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Masten and Armadillo Perform First VTVL Restarts

kdawson posted more than 4 years ago | from the warp-oh-point-oh-one-mister-sulu dept.

Space 94

FleaPlus writes "Recently Masten Aerospace, winner of NASA's 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge, demonstrated using its Xombie vehicle the first-ever mid-flight restart of a VTVL (vertical-takeoff vertical-landing) rocket, a critical capability for the emerging suborbital/microgravity science and passenger markets (video from ground). Not to be outdone, John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace (winner of the 2008 Lunar Lander Challenge) flew its Mod rocket to 2,000 feet (610m), deployed a drogue parachute, and then restarted the engine to land (multi-view video showing John Carmack at the controls)."

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Awesome (3, Insightful)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490722)

I would venture to say that this is definitely a win for private-sector aerospace. (:

Re:Awesome (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491356)

I would venture to say that this is definitely a win for private-sector aerospace. (:

I would venture to say that I like niggers. Don't you like niggers? You're not some kind of racialist are you?

"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490762)

And now we know why he's doing this.

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (4, Funny)

RyuuzakiTetsuya (195424) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490854)

to see if you can control a rocket with the WASD keys?

This gives "Rocket Jumping" a whole new meaning.

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (3, Funny)

Dice (109560) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491468)

Pfft. Carmack doesn't use WASD, arrow keys, *or* the mouse. He has the console permanently open and controls his character's movement entirely with console commands. None of it is scripted, he's just that fast of a typist. In fact, half the time he's used timers to issue the next 90 seconds of gameplay so that he can just sit back and laugh at how predictable the rest of our movements are.

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

dakameleon (1126377) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492710)

So Carmack is the new Chuck Norris?

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

Ceriel Nosforit (682174) | more than 4 years ago | (#32493470)

Carmack has always been Chuck Norris. Our puny minds cannot simply grasp this greatness.

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

kobiashi maru (1717276) | more than 4 years ago | (#32508084)

real gamers use HJKL, not this WASD nonsense!

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (2, Funny)

u17 (1730558) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490886)

Because he likes to spend time debugging his creations?

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

Beezlebub33 (1220368) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495096)

And from a frigging laptop. That's what's interesting to me. NASA would have a huge control center with 300 people, contractors, sub-contractors, and sub-sub-contractors. Instead, it's him and a couple of guys on walkie-talkies and laptops. Part of this is the technological change, but largely its a mindset, an understanding of what the technology can do, how to use it properly, and a corporate attitude of risk / reward.

Now, who's going to be the first person to put a person on one of these? I don't think that it will be approved by the authorities, and it's probably pretty stupid, but you know that someone is going to strap a lawn chair on their personal rockets, have a ballistic parachute (just in case) and go for a ride.

Re:"John Carmack at the controls" (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#32500908)

Now, who's going to be the first person to put a person on one of these? I don't think that it will be approved by the authorities, and it's probably pretty stupid, but you know that someone is going to strap a lawn chair on their personal rockets, have a ballistic parachute (just in case) and go for a ride.

Actually, Armadillo Aerospace did precisely that several years ago with a much-earlier predecessor to their current vehicle. One of their engineers volunteered to put on a helmet and protective clothing, and rode in a seat on the rocket while an ambulance waited nearby in case there were problems. It didn't go very far off the ground though, as they were much less certain about the rockets they had back then than the ones they have now.

You can see a clip at around the 45 second mark in this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BstN0peLjI [youtube.com]

Not suprising he could do it (2, Funny)

durrr (1316311) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490792)

Considering John Carmacks history of sucessfull rocket launcher designs we shouldn't really be suprised they managed a sucessfull rocket jump.

Very Impressive (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32490794)

This is incredibly impressive.. the craft is very unstable when the drogue chute deploys but Carmack's software is smart enough to level out just with thrust vectoring (*not* easy to do, especially when you are subject to the varying conditions of our atmosphere).

Re:Very Impressive (4, Interesting)

nofx_3 (40519) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490890)

I watched it twice. In the first video I was impressed by the same thing as you, the vectoring stabilizing the falling rocket. On the second watch I was even more impressed when I realized even after the drogue shoot and free fall, the rocket landed just a foot or two from it's original takeoff point. So the vectoring didn't just stabilize the rocket, it also steered it back to the takeoff point.

Re:Very Impressive (2, Interesting)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494256)

It didn't look like they even really tried to get back on the exact spot either... just to simply get the rocket onto the pad so it wouldn't sink into the mud was good enough. Still, you are correct that it landed within just a couple of feet of the original take off point.

It will be very interesting to see what is going to happen when they try for high altitude flights. The next series is supposedly going to take them to about 100k feet, which is where the real fun is going to start. That still isn't in space, but it is getting close and will be in preparation for real sub-orbital flight.

Re:Very Impressive (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#32501410)

It didn't look like they even really tried to get back on the exact spot either... just to simply get the rocket onto the pad so it wouldn't sink into the mud was good enough. Still, you are correct that it landed within just a couple of feet of the original take off point.

I'm not sure, but they may have actually specifically avoided landing in the same precise spot as they took off from, in case the surface was damaged at all from the rocket flames.

Re:Very Impressive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32492396)

Carmack's software is smart enough to level out just with thrust vectoring

Thrust vectoring rules the sky... John Carmack style?

Awesome frame rate (5, Funny)

MalHavoc (590724) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490798)

John's new 3d engine looks sweet. Incredible detail! Are there plans for a rail gun?

Re:Awesome frame rate (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490816)

Are there plans for a rail gun?

If there are, I want to be the first to test fire it. :D

The railgun is a crutch (2, Funny)

NotQuiteReal (608241) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491332)

A simple one-shot kill weapon where you only have to aim and shoot to kill - in an instant of time, it reduces it to a 2D problem.

I am waiting for the grenades. That's where it is at baby, 4D - you got to bounce AND time them.

Re:The railgun is a crutch (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491768)

Throw in a rocket halfway up and you are going to the moon baby!

Just a step... (2, Informative)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490836)

Very impressive, but these are just jump-jets for now - sort of rocket helicopters. Going from what we saw to something that can get to orbit, deposit a payload, and return to earth undamaged is going to take a lot more work. Good luck to both teams.

Re:Just a step... (2, Informative)

nofx_3 (40519) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490904)

These aren't designed to be orbital designs. The VTVL ships are indented for sub-orbital flight.

Re:Just a step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491044)

You insensitive clod, how DARE you correct The Perens!

Re:Just a step... (1)

Thing 1 (178996) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491896)

The VTVL ships are indented for sub-orbital flight.

Or they will be, after the metric-to-English landing...

Fuel requirements? (1)

zooblethorpe (686757) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490926)

Yep, the fuel requirements alone just for getting into orbit are pretty steep. Adding in the requirements of refiring the motor and bringing the whole shebang to earth without a bang makes me think we're going to see even huger fuel cans flying up with even smaller payloads.

Then again, with the ability to start the motor while in freefall, I wonder if they plan to launch these things by dropping them from a high-altitude jet first? Getting them up high before they even fire would save some on fuel.

Cheers,

Re:Fuel requirements? (3, Interesting)

tibit (1762298) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491836)

Given that most orbital rockets linger in the dense, friction-expensive atmosphere rather shortly and *slowly* there is very little benefit to be had by dropping them down from a plane. I suggest a simple calculation: express the orbital energy as a function of mass and height, and see how small the potential energy is compared to kinetic energy. Hypotethically, if you would lift a rocket up to orbital height without giving it orbital velocity, you'd still need pretty much all of the fuel just to reach the orbital velocity.

The only benefit from launching higher up is for sub-orbital flights that do expend a significant amount of their fuel to overcome atmospheric friction and to gain potential energy. That's why SSOne launches up high.

OTOH, LEO requires ~30 times more energy than sub-orbital. GEO/lunar requires ~60 times more. So, whatever you launch to GEO, the energy used to bring it up to 100km high is so small that you can ignore it and your error is within 2%!

Re:Fuel requirements? (1)

strack (1051390) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492736)

another point, launching from hight altitude allows the use of high expansion vacuum nozzles on all stages, which leads to higher efficiency

Re:Fuel requirements? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32494284)

It actually does make a big difference.

High altitude air launch advantages:

Lower air pressure at altitude means you can use higher expansion ratio vacuum optimised engines with greater exhaust velocity (ie more efficient), For example SpaceX's Merlin 1C engine ground fireable version gets 275kgs thrust for 1 sec from 1kg fuel (Isp=275s), in a vacuum it is 304s, but the vacuum optimised high expansion ratio engine gets 345s.

You do save significant aero drag losses.

You can save a lot of gravity losses that otherwise result from having to use a relatively low accelration rate to reduce dynamic pressure on the vehicle within the atmosphere.

Alltogether these effects can save anywhere up to 10% of your total deltaV requirements for launch - reducing it from perhaps 9km/s to 8km/s. That makes a huge difference to the relative weights of fuel and vehicle.

Re:Fuel requirements? (1)

tibit (1762298) | more than 4 years ago | (#32505590)

You're comparing apples to oranges: it's obvious that if you don't have to drag all the fuel in the rocket, the rocket is smaller, and whatever ends up on the orbit is relatively a bigger % of your rocket's initial mass. But you did have to drag the fuel in the plane! Maybe it's cheaper to drag it around in an airplane, but here we are essentially arguing as to what your first stage should be: rocket vs. jet, and all that. You don't really "save" anything, you just shift the expense to a potentially more optimized first stage. Maybe the darn rocket should have had an air-breathing 1st stage in the first place?

Unless, that is, you propose launching from Mt. Everest, where the 1st stage, or should I call it 0th stage, is courtesy of Alpine orogeny and already paid for :)

Re:Just a step... (4, Interesting)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490958)

Very impressive, but these are just jump-jets for now - sort of rocket helicopters. Going from what we saw to something that can get to orbit, deposit a payload, and return to earth undamaged is going to take a lot more work. Good luck to both teams.

I don't think either Masten or Armadillo (or Virgin, XCOR, or Blue Origin) are planning on targeting the ground-to-orbit market any time soon. I think the general target markets for them for the next several years goes something like this:

* testbeds for NASA autonomous lander tech, like autonomous hazard avoidance (NASA can just put their AI/vision equipment on existing lander to test them out)
* suborbital science payloads: there's a lot of scientists who currently have to pay $1 million+ a launch to fly payloads on suborbital sounding rockets to the upper atmosphere and near-space that would love to pay the much-lower prices Masten and Armadillo charge to fly at much-higher flight rates
* microgravity science payloads: getting amounts of microgravity time that can only currently be beaten by flying on the ISS
* suborbital passenger payloads: both "tourists," scientists who want to be able to operate their experiments manually, and training for orbital astronauts. Armadillo just announced that they were planning on charging $102K per person, undercutting Virgin's price by half: http://www.space.com/news/space-tourism-new-deal-100430.html [space.com]
* robotic landers for NEOs/Moon/Mars, boosted to the location by an expendable rocket
* after making tons of money on the above, then maybe they'll start thinking about orbit. Once that happens, it'll probably be with something like pop-up boosters, where a reusable VTVL craft will boost an expendable secondary stage high/fast enough that it can reach orbit.

Let me know if I forgot any. ;)

Re:Just a step... (0, Offtopic)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491326)

I vote this best comment of the article and the Orbital Factories one the worst comment of the article.

Thanks.

Re:Just a step... (2, Interesting)

toastar (573882) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491774)

No.... If this was intended for suborbital flight, Why not just land the whole shebang with parachutes?

This is mainly for landing in places with low to no atmosphere like the moon or mars.

Re:Just a step... (1)

BiggerBoat (690886) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491956)

No, Armadillo's current rockets, drogue chute and all, are intended ultimately for suborbital flights here on Earth. These comments [armadilloaerospace.com] from John Carmack regarding parachutes are a few years old now, but they still apply to Armadillo Aerospace's current thinking.

Re:Just a step... (1)

fewnorms (630720) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492586)

Sounds to me like this would be perfect for the deployment method the Mars Science Lab [wikipedia.org] has planned. Only drawback I can think of is that Armadillo's rockets may not have been tested and built to full NASA specs?

By the way, everyone's talking about Armadillo here. Now I'm not saying they didn't do an awesome job and yes, I think Carmack is at least a demi-god, but let's not forget it was two teams that made it. Congrats to both Masten Aerospace and Armadillo on achieving this pretty impressive milestone!

Re:Just a step... (2, Insightful)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494300)

The problem with the NASA specs is that they have been written in such a way that only the "selected contractors" can actually meet those specs. That is unfortunately something incredibly common in government procurement circles, where often the contractors themselves write their own procurement contracts (I know.... I've helped to write some of them!) If you write the regulations or specifications in such a way that there can only possibly be one bidder on the contract, you can hardly call it a competitive bid. BTW, I've written spec contracts for government agencies for both small purchases... in once case for a single desktop PC... and for multi-million dollar capital purchases.

I'm not saying that all spaceflight specs are bad, but there certainly are some asinine regulations that do more harm than good and are mostly there to justify the salaries of the regulators and inspectors involved... and sometimes those regulations are there to scratch the back of a close personal friend and not necessarily to "protect the public". When those who wrote those regulations leave, sometimes it is incredibly hard to figure out even why some regulations were created in the first place. If they are created for political reasons, often there will be absolutely no commentary at all or "paper trail" to try and find out why they exist and are hard to cull out too.

This is also a problem in private industry to a smaller degree (for petty corruption among middle managers) but government agencies tend to take it to a much higher level.

Re:Just a step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491236)

Just so you know, a Google search for you makes you look like a spambot.

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Re:Just a step... (2, Informative)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491700)

I saw it a few days ago. It must have been a DNS spoof or a redirect spoof. I can't think of anything else. I'm just waiting for Google to re-scan me.

Re:Just a step... (1)

LearnToSpell (694184) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492350)

You can do a request which takes (24 hours? It's been within 10 minutes for me) a little while, if you're signed up for their Webmaster Tools nonsense.

Re:Just a step... (1)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492796)

These days you have to go through the "Crawler Access" page, use Google site search plus the spamware keywords to figure out the spamware URLs, and request that google remove them from its cache. Which is not what their own FAQs say, so it just took me a while. I think two directories got spoofed, and my home page had a spoof with queries but I can't remove that one or Google will remove the entire site.

Re:Just a step... (1)

FishTankX (1539069) | more than 4 years ago | (#32493306)

Perhaps. But sometimes the most amazing discoveries are the lower ones on the tree.

Rocket powered drug mules anyone?

Wouldn't be too hard to jump over the border, drop a kg of cocaine in a discreet location, and run back before the police knew what hit them. With the price of cocaine, it might just be economical.

Wha? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32490868)

Didn't read the article. Didn't read the summary. Skimmed the title.

What's this about a performing mastodon and armadillo?

"First VTVL Restarts" (1)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490942)

Seventh and eighth, sctually.

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#32490996)

> Seventh and eighth, sctually.

If you're referring to the Apollo landers, that's actually a good point. I guess technically they could be considered lunar VLVT craft, though. ;)

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (1)

masterwit (1800118) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491034)

Yes, perhaps it was a difference in atmospheric conditions (lack of one) that made the big difference...that and the damning gravity :)

Anyways I second FleaPlus's "good point".

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491010)

Nope, first with the same engine (hence "restart"). LM landings used two different engines and stages for landing and taking off.

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (2, Informative)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491056)

Nope, first with the same engine (hence "restart"). LM landings used two different engines and stages for landing and taking off.

Thanks for the reminder about the separate ascent and descent stages on the Apollo LM. It's also worth noting that the Apollo LM used a hydrazine mix for fuel, which is quite handy if you want easy and reliable propellant (it spontaneously ignites when you mix it with the oxidizer), but is nasty and toxic, so you don't want to use it for an Earth-based launch where you have people nearby (or are planning on carrying people).

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (1)

Suzuran (163234) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491112)

Correct, but still wrong. The LM DPS restarted during the missions. There was one burn for DOI and the second was the landing burn.

Re:"First VTVL Restarts" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491154)

Yup. The take off stage restarted, just like most upper stages do already. The landing stage restarted, just like the pulsed Mars landers. But that was no VTVL restart for the same engine that does take off and landing, only two separate stages. Which is great, but not the same.

You missed it. (1)

Suzuran (163234) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491532)

No, the landing stage DID an in-flight restart. That's what I just said.

First DPS burn was the Descent Orbit Insertion (DOI) burn.
Second DPS burn was the landing burn.
After landing was staging, and then the APS burn.

The DPS operation is what is being described.
Quoth TFA: "VTVL launch vehicles conserve fuel by shutting down their engines during the coast and re-entry phase of a flight."
The LM did a burn to DOI and then did another burn to land.
TFA says nothing about using the same engine for takeoff and landing, TFA claims this was the first restart period.

Re:You missed it. (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491708)

Yup. We all know! The lunar lander stage did a restart indeed.

But that's a *lander* stage. It was never claimed first lander to do a restart because that's not true. That's like saying a Soyuz is a VTVL because the capsule fires rockets on landing, or that the Mars propulsive landers are VTVLs because they take off from Earth and land on Mars. In fact, those have been re-starts too since the Viking. LOL.

So yeah, first two VTVLs to do in-air restart.

Orbital Factories? (3, Interesting)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491054)

So how long before a corporation launches a factory into (relatively) permanent orbit, for manufacturing in microgravity and near-vacuum? Will factories like that be able to dump their products back into the ocean for collection by delivery ships?

I want to see if aerogels [wikipedia.org] can be made in orbit not just cheaply, but with their internal structure oriented so they can be regular windows. They're such good insulators, and have such small mass per surface area that they could probably be dropped from orbit into the ocean without any extra packaging. Or as packaging containing other, more fragile stuff made in orbit and then the aerogel reused for its own applications once it's collected at the surface.

Re:Orbital Factories? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491268)

Yeah... I don't think stuff could be "dropped" from orbit... Things tend to do that pesky burn up on re-entry thing.

Plus, if you're going to have manufacturing in orbit, there's the other problem of what's technically known as "there's nothing up there" so you would need to lift a entire factory, lift the materials, only to drop them down again. Doesn't sound very cost effective.

On the other hand, I can see these as the bottom part of a space elevator. So you have some geostationary platform with a cable dangling to some lower altitude with a platform of some sort, then you could fly these things up to the platform deposit the load and the elevator can take it up the rest of the way wile the hovering thingy goes back to earth.

Anyone know if that's feasible or am I talking shit again?

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

thomasw_lrd (1203850) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491314)

Sounds like too much science fiction reading to me. But then again how many things have Asimov, Bova, Heinlein and the like predicted that has actually come true. Sooner or later it will be feasible, and someone will figure out how to make a huge profit out of it, and realize that they are no longer bound by earthly govt's and regulations. Then we'll have the first solar system war, and who know where we go from there.

Re:Orbital Factories? (3, Informative)

Khyber (864651) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491330)

"Things tend to do that pesky burn up on re-entry thing."

Aerogels are ungodly insulating and resistant to heat. I've seen a piece just a few millimeters thick keep a crayon from melting with a blowtorch heating up the aerogel.

It's a type of glass, just like the ceramic heat shielding tiles used on space shuttles.

Re:Orbital Factories? (3, Funny)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491500)

Did you say ungodly?

Burn the blasphemous, heathen aerogel!

Wait, fuck...

Re:Orbital Factories? (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491546)

You are correct. This Space Nuttery is absolutely unrealistic and unfeasible. It never, ever made sense and is mostly delusions, fantasies and sci-fi nonsense that makes for good dreams but makes zero economical and engineering sense.

I mean just read Doc Ruby's nonsense. Aerogels? Windows? Is the man on crack? If it were useful, we can make aerogel here on Earth... Who could afford windows made in space? Absolute nonsense.

These space manufacturing fantasies are the justifications that war-mongers used in the 1950s and 1960s to justify rocket research, that were actually meant to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the earth quickly.

I have read many space engineering textbooks. They usually throw in a few "ball bearings made in space" one-liners either as the author's ironic sarcasm, or some sort of weak justification that this isn't just weapons research.

These ideas mostly reflect the era: cheap energy, massive manufacturing capacity and very expensive computers. (And a powerful technological enemy "over there".)

In the DECADES that the Space Nutters are still hurling tin cans around the planet, computers have progressed way beyond even the wildest Space Age prognostications. I've read those too. Very few people understood what cheap computers could do, eventually.

Strangely enough, the people 40 years ago who said we'd be connected 24/7 with cheap computers were seen mostly as crackpots, and the space colony types were seen as realistic. 40 years later, the roles have swapped.

We don't need free-fall to make perfect ball bearings, we can simulate the entire process digitally and use computerized control in the process here on Earth to make ball bearings. And I don't know about you, but ball bearings have always worked just fine when manufactured on Earth. Just more Space Nuttery quackery and delusion.

It's a religion of the 20th century. A religion that says we have unlimited energy (we don't), unlimited technology (we don't), and unlimited markets up there (completely psychotic). Space Nuttery should be in the DSM-IV, a genuine psychiatric disturbance, a psychotic break with reality.

Yes, the imagery of the Space Age is grandiose and romantic. It hasn't panned out. There will be no space habitats, moon colonies or space manufacturing.

ANY technology you can use in space, you can use on Earth much easier.

Free-fall, lack of water and atmosphere are totally alien environments, you'd have to re-design every single machine and every single process to work up there. Think of how many things you take for granted on Earth, like things fall down. Inertia works differently in free-fall. Just that changes everything. How do you shake a few tons of molten metal in space? Well, since you are no longer coupled to 6x10^24 kg of mass (Earth), you pretty much shake the entire factory. Just that is an entire engineering problem in itself. This also kills asteroid mining.

As you noted, there is nothing up there. Everything we need is right here, easier and cheaper to get at, extract, refine and sell.

Space is a dead end.

But did you hear about the guy who makes artificial DNA and shoves it back into living cells?

That's the future. The biotech right now is at the level of late 1950s mainframe computers. They are in the hands of a few smart, avant-garde people with lots of money, and a few people with more prosaic needs.

The next decades will bring biotech in the hands of more and more people as it gets cheaper and cheaper.

The applications will be as unpredictable as the applications of millions of cheap computers in the hands of everyone were for the Space Age.

Space will always be difficult, and have a few uses. It will never, ever be the dreamland the psychotic Space Nutters make it out to be, for simple physical and economical reasons.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

hoggoth (414195) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491688)

Almost right. Space is completely hostile to life as we know it.

But it will not be hostile to our descendant's: robots with AI good enough to carry out tasks for us and return with information and goods gathered in space. And one day in the far future, AI that's as good as us. That will be our legacy, while us bags of meat and salt water are stuck down here in the only place in the universe we know of where we can live.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1, Flamebait)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491952)

You really don't know what you're talking about. This article is about the current economics of travel to and from space, which is within reach of industry. What I posted is about a material developed for space, which has extremely valuable properties. Like windows that lose 20% or less the heat that even double-pane/argon/low-e windows currently do, if their inner structure can be oriented properly, which seems likely in microgravity/near-vacuum. Extremely valuable stuff, especially while we're in an energy crisis best countered by conservation. Produced at very low costs in very high volumes in space, once the R&D costs are recovered, at a quality impossible on Earth without costing far more than we can afford.

As for "unlimited energy", that's the most promising benefit of human presence in space, beyond scientific knowledge and inspiring human achievement. Solar satellites or moon bases. Fusion plants or even fission plants safely located on the far side of the Moon. Gravity pumps in orbit; more exotic technologies once we're out there looking further into the future from the tech we brought with us.

The future includes sophisticated software on massively parallel networks of computers. Engineered microbes and other DNA structures. Stemcells and hormone therapies. Thousands of avenues of invention, including lots in space.

Just because it's beyond your comprehension, because you're stuck in some 1950s/60s shortsightedness, doesn't mean it's not out there for us to do for ourselves. And we will. And people like you who don't comprehend it will get hauled along with us. So do yourself a favor and either get smart, or shut up.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494450)

You are fighting an anonymous coward.... likely somebody who is writing just to stir up the pot and really doesn't believe what they are writing in the first place. You've made some good points and obviously touched on a raw nerve. Just smile with it!

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494820)

Like windows that lose 20% or less the heat that even double-pane/argon/low-e windows currently do,

You can achieve rates this good just by pulling down a mylar windowshade. The Argon does NOTHING to improve things, not worth mentioning. It's there to keep corrosion from occurring inside the window, and is guaranteed to leak eventually. And low-E windows are stupid anywhere you can get sun: You use high-E (aka "normal") glass and orient your house south (or in the southern hemisphere, north) with proper overhangs, and you use shades or screens to reflect unwanted sunlight.

As for "unlimited energy", that's the most promising benefit of human presence in space, beyond scientific knowledge and inspiring human achievement. Solar satellites or moon bases. Fusion plants or even fission plants safely located on the far side of the Moon. Gravity pumps in orbit; more exotic technologies once we're out there looking further into the future from the tech we brought with us.

It is absolutely critical that we move refining of metals off the planet, it's one of the most polluting activities that it doesn't make sense to give up. (With sufficient solar power, it makes complete sense to stop pumping oil, for example. But we're still going to want metal.) I say that moving refining offplanet is at least as valuable as capturing or generating power there.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491908)

Aerogels were developed by NASA for insulation in space. They are closely related to the ceramic tiles NASA invented to shield the Space Shuttles during reentry - over and over again, without damage. They also have very tough mechanical properties, even when made at the surface of the Earth. Evidently you know nothing about them, even though I helpfully included a link to a detailed description of their properties and history.

That is why I say they could be dropped from space without harm. So yes, you are talking shit again.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32492604)

http://www.airglass.se/

melts at 750C compared to 1650C reentry temps (for blunt nosed optimum aerodynamic designed vehicles like space shuttle)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_reentry

Also, the insulating properties of aeroglass is only slightly better than triple glazing (0.5W/m2K compared to 0.8W/m2K - see normal single pane glass at 6.2W/m2k).

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494498)

That is but one kind of aerogel and hardly the most ubiquitous kind either. BTW, the re-entry temperature you are quoting here is also the temperature for a blunt body re-entry like is found for a standard ballistic capsule return that is highly dense and mostly a solid hunk of metal wrapped with some protective heat shields. The raw density of aerogels is substantially less and has some very different aerodynamic characteristics involved with it that simply tossing it into the atmosphere would not necessarily require the intense heat for re-entry that you have quoted.

Then again, with the density of the materials approaching that of air at sea level, it may be difficult to get the materials to land where you want them if you are tossing them into the atmosphere and then letting them blow around with the various air currents... something that a traditional ballistic capsule doesn't have to contend with all that much.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495344)

If you'd follow the link to the aerogel Wikipedia article I gave in my original post, you'd see that your cherrypicked poor example isn't what I'm talking about. Moreover, I'm talking about manufacturing an even better aerogel in space, which you conveniently ignore. And besides, the Space Shuttles have been successfully reentering the atmosphere without burning up because they're covered in the previous generation aerogel tiles.

The current aerogel for skylights is already (US units) R-10.5:inch at $10:foot^2, instead of R-2 to R-3 for the best double-pane glass windows. For skylights that's cheap enough to put 3-4 inches thick and still save a lot of money in lighting without losing money in heating under an otherwise R-40 roof. If orbital manufacture produced truly clear material cheaply in large volumes, the amount of energy saved in buildings would be far vaster than the amount of energy to launch the factories and pull in the silicon stocks. Especially if it cost nearly nothing to drop the products in the ocean, which could package heavier and much higher value products like drugs and chips. Or even aerogel ultracapacitors charged with the ample solar power in space.

If you actually knew what aerogels were, instead of looking for lame terrestrial versions, you'd understand why orbital manufacturing them is exciting.

Look for that label... (1)

NotQuiteReal (608241) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491360)

MADE IN LEO

I might pay extra for that... but only if the product was worth it.

Re:Look for that label... (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494596)

There are products like some kinds of aerogels, some metal alloy mixing, and certain biological processes (read pharmaceutical industries) where not only is it useful but actually necessary for those processes to take place in space or at least in micro-gravity conditions. In other cases you can also improve the quality of some of these products substantially... again due to the environment. Even at low-earth orbit the vacuum which is present is actually superior to anything which can be obtained in even the best laboratories on the Earth's surface (and that is even technically within the exosphere portion of the Earth's atmosphere).

Would these products be worth the cost? Absolutely! They would also be very sensitive to the cost of spaceflight, where even a very modest drop in the price of getting into space... say even a 5% drop in the cost of a launch... would make a huge difference in terms of how profitable such a manufacturing enterprise would be and how often they would want to go back up for another launch with new supplies or even personnel to operate the equipment. Not all of it can be or even ought to be 100% automated.

While SpaceX has done some remarkable things for getting into space, I think it is going to be companies like Armadillo and Masten that will be making the real game changer spacecraft. Both companies have stated that their eventual long-term goal is to get into orbit themselves, even if the prospect of doing that is a long way out at the moment.

What Armadillo has done in particular is to demonstrate that they are now capable of successfully achieving the basic goals of the original Ansari X-Prize (even if it is a decade too late). I also happen to believe that the Armadillo technology is also going to be much easier to scale up to orbital velocities, or at the very least longer sub-orbital flights that SpaceShip Two simply can't achieve.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

clegrand (1082829) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491416)

Kinda missing the original point of the article.. Armadillo & Masten just demonstrated the ability to do away with dropping things into the ocean. Available reaction mass in orbit notwithstanding, just land them back at the newly expanded inter-modal distribution center.

Re:Orbital Factories? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32493844)

So how long before a corporation launches a factory into (relatively) permanent orbit, for manufacturing in microgravity and near-vacuum?

Not soon.

  • Cost of getting things to orbit and keeping them there
  • Cost of manufacturing in zero-g (like trying to keep simple things like dust/lubricants/coolants in the right place)
  • Cost of designing/building/maintaining the whole process
  • Cost of "disaster" (depending on what you're building, you might not want it slamming into a populated area at 2000mph)
  • Cheaper ways to create a "near-vacuum"

Doesn't the saying go "even if the moon was made of gold it would cost more to get it back here than it would be worth"?

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Beezlebub33 (1220368) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495342)

That's because gold is heavy and relatively easy to get here on earth.

The same cannot be said for helium-3 [wikipedia.org] . It makes sense to get it from the moon (maybe).

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494412)

The largest problem right now for orbital factories is the fact that nobody has a facility capable of "housing" such factories at the moment. There is, I suppose, the ISS.... but that monster of a fiscal black hole is something that no corporate entity would ever want to get stuck with in terms of trying to justify costs and would be worth staying clear of just for the bureaucratic red tape alone. With SpaceX and Orbital Sciences trying to simply provide raw cargo logistical capabilities to the ISS alone they've had to endure incredible scrutiny and meeting ungodly regulations just for the ability to simply dock to the ISS at all.

BTW, the resupply cargo vessels also have to be man-rated as people are going to be inside of those vehicles to extract the cargo. The only thing they will be lacking is the man-rated capacity for launch.

The Dragon capsule... with the Dragon Lab configuration might be perhaps one of the first real orbital factories that private industry could access. The first flight is scheduled (looking up the SpaceX manifest) some time in 2012. In other words, if there is a company wanting to put up a package into orbit (the mission is expected to last about six months before returning to the Earth), they can start work today and put some cash on the table without having to deal with NASA at all. SpaceX is planning on at least annual flights of the Dragon Lab, and eventually docking with a Bigelow BA-330 module too. Fabrication of items in space is one of the stated purposes for both SpaceX and Bigelow to making their equipment.

For a good reason, Robert Bigelow is desperately trying to "second source" a vehicle to his space station, which is one of the reasons why he is working with Boeing to build an alternate spacecraft that will fly on a Delta IV. That is expected to take a few years before it is completed, but it is something that has some bent metal already and is taking shape.

So the answer to your question.... how long before a corporation launches a factory into orbit? Within this decade.

As for how delivery can be made for returning the cargo back to the Earth..... there certainly will be many different options. Your suggestion of using an aerogel for delivery sounds incredibly promising for a whole bunch of stuff including perhaps even simply delivery of bulk cargo from orbit in general.

This is where genuine commercial spaceflight might really start to make a difference, and it is possible that orbital fabrication might be even larger than space tourism in terms of dollars spent for commercial spaceflight.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495386)

I won't be surprised when a future US government privatizes the ISS or a successor in a giant subsidy to some corporation. I'd hope the American public would get a better return than just the usual honor of subsidizing someone else's private enterprise, but if the corporation were (at least mainly, as in taxes and jobs) American, it would probably be worth keeping American enterprise in the forefront instead of its usual tendency to lag behind any risk.

What would be really cool would be an American Moon base run like an American city, with a public government and lots of private enterprise. A base for humans, who like gravity and large open spaces. I'd love to see a big solar plant beaming power back to Earth, occupied by humans, operating and servicing automated orbital satellites including factories.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495534)

Orbital aerogel manufacture seems like a great win on so many levels. Growing it in vacuum means when its surface is sealed it insulates at something like R-13, even with the internal structure ("haywire") we get at Earth's surface. If orbit's microgravity and micropressure means we can make it even less dense, it could possibly deliver closer to R-20. And without directly powering any evacuation process. Possibly a micro deposition coating, in which case thick sheets could be so not-dense (we'd have to finally use a better word than "light" or "airy" :) that they'd float in Earth's atmosphere anywhere near the surface. If we could manufacture carbon fiber/nanotube frames in orbit, we could build blimps filled with vacuum. We could fill them with other cargo and dump them into the atmosphere. A really sophisticated industry would have powered blimps finding their way to ships, or directly to ports.

It all sounds so much like the SF from the 1920s that I'll continue :). Charging the aerogels as ultracapacitors with orbital solar power could send them all the way to their destination, and possibly with power to spare once there. Where blimps could be dismantled, or shed some skin, delivering cheap and extremely effective insulation. If orbit let us orient the strands in parallel while keeping the insulating and mechanical strength, we might get usable windows (possibly even without even colored depths, if the strands were separated wider than visible wavelengths). If the world could afford aerogel windows at 5-20x the R-value of glass for the same price, our energy consumption for heating and cooling could be cut by the amount of excess Greenhouse gas pushing the atmosphere out of its familiar cycles. And of course the rest of the benefits, including whatever we packaged in them, would transform the world's industry, and therefore its labor and environment.

I just hope it's America that leads the way, instead of one of our foreign competitors. If I were Putin, I know where I'd be investing my country's space, engineering and energy momentum. And I bet China's mafia thinks the same thing.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32500036)

If you think you have a really good idea here, you might want to talk to Richard Gariott.... seriously! He has the money and is looking for an enterprise that can get himself back in orbit, but this time he can only justify the cost if he can turn a profit on the whole thing.

I'd agree that aerogels sound like an amazing investment opportunity, and is one of the few ideas I've heard that really makes sense for commercial spaceflight in the short term. There are some really interesting ideas but I would imagine that this is one that would... comparatively speaking... take a minimum of capital to get going and to be a good startup enterprise using space-based assets that could justify a commercial launch that isn't in an already established commercial space sector (such as telecom or remote sensing equipment).

I would imagine that this would also have some in-orbit value as well... something else to consider instead of throwing this stuff back down the the ground. Aerogels do a wonderful job at absorbing minor impacts quite well and in fact have been used by NASA for some micrometeorite studies and to gather samples from comets. Having the customers buy the stuff in-orbit and then process it for use in deep space could be an interesting market all by itself.

I'm not really worried about the Chinese for the moment, at least until they can figure out how to do an in-orbit rendezvous first. That seems like a trivial thing, but it really is one of the more complicated accomplishments just after simply getting into orbit in the first place from a technical point of view. They are taking their time at getting things done, although supposedly there is a Chinese "space station" that is going into orbit next year. I would image that is something akin to the Salyut space station that the Soviet Union flew back before the modular design that became MIR flew.

Re:Orbital Factories? (1)

M3lf.cz (983459) | more than 4 years ago | (#32508184)

Arent aerogels hydrophilic ? Well, it seems, that they can be made hydrophobic...never mind. :)

Apogee code word--do you get it? (1)

kriston (7886) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491168)

Apogee code word--did you get it?
I like the Motorola GMRS radios, too.

Re:Apogee code word--do you get it? (1)

NNKK (218503) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491282)

"Code word"? "Apogee" was the term for point of greatest distance from Earth long before the company ever existed.

Re:Apogee code word--do you get it? (1)

kriston (7886) | more than 4 years ago | (#32509940)

I see that you did *not* get it.
Thanks for failing to let us know how smart you think you are.

Just like the game (1)

RockMFR (1022315) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491278)

I'm reminded of the Lander game [chello.at] while watching these videos. They should try testing this thing out on non-flat terrain with limited fuel :)

Re:Just like the game (1)

BZWingZero (1119881) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491672)

Oh, so kinda like what BOTH had to do to win the Lunar Lander Challenge?

Fly up to a predetermined altitude (varied depending on competition level), translate horizontally a specific distance (again, how far depended on the competition level), stay airborne for a certain amount of time (length depended, again, on competition level) land on a simulated lunar surface complete with boulders, then fly back with the same flight altitude, time and distance requirements within the allotted time.

Oh, and bring enough fuel to make each flight without running out. One of the teams (neither Masten nor Armadillo), did run out of fuel a few feet off the pad and crashed.

Re:Just like the game (1)

Penguinshit (591885) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492346)

Where is THAT video?

meh, might as well paste it after all of 5secs goo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32493690)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXwsRJzI8vE

Two Words (0)

Bruha (412869) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491446)

Fracking No Way

I could see half the people puking as it stabilized and the other half thinking they were about to crash..

Re:Two Words (2, Insightful)

georgewilliamherbert (211790) | more than 4 years ago | (#32491528)

The instability was due to the dynamics of the drogue parachute, which was intended to ensure that the vehicle didn't turn upside down due to air drag before the engine lit. It did that but the length of the parachute harness ended up being such that the vehicle moved unsteadily at that descent rate.

That's a minor problem and easy to fix, with a different length harness or other aerodynamics.

With a vehicle which was aerodynamically stable going down base first, it wouldn't be a problem either. That particular test craft (and Masten's similar one) will probably turn and fall nose-first if they fall any significant distance. These are low altitude test rockets, not the final high speed high altitude models, so some problems appear with these models that will be engineered out of the final models.

You fix those short-term problems with the most cheap and reliable band-aid you can, since you're planning on a different airframe as the long term fix. The parachute was the band-aid. Not a perfect band-aid, but an acceptable one.

Re:Two Words (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32494684)

In this particular case, I don't think the drogue parachute was really necessary for vehicle control before re-light, but it might be something more critical if Armadillo goes for a much higher altitude attempt. What they were testing was the overall flight profile, which for higher altitude flights will certainly involve a parachute of some kind for multiple reasons.

If anything, the drogue chute in this case actually added instability to the vehicle and to me proved the test all that more in terms of the ability to recover from an unstable situation and bring it back on course to a clean landing. In some ways, I was more impressed with the Armadillo test than the Masten one, but they were both quite impressive.

It is also kind of fun to see two companies like this compete with each other for what are aviation firsts too!

Re:Two Words (1)

DadLeopard (1290796) | more than 4 years ago | (#32503208)

I'm sure the Drogue chute also made sure that the vehicle did not take a nose down attitude, which would have been very hard to recover from! Their freefall time was much longer than the Maston flights!

Re:Two Words (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32510008)

Yes, I'll admit that may have been a concern, but it wasn't really all that much longer of a free fall time than what Maston did. It is hard to say "what if the chute had never been there in the first place" as it was there, but as I said.... it was a part of the overall flight profile.

Other reasons to include a parachute include safety, saving some reaction mass (aka propellant) during the descent phase of the profile on much higher flights, and as has been stated to also help with attitude control when the engines are off. It also helps to settle the fuel at the bottom of the tank after significant free-fall time.... something that wasn't an issue at all for this particular test.

It is the overall flight profile that is the interesting part, and the fact that Armadillo is even using a parachute at all. They certainly could (and indeed did show) that they can recover from huge instability in their flight characteristics. The 3 or so seconds that the vehicles was falling was hardly enough time to get a nose down attitude and from watching the video it appears as though the parachute actually increased the instability of the vehicle by adding torque and an oscillation factor that needs to be reviewed with a better parachute.

That can be fixed and there are other things for Armadillo to be worrying about, so the real point of the test is to simply show that a parachute can be deployed at all and what a more complex launch profile might involve for much, much longer flights. They aren't going to be following the flight profiles of their Lunar Landing Challenge flights as they are dealing with trying to get out of the Earth's gravity, not the Moon's.

Cryptic title; wondered what site I was reading (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32491690)

What a cryptic article title. As I read it, I was like, "Masten, Armadillo... huh? Teams, products, people? And then VTVL, WTFBBQ? restart? Are these computer systems? Projects?"

iddqd. (1)

bronney (638318) | more than 4 years ago | (#32492064)

It's nice and easy seeing physics works in games and simulations but RL is just so damn sweet. 1up for John and team :)

RDR (1)

CrashandDie (1114135) | more than 4 years ago | (#32493696)

I read it as "Marston in Armadillo Performs..." Guess I've been playing Red Dead Redemption just a tiny bit too much.

Re:RDR (1)

Tekfactory (937086) | more than 4 years ago | (#32495328)

You are not alone.

lunar lander! (1)

v1 (525388) | more than 4 years ago | (#32498880)

I remember playing that on the Apple ][ a long long time ago. And I did it with only a side-view too.

so what's so hard about that?

Little late, aren't we gentlemen? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32499510)

Wow! You mean a rocket fired up it's engine, flew a bit, and then turned it's engine on again? And one of them landed on it's own power, with a rocket, instead of ballistically?

My god. We've only had this feat in every form of science fiction since roughly the 1800s.

So what the hell has taken them so long to do it?

Kaaaching? (1)

DadLeopard (1290796) | more than 4 years ago | (#32503262)

Did anybody else besides me wonder what got knocked off the Maston rocket on the semi-hard landing? Just prior to the end of the Video you can see a circular piece of metal falling through the scene and making a Kaaching sound on hitting the landing pad!
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