Space spirals, UFOs, and modern rockets

28 08 2010

Space spiral over Norway, December 09, 2009. Credit: Jan Petter Jørgensen via Vaeret

Many of us remember the splash made when a mysterious (and somewhat terrifyingly bizarre) spiral was seen in the sky over Norway late last year.  Admittedly, at first glance, it looks like a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

However, take a closer look.  It appears to be dusk.  The wild, spiral display is still in sunlight, even though the ground is not.  This indicates that the spiral is something not just up in the sky but rather in orbit (extremely high altitude).

Then, once you’re able to peel your eyes from the spiral, you’ll notice that a spiraling blue contrail is visible behind the centerpoint of the design, and this seems to indicate a rocket of some kind.  Once you’re there, you’ve got it figured.  The trick is that the above display is in 3D, not a flat plane as it first appears.  The blue contrail is coming at the photographer from extreme distance, as is the spiral, it would seem.

Keep playing the thought experiment forward.  A spinning rocket?  What would a spinning rocket venting a material of some kind into space look like from the Earth?

And there you have it.  It came out days later that the display was caused by a Russian nuclear missile test.

Fast-forward half-a-year, and we have the momentous launch of the first Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX:

Falcon 9 liftoff, June 04, 2010. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Then, not 24 hours after the launch, another spiral!

Space spiral as seen over Australia. June 5, 2010. (Credit: Baden West)

Like Norway, UFO reports were filed all over Australia.  Unsurprisingly, it was confirmed as the Falcon 9.

So, it seems that, as a globe, we really need to get with the times.  We launch space rockets, and we’ve been doing it for the better part of a century.  Strange displays in the sky, while admittedly doomsday-looking (ever seen a solar eclipse?), will only become more commonplace with time.

What’s the take-home here?  In the future, count on a lot less “U” next to the dazzling “FO,” and take it to heart before calling 911 to tell the dispatcher about it.  =)





New Boeing spacecraft announced!

13 08 2010

Boeing's new CST-100 spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

Boeing has jumped into the lineup of new spacecraft vying to fill the Space Shuttle retirement gap with the recent announcement of the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft.

Similar in design to SpaceX‘s Dragon spacecraft, larger than NASA‘s Apollo Command Module spacecraft, but smaller than NASA’s canceled Orion spacecraft, (which may or may not end up serving as a lifeboat for the International Space Station,) the capsule-shaped CST-100 is designed to carry up to seven astronauts to low Earth orbit.  With a combination landing system comprised of both parachutes and airbags, the CST-100 can soft-land, swap heat shields, and be re-used up to ten times.

If that weren’t forward-enough planning, in what may be a business-model coup, the CST-100 is designed to mate with a great many existing rocket types, including Lockheed’s Atlas V, Boeing’s own Delta IV, and even SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

And, perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement is the fact that in addition to NASA as an intended end-user, Bigelow Aerospace is specifically named, including the below image of a CST-100 rendezvous with a future BA space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. Credit: Boeing

(Link here [YouTube] for a Boeing “B-Roll” video animation of the CST-100 transit to, docking, and undocking with a proposed Bigelow space station.)

With serious corporations working both ends toward the middle like this, and with both business models relying on the other, (space stations relying on craft to get people there, spacecraft requiring destinations to fly to,) a serious presence off-world is more likely than ever!  In all, a fantastic development for the commercial spacecraft as well as commercial space station industries.

Oh, and for the curious, the “100” in CST-100 conveniently refers to the 100-kilometer altitude that marks the “edge” of space.  This begs the question: Does the fact that a number is there imply we might see a CST-200 or CST-300K [lunar orbit] sometime in the future?  Interesting…





This Week: Space Falcons and Solar Sails

11 06 2010

It’s with no small sense of excitement that I report two important developments this past week.  First, of course, is the successful inaugural flight of the Falcon 9 rocket I’ve been following for some time now (herehere, and here).

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, June 4, 2010. Credit: SpaceX

As the frontrunner corporate replacement for NASA’s retiring Space Shuttle, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has proven with this launch that they have the right stuff.  Their proprietary Merlin-class engines, Falcon series rockets, and their Apollo-styled Dragon spacecraft are primed to keep the good ol’ USA in the space transportation game through the transition, lessening our reliance on Russia’s (Energia’s) Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.  Details of the Falcon 9 launch include what SpaceX claims is an “orbital bulls-eye” -a near-perfect circular orbit at an altitude of 155 miles- and a wealth of aerodynamic data during ascent that they will use to refine future launches.  If you haven’t seen it, check out a high-def video of the launch here.

IKAROS solar sail partially unfurled last week. Credit: JAXA

Secondly, I’d like to applaud the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA‘s) recent successful full deployment of their IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by the Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft’s solar sail.  (An illustration showing this process can be found here.)  The breakthrough craft, which was launched in late May, employs a hybrid sail intended to use solar radiation as a passive means of propulsion as well as a source of electrical power.

IKAROS is now on its way toward our sister planet, Venus.  During the next six months, JAXA researchers will step on the gas, orienting the sail for maximum acceleration to see how fast they can get IKAROS to go.  Should the light weight and utterly practical technology prove successful, look for similar systems to begin showing up on future spacecraft.

In all, a very exciting time, with much more on deck.  Stay tuned.





NASA’s Orion spacecraft escapes doom

12 05 2010

Successful firing of the Orion capsule launch-abort system from the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

A quick, bittersweet post: NASA recently tested the launch-abort system for their all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft, rocketing it into the air under its own power and letting it parachute to a safe landing.  Orion, which was intended to be the replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, is modeled after an Apollo-style teardrop-shaped capsule atop a booster rocket. 

New Orion crew capsule parachuting to a safe landing after the launch-abort test May 6th. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

The launch-abort system is designed to save astronauts on the launch pad or during the ascent to orbit, and while it was not actually attached to a rocket booster, the system was “live” tested as if it were attached to a malfunctioning rocket.  As it would appear, the test was a complete success – a triumph for the Constellation and Orion program workers, but bittersweet in that now, Orion will likely never splash down carrying astronauts fresh from leaving boot tracks on the Moon.

Certainly a nostalgic sight, the triple-parachute style carries over from the Space Race era, conjuring feelings of heroes returning from the Moon.  However, with the recent cancellation of the Constellation bid for the Moon and Mars, Orion is no longer a full-fledged replacement for the Space Shuttle.  Instead, under the new Obama directive, Orion has eeked out an existence amidst private space corporations vying for NASA launch contracts as a crew escape vehicle for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

With images like these, it’s hard not to imagine the Orion that might have been.





SpaceX viral marketing for Falcon 9 launch with t-shirts?

9 05 2010

I leave you with a quick post to an even more curious post.  It appears that SpaceX is employing a bit of real-world viral marketing for the Falcon 9 launch.  F9 T-Shirts?  Take a look.  So, is this legit?

And more importantly, if so, where can we get one?





SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fired up for late May launch

7 05 2010

President Elon Musk of SpaceX and President Obama viewing the Falcon 9. Credit: Associated Press

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) continues to prepare their Falcon 9 rocket for its premier launch from Cape Canaveral late this month.  Should it be successful, it will herald the beginning of truly private crew-capable space transportation as an industry – a cornerstone of President Obama’s new space initiative.

As of yesterday, SpaceX reports they are in the midst of final testing, and they actually make it sound frustrating.  It seems that they’re as impatient for the next stage in commercial spaceflight as the rest of us are.

May is getting pretty crowded at the Cape, so if they can’t get by the preflight tests and system certifications quickly enough, they’ll have to wait until June.

The restlessness is at least doubled by the fact that resting on the success of this test flight is the next launch, which will be the first officially conducted under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program.  Falcon 9 Flight 2 will carry SpaceX’s first fully-operational Dragon spacecraft to orbit and is scheduled for a few months after Flight 1.

-If they can get past the blasted pre-flight tests, that is.

We’re with you, SpaceX.  Tell the guys on deck to hurry up.





Space Wars Begin: Armadillo Aerospace undercuts Virgin Galactic!

3 05 2010

Hot-off-the-press: The Space Tourist Wars have begun.  Space Adventures, the same firm that has made millions brokering seats for space tourists to Mir and the International Space Station, recently announced a new partnership with reusable rocket pioneer Armadillo Aerospace to offer suborbital space flights for half of what Virgin Galactic is charging per seat.

That’s right – mark your calendars – with this single announcement, the competition we’ve all been praying for to drive suborbital prices down has just roared into existence.  Keep your eyes on this one, and keep your fingers crossed.

The fun may have just begun.








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