Videos: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch makes for awesome light show over SoCal

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed 10 Iridium satellites into polar orbits on Saturday evening from Vandenberg AFB in California. The launch produced an amazing light show visible over much of Southern California.

Note that the second light spot visible in the plume is the first stage making a controlled descent. This previously flown booster did not land on a sea-going platform but did otherwise follow a landing style return. SpaceX has run out of storage space for this generation of boosters, which will only be re-flown once. A new version will be introduced in a few months that can be flown a dozen times with only inspection between flights and many more with some refurbishment.

Update: In this view, the two clam shell-like fairings around the satellites can be seen after they separate from the rocket. SpaceX has been developing ways to fly back and recover the fairings. In the video, firings of the cold-gas thrusters on the fairings can be seen:


Moon settlements via NASA-Commercial partnerships

The Trump administration recently announced that the Moon is now the primary goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program. While the initiative calls for NASA to develop “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners”, it’s very likely the plan will be centered around the hyper-expensive Space Launch System/Orion spacecraft systems because of the strong political support for these jobs programs. Since NASA’s budget is very unlikely to be increased, this means the lunar program will be stretched out many years and probably suffer cancellation by a future administration before any US astronaut sets foot again on the lunar surface.

Rather than fight SLS/Orion, proposals have been put forth that would have NASA allocate a small fraction of its annual budget for commercial led lunar projects while letting SLS/Orion lumber on in parallel.  For example, in the summer of 2015, a group led by Charles Miller released the NASA funded “Evolved Lunar Architecture” study:

The study found that

Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought.

• America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 Billion for each provider, using partnership methods.

• America could lead the development of a permanent industrial base on the Moon of 4 private-sector astronauts in about 10-12 years after setting foot on the Moon that could provide 200 MT of propellant per year in lunar orbit for NASA for a total cost of about $40 Billion (+/- 30%).

• Assuming NASA receives a flat budget, these results could potentially be achieved within NASA’s existing deep space human spaceflight budget

An interesting similar proposal has been put forth by independent space advocate Dr. Doug Plata, who discussed his Plan for Sustainable Space Development with David Livingston on The Space Show – Mon, 11/06/2017 – 14:00

Details of the plan, which is more specific in its implementation that the Evolved Lunar Architecture study, are described at Space –

The Plan presented here proposes a path for America’s space program which starts humanity’s first, permanent steps off Earth. Using cost-effective approaches and near-term technology, it would not require any significant increase in NASA’s budget yet it would establish a permanent base on the Moon in such a way as to thoroughly inspire the citizens of the US and around the world.

The Plan proposes that, for only 5-7% of NASA’s budget, using proven public-private approaches, the US could:

  • telerobotically harvest the ice at the poles of the Moon to refuel reusable landers,
  • establish a permanent base starting with a commercial crew of eight,
  • facilitate a great deal of international lunar exploration,
  • gain experience of use for Mars while not slowing the Journey to Mars.
  • set the stage for private individuals to move to the Moon (i.e. actual settlement)

Key hardware components include:

  • [nsg]SpaceX{SET}[/nsg]’s Falcon Heavy launcher to reduce transportaton costs.
  • The reusable Xeus lander – [nsg]Masten Space{MSS}[/nsg] and [nsg]ULA{ULA}[/nsg] have been working on the design of this system based on a modified Centaur/ACES upper stage. “It is estimated that the development of the launch-ready lunar lander shouldn’t take more than $200 million to develop”.
  • Telerobots:
    • The Ice Harvestor would be designed to scoop up icy regolith from the bottoms of polar craters.
    • Dexterous Telerobots would have human-like arms and hands for carrying out various support and repair operations tele-robotically
Ice harvester prototype.

Doug has long been an advocate for a Lunar COTS public-private partnership program following the example of the highly successful COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program, which enabled low cost development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and [nsg]Orbital ATK{OA}[/nsg] Antares/Cygnus launch systems for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. A similar sort of competitive, fixed-price contracting approach should work for lunar development as well.

Since we have the recent record of how the public-private programs have operated, how much they have cost, and how long it has taken them to achieve milestones, we can have a pretty accurate idea of what it would take for the set of Lunar COTS programs. So, at 5-7% of NASA’s budget, it is estimated that it would take:

  • 2 years – Terrestrial Demonstrator of a full-scale lunar lander.
  • 6 years – Development of the ice-harvesting telerobots.
  • 6 years – Development of a launch-ready lunar lander.
  • 8 years – Selection and training of the first permanent crew.
  • 8 years – Arrival of the first crew at a permanent lunar habitat.
  • 9 years – Arrival of a series of international lunar exploration teams.
  • 11 years – First arrivals of private individuals at an expanding lunar base / settlement.
Schematic of lunar lander system.

Doug goes on to describe many other aspects of the mission such as

  • The UniHab – “The “UniHab” concept is so named because it would provide for all of the needs of an initial crew of eight. It would also be unified in that it wouldn’t consist of separate modules with weighty metal connectors but would be all one habitat. Its key feature is that it would be a very large inflatable which could be packed up into a single cargo module. It would also be relatively flat-roofed allowing for protective dirt to be placed on top without it sloughing off after inflation.
  • Centrifuge – “Artificial gravity can be supplied in the form of an indoor centrifuge. It would be 15 meters in diameter and would spin at 11 rpms providing the equivalent of Earth’s gravity. It would have chambers on the end tall enough for crew to stand up in. The chambers would swivel out when spun up so that the force vector would always be pointing down between the feet. The crew would spend about two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening in the centrifuge conducting “sedentary activities”. Four hours is about the amount that we are upright each day on Earth. The sedentary activities are those which most of us do anyhow and so wouldn’t involve any difference in normal daily activity.
  • Extended Stays – “Even a modest amount (e.g. 30 cm) of lunar dirt on top of the UniHab would provide full protection against solar storms and would reduce the radiation levels of the galactic cosmic rays by about 50%. This would allow for the crew to remain on the Moon for a few years before they reached their career limits. They would then have plenty of time to maintain the telerobots to push even more dirt on top of the habitat. Therefore, it is not the radiation exposure which would limit the length that the crew could stay. Rather, it is the health effects of reduced gravity of the Moon that would likely determine how long the crew could stay.
  • Crew makeup for the first few missions designed for maximum public interest.

At the upcoming SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, Doug plans to bring an inflatable mock-up of the lander to Cape Canaveral and set it up at one of the locations where people gather to watch launches. He welcomes local space enthusiasts to come and discuss the Space Development Network plan with him.

While private individuals may not have a great deal of direct influence on the making of grand undertakings like a settlement on the Moon, advocating good ideas can initiate memes that go far and wide and multiply and eventually become implemented. The COTS program, in fact, came about  largely due to a couple of decades of efforts by private individuals and space advocacy groups.

If you want to help Doug make a Lunar COTS program happen, he welcomes you to join the Space Development Network.

Big Falcon Heavy and Stratolaunch aircraft on display

Some big commercial launch hardware has been on display this week:

** Elon Musk on Twitter posted photos of the first Falcon Heavy launcher in preparation in the hangar for a launch from Kennedy Space Center in January :


** Last weekend the giant Stratolaunch aircraft, which will be used to carry rockets to high altitudes for launch, took its first taxi drive down a runway at the Mojave Air & Space Port:


ESO: VLT observes huge bubble patterns on surface of red giant star

The latest report from ESO (European Southern Observatory):

Giant Bubbles on Red Giant Star’s Surface 

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometres across. [Larger image.]
Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star, which has 350 times the diameter of the Sun. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometres across. These new results are being published this week in the journal Nature.

Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 350 times larger and several thousand times as bright [1]. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometres across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter [2]. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces  — known as photospheres —  of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations [3].

This colourful image shows the sky around the bright pair of stars π1 Gruis (centre-right, very red) and π2 Gruis (centre-left, bluish-white). Just right of centre the bright spiral galaxy IC 5201 is also visible and many other fainter galaxies are scattered across this wide-field image from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. [Larger images]
When π1 Gruis ran out of hydrogen to burn long ago, this ancient star ceased the first stage of its nuclear fusion programme. It shrank as it ran out of energy, causing it to heat up to over 100 million degrees. These extreme temperatures fueled the star’s next phase as it began to fuse helium into heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen. This intensely hot core then expelled the star’s outer layers, causing it to balloon to hundreds of times larger than its original size. The star we see today is a variable red giant. Until now, the surface of one of these stars has never before been imaged in detail.

By comparison, the Sun’s photosphere contains about two million convective cells, with typical diameters of just 1500 kilometres. The vast size differences in the convective cells of these two stars can be explained in part by their varying surface gravities. π1 Gruis is just 1.5 times the mass of the Sun but much larger, resulting in a much lower surface gravity and just a few, extremely large, granules.

While stars more massive than eight solar masses end their lives in dramatic supernovae explosions, less massive stars like this one gradually expel their outer layers, resulting in beautiful planetary nebulae. Previous studies of π1 Gruis found a shell of material 0.9 light-years away from the central star, thought to have been ejected around 20 000 years ago. This relatively short period in a star’s life lasts just a few tens of thousands of years – compared to the overall lifetime of several billion – and these observations reveal a new method for probing this fleeting red giant phase.

This chart shows the southern constellation of Grus (The Crane) and marks most stars that can be seen with the unaided eye on a clear dark night. The red circle indicates the location of the red giant star π1 Gruis, which forms a colourful pairing with π2 Gruis, visible with a small telescope or binoculars.

[1] π1 Gruis is named following the Bayer designation system. In 1603 the German astronomer Johann Bayer classified 1564 stars, naming them by a Greek letter followed by the name of their parent constellation. Generally, stars were assigned Greek letters in rough order of how bright they appeared from Earth, with the brightest designated Alpha (α). The brightest star of the Grus constellation is therefore Alpha Gruis.

π1 Gruis is one of an attractive pair of stars of contrasting colours that appear close together in the sky, the other one naturally being named π2 Gruis. They are bright enough to be well seen in a pair of binoculars. Thomas Brisbane realised in the 1830s that π1 Gruis was itself also a much closer binary star system. Annie Jump Cannon, credited with the creation of the Harvard Classification Scheme, was the first to report the unusual spectrum of π1 Gruis in 1895.

[2] Granules are patterns of convection currents in the plasma of a star. As plasma heats up at the centre of the star it expands and rises to the surface, then cools at the outer edges, becoming darker and more dense, and descends back to the centre. This process continues for billions of years and plays a major role in many astrophysical processes including energy transport, pulsation, stellar wind and dust clouds on brown dwarfs.

[3] π1 Gruis is one of the brightest members of the rare S class of stars that was first defined by the American astronomer Paul W. Merrill to group together stars with similarly unusual spectra. π1 Gruis, R Andromedae and R Cygni became prototypes of this type. Their unusual spectra is now known to be the result of the “s-process” or “slow neutron capture process” — responsible for the creation of half the elements heavier than iron.