SpaceshipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s rocket powered space vehicle, broke the speed of sound in its first rocket-powered test flight. The test, conducted by teams from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, officially marks Virgin Galactic’s entrance into the final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS.
“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”
The test began at 7.02am local time when SpaceShipTwo took off from Mojave Air and Space Port mated to WhiteKnightTwo, Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft. Piloting SpaceShipTwo were Mark Stucky, pilot, and Mike Alsbury, co-pilot, who are test pilots for Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipTeo for Virgin Galactic. At the WK2 controls were Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, assisted by Clint Nichols and Brian Maisler, co-pilot and flight test engineer, respectively, for Scaled Composites.
Upon reaching 14,326 metres altitude and approximately 45 minutes into the flight, SpaceShipTwo was released from WhiteKnightTwo. After cross-checking data and verifying stable control, the pilots triggered ignition of the rocket motor, causing the main oxidizer valve to open and igniters to fire within the fuel case. At this point, SpaceShipTwo was propelled forward and upward to a maximum altitude of 16,764 metres. The entire engine burn lasted 16 seconds, as planned. During this time, SpaceShipTwo went supersonic, achieving Mach 1.2.
“We partnered with Virgin Galactic several years ago with the aspiration to transform and commercialize access to space for the broader public,” said His Excellency Khadem Al Qubaisi, Chairman of aabar Investments PJS. “Today’s test is another key milestone in realizing that aspiration. Our partnership goes from strength to strength, and is an excellent example of aabar’s desire to participate in the development of world class technologies that are commercially viable and strategically important, both for the company, its shareholders, and for Abu Dhabi.”
The entire rocket-powered flight test lasted just over 10 minutes, culminating in a smooth landing for SpaceShipTwo in Mojave at approximately 8am local time.
“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” said Virgin Galactic President & CEO George Whitesides. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”
In the coming months, the Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites test team will expand the spaceship’s powered flight envelope culminating in full space flight, which the companies anticipate will take place before the end of 2013.
“I’d like to congratulate the entire team,” said President of Scaled Composites Kevin Mickey. “This milestone has been a long time coming and it’s only through the hard work of the team and the tremendous support of Virgin Galactic that we have been able to witness this important milestone. We look forward to all our upcoming tests and successes.”
This is an amazing infographic. Not sure where it originated.
By Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation
Australian researchers have developed a substance that looks and behaves like soil from the moon’s surface and can be mixed with polymers to create ‘lunar concrete’, a finding that may help advance plans to construct safe landing pads and mines on the moon.
Valuable rare earth minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, platinum and the non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 (He-3) are abundant on the moon. NASA and other space agencies have shown interest in lunar mining but the US is yet to ratify a 1984 treaty that would strictly regulate moon resource extraction.
However, even if moon mining was allowed, lunar conditions are so different to Earthly conditions that new machinery may have to be invented to develop resources found there.
Furthermore, the cost of transporting materials made on Earth would be prohibitive, forcing scientists to come up with ways to build certain equipment using material only found on the moon’s surface.
A research team led by Dr Leonhard Bernold, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of New South Wales, has created a new lunar soil simulant that closely resembles samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts.
Dr Bernold said such a simulant is essential to test lunar mining systems on Earth and may help researchers develop ways to create a waterless concrete using lunar dust, a component of the moon surface material known as regolith.
“We now know a lot about the mechanical properties of the regolith on the moon so we can create something that simulates it. We have tried to match it as close as we can,” said Dr Bernold.
Dr Bernold’s lunar soil simulant is made up primarily of very fine basalt particles taken from a quarry in Kulnura on the NSW Central Coast.
“These particles are a byproduct of crushing the basalt to serve aggregates for making concrete or asphalt, but are too tiny to be useful and have to be thrown away,” said Dr Bernold.
“On the moon, those small particles are abundant, having being created by small meteorites hitting the lunar surface at high speed over millions of years, thus breaking larger stones down into tiny particles.
As well as providing a substance on which Earthly mining techniques can be tested, the simulant soil can also be mixed with polymers to create a lunar concrete, said Dr Bernold.
“So, for example, we can find ways to create an in-situ resource utilisation material to build a landing pad for rockets on the moon. When rockets are landing, they blow away fine soil and it’s like a sandblaster blasting everything around,” he said, adding that a proper landing pad on the moon would reduce the dangerous sandblaster effect.
“Everything we ship from Earth will cost a lot of money, so we want to do as much as we can from the material that’s available there on the moon in abundance.”
Dr Bernold, who said NASA had shown interest in his findings, is presenting his simulant this week at the Off Earth Mining Forum hosted by UNSW.
Professor Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales said a lunar soil simulant would help researchers better understand the properties of moon dust.
“The main value in this work is to do with the soils on the moon being so different to the type of soil on the earth and the type of soil most mining machinery is dealing with,” he said.
International treaties and special space laws would be needed to work out who had ownership rights to material mined from the moon, said Dr Dempster.
“I understand there’s an environmental argument around it too but if you were to mine the moon or an asteroid or other planets, there’s not going to be the environmental impact that local mining would have on the local biosphere. It’s a way of mining such that the mining process itself doesn’t produce any negative environmental impact,” he said.
“Obviously, however, you need to produce a lot of energy to go and do it.”
Students working with Dr Bernold are studying methods for harvesting and storing solar heat energy on the moon in a ‘lunar battery’ using materials found on the moon.
by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter
Massive objects moving at near light speeds do not occur naturally in the universe as we know it. If we detect such objects it is a reasonable to assume they are artificial artifacts from advanced intelligent life. This according to Garcia-Escartin and Chamorro-Posada, authors of a recent paper, is a low-cost, sure-fire way of searching for intelligent life outside earth.
Searching for life beyond earth is a grand and varied enterprise.
For a start we can look for exoplanets that fall inside the habitable zone of a star. A planet found in this zone may fulfill the requirements for life: liquid water, energy, elements and other nutrients, and appropriate physical conditions. Though we have located many exoplanets in recent times they are far from earth - many light years distant. For example one star system, Gliese 581, is 20.3 light years away (192,048,720,000,000 kilometres). With three planets in its habitable zone, we know nothing about conditions on them. The techniques used to find them can tell us nothing about their ecology - if any. being in a habitable zone does not guarantee life. It is only in recent years that we have realised how inhospitable Venus and Mars are to life - despite being in our habitable zone.
By looking for alien signals or transmissions, as in the SETI programme, we extend our search from ‘possible life’ to intelligent life. For advanced civilisations we look for artificial illumination or interstellar probes.
Let’s face it though, to know we are not alone will require quite good proof for most of us (apart from the misguided minority of UFO believers), and especially for the skeptical scientists.
The intriguing proposition of Garcia-Escartin and Chamorro-Posada is based on three ideas. The first is that anything travelling faster than 3.3% of light speed (5,935,890 kilometres per hour) is artificial. All known natural objects travel slower than this speed, as do our current space probes. This speed was chosen as it is the estimated speed of the nuclear propulsion ship proposed by Freeman Dyson in the Orion project. Although the propulsion technology is feasible today the technological and economic hurdle of creating such a craft is way beyond our current means. Although it is certainly not inconceivable to achieve such interstellar travel in the next 100 years.
You are possibly thinking about now; “Doesn’t the mass of an object increases massively as its speed approaches light speed?” You would be correct, this consequence of Einstein’s theory of special relativity is demonstrated quite satisfactorily in particle accelerators around the world. To cover this the authors next identify a consequence of relativity theory: relativistic effects amplify the light reflected from a body travelling at near light speed - in some key situations. Allowing for the detection of ‘small’ objects.
This brings in the authors third criteria. Interstellar travel will be from one star system to another. The reflected-light magnifying effect would be greatest for the cases where earth is almost in line with the departure stellar system and the destination stellar system.
The authors propose to limit the first search to star systems that are reasonably close to each other (no further than 10 light years apart) to maximise the probability of stellar travel opportunities. Considering that Gliese 581, for example, is greater than 20 light years distance from us, I suggest that this criteria is too limiting.
The paper is an interesting, if not compelling, proposition. The authors do calculate what size an artifact would need to be, travelling at their minimum speed (3.3% light speed), to be detected at the distance of one of our closer stellar neighbours. Could such an artifact be detected by the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes, for example? What is the probability of success of such an experiment, compared to say the SETI experiments?
One idea I did find interesting is by focusing on detecting light reflected from ships, we do not need to assume any intention by the interstellar travellers to communicate with us. The ‘signal’ is independent of alien psychology. It is also independent of propulsion technology - we aren’t looking for any ‘signature’ of any particular technology, known or unknown.
It is an interesting paper. I’m not sure they have presented a compelling enough case to convince a funding body - yet.
If you thought driving on Earth is a chore, you haven’t tried off-roading on another planet. So far, robotic rovers have reached out to the moon and Mars, with astronauts actually driving a lunar car on the moon during NASA’s Apollo program. Those missions amount to what could be the first interplanetary road race. See how the endurance drives on other worlds stack up in the SPACE.com infographic above.
Leading the pack is an oldie of a space mission: the Soviet-era Lunakhod 2. This huge moon rover drove 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the moon during its 1973 mission and is currently the world champion for off-world driving, winning the gold medal.
In second place with silver is NASA’s Apollo 17 moon rover, which was driven by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972. The astronauts drove 22.3 miles (35.89 km) during their mission, which was the last moon landing of NASA’s Apollo program.
The bronze medal for space driving goes to NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity, which has been driving across the plains of Meridiani Planum on the Red Planet since 2004. Opportunity has driven more than 22.03 miles (35.46 km) and is still going today.
The latest to enter the race is Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, which is just getting started with only 0.4 mile (0.7 km) traveled so far.