Our aim is to bring you the latest stories about the new developments in space exploration.
05 November 2013Scottish-built satellite launch for March 2014
Scotland’s first satellite is due to go into orbit at the end of March 2014. It's been commissioned by the UK Space Agency, who today gave an update of the launch day. The satellite is being taken into space on a Russian rocket, and the precise date of launch depends on the completion of the rocket's main payloads. As news about this becomes firmer, a final launch date will be announced.
The new satellite, UKube-1, is Clyde-built. It's been designed and built by Clyde Space at Maryhill. At one time the shipyards of the Clyde launched a quarter of the world's marine tonnage, and now the river's name is linked to a new field of innovation, in space – and with a new type of satellite in which the Glasgow company is a world leader.
UKube-1 is a CubeSat, a new type of modular design, based around a unit cube with a side of only 10 centimetres. It is small enough to hold in your hand, but part of the design skill is to pack into that volume a complete package of equipment to enable the satellite to gather data and transmit it down to earth. UKube-1 consists of three such cubes linked together.
CubeSats, with their advantages of modularity, are predicted to do for satellites what PCs have done for computing. It's now possible to buy components and assemble them as a kit, and Clyde Space already provides an online credit card purchasing system for items.
The modular CubeSat structure is highly versatile. Researchers are using it to design small satellites which can track, space junk, examine the cosmic microwave background (the so-called 'echoes of the big bang'), or hunt down new planets outside our solar system. The cheap price and versatile components are also stimulating a kind of 'do-it-yourself' boom in CubeSats – indeed one site providing information is called DIY Space Exploration.
Clyde Space is also expert in the design of miniature power systems for CubeSats, for which they have around 40% of the global market. Their customers include NASA, the US Air Force, and MIT.
Schools can track
UKube-1 will carry four payloads from different universities and organisations. One of the payloads, called FUNcube-2, features a satellite beacon which schools can receive. A satellite reception system – the FUNCube Dongle – has been designed to enable anyone to try to receive a signal from orbit. The FUNcube project – which will also involve a separate satellite of its own – is aimed at primary schools as well as secondaries, to enthuse and educate young people about space, electronics, physics and radio.
Also aboard will be the first GPS device aimed at measuring space weather in the plasmasphere, the area just beyond the Earth's atmosphere.
There will also be a camera that will take images of the Earth using a new type of sensor. It will also test the effect of radiation on instruments in space.
One of the organisations providing a package aboard is AMSAT, a group promoting amateur radio satellite tracking. Information has also been coming from a well-informed Russian space site, UB4UAD.
A CubeSat is carried in a lightweight standardised framework and then ejected from it by a mechanism that has been liked to a toaster.
Spaceplanes for the future
The rocket carrying UKube-1 into orbit will be a Russian one, a Soyuz-2.1b with a Fregat M upper stage launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with eight other satellites also aboard. But for the future, Craig Clark, chief executive of Clyde Space, emphasises that the opportunity is there for Scotland to push its way into the launching business.
"What I'd really like to see," he says, "is for a Scottish rocketry entrepreneur to provide a launcher – maybe missile-based – so that we can enter the space race from somewhere like Lossiemouth or Leuchars. That would certainly put Scotland on the map and enable further practical use of space, which is one of my dreams."
That vision of a Scottish spaceport has come a step nearer with the UK Government's announcement of a major investment in the development of a revolutionary new rocket engine. SABRE, which is being developed by the UK company Reaction Engines, has the potential to revolutionise rocket technology and significantly reduce the costs of getting into space. If the new engine is successful, it will power a new type of spaceplane, called Skylon, which could deliver payloads of up to 15 tonnes in Low Earth Orbit at around 1/50th of the cost of traditional rockets.
Compared to a conventional rocket, Skylon would be lighter, reusable, and able to operate from conventional runways. Thus it could provide the UK's satellite industry with its own launch facilities, and thereby facilitate further developments in the UK's satellite industry.
Skylon can also operate as a very high speed terrestrial aircraft, rising up out of the Earth's atmosphere with 300 passengers aboard, to go from Europe to Australia in about four hours.
"We are looking at a revolution in transportation equivalent to the jet engine," says its chief designer, Alan Bond.
Flight tests are expected to start around 2020, which means that the UK needs to have a suitable location in operation by then.
A sector for growth
Already Craig Clark has taken Clyde Space forward to a global position in the CubeSat business. With 22 employees, almost all of them engineers, it's the largest indigenous space company in Scotland. The bulk of its sales are exports – 80% outside the EU and over 95% outside the UK.
And with a growing world demand, he says, the potential of the space technology market for Scotland is huge. Today the sector is generating £20 million a year, but that, he says, is just the start, and he argues that it could expand to £5 billion a year and create 10,000 jobs.
"If we are successful in our business plan, UKube-1 will be the first of many more Scottish satelites."
The achievements of the Clyde Space team have been marked by the Sir Arthur C. Clarke Award for Space Commerce, and Craig Clark himself is an invited member of the UK's Space Leadership Council. In a special video interview made available for us, he and the company's business development manager, Ritchie Logan, described the work and the vision of Clyde Space and showed one of the CubeSats that the company works with.
07 October 2013Falcon flying, Cygnus supplying
Two birds flew proudly on 29 September as humans took two more steps in space. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket took a step forward towards the goal of reusability which would make the journey into orbit much simpler and cheaper. Orbital Sciences' Cygnus capsule docked successfully with the International Space Station (ISS), delivering a payload of hundreds of kilograms of supplies.
Together the two developments show how the private companies are moving forward towards the dream of shuutle operations into orbit. If the cost of carrying up cargo can be brought down, then space station can become a true gateway to the Solar System.
Last year SpaceX's Dragon C2 capsule became the first privately operated spacecraft to dock with the ISS. With Orbital now achieving the same capability with Cygnus, the new private sector model is becoming consolidated.
The challenge for them both is bring down costs of getting up into orbit, and the aim is to shift from the now-familiar throwaway approach of dropping first-stage rockets into sea and oblivion.
So for its latest operation, which involved taking a Canadian communications and weather satellite into orbit, SpaceX left some fuel in the tanks of the first stage of its Falcon 9 heavy lifter rocket. The aim was to steer the first stage back to earth for future reuse.
The re-ignition worked and some manoeuvres were carried out, although a second re-ignition put the rocket into a spin and caused it to crash. But the principle has been established - it is indeed technically possible to get the first stage under control and save it.
To the Moon and Mars
Up till now the focus of space development has been on long-distance firing of rockets from the earth, and the sheer cost and complexity of this has meant that even a return to the Moon has not been possible. But now attention is shifting to cutting down the cost of getting into orbit around the earth. If we can get into orbit cheaply, then from there it will be easier to assemble spacecraft for longer-distance missions to the Moon and Mars.
And Mars is where SpaceX's Elon Musk wants to go. He set up the California-based company in order to develop the necessary technology, including the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that's taken it up into orbit.
The Dragon and Cygnus missions are the latest in a series of flight demonstrations for NASA’s private sector COTS programme – the acronym stands for Commercial Orbital Transfer Services.
The Dragon capsule is reusable, and can carry up to seven astronauts, or up to 6000 kilograms of cargo. You can see how it is structured.
The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket is fuelled by a combination of liquid oxygen and kerosene, and the tank walls are made of an aluminium-lithium alloy. The development of a recovery system will significantly bring down operating costs.
The challenge of keeping control of costs is one that the founder of Space X, Elon Musk, has taken head on. The charge to NASA for each of the 12 planned Dragon missions is fixed by contract, and covers everything needed. ‘If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference,’ he says. Musk quotes a Chinese government official who confirms that SpaceX have the lowest operating prices in the world. But, he emphasises, this is just the start.
‘SpaceX intends to make far more dramatic reductions in price in the long term when full launch vehicle reusability is achieved.’
He’s also kept control on development costs. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet of paper to its first launch for just over $300 million dollars. The Dragon spacecraft was taken through a similar process for around the same amount.
A dream of a red planet
Elon Musk is a physicist who is the co-founder of PayPal and also of Tesla Motors, where he led development of the Tesla Roadster. He is also chairman of the photovoltaics company Solar City. His aim in setting up SpaceX was to get to Mars, and he had some capital to invest when he sold PayPal for $1.5 billion. But when he heard that the launch costs of sending one spacecraft to Mars would be two and a half times the cost of building it, he reckoned that something was wrong with the economics of space. So he decided to focus first at a key part of the problem – the high cost of taking up a capsule into earth orbit.
The first step was to find a chief engineer who could design a better type of rocket, so he contacted the Reaction Research Society, America’s oldest rocketry club, founded in the 1940s. The RRS told him about Tom Mueller, one of the world’s foremost rocket engine designers who was at the time in charge of liquid rocket engine activity at TRW, the aerospace company which had built several Pioneer spacecraft and the descent engine for the Apollo lunar lander. In his spare time Mueller was putting the finishing touches on his own liquid-fuel rocket engine, which would be the largest amateur-built of its type in the world. Elon Musk went to visit Tom Mueller and asked just one question: ‘Can you build something bigger?’
‘Mueller never fired that engine,’ says the account in the magazine Popular Mechanics. ‘Instead, he took up Musk’s offer to join the nascent private space venture.’
The docking with the ISS is only part of the story. SpaceX's rocket, the Falcon 9-Heavy, is the most powerful rocket since the Apollo era. It's able to put more than 53 tonnes of payload into a low-earth orbit – that’s more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with passengers, luggage and fuel.
SpaceX is also collaborating with Stratolaunch Systems in the development of an air-launched system to carry spacecraft into orbit. The rocket to carry the spacecraft will be a development of the Falcon 9, and the carrier aircraft will be developed by Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s company which produced SpaceShipOne for the Ansari Prize and SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. Stratolaunch reunites Rutan and Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft cofounder who funded the original SpaceShipOne development.