Sunday, November 8, 2015

Will BAE Systems Make UK The Next Major Space-Faring Nation?

With the 20-percent purchase of Reaction Engines, will BAE Systems soon make the UK the next major space-faring nation? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Well, at least in the near future, BAE Systems could sell to Virgin CEO Richard Branson a space tourism “aerospace-plane” that’s more reliable than the Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two, but as BAE Systems purchases 20-percent of Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines for UK£20.6-million in a deal that will see the defence giant’s expertise applied to research on a privately held company’s engine, which combines jet and rocket technology.     

Nigel Whitehead, managing director at BAE Systems, said: “The potential for this engine is incredible. I feel like we’re in the same position as the people who were the first to consider putting a propeller on an internal combustion engine: we understand that there are amazing possibilities but don’t fully understand what they are, as we just can’t imagine them all. It could be very high speed flight, low-cost launches into orbit or other fantastic achievements.” 

For 20 years, Reaction Engines has been developing its Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) which works like a conventional jet engine while in the Earth’s atmosphere, sucking in oxygen-rich air to burn with its hydrogen fuel. However, once it hits hypersonic speed starting at five times the speed of sound – about 4,000 mph or three-times the speed of a typical hunting rifle bullet – in the thin upper atmosphere, it switches over to become a conventional liquid-fueled rocket engine using the liquid oxygen that it carries as the oxidizer to burn with its hydrogen fuel. The ability to switch between two very different modes of operation means that the SABRE engine system is lighter than existing conventional liquid fuel rocket engines which have to carry much more liquid oxygen in its operation where used up tanks are then jettisoned. 

Reaction Engine’s SABRE’s technological tour-de-force is the development of a proprietary heat exchanger which cools the air going into the engine to a level where it is almost liquid before it is ignited, allowing the SABRE engine to swap between jet and rocket modes. The proprietary heat exchanger can cool hot air from more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees Celsius in less than 1/100 of a second. With further research and funding, the UK would be able to operate its own practical aerospace plane that can send astronauts to low Earth orbit at a much reduced operational costs than NASA’s Space Shuttle or those Russian rockets launched at Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The New Horizons Spacecraft: One Giant Leap For Robotic Space Exploration?

Despite their limitations in comparison to human space explorers, is the New Horizon spacecraft demonstrates the best of our current robotic spacecraft ability? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Despite of the post Cold War austere fiscal environment at NASA, the recent successes demonstrated by the New Horizons spacecraft currently taking our clearest snapshots of Pluto so far can be quite inspiring to anyone interested in astronomy and space exploration as a whole. Given the spacecraft’s recent accomplishment despite being built on a “relatively” shoestring budget of 700 million US dollars is no mean feat indeed. 

When NASA’s task-masters at Capitol Hill green lit the New Horizons program back in 2001 and the four year timetable on the construction of the craft for its scheduled launched at the beginning of 2006 are just one of the miracles successfully pulled off by the New Horizons spacecraft. If the funding and launch timetable was delayed to several weeks after the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet, the “princes” at Capitol Hill would probably had scrapped the funding of the New Horizons program. In honor of Pluto’s discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Tombaugh’s ashes was taken onboard as payload on the New Horizons spacecraft so that he can achieve the closest physically possible of actually visiting Pluto first hand. 

Due to its distance and small size, the world’s astronomical community have virtually little interest on the planet Pluto that between the cataloguing of the planet via “old school” astronomical photographic plates by Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and astronomer Carl Lampland in the 1950s, the actual location of Pluto’s orbit could be in error by as much as 62,000 miles. It was only after 1990 that the global astronomical community’s orbital data accuracy on Pluto became on par of that of the planets Uranus and Neptune. It is only understandably so due to Pluto’s remoteness at over 3 billion miles away from planet Earth and since Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, astronomers here on Earth had only “witnessed” about 1/3 of its almost 250-year orbit around our Sun.  

The recent New Horizons spacecraft’s successful 8,000 mile “close flyby” would not have happened without the due diligence of one of the New Horizons program’s co investigator Dr. Marc Buie due to a lack of usefully accurate data on Pluto’s orbit and actual distance from the Sun. By 2012, the New Horizon’s team was concerned on the lack of accurate orbital data on the planet Pluto that Dr. Buie actually did his own legwork at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in order to reexamine around 1,000 of astronomical photographic plates of Pluto taken by Clyde Tombaugh and Carl Lampland during 1930 to 1950. The new computational data acquired by Dr. Buie became very indispensible in programming the New Horizon’s spacecraft’s trajectory so that when it encounters Pluto by July 2015, it will be within 8,000 miles – as opposed to 62,000 miles away. 

Due to its destination’s remoteness from the Sun where the ambient strength of sunlight is only 1/1000th found here on Earth, the use of solar panels is out of the question in the New Horizons spacecraft. Instead, it uses a plutonium-239 powered thermoelectric reactor similar to that used in the Voyager spacecraft to power its systems. Due to Pluto’s remoteness, it took nine and a half years for New Horizons to reach its Pluto flyby despite travelling 1 million miles a day at 51,000 miles per hour.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Remembering Valentina Tereshkova’s First Spaceflight

Even though the former Soviet Union was the first one to sent a woman in space back in June 16, 1963, why is it that it took the United States 20 years to send the first American woman astronaut into space? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Asking such a question - then and now – could allow you to be ostracized by your conservative right-wing pals, but many curious folks still wonder until this day why it took 20 years for the “Christian Capitalist West” to send its first woman astronaut into space? But first, here’s a brief history why Valentina Tereshkova is probably the unlikeliest prospect to be planet Earth’s first woman space traveler. 

Originally worked as a mill hand, Valentina Tereshkova’s potential as a prospective cosmonaut for the then Soviet Union’s manned space program was discovered during her military service where she had an innate talent as a skydiver / parachutist. In June 1963, the then 26 year old Valentina Tereshkova made 48 orbits in the Vostok VI capsule with fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky. Tereshkova later married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev. As Tereshkova went into orbit, her now largely forgotten radio message to Baikonour Kosmodrome was translated into English for the American audience and it goes: “This is Seagull. I feel fine and cheerful. I see the horizon. A pale blue, blue stripe. It’s the Earth. How beautiful it is.” Valentina Tereshkova is also one of the few pilots in the former Soviet Union who managed to fly the MiG-29 Foxbat above 100,000 feet. 

Despite of the women’s liberation movement in the latter have of the 1960s and gained full-force during the 1970s, many still wonder why it took NASA 20 years to send America’s first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, as the United States answer to Valentina Tereshkova. Is it that White Anglo Saxon Protestantism treats women as just another ethnic minority that’s inferior to the white-Anglo-Saxon male?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

50th Anniversary of the first Space Extravehicular Activity

Even though Soviet era Lt. Col. Alexey Leonov did his first 10-minute extravehicular activity – or EVA – back in March 18, 1965, why is it that Hollywood still haven’t managed to portray a scientifically-accurate one in movies?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever wondered why Hollywood movies still haven’t managed to portray a scientifically-accurate portrayal of an extravehicular activity or spacewalk – i.e. movies like Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys and the recent one that stars Sandra Bullock titled Gravity – even when it is already 50 years after Soviet era cosmonaut Lt. Col. Alexey Leonov did a 10-minute long EVA back in March 18, 1965 and Major Edward White did a 20-minutte long EVA back in July 3, 1965? Is it all due to a lack of scientifically-accurate information of the subject?

All extravehicular activity in space using current spacesuits available to us today requires a lengthy pre-breathing of pure oxygen at reduced pressures, tragically, due to the Apollo I fire that happened back in April 24, 1967 that killed Major Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Prior to the Apollo I fire, NASA astronauts breathe – i.e. use – oxygen in their cabin that is at the same atmospheric pressure as their spacesuits – i.e. 29-percent of the atmospheric pressure at sea level or 4.3 pounds per square inch. This is the reason why Ed White more or less donned his spacesuit within 3 minutes or so before stepping out of his capsule – instead of a 40 minute to 4-hour pre-breathing pure oxygen at 4.3 pounds per square inch before stepping out in a spacesuit into the vacuum of space – like astronauts had done when they change spacecraft “atmospheres” to an oxygen-nitrogen mix at 11.3 pounds per square inch – equivalent to about the prevailing atmospheric pressure 7,000 feet above sea level or about 75-percent less than the 14.7 psi sea level atmospheric pressure - and the same system used in commercial passenger jets.

Blame it on the quirk of human physiology that NASA astronauts have to pre-breathe pure oxygen at 4.3 psi for 40 minutes to 4 hours depending on the duration of the EVA. If not, they would suffer the bends – i.e. formation of painful nitrogen bubbles in their blood vessels and joints. A lengthy pre-breathing scene is something not even portrayed in Space Cowboys and the movie Gravity – even just a truncated 30 to 90 second scene for semblance of “scientific authenticity”. It would have been a great opportunity to insert a Hamlet-like soliloquy in these scenes before they don their Hamilton Standard life support backpacks to their 15-million US dollar spacesuits as they ready to step out into the great void. Lt. Col.  Alexey Leonov’s and Major Ed White’s trailblazing EVA’s are still a stuff of legend indeed 50 years on.