Monday, May 02, 2016

SpaceX Announces Up-Rated Launch Capabilities & Pricing for Mars Trips

          By Henry Stewart

On the heels of its announcement that it plans to begin landing spacecraft on Mars "as early as 2018," Hawthorne, California based SpaceX has revised its standard pricing to include trips to Mars and updated the specs for both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

Updated graphic showing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy capabilities.  According to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which successfully landed the Mars rover Curiosity in the Gale Crater on August 6th, 2012 weighed 899 kilograms (1,982 pounds). The total mass of the MSL spacecraft (including entry, descent and landing system plus the fueled cruise stage) was 3,893 kilograms (8,463 pounds), well within the current rated capacity of even the Falcon 9. However,  the current estimated mass of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV), a NASA designed spacecraft intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) is 25,848 kilograms (56,985 pounds) or approximately twice the amount the Falcon Heavy is capable of transporting to Mars.  Graphic c/o SpaceX.

As outlined in the May 1st, 2016 Engadget post, "SpaceX: our Falcon rockets are more powerful than we thought," A Falcon 9 "is now known to be capable of hauling 50,265 lbs to low Earth orbit, up from just shy of 29,000lbs. The Falcon Heavy, meanwhile, will carry 119,930 lbs instead of the previously promised 116,845 lbs."

Last Wednesday, SpaceX announced via Twitter that it intended to "send a spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018."

As outlined in the April 30th, 2016 Yahoo Finance article, "Here's how SpaceX plans to land on Mars in 2018 using the most powerful rocket in the world," the mission will involve "sending a spacecraft called the Red Dragon (an upgraded SpaceX Dragon spacecraft) to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA's Mars rover and then return them to Earth."

"Red Dragon" is essentially a Mars sample return mission using SpaceX hardware. As outlined in the March 7th, 2014 post, "Project 'Red Dragon': Mars Sample-Return Mission Could Launch in 2022 with SpaceX Capsule," the Red Dragon would be customized to carry the gear needed to return samples gathered on Mars and would include a Mars ascent vehicle (MAV); an Earth return vehicle (ERV); and enough hardware to transfer to the ERV a sample collected in a previously landed rover mission. Graphic c/o

But the key to SpaceX's current Mars initiative isn't new technology. It's the business case.

As outlined in the May 1st, 2016 NASAWatch post, "The Real Cost of a Red Dragon Mission to Mars," the SpaceX Falcon Heavy has a list price of $90Mln USD ($113Mln CDN). But SpaceX adds a hefty margin to its costs.

According to Cowing:
Also, SpaceX is starting to build up an inventory of used first stages that they put into rockets and sell for something like 30-40% less than a new Falcon. 
Of course, they make a profit on these reused Falcons too. Conceivably they could build a Dragon Heavy for Mars mission use out of used Falcon first stages. Of course there's the cost of a Mars-capable Dragon V2 (aka "Red Dragon") that has to be developed and built. But by then they will have some Dragon V2 vehicles sitting around as well. 
Then again SpaceX could use all new hardware. With an increased launch cadence there's going to be a lot of these stages sitting in storage making subsequent missions less expensive as well.
And Cowing isn't alone in his assessment.

As discussed in the May 1st, 2016 Engadget post, "The science behind SpaceX’s ambitious plan to land a spacecraft on Mars," SpaceX’s development of the capability to land and reuse rockets on Earth "was just one more step towards Musk’s bigger ambition, which is to land on Martian soil in a way that has never done before: Without parachutes, airbags or “skycranes,” but rockets alone."

According to the article:
The notion was first outlined in a 2012 white paper (under the title Red Dragon: Low-cost Access to the Surface of Mars using Commercial Capabilities) co-authored by Steve Davis, one of SpaceX’s more original thinkers.
It noted that the Dragon space capsule, which SpaceX is developing to fly to the International Space Station and back, has powerful built-in engines to allow it to land on Earth (as well as recover safely from a failed launch). 
It suggested that those same engines, in conjunction with a heat shield, could instead be used to slow the Dragon from a high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere all the way to a landing on the surface.
According to the white paper, "a Red Dragon lander has the potential to be low cost primarily because it would be derived from a routinely-flying spacecraft." The current SpaceX Dragon capsule transports supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). A crewed version is also being developed.

As outlined in the May 1st, 2016 Motley Fool post, "With or Without NASA, SpaceX Is Going to Mars," SpaceX has announced that it will also foot the bill for the Red Dragon mission "entirely on its own" and will share data generated by the mission with NASA "free of charge."

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also offered to outline his future plans to colonize Mars at the upcoming International Astronautical Congress (IAC2016), which will be held from September 26th - 30th in Guadalajara, Mexico.

But for those who can't wait until 2018 to see the Red Dragon land on Mars or until September to view Musk in Mexico, the next Falcon 9 launch is currently scheduled for this Thursday. The mission expects to send the Space Systems Loral (SSL) built JCSAT-14 telecommunications spacecraft into a 22,300 mile orbit above the equator.

All in a day's work, evidently. _________________________________________________________________________________

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Weekend at the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge

          By Chuck Black

Graphic c/o NASA.
For those interested in the intersection of space advocacy, software applications and commercial business activities, the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge, which was held from April 22nd - 24th at various locations around the world, provided an interesting canvas of exploratory ideas for our next great space age.

First held in April 2012, the international hackathon partnered NASA with small groups engaged in organized challenges to develop innovative solutions focused around the use of NASA data.

As outlined in the March 23rd, 2016 NASA press release, "NASA Announces Dates for One of World’s Largest Hackathons," the "global main stage for this year’s event" was Pasadena, California,

Local events took place at 193 other locations in 72 countries and were expected to attract approximately 15,000 participants.

In Toronto, the teams picked to move on to global judging, the next phase of the event, include:
  • Vesta Rainbow - A generic digital online tool designed to build constant scale natural boundary (CSNB) maps of Vesta (one of the largest objects in the asteroid belt) utilizing the digital elevation model (DEM) found through Vesta Trek. According to the website, tool could be applicable to any 2D or 3D surfaces (not necessarily terrains) in order to "visualise the dissipation of potential. An example could be “virtual flood” analysis of income distribution on a city map."
  • Kid on the Moon - An interactive children's app which allows smartphones and tablets to locate the Moon any time of the day (even when the Moon is below the horizon) and unlock current lunar data (phase, distance, etc), and other items.
As well, team Space Off (which explored ways to adapt common gym tools to reduced gravity environments and design a workout routine to minimize bone and muscular loss) received a Peoples Choice nomination and will also move on to global judging.

According to Toronto Space Apps Challenge organizer James Costa, the real Toronto challenge was to organize a separate one-day youth event for kids ages 7-15, which was held on Saturday, April 23rd, in conjunction with, but at a separate location, from the main event.

As outlined on the 2016 Toronto Space Apps Youth website, "It’s a day set with unique challenges that encourages kids to use their hands and brains to explore and learn about space like never before." The youth event involved robotics, space-related arts and crafts and coding workshops.

Don't just stand there. Click on the image to re-tweet and show your support. Photo's c/o @teresa_sing.

Meanwhile, over at the NASA space apps Waterloo location, the big news was the MaxQ "business accelerator for space start-ups," which formally announced a pilot program for three to five teams, which will begin in September, 2016 and run for six months.

To join the first cohort, the MaxQ organizers are looking for:
  • Teams of 2-10 founders, of whom one must be willing to be at Communitech in Kitchener-Waterloo full-time for the duration of the program.
  • Teams focused on developing "downstream applications" or software applications able to run on existing hardware, focused around the areas of Earth observation, geo-analytics, big data, geomatics, wearables and/ or bio-medicine.
  • Teams with a working prototype that is close or ready to be launched into the market.
In exchange, the company offers "an intensive program of mentoring, business development assistance and access to industry experts." The program is open to Canadian citizens and Canadian residents only.

According to MaxQ president Brodie Houlette, "We want to make Kitchener/ Waterloo the epicenter for Canadian space activities."

He said the Canadian accelerator will be modeled on the successful UK based Satellite Applications Catapult accelerator, which was established in May, 2013 by Innovate UK, a UK government agency.

CEO Houlette giving a presentation at the Waterloo Space Apps Challenge on April 24th. MaxQ will be based in the Communitech innovation centre in Kitchener, Ontario, which has donated space for up to 20 people, according to the April 24th, 2016 The Record article, "New space-sector accelerator to touch down in Kitchener." Photo c/o B. Houlette.

MaxQ founders include Houlette, Marc Boucher (the co-founder and CEO of, Robert Gissing (a co-founder, past director and past president of the Kwartzlab MakerSpace) and James Slifierz (the co-founder and CEO of SkyWatch Space Applications which, as outlined in the May 19th, 2014 post, "CDN "SkyWatch" wins "Best Use of Data" at Int'l Space Apps Challenge," won the 2014 Space apps challenge).

No funders for the accelerator have so far been announced.

Chuck Black.
The potential for a Canadian space focused accelerator has been discussed previously, most recently in the March 30th, 2016 post, "Changing Times; Space Start-up Accelerator Announced in Waterloo."

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Bigelow Expanded Activity Module & Breakthrough Starshot

          By Brian Orlotti

BEAM. Imfographic c/o
Over the past few weeks, two new events have shown the private space industry's achieving a critical mass of both financial support and cohesion.

First off, on April 8th, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, launched into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS).

BEAM is a technology demonstrator designed to prove the viability of inflatable space habitats and will spend two years attached to the ISS.

As announced in the April 11th, 2016 Verge article, "ULA is teaming up with Bigelow Aerospace to launch commercial space habitats,"

BEAM will pave the way for the debut of Bigelow Aerospace's flagship product, the B330, in 2019.

Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow envisions the B330 habitat essentially being operated as a timeshare, with both NASA and private citizens as paying customers. Bigelow will rely on commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing to transport crew to and from the B330.

As outlined in the April 2nd, 2013 post, "A Thin Red Line to Protect Mars Explorers," Chiliwack BC., based Thin Red Line Aerospace designs and builds the pressure-restraining hulls used for the Bigelow habitats which are made of impact-resistant, Kevlar-like materials and other fabrics.

Thin Red Line Aerospace has previously designed and built the pressure-restraining hulls for the Bigelow Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 technology demonstrators, which launched in 2006 and 2007.

The lightweight habitats could save millions of dollars in launch costs compared with metal modules.

But Bigelow isn't the only space focused billionaire with a new initiative this month. 

Infographic c/o
On April 12th, venture capitalist Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking unveiled Breakthrough Starshot, a  $100Mln USD ($128Mln CDN) initiative to develop a fleet of light sail-equipped nano-spacecraft capable of travelling to Alpha Centauri in 20 years at 20% of light-speed, taking pictures and video and then relaying them back to Earth. 

In an interesting reversal of conventional wisdom, Milner categorized the project as something which governments would not normally consider because of its speculative nature and the long lead times.

As outlined in the April 12th, 2016 CBC News post, "Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking's Breakthrough Starshot targets Alpha Centauri," it could take years to develop the project, and there is no guarantee it will work.

Breakthrough Starshot is part of a larger program called Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by Milner to pursue different avenues for contacting extraterrestrial life.

As outlined on the project website, the initiatives, "are a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together – as one world in the cosmos?"

The Breakthrough Initiatives board includes Milner, Hawking and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are another watershed example of a marquee investor applying their resources into a long-term space project with no immediate return.

The BEAM delivery to the ISS marks the proof-of-concept of a technology that will enable extensive in-orbit and off-world development.

The Bigelow/ULA partnership signifies the emergence of a new pragmatism within the space industry; the coming together of Old Guard and New. Space aficionados everywhere can take heart in seeing this long-static industry finally embracing its future.

"And that day dawned when Arrakis lay at the hub of the universe with the wheel poised to spin.," Frank Herbert - Dune.

Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.