Space Sunday: Moon trips, Mr Spock’s “home” and roving an asteroid

The updated BFR / BFS combination, as revealed on September 17th, 2018. Credit: SpaceX

On Monday, September 17th, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, provided an update on the company’s massive Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and Big Falcon Ship (BFS –  previously referred to simply as “the ship” or “the spaceship”), and revealed the first fare-paying passenger who will fly around the Moon aboard a BFS some time in the 2020s.

BFR has been in development since 2012/13. Designed to be fully reusable, it was initially referred to as the Mars Colonial Transport (MCT) – reflecting the company’s intention to use it to send humans to Mars. In 2016, SpaceX revealed the first formal design for the vehicle, which had been renamed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) to reflect the fact it could fulfil a number of roles. At that time, the vehicle  – comprising a first stage booster and upper stage spaceship – was to be a 12 metre (39 ft) diameter, 122 m (400 ft) tall monster. By 2017, it had been renamed the BFR (for “Big Falcon Rocket”), and redesigned to be 9 m (29.5 ft) in diameter and 106 m (347 ft) tall.

With the 2018 presentation, Musk revealed further design changes to the system, most notably with the upper stage spaceship, the BFS, some of which give it very retro rocket ship look.

Left: The evolution of the BFR from 2016 (as the ITS) to 2018; renderings via the Everyday Astronaut. Right: an animated comparison between the 2017 BFS and the 3-finned 2018 variant (from an idea by Overlook Horizon).

In particular, the BFS now sports three large fins at its rear end. All three are intended to be landing legs – the BFS being designed to land vertically – with two of them actuated to move up and down as flight control surfaces during atmospheric decent. These are matched by two forward actuated canards, also designed to provide aerodynamic control during a descent through an atmosphere.

Two less obvious changes are an increase forward payload section and the design of the nose area of the vehicle, which includes a much larger forward “canopy” design than previous iterations, and an update to the BFS’s motors. Originally designed to be powered by 7 of the new SpaceX Raptor engine optimised for vacuum operations, the BFS will now initially be powered by seven of the same Raptor motors that will be used on the vehicle’s first stage (which uses a total of 31), optimised for thrust in an atmosphere.

The redesigned BFS includes new fore and aft actuated control surfaces for atmospheric entry, and an enlarged crew / cargo space. Credit: SpaceX

Elements of the first BFR system have been under construction for the last 12-18 months. These include one of the fuel tanks, and the initial hull rings, and Musk confirmed that the company hope to have the first BFS prototype ready for initial “hopper flights” – lifting itself off the ground under thrust and then landing again – by the end of 2019. SpaceX then plan to run high altitude testing of BFS in 2020, together with initial flights of the core stage as well.

Overall, the goal is to have the first BFR / BFS combination ready for orbital flight tests in 2021, building towards the flight around the Moon, which the company has initially earmarked for 2023.

The first completed cylinder section of the prototype BFR. just visible to the left is a part of one of the tanks that will eventually go inside the vehicle. Credit: SpaceX via The Independent

This is an incredibly ambitious time frame, and SpaceX would appear to have some significant engineering challenges to overcome. For example, by combining the landing legs with control surfaces, how are SpaceX going to ensure the craft can land sufficiently gently on another surface without damaging the mechanisms designed to move the fins, which will be required when the vehicle returns to earth.

While there was always a risk that landing struts (as were originally going to be used with BFS) might suffer damage as a result of a “hard” landing on the Moon or Mars, integrating landing systems into surfaces vital to the vehicle’s (and a crew’s)  safe return to Earth as planned by SpaceX, would appear to add further complexity to the vehicle – or call for contingencies to be able to transfer a returning crew to another vehicle on their return to Earth orbit should one of systems use to actuate the fins suffer damage when landing on the Moon or Mars.

Another view of BFS showing the seven Raptor engines and the additional cargo bays at the rear of the vehicle. This configuration assumes the Raptor engines are the same as those used on the core stage, although the new design means BFS can be equipped with vacuum optimised motors, with larger exhaust bells (with the removal of the ring of cargo bays) to offer better performance in space. Credit: SpaceX

Another of the questions from where is BFR is likely to be launched. When initially revealed with a 12-metre diameter, it required a purpose-built launch facility. But with the core now reduced to a 9 metre diameter, BFR could in theory be launched from the SpaceX facilities at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre (KSC), Florida.

In discussing plans, Musk revealed a final decision on BFR launch facilities has yet to be made, and hinted it might even initially fly from a floating platform. This was an idea first put forward in one of the company’s promotional videos for the system, suggesting it could fly up to 100 people between New York City harbour and Shanghai harbour in 40 minutes.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon trips, Mr Spock’s “home” and roving an asteroid”


Be a High Fidelity helper and earn HFCs

A High Fidelity Load Test. Credit: High Fidelity

High Fidelity’s next concurrency load test is due to take place on Saturday, October 6th, 2018. These monthly events are designed to drive avatar load testing within in a single continuous space within High Fidelity, providing the platform with a rigorous test as avatars meet, mingle, play games and generally have fun. The load tests are also a small part of High Fidelity’s The Road to One Billion in VR programme – seeing 1 billion people in VR environments (not just HiFi).

As I’ve previously reported, the events offer participants rewards in the form of High Fidelity Coins (HFCs) or a gift card or an Amazon credit – or, as with the September test, even have their rewards donated to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a fiat money contribution.

Rewards are offered on a sliding scale, based on the number of participants, with the minimum value being equivalent to US $10. However, with the Saturday October 6th, 2018 load test, High Fidelity are offering some 15 volunteers to earn up to 30,000 HFCs (equivalent to Us $30) if they are willing to offer a maximum of 2 hours of their time in helping manage the event, by ensuring people participating are properly checked-in, and the company explains:

High Fidelity needs help checking-in all the people who signed up for the Road to a Billion event on Oct 6th.

Your job will be to roam the crowd and ask people if they signed up for the event and if so, check to see that they have automatically been checked in.

If they have not been checked in, your job will be to give them instructions on how to retrieve their Eventbrite ticket number so that you can manually check them in. We will provide you with the app to do all of this. Also, you will be given an avatar or shirt that will designate you as an official helper so that you are easy to spot and easy for us to tell people to find you.

This job pays 1500HFC an hour, and we need you to work for two hours. We advise you use Desktop mode to make this job easier.

Applicants need a good network connection, confidence using the High Fidelity client and a great attitude as you will be meeting lots of people!

If you’re an experience High Fidelity user, you can volunteer to help with checking-in participants by completing this volunteer form.

Philip Rosedale at the August 2018 load test in High Fidelity

In the load tests thus far, High Fidelity have gone from 197 to 356 avatars all active within a single space, and the company is hoping to have more than 500 on-board on the October 6th, 2018. To encourage this, the event will include new games, plus a Best Avatar contest with a 30,000 HFC first prize.

Those wishing to join the fun can register via Eventbrite (separate registering to the check-in volunteers noted above), with the event officially kicking-off at 11:00 PDT (although people generally turn up earlier than that).

To find out more about these tests, read  High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale’s blog post on them.

Space Sunday: Earth’s ice and Soyuz leaks

ICESat-2. Credit: NASA

In its final mission, the United Launch Alliance Delta II launch vehicle lifted NASA’s ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite 2) up into orbit. Designed to measure ice sheet elevation and sea ice freeboard, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics, the mission is a follow-on to the ICESat mission of 2003 to 2010.

The launch vehicle lifted-off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 06:02 local time (9:02 EDT; 14:02 BST). The satellite separated from the second stage about 53 minutes after lift-off, followed by four cubesat secondary payloads some 20 minutes later.

The half-tonne satellite, about the size of a small car, carries a single instrument: a laser altimeter called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). It is designed to fire 10,000 laser pulses a second to obtain elevation data with an accuracy of half a centimetre, and will primarily be used to measure the elevation of ice sheets and changes in their size, but will also measure the height of vegetation on land.

The last ever Delta II lifts-off carrying the ICESat-2 mission to orbit, September 15th, 2018. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Originally, ICESat-2 had been due to launch in 2015 as a follow-up to the original mission. However, the complexity of ATLAS meant that the mission hit delays and overran its original budget, both of which left NASA facing an either / or situation: either divert funds from other Earth resources missions (such as the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite) and cancel them, or cancel ICESat-2.

The first ICESat revealed that sea ice was thinning, and ice cover was disappearing from coastal areas in Greenland and Antarctica. Due to the delays in developing and launching ICESat-2, NASA has relied on an aircraft mission, Operation IceBridge, to monitor ice elevation and gathering other data on ice changes in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

While there are those who like to believe human-made global warming doesn’t exist, and that the unprecedented increases in temperature Earth has experienced in the last 100 or so years is simply a matter of solar cycles (a view that actually does not stand up to objective scrutiny), global average temperatures are climbing year after year (four of the hottest years in modern times all taking place from 2014-2017), largely as a result of humanity’s constant reliance on fossil fuels for energy. This warming is contributing to the shrinking ice cover in the Arctic and Greenland and adding to sea level rises that threaten hundreds of millions of people living in coastal regions around the world, as well as contributing to further weather and climate changes.

An artist’s impression of ICESat-2’s ATLAS laser in operation. ATLAS is capable of firing 10,000 per second and will take measurements every 0.7 m (2.3 ft) along the satellite’s path. It will gather enough data to estimate the annual elevation change in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets even if it’s as slight as four millimetres. Credit: NASA

ICESat-2 should help scientists understand just how much melting the ice sheets are contributing to this sea level rise, with ATLAS being fired-up for the first time in orbit in around a week’s time.

The launch was the 155th and final flight of the Delta II, which first entered service in 1989. Once a mainstay of both government and commercial customers, the vehicle has seen decreasing use in favour of vehicles like the Delta IV and Atlas launchers and, more recently, SpaceX. In 2007, it was announced ULA would phase out the Delta II – although it has enough parts to build around half-a-dozen complete versions of the rocket. With NASA the only user for the vehicle, it has taken time to use these remaining vehicles, and the final vehicle will be used as a museum piece.

The Delta II occupies a unique place in history: it is the only rocket ever to recorded to have debris strike a human. In 1996, the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO) launched the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) atop a Delta II. Ten months later, on January 22nd, 1997, the upper stage of the launcher re-entered the atmosphere and broke apart, the greater part of it burning up in a fireball over the mid-west United States.

Lottie Williams hold the debris from a Delta II upper stage, which struck her on the shoulder in January 1997. Credit: unknown

Witnessing the fireball while exercising in a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was Lottie Williams. Thirty minutes later, she was struck on the shoulder by a charred piece of metal about 15 cm (6 in) across and weighing about the same as an empty soda can. She was uninjured by the strike, and analysis of the object confirmed it originated from the Delta’s upper stage.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Earth’s ice and Soyuz leaks”

Space Sunday: taking an elevator into space

An artist’s concept of a “carrier” – the “elevator car” of a space elevator – climbing the elevator cable. Credit: unknown

The space elevator is perhaps one of the most intriguing ideas for reaching space. It was first conceived as a thought experiment in 1895 by the grandfather of astronautics, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In it, he considered the building of a massive tower reaching up to geostationary orbit at 35,756 km (23,000 mi) above the surface of the Earth, and which at the top would have sufficient horizontal velocity to launch vehicles into orbit. The vehicles themselves would be carried aloft by elevators like the ones climbing the Eiffel Tower.

Tsoilkovsky knew the construction of such a tower would be next to impossible, there simply were no materials capable of withstanding the compressional pressures exerted the mass of such a tower as it was built upwards – nor are there today. However, in 1960, another Russian,  Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested that rather than building the elevator up from the ground, it could be built both down and out from geostationary orbit, using tension along the cable from its lower end and through the “counterweight” of the outward extent of its length to maintain is tautness and balance. Referring to the design as a “heavenly funicular”, Artsutanov estimated it would be capable of delivering up to 12,000 tonnes of payload to geostationary orbit per day.

An artist’s impression of a solar-powered car ascending the “Sky Hook”. Credit: unknown

Six years later, working entirely independently of Artsutanov, four American oceanographers – John Isaacs, Hugh Bradner, George Bachus and Allyn Vine (after whom the deep-ocean research submersible Alvin was named) – published their idea for a “sky hook” that essentially used the same approach: build a cable both “down” and “out” from a geostationary starting point. Their idea became the inspiration for Arthur C. Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, which did much to promote the idea of space elevators in the public mind.

Since then, the idea has received many re-visits, and has also given birth to a number of experiments and ideas for the use of tensile cables  – referred to as “tethers” for doing things like “lowering” experiments into the upper atmosphere for research (such ideas being tested during the space shuttle era) and for creating “artificial gravity” in spinning space vehicles travelling to Mars. A space elevator even appeared in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy as the means to get from orbit down to the surface of the planet. Today, the space elevator is the subject of study by the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC), which holds annual conferences on the subject and supports research programmes into space elevator concepts.

The appeal of space elevators  – if they can be built – is that they could deliver huge amounts of payload and manpower to orbit around Earth for a relatively low-cost when compared to using traditional rocket launches. And deliver them not just to geostationary orbit, but to other points above the surface of Earth, referred to as “way stations”.

For example, a “way-station” at around 420-450 km (262-281 mi) altitude would impart a horizontal velocity for vehicles “launched” from it to keep them in a low Earth orbit. similarly, a way station placed above the geostationary orbit point, at say 57,000 km (36,625 mi) would impart enough horizontal velocity to a vehicle “launched” from it that it could escape Earth on a flight to Mars.

The space elevator concept, show an ocean anchor point, and the various “way stations” along its length, capable of supporting operations a low Earth orbit (LEO), geostationary orbit (GEO) and high earth orbit (HEO) altitudes, the latter of which could support missions to Mars and further out into the solar system. Credit: ISEC

But before this can happen, there are some significant issues to overcome. The “simplest” of these is that of finding a suitable anchor point on Earth.

To work at geostationary orbit, the primary station on an elevator would have to be positioned over the equator. The problem here is, an awful lot of the equator is ocean (78.7%), making the construction of such an anchor-point at best difficult. While the remainder of the equatorial region is over land, it brings with it the overheads of political haggling and leveraging to gain an anchor-point.

In The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke solved this problem by conveniently moving Sri Lanka (which he called by its ancient Greek name of Taprobane (Tap-ro-ban-EE) 1,000 km (625 mi) south of its current position to straddle the equator. Unfortunately, we can’t do that in the physical world.

The more significant issues, however, are exactly how to build the elevator tether and how to gradually and safely lower it through the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere, and without its “downward” mass simply ripping it apart before it can be anchored.

The most promising material for the tether construction is carbon nanotubes (CNTs). These are artificially “grown” structures with a number of unusual properties, one of which it their sheer strength: up to 10 times that of an equivalent steel cable, which comes at a fraction of a cable’s mass. CNTs have been known about for around 20 years and are seen as having a range of potential applications: construction, electronics, optics, nanotechnology, etc. However, there is one slight issue with their use in large-scale projects. So far, no-one has successfully “grown” a nanotube longer than 1.5 metres.

Even so, experimental cables have been lifted to altitudes of around 1 km (0.6 mi) using weather balloons and had scale “carriers” run up and down them to test how an elevator tether and its payload would react to the influence of wind and weather. Now, researchers at the Shizuoka University Faculty of Engineering are taking the practical research a step further, by deploying an experimental “space elevator” in space.

On Monday, September 7th, 2018, the  Kounotori-7 H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) resupply vehicle is due to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS). As a part of the six tonnes of supplies the vehicle will be carrying will be two small “cubesats” – satellites that are each just 10 cm (4 inches) on a side.

Computer model of the cubesats and their (not to scale) tether deployed in Earth orbit. Credit: Shizuoka University

These will be deployed in space, connected by a 10 metre (33 ft) tether. Once the tether is under stable tension, a little electrically powered “car” will traverse it, marking the first time a vehicle has travelled along a tether in space. The test is intended to see how a space elevator tether might react to payloads moving along it in whilst in the “vacuum” of space, together with the stresses placed on it and its “anchor points”, etc.

It’s a small step along the way to establishing a space elevator, but the test will be watched with interest by Japan’s massive construction firm, Obayashi Corporation. In 2012, they announced they would have the world’s first space elevator operating by 2050. They are actively sponsoring research into CNT development, and believe the issues of growing long strands of CNTs and “knitting” them together into a tether will have been resolved by 2030.

Obaysahi Corporation’s design for their GEO station on the space elevator, which the company says will use “inflatable” modules to reduce mass. Credit: Obayashi Corp.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: taking an elevator into space”

High Fidelity sets new local concurrency record

via High Fidelity

Yesterday I gave slightly late (my bad, it slipped my mind!) notice of the September 7th 2018 High Fidelity avatar concurrency load test.

The aim of these events is to enough as many people as possible to sign-up / join-in with an event held in a single contiguous space within High Fidelity (no instancing or sharding) and see how the system stands up to the load. The programme is part of what High Fidelity refer to getting “one billion in VR”, and it was hoped that the September 7th event would break the company’s previous record of 256 avatars, set during the August load test.

As it turned out, the record wasn’t just broken – it was shattered.

From 256 to 262 – before the September 7th 2018 load test had officially started

People had been encouraged to register and turn up ahead of the official start of the event at 13:30 PDT on September 7th, and a few minutes before the official kick-off, High Fidelity were able to announce the August record had been superseded with 262 avatars in The Spot.

That wasn’t all, by the end of the event, some 356 avatars were in the event region, raising the August record by 100 – not bad for a Friday afternoon when large swathes of the USA are liable to be at work, and many in places like Europe might be out and about at the start of their weekends.

Goal achieved; time to level up at the next event!

Must of those attending had a good time; however, the event wasn’t all plain sailing.

Some people reported arriving and being unable to see any avatars at all.  Philip Rosedale acknowledged the problem was at High Fidelity’s end of things, and they are working to address the issue.

Oopsie to be fixed!

The One Billion in VR road tests are a monthly event with High Fidelity, and gift card / HFC rewards on offer to those attending. To help boost numbers, events from October onwards will be held on the first Saturday of the month.

This means the next load test will be on Saturday, October 6th, 2018 at 11:00 PDT, and those wishing to participate  can find the details and register via Eventbrite.

High Fidelity: help break concurrency record and earn a USD gift card

via High Fidelity

Updated September 8th: the record was broken, with a total of 356 avatars in the same contiguous space, as tweeted via the High Fidelity Twitter account. Read more here.

On Friday, September 7th, 2018 at 13:30 PDT, High Fidelity will be attempting to break their avatar concurrency record  – which currently stands at 256 avatars in the same virtual space. The load test is part of the company’s drive towards seeing “One Billion in VR”.

These tests are handled on a monthly basis, with the September event offering a couple of enticements for those wishing to join in: the chance to earn gift cards (or an Amazon credit), or have the equivalent USD amount donated to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

People wishing to participate in the event will (obviously) have a High Fidelity account, and be in a position to log-in to the platform during the test period (commencing at 13:300 PDT, as noted). Registration is required, which is offered free-of-charge via Eventbrite. Registration, together with requirements for entry can be found on the Eventbrite website, with the nature of the US dollar rewards specified as:

Every registered attendee who checks-in at the event will receive at least $10 in Visa or Mastercard prepaid gift card, or Amazon credit, or you can redeem High Fidelity Coin (HFC) donate your rewards value to the ACLU.

The “at least” aspect of the reward value is due to the fact that High Fidelity is offering it on a sliding scale:

  • Up to 100 people // $10
  • 100+ people // $15
  • 200+ people // $20
  • 1000+ people // $25

As well as the gift card / credit / donation options, those who prefer can take their reward in High Fidelity Coins (HFCs).

On top of all this, all registered participants have the chance to win a custom avatar created by Doob3D, and quoted as having a value of US $550.

Philip Rosedale at the August 2018 Road to One Billion load test event in High Fidelity

Registrations will remain open to the start of the event, and new users are advised to go through the High Fidelity tutorial once logged-in, as this has a portal that will take users to the load test location, referred to as The Spot.

The event itself offers various activities and well as the means to meet other High Fidelity users, and is designed to be a fun activity with a serious edge. Following the August load test, High Fidelity published a short video of the event, which I’ve embedded below – note that it opens with a brief look at people checking-in to the event, which is required in order to gain the USD reward.