Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Horizons Poster

Check out this cool New Horizons poster. Why post about a probe still about 5 years away from it's visit to Pluto? Well because the probe just recently imaged Pluto (I suspect for the first time) in a short exposure. It is still very far indeed, but at this distance it seems Pluto has become a fairly easy target. If you were at the New Horizons distance from Pluto today, I bet a small telescope would be enough to split Pluto and Charon. Probably not enough to pick up much of a disk, however. Correct me if wrong, I didn't do any math on this one.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Inflatable Heat Sheilds (Just in time for 2010)

Perhaps the best way to land very large objects on Mars with any kind of efficiency.
Now why are there not tons of cool projects like this going on at all times? Why is it that we only try a hypersonic air-breathing flight once or twice a decade? These kinds of research are rather inexpensive, costing at most a few million here or there. Lets get creative, take a few risks, and spend money on RnD from time to time. Use up some sounding rockets already, there are enough of them. More solar sail testing would be nice, or more work on high ISP rockets. How about really accurate lidar systems that fit on orbiters and probes? Imagine if we could scan mars to down to the CM and watch for changes daily? The really expensive projects, which produce incredible results, seem to be sucking the limelight, money, or priority away from little projects. For one Cassini (possibly the best probe to date), how many low budget projects could we fly? If they cost 3.26 million each, the answer is about 1 thousand. That is not to say we should not fly flagship projects, but I suggest that we could also fund many more smaller projects. Inflatable heat shields are very important. They just may allow the next titan lander to have an RTG rover on it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ares X-1 Assembly

This simple test rocket, in a way the biggest hobby launch ever, will be an early test of a man-rated rocket. Why is this a great rocket in my mind? Because it uses an inexpensive and fairly reliable solid rocket motor in the first stage, then more energetic liquid motors in upper stages. This is, across the board, the recipe for success in large rockets. Even the Saturn V chose a dense but low energy fuel for the first stage. This doesn't strike me as a terribly important test (more important than the recent LES test, less important that actual all up testing of the real rockets to be done in the future); but it will be very very cool. And this minor step shows that some progress is being made in what strikes me as a very good move back towards mostly expendable rockets, one with a heavy lift capacity (10 meter space telescope anyone? Or Mars mission...), and the other being a smaller cheaper rocket to carry men to space. No longer will crews and payload be mixed together. No longer will we have people flying below falling ice and foam, nor will we carry a giant glider up and back, turning one of the largest rockets ever into something that can hardly carry a school bus to orbit. In other words, the end of the Shuttle era is approaching nicely.