems to be minor, and say they've been dealt with successfully so far. 

Among their first tasks after coming aboard the station was to bring a new urine processing pump for a replacement, NASA officials said. The urine processor was a late addition to Starliner's cargo manifest after the unit on the space station failed earlier this month.

If all goes well, Starliner will be certified to fly six-month astronaut missions to and from the ISS for NASA, as SpaceX currently does with Crew Dragon. The majority of the crew on the station is the Crew 8 mission, launched by SpaceX in March

The seven Expedition 71 crew members gather with the two Crew Flight Test members for a team portrait aboard the space station. In the front from left are, Suni Williams, Oleg Kononenko, and Butch Wilmore. Second row from left are, Alexander Grebenkin, Tracy C. Dyson, and Mike Barratt. In the back are, Nikolai Chub, Jeanette Epps, and Matthew Dominick. Credit: NASA TV



Sunday, June 9, 2024

Didja Know That's Not Miss Alabama?

You know that picture that has been in about a zillion places since about Thursday? This one:


I was surprised to find out that this is wrong.  She's not Miss Alabama.  According to a story on PJ Media, although she's clearly called Miss Alabama on that (sash?) she's wearing, she's not what we all thought. 

See, we think Miss Alabama is the woman going to represent Alabama in the Miss America or Miss USA pageant. This woman, Sara Milliken, is the winner of the National American Miss Alabama pageant, which took place in late May. This is a different pageant and not the one that feeds into those others. To borrow the explanation:

National American Miss is a different sort of pageant, to say the least. The About page of the pageant’s website informs us that “NAM is a program based on the foundational principle of fostering positive self-image by enhancing natural beauty within.” It adds that the “program [is] centered around helping young ladies grow and expand their ideas about who they are and what they want to achieve. We want every girl to realize that she truly can take hold of her dreams and make them real!”

Which is fine; whatever floats their boats. It strikes me as what we used to call "special education" and now seems to be called "the short bus" but in a different domain. It's wonderful that the National American Miss folks aren't pushing chopping off body parts or doing the "add-a-dick-to-me" surgery (as Rush used to say).

For the record, this is the "real" Miss Alabama who will be going to the Miss America pageant, Diane Westhoven. 

Like the PJ Media author, Chris Queen, I'm hesitant to criticize Libs of TikTok who has done a fantastic job of showing just how loony the Libs on TikTok are by re-posting their content word for word. Likewise, I don't want to criticize all the people who jumped on the train because it honestly does look like something we'd expect in this overly Woke-infected time we're living in. I had no idea there were multiple pageants like this, and I'd bet the vast majority of the people who jumped on the bandwagon of making fun of the first picture also thought she was going to the Miss America pageant, rather than being the short bus equivalent of a pageant.

Just seeing the first post does kinda feed the outrage machine. We expect stupid stories like some group thinking a woman the size of a Florida manatee should represent some state in a nationwide beauty contest. My reaction when I saw the first story was my usual, "what planet is this and how'd we get here?" I never thought it was different pageant. Which suggests we should try to be more careful consumers of news. Make sure it's what we think it is before we go open loop (geek talk for "out of control"). 

As for all the comments that Miss Milliken needs to stay away from food, I think it would be better if the National American Miss folks would address her blindingly obvious need for help with her metabolic disease and not just help her feel better about herself. A startlingly small percentage of people can get to be her size without a metabolic illness and those people can't lose that weight by following "eat less and move more." The backing for that statement could take hours.



Saturday, June 8, 2024

A Couple of Short Stories

First, the cool story

SpaceX Releases New Video from IFT-4

SpaceX released a new video today, showing the final moments of the Super Heavy booster's mission, slowing to nearly zero, vertical over the Gulf, then touching down, shutting down the last running engines and tipping over. 

This video from The Launch Pad isn't narrated but shows the landing. If you want some narration, a much longer version is offered by TheSpaceBucket

Now, the rougher story

Apollo 8 LM pilot dies in plane crash

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, 90, died in a firey plane crash over Puget Sound, Washington on Friday.

At the time of the airplane crash, Anders was piloting his vintage Beechcraft T-34 Mentor – a single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft primarily used for flight training during the 1950s by the United States Air Force and U.S. Navy.

The details of the crash were confirmed by his son, Greg Anders. 

"The family is devastated," said Greg Anders. "He was a great pilot. He will be missed."

"He traveled to the threshold of the moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves. He embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration. We will miss him," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.

Anders was a member of the astronaut corps selected in 1963, and while he trained for and was a backup crew member to a Gemini mission, alongside Neil Armstrong on the backup crew for Gemini 11, his first flight was Apollo 8 a particularly noteworthy mission. It was the first Saturn V mission, it was the program's (and America's) first mission to orbit the moon.  Which made the crew of Apollo 8: Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders the first humans to ever see the far side of the moon - at all, let alone up close. 

Anders graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1955. He was then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, where he underwent flight training, in part, on the T-34 Mentor. He earned his wings in 1956 and served as a fighter pilot with the 84th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton Air Force Base in California and the 57th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron in Iceland.
...
Feeling his chances of walking the moon were low, Anders left NASA in 1969 to become the executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. In 1973, he was appointed to the five-member Atomic Energy Commission, where he led all nuclear and non-nuclear power research and development. He was also named the U.S. chairman of the technology exchange program for nuclear fission and fusion power with the Soviet Union.

With the loss of Frank Borman last November, and Bill Anders now, Jim Lovell is the only surviving member of the Apollo 8 crew.

Bill Anders 1964 photo, holding models of the Gemini capsule and the Agena target vehicle that the Gemini crews would eventually use to learn the docking skills necessary for the Apollo program. NASA photo.



Friday, June 7, 2024

News to Me - Russian ISS Module Still Leaking

I recall hearing that there were air leaks in the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS, but I can't find a link to my original story, and that's not important anyway in the overall picture. The news today is that despite several attempts to deal with the leak, they've been unsuccessful - and I assume that means they don't really know where the leak is or what's actually leaking. 

The microscopic structural cracks are located inside the small PrK module on the Russian segment of the space station, which lies between a Progress spacecraft airlock and the Zvezda module. After the leak rate doubled early this year during a two-week period, the Russians experimented with keeping the hatch leading to the PrK module closed intermittently and performed other investigations. But none of these measures taken during the spring worked.

"Following leak troubleshooting activities in April of 2024, Roscosmos has elected to keep the hatch between Zvezda and Progress closed when it is not needed for cargo operations," a NASA spokesperson told Ars. "Roscosmos continues to limit operations in the area and, when required for use, implements measures to minimize the risk to the International Space Station."

Since they've been dealing with it for over a month, I'm inclined to think that the leak is small and can be accommodated. If they closed that hatch to the PrK module completely, it seems like the worst case is they'd have to deal with their cargo shipments differently - a scheduling issue. 

However, there appears to be rising concern in the ISS program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The space agency often uses a 5x5 "risk matrix" to classify the likelihood and consequence of risks to spaceflight activities, and the Russian leaks are now classified as a "5" both in terms of high likelihood and high consequence. Their potential for "catastrophic failure" is discussed in meetings.

In reality, there are two difficult, if not insurmountable obstacles here. First is that Roscosmos is a low priority expenditure for Russia. If anything, Roscosmos is likely to face diminishing abilities to get resources for repairs, no matter how much some people in the agency might want to support the ISS. 

The second one is that every last cubic inch in the ISS is aging out, not just Zvezda. The Zvezda module rode to space in July of 2000. Don't look now, but that's 1 year short of a quarter century. The leakage issue first appeared in 2019 and has continued to worsen since then. Its cause is unknown. 

"They have repaired multiple leak locations, but additional leak locations remain," the NASA spokesperson said. "Roscosmos has yet to identify the cracks’ root cause, making it challenging to analyze or predict future crack formation and growth." 

We regularly read or hear of the expected 2030 retirement of the ISS along with plans to cause it to reenter and otherwise get it retired and out of the way. The problem with projected dates like 2030 is that the hardware has the last word. It doesn't matter what fancy, involved calculations you did to get that 2030 date if the hardware isn't exactly what it was modeled as. Models are an aid. Reality gets the decision.

The Zvezda Service Module provides living quarters and performs some life-support system functions. Docking adapter for the Progress cargo ships on the right. Image credit: NASA



Thursday, June 6, 2024

Wow... Just Wow...

Starship test flight 4. I'm finding it difficult to think of how it could have been much better, given what they intended to test. 

The quote they use all the time is, "the payload for this flight is data;" the whole purpose is to examine changes made since the last test with a handful of milestones in mind. They're fond of saying that no matter what they try, only excitement is guaranteed. That said, there were two main objectives for this mission. 

For the Super Heavy booster, the objective was to return toward Boca Chica and come to a vertical position above the Gulf of Mexico before splashing down into the gulf. For Starship, the objective was to come through reentry with full attitude control, intact, operational, and do the same sort of landing in the Indian Ocean off the NW coast of Australia. If you remember the first tests with prototype ships launching vertically up to altitudes above commercial air traffic, then falling belly first until a few hundred feet above the ground when the ship would ignite its engines, flip from horizontal to vertical and land. That's what was envisioned for the Starship today.

While I have yet to see video perhaps taken by an aircraft in the targeted area, it looks like both objectives were accomplished. 

The only obvious issue in the booster was that one of the 33 Raptor engines shutdown within the first few seconds of flight, unlike Test 3. In the last moments before touching the water in the Gulf, another one of the engines appeared to blow up or RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but the booster appeared to come to zero velocity right at the water surface, although we'll have to wait for SpaceX to tell us if it met all their targets. 

A lot of people went gaga over the videos from Starship in IFT-3 and today's were far better. First, the spurious rolling motion and consequent movement of the flaps on the ship were gone. Instead we got what looked like a studio picture on a sound stage - except instead of pink lights shining on the heat tiles, it was plasma at 2500 to 3000 degrees. 

Plasma pours over the tiles and control flaps of Starship during reentry high over the Indian Ocean. SpaceX screen capture.

That control flap sticking almost vertically in the frame is at the nose of the ship. Both the white glow close to the flap and the orange-ish glow to its right are plasma. This was the view for minutes, very little movement of the flaps was seen. 

As the ship moved into denser parts of the atmosphere and started slowing down more dramatically, they switched cameras pointed at the flap, and we could literally see metal melting off the flap and flying away. It ended up looking more battle-scarred than this view.

Visible damage to one of the flaps on the Starship during reentry. SpaceX screen capture.

Amazingly, with chunks of the stainless steel flap melting and breaking off, the ship maintained its position and continued to fly. Within seconds, the flying molten metal made it difficult to impossible to even see this level of details.

Still a screen capture of a SpaceX video, but relayed by Scott Manley on YouTube

Before this week's test flight, Musk said Starship could fail during reentry with the loss of a single tile in some areas on the vehicle. It wasn't clear where tiles fell away from Starship on Thursday, but Musk posted after the test flight that the favorable outcome "speaks to the incredible resilience of stainless steel at temperature."

With the flaps melting away and showing large holes in them, it's completely reasonable to expect the flap to break off and have Starship lose attitude control. Instead, the control system took the inputs, calculated how to change things to achieve the flip and came to a stop vertically in the Indian Ocean. Before falling over, as it was supposed to.

It's truly some slick engineering. I've come to expect nothing less from this crew.

It's something we've said before, but the next test flight might be rather soon. SpaceX has already test-fired the ship for the next test flight, and the booster could be static fired soon. The FAA might issue a license faster based on the improvements seen in this flight. The mishap investigations were because SpaceX didn't reach their planned destinations. That doesn't apply this time. 

"I think we should try to catch the booster with the mechazilla arms next flight!" Musk posted on X, referring to SpaceX's plan to snare a hovering booster with catch arms on the launch pad tower.

 


Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Quote of the Day on Starliner CFT

Starliner lifted off this morning on time 10:52 AM EDT - and after tracking it for over a month, I missed the launch time, setting my mental reminder to last week's time of 12:25 PM. Instead of going outside to watch it, we didn't even hear a respectable rumble to remind us it was too late to watch. It wasn't until after noon and I went looking for the live coverage to watch that it hit me. 

It was during the post-launch, self-congratulatory news conference that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson gave us our QoTD by saying Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are "going to test this thing from izzard to gizzard, and they're going to certify it for a rotational basis to send crew to the International Space Station." Excuse me? "From izzard to gizzard?" 

While Bill Nelson is from around here and it sounds vaguely like it should be Southern, I don't think I've ever heard "from izzard to gizzard" before, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says izzard is another way of pronouncing the letter "Z", like how some people say "zed" and some say "zee" (short e vs. long e). Somehow saying "from z to gizzard" doesn't make any more sense. Maybe he should have said, "from gizzard to izzard" so more like "from G to Z"?  I'm at a loss. 

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on June 5, 2024 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images 

The QoTD out of the way, the emphasis of the press conference is they're going to test as many things as they can on the Starliner, and don't expect perfection. It's not expected to be perfect, it's expected to be flyable and manageable. Yes, it has been a long tough road to get here, but that's behind us now. Space is hard, orbit is harder, doing it right is the hardest part. 

"I know it's really easy to lose patience as you're waiting for launches to happen," Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate, said during today's press conference. "But, as I said before, good things are worth waiting for."

The Starliner is expected to reach the Space Station midday Eastern time. From the NASA TV web site and presumably subject to change:

12:15 p.m. —Docking coverage of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station. Hatch opening and welcoming remarks with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams and the ISS Expedition 71 Crew to take place approx. 2 p.m. Stream on NASA+

3:30 p.m.—NASA’s Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test post-docking news conference. Stream on NASA+

Meanwhile, as I type, it's a bit over 10 hours since liftoff and a bit under 11 hours to tomorrow morning's launch of Starship IFT-4.  

"The FAA has approved a license authorization for SpaceX Starship Flight 4," the agency said in a statement. "SpaceX met all safety and other licensing requirements for this test flight."

Shortly after the FAA announced the launch license, SpaceX confirmed plans to launch the fourth test flight of the world's largest rocket at 7:00 am CDT (12:00 UTC) Thursday. The launch window runs for two hours.

After this morning, I'll set an alarm to remind me it's getting close to launch. 



Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Entering the Era of Lunar Infrastructure

There's a saying that the Apollo era was all about “flags and footprints on the moon,” and that's no longer what's driving nations. Now, we're moving into the era of construction projects for infrastructure; first on the moon and then on Mars. We learned in early 2023 that Blue Origin had been working on infrastructure-related programs since 2021 in a program called Blue Alchemist that was intended to the take the lunar regolith and manufacture things on site; including making working (if rather small) photoelectric generator cells. 

Today, Payload tells us of a startup infrastructure company called Ethos Space Resources working on ways to turn the regolith into something like poured concrete in its versatility and the ability to work with it. They see this as the key to entering the phase of “launch pads and gas pumps.” The idea is to melt the regolith, separate out the oxygen bound in it for other uses, separate out useful metals and other components, eventually using the remainder to cast much like concrete for launch pads, roads and ramps.

Two of the company’s three founders were early SpaceX alums who helped build the launch giant’s earliest pads and vehicles. 

Ethos founders:

  • Ross Centers (CEO): A Colorado School of Mines alum specializing in space resources.
  • Jeff Overbeek (COO): A 12-year SpaceX veteran who founded the company’s launch reliability group and helped build Falcon 9 launch sites.
  • Brogan BamBrogan (VP of customer ops & integration): BamBrogan was employee #23 at SpaceX, where he helped develop Falcon and Dragon.

...

“We are starting with the very first infrastructure on the Moon, which is a landing pad, making round trip access to the Moon reliable and affordable,” Centers told Payload. “We will build the pad and liquid oxygen from the lunar regolith to provide a place to land.”

Liquid oxygen from rocks? It helps to know that analysis has shown that oxygen makes up 45% of lunar rocks by weight. The regolith is melted using electrical power, after the oxygen and other materials are separated out, it forms a strong material that can be used for a landing/launch pad.

Ethos has successfully produced the concrete-like rock in a $2M simulated lunar environment, and has tested the material at its facility under the fiery power of a rocket’s breath. “We were surprised how well it held up. We knew from lab testing that our material was stronger than concrete, but we didn’t know how it would hold up under a hot, violent rocket flame,” Centers said. 

The company said that unlike concrete–-which can fracture and throw off big chunks of material—a rocket plume melts the glass and self-heals any fractures.

Ethos provides this image of their concept of operation in very high level overview.

The need for the generation of liquid oxygen for fuel and the poured regolith launch/landing pads all come down to the Moon being a Harsh Mistress, if I can borrow that. Perhaps I should say Spaceflight is a Harsh Mistress. To get back from the moon, a ship needs to carry the weight of that fuel all the way  to the moon, and its launch vehicle has to be big enough to launch that fuel - or else there needs to be a fleet of tankers carrying fuel to orbit to fuel the ships going the next step to the moon. Making the fuel for the return on the moon vastly simplifies that situation.

Imagine a robotic, instrument-laden version of this melting/refining tank that could get to a preferred landing location on the moon, and create a large landing pad that the Starship or other lander could then just land on. Just having a level surface to land on instead of the slope of a crater most likely would have kept both SLIM and Odysseus IM-1 from tipping over when they landed. Think of this system being able to create LOX and keep it in liquid state for the lander for when it's needed. 

“Mass to the Moon is almost prohibitively expensive right now,” said Centers. “When you’re doing a round trip mass, that’s even more expensive because you have to bring all the fuel to get back to Earth afterward.” 

“It is orders of magnitude cheaper to build infrastructure on the Moon using local resources.”

While two of the founders mentioned above are former SpaceX guys, they see their ideas as being useful to everyone.

Ethos has partnered with Astrolab, a recent awardee of NASA’s lunar terrain contract, to facilitate lunar operations and the mobility needed to build a large pad.

How to build a pad on the Moon:

  • Astrolab’s FLEX rover will deploy several power cargo boxes, measuring 1.5 meters by 2 meters, at various locations around the designated lunar pad construction site.
  • The rover will tow a heating trailer that melts lunar regolith behind it, harnessing the energy from the deployed power units.

The byproduct is a hardened, concrete-like pad. 

As first-movers on lunar infrastructure, the company sees its future offerings expanding into other resource domains like metals, power, and water.

With luck, it might look like this in around 10 years. Image credit Ethos Space Resources