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The Space Log
Space for Everyone      -    October 2002

Oct.31.2002 : Space Solar Power Gets Serious Science Attention

The prestigious Science Magazine this week published a paper by 18 authors who examined a wide range of options for stablizing and eventually reducing CO2 buildup in the atmosphere:

Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet - Science Magazine - Nov.1.02 - (abstract available via free reg. Full article requires paid reg.)

The paper looks at many different power production systems, especially those that can provide large continuous baseline power with minimal environmental impact. They include space based solar power in their list of viable options. They recommend initially launching powersats to LEO to demonstrate the potential of the technology and then gradually adding more satellites to build a constellation that would provide continuous power. Later, GEO powersats could be developed.

See Space-Based Power System Needed to Solve Earth’s Energy Woes - Space.com - Oct.31.02 for a longer examination of the paper's views of space solar power.

Oct.31.2002 : Space News Scan...

Rocketry contest getting popular - the Team America Rocketry Challenge contest sponsored by National Association of Rocketry & the AIA seems to be having some success at attracting student participants:

New Space Camps - Recent reports about the shutdown of the Florida Space Camp and the earlier closing of a camp in California gave some the impression of a drop in interest in space among young people but that is a wrong impression. Besides the fact that these two camps were never marketed well (most kids in California and Florida never knew about the camps), the closings actually resulted from the big slowdown in travel after 911.

The primary camp in Huntsville, in fact, now has strong attendance and seems to be recovering from a string of financial fiascos unrelated to attendance. It looks increasingly likely, as well, that a new camp will open near Washington D.C camp opens in three years in South Korea:

Remote sensing volcanoes - Check out the sharp satellite images of the latest Mt. Etna eruption : Satellite sees 200-mile ash, smoke plume from Mt. Etna - Spaceflight Now - Oct.30.02 * Space Station Crew Photographs Mt. Etna From Orbit - NASA PR - Oct.30.02

The Martians have landed - 3.5 Billion Years Ago - physicist and author Paul Davies speculates that life started first on Mars and then came to earth via meterorites: It's true, men really are from Mars: And so are women, thanks to an invasion by Red Planet microbes by Paul Davies - Guardian - Oct.30.02

Oct.30.2002 : Big Eastern Rocket


Darren Wright of Ozark Propulsion Labs, which does amateur / experimental rocketry, sent me the above photos that show a "54,000ns P motor lifting off ... It boosted a 400lb x 16in [x 20ft tall] rocket [built by Neil McGilvray, shown in top left photo,] to 6700ft (~2km) on October 19th, officially making it the largest motor ever flown East of the Mississippi. It also was the largest dual-stage rocket successfully recovered East of the Mississippi." (Quicktime movie of the launch.)

The launch took place in Price, Maryland on the Eastern Shore during a rocket meet of the Maryland Delaware Rocketry Association (MDRA) .

Oct.29.2002 : What's Been Happening?

Reducing light pollution isn't quite up there with eliminating hunger and disease in the world but it still merits an effort. Due to the background glow in which they live, most young people growing up in the cities and suburbs have never seen the amazing brilliance of the stars in a dark sky. If we want to convince them of the importance of science and of attaining some understanding the natural world, it would help if they were not cut off from the universe around them.

Gradually, though, the movement to reduce light pollution is making progress. By emphasizing the modest changes that are needed, such as, for example, shielding lamps so they don't waste light by sending it upwards, municipalities and individuals are started to respond.

A recent meeting of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) involved not only astronomers but many others concerned about the effects of constant background light on humans and wildlife:

Terry Riley's Sun Rings, see entry in the Music section, had its debut last Saturday in a performance by the Kronos Quartet at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Sponsored by NASA, the work was inspired by space radio signals converted to sound. - NASA Music Out of this World - JPL News Release - Oct.24.02

The headline of the review at the Iowa City Gazette reads :" 'Sun Rings' sends positive signals - Kronos Quartet's world premiere performance of "Sun Rings" Saturday night at Hancher Auditorium was masterful, a multimedia presentation that was both aurally and visually stunning." I didn't want to pay for a subscription to read the whole review but it sounds positive enough.

First Human on Mars ? - add your input to this survey on what people think about the questions of whether the first human to set foot on Mars is alive today, and, if so, from what nation, and male or female.

Your Message to a Star - Stardatecards offers you the opportunity to send a message via laser to a distant star. You can monitor the position of your light pulse as it heads towards your target. Sponsored by the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, the project, if nothing else, will help get across the point that space is really, really big.

Oct.28.2002 : Finding Space in Sweden

My wife and I certainly enjoyed our trip this month to the Venice of the North, as Stockholm is sometimes called. It is a beautiful city located on part of an archipelago consisting of thousands of islands. No matter where you go in the city, you always will be close to a lake or waterway. June and July, when the Sun never quite disappears, would have been the ideal time but we wanted our visit to coincide with friends who were returning from an overseas assignment.

I worked for several years at the Royal Institute of Technology on various projects that primarily involved the study of artificial neural networks for pattern recognition applications in experimental particle physics. I was especially interested in implementations of neural networks in hardware.

I went to Sweden in 1993 and only intended to work there for 2 years but I met my future wife and waited around while she finished her degree in immunology at the Karolinska Institute. (See my old home page for more about myself and my wife.) We left Sweden after she got a postdoc at the National Institute of Health in Maryland.

After seeing the Mosaic browser in action on an X terminal in a hallway during a visit in 1994 to the CERN accelerator center (where the web was invented), I decided to learn some hypertext programming when I returned to Stockholm. (The silly flashing text in my home page title has been there since the day I did my very first web page.) I soon began building up link lists, especially for sites related to space since this had been an interest of mine ever since I was a kid.

The space list grew and grew. Among these links I began to notice many sites involving activities in which the non-specialist and even the general public could participate. I had long pondered over the question of why the public lost interest in "real" space after the post Sputnik boom, while enthusiasm for space in science fiction, such as in Star Trek and Star Wars, expanded tremendously.

As discussed in About HobbySpace, I decided the problem was that people did not see any way they could relate to or participate in space activities. Building on my space links, HobbySpace became the vehicle for my crusade to show everybody that they can indeed participate in space exploration and development in some way regardless of their background or training.

My colleague in Sweden, Prof. Thomas Lindblad, also had a strong interest in space at a young age and even worked as a teenager on a project in which Nike rockets were launched to study high altitude clouds. He got sidetracked into nuclear and particle physics for a few decades but has recently returned to space projects. These include a nano-satellite project called Viktoria in collaboration with the Swedish AMSAT group.

One of Thomas's friends who worked on the Nike project was Sven Grahn, now a top manager at the Swedish Space Corporation (Sweden's NASA). Sven is perhaps better known around the world as a leader in amateur space radio. He began scanning for Soviet satellite transmissions soon after Sputnik 1 and his web site holds lots of info about Soviet and Russian space history and tracking and scanning of their satellites. [Sven is mentioned in this article about Laika - Soviet account of space dog disputed - CNN.com - Oct.29.02 ]

Note that northern Sweden holds the Esrange center used by ESA and other organizations for sounding rocket flights, high altitude balloon launches, and other space related tests. The Japanese, for example, will carry out supersonic tests of their Phase II space plane prototype in 2003 at Esrange.

The north is a great place to study the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, at the time I visited the Swedish Space Institute in Kiruna, the aurora was not visible. Kiruna is also a popular place for ground stations since polar orbiting satellites are visible for at least a short period there during every orbit.

Finally, in my little survey of Swedish space, I should mention that I know Christer Fuglesang, Sweden's first and only astronaut. He had studied particle physics in the same group where I worked and he occasionally came back for visits. Christer will finally get his chance to go to space next summer. He will ride the Atlantis Space Shuttle on mission STS-116 to the ISS. I hope to go with Thomas to see the launch.

Oct.28.2002 :NASA goes for an Orbital Space Plane...- RLV News

Oct.23.2002 :Quick CRV becomes Slow CTV - RLV News

Oct.22.2002 :Partially Recoverable Falcon - RLV News

Oct.21.2002 :Sirius Satellite Gets Financial Lifeline

As mentioned here earlier, the success or failure of satellite digital radio will make a big impact for good or bad on the space industry. Things recently looked towards the bad since both Sirius and XM started later than expected and, despite good initial subscriber signup rates, looming debt repayment deadlines threatened their existence.

Last week, however, Sirius made a big step towards insuring its survival by working out an agreement with bond and preferred share holders to convert their holdings into common stock shares plus $200M in cash. The cash will allow the company to run until at least the 2nd quarter of 2002:

This significantly diluted the holding of current common stock owners but looks to save the company and allow it to grow and make back their investments. The deal values the company at around $900M

"The funding 'has got to be validating this industry,' Jimmy Schaeffler, president of research firm The Carmel Group, told Reuters. 'They now are poised to make other announcements and stop worrying about this.' " - Reuters/Yahoo

I expect that XM Radio will soon swing a similar arrangement.

p.s. Some shills for the broadcast radio industry have been claiming that the announcement of a digital standard for terrestrial radio is a death blow for satellite digital since people can now get CD quality sound without the satellite radio monthly fees. This is nonsense.

CD quality is great but the main advantages of satellite radio are its big diversity of programming and its reception regardless of location in the US. Cable TV, for example, did not provide significantly better picture quality than broadcast but provided a much bigger selection than obtained with rabbit ears on the set.

Unlike analog radio's gradual degradation, digital radio will either be in range or off. So at the borders of the broadcast range the terrestrial digital signal will alternate sound with long silent gaps, which will be quite annoying.

Furthermore, there will still be a cost of buying a new digitial radio for the terrestrial digitial broadcasts. If the take up rate is as rapid as that for digital broadcast TV, sat radio won't even feel the competition.

Oct.20.2002 : Advent Returns for the X Prize - RLV News

Oct.18.2002 :The Rebel Rocketeers vs the Establishment - RLV News

Oct.18.2002 :Japan's Phase I Vehicle Flies - RLV News

Oct.17.2002 : More X Prize Publicity - RLV News

Oct.17.2002 : Singing the Reusable Anthem - RLV News

Oct.15.2002 : X Prize: Two New Entries and a Test Launch - RLV News

Oct.15.2002 : Malaysian Space Tourism Project? - RLV News

Oct.14.2002 : News Briefs...

Stockholm is a bit cold (~6C or ~40F) but seeing old friends brings great warmth and sunshine...

...Zero-G, discussed below, debuts its web site and holds a press conference at the World Space Congress in Houston. See their page at Zero-G Press Releases for their announcement, pictures, etc. An article at Space.com goes into the background of the company and their struggles with the FAA: Firm Moves Closer To Commercial Zero-Gravity Flights - Space.com - Oct.14.02

...Team Encounter also is in Houston this week to show off its solar sail technology for the spacecraft that will launch on an Ariane 5 in 2004. The "Earthview Flight is to verify the design, deployment scheme, and controllability of a 20m X 20m solar sail in GTO". Then in 2005 a "larger (70m X 70m) solar sail known as 'Humanity's First Starship' solar system escape mission in 2005. That flight will carry a 3kg payload of messages and DNA samples" from public subscribers who pay from $25 to $80 for the opportunity to send a token of themselves to space. So far about 80,000 people have signed up.
Humanity's First Starship and its Technology to be Previewed at World Space Congress - SpaceRef - Oct.10.02.

Oct.10.2002 : A Rocket with a View

As you probably know, the Atlantis shuttle launched this week included a RocketCam attached to its external tank that provided a great look-back view of the inital part of the flight. The solid rocket booster separation blew some debris onto the lens that smeared the remaining shots but it was a great TV show up to that point. If you missed the live video, see the SpaceCasts section for links to archived ShuttleCam videos.

Two rocketcams on the first and second stages of the first Atlas V launched in August provided spectacular views all the way till the final stage entered transfer orbit.

(Ecliptic announced today that RocketCams will provide extended views during the Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) mission in 2004 when two unmanned spacecraft will rendezvous in space under their own guidance and control systems.)

Something to consider when watching these launch videos is that if you were taking a sub-orbital flight, you would experience such views first hand. The SRB separation took place around 45 km while the ET separation was around 120km. The X Prize and proposed sub-orbital space tourism flights will go to around 100km or so, as well.

The Futron survey mentioned below noted that respondents highly valued a good view from their seats:

"Of all the attractive features associated with a flight into space, viewing the Earth from space rated highest, with 63% of respondents indicating that the opportunity to do so was very important as an aspect of suborbital flight." - Futron

Some in the small RLV industry, who have been looking for a market ever since the telecom constellations went bankrupt, are still skeptical that many people will pay big bucks ($100k+) for sub-orbital flights but I'm becoming more and more confident of their appeal. Combine such spectacular views with the thrill of riding a rocket - the noise and g's of the launch, weightlessness period for a few minutes at apogee and then the wild fall back to earth - and you get one heck of an experience.

(Rand Simberg also comments of aspects of seeing a flight virtually or in the first person in I Like To Watch for this week's Transterrestrial Musings.)

Oct.10.2002 : Fuel Cells and Asteroid Mining

One of the most exciting developments in technology today is the boom in progress of fuel cells. Nearly every day there are announcements of significant advances in hardware or in the growth of a hydrogen infrastructure to support fuel cells.

While some may say its just another overhyped technology like solar power or battery driven electric cars that will fail expectations, I don't see it that way. There is a depth and breadth of fuel cell development that virtually guarantees that there will be successes in at least some areas. Fuel cells range from micro units for powering small devices, to medium sized units for powering cars and houses, to huge systems for powering buildings and small communities. In the latter case, large stationary cells are already being sold and installed in growing numbers

The insatiable demand for power for handheld devices has led to a race among small and large companies (such as Motorola) to be the first to offer cells small enough to fit in cell phones, PDAs and laptop computers. They will run off methanol cartridges, which have just been declared safe enough to allow on an airplane.

Meanwhile, the pressure to reduce pollution, CO2 production, and dependence on oil, will relentlessly push automobile manufacturers towards fuel cell powered vehicles. The first small test fleets of fuel cell cars will be on the roads within the year. (New clean, quiet cars guzzle hydrogen - CNN.com - Oct.9.02 )

One drag on wide spread use of fuel cells, however, is their high cost due to the platinum used in the catalyst. The amount of platinum needed for a given power has been reduced significantly, as it has with catalytic converters for car exhausts, but in neither case reduced to zero despite lots of research for many years.

A possible way to increase the supply of platinum would involve mining it from Near Earth Asteroids, which are believed to hold large quantities of precious metals. See Mining Asteroids: Melting trapped ice could turn a profit for private companies, with metal processing not far behind - IEEE Spectrum - Aug.01 for a nice overview of the possibilities and challenges of asteroid mining. See also Space Mining links.

Oct.10.2002 : SciTech news briefs...

Hydrogen for fuel cells could come from many sources including organic materials - Food scraps could help power homes - New Scientist - Oct.10.02. ...

...Perhaps robots, rather than refilling at service stations, will eat to power their fuel cells : Gastrobotics at Univ. of South Florida. (I can easily imagine movies showing Terminators with teeth chasing delectable people for nourishment.)...

...If you want to really shine at the next rave, check out Luminex, which weaves scintillating optical fibers, developed for particle physics experiments, into fabrics and lit up by LEDs. Clothes made from the materials will debut in Paris this month:Fiber-optic dress goes down the aisle - Optics.org - Oct.02

Oct.9.2002 : Zero-G Flights Approved

Zero Gravity Corporation (the website is currently empty) announces that in 2003 the company will offer rides on a Boeing 727-200 that will fly parabolic trajectories so that passengers will experience brief periods of weightlessness:

ZERO-G To Offer Public 'Astronaut Training' Weightless Flights in the United States - SpaceRef - Oct.9.02

The company includes Peter H. Diamandis, co-founder of the International Space University and of the X Prize project, astronaut Dr. Byron K. Lichtenberg, and former NASA official Alan Ladwig.

Great to see such micro-gravity activities finally becoming available in the US. Rand Simberg, see his Interglobal Space site, tried a few years ago to offer a similar commercial parabolic flight service to the public but was blocked by the FAA.

So the only option until now involved going to Russia and riding their parabolic cosmonaut training airplane via a tourist package from a company like Incrediable Adventures (affiliate commission link) or Space Adventures.(NASA offered some student opportunities to fly experiments on its plane.) Apparently, ZERO-G managed to overcome the FAA objections.

Such a service will boost the development of the US space tourism industry, if only because it reduces the "entry level" cost for a space-like experience. Also, a package deal for a sub-orbital rocket flight could include an astronaut training experience lasting a few days or a week with a parabolic ride as part of the preparation. This will help insure that the customers feels that they got their money's worth ($100k+ ) since the sub-orbital flight will actually be quite brief - half hour to an hour depending on the system used.

Oct.8.2002 : News Briefs...

Space elevator concepts are becoming less sci-fi as new carbon nanotube materials make them feasible, at least in materials terms. A very nicely done article in Science News - Ribbon to the Stars - Science News - Oct. 5.02 - gives an overview of the progress made. Note that on October 9, 2002, 8-9pm PDT, the Space Show radio show (available over the Internet as well) will feature Dr. Brad Edwards, co-founder of HighLift Systems, which is discussed in the article. Space elevators

Russian Space Tourism:Perhaps hoping to show Hollywood how to do space right, a Russian TV program announces that it will sponsor a contest for a trip to the ISS : Who wants to be a space traveller? Russian TV launches contest - Spacedaily/AFP - Oct.8.02.

** Late tonight, Keith Cowing at NASA Watch posted this message about Mark Burnett, the producer of the Survivor hit TV show - Mark Burnett to Announce Space Reality TV Series - SpaceRef - Oct.8.02. The show [in collaboration with the Russian ORT TV station mentioned above - 10.9.02] will be similar to Survivor in that the winner of a competition will ride a Soyuz to space in November 2003. Burnett had talked of a similar show a couple of years or so ago called Destination Space (originally Destination Mir while the Russian space station was still in orbit), but it had appeared that the plan had fallen through. Now it looks to be back in business. Space Tourism

[Russia TV Network Announces Space Tourism Contest - Space.com - Oct.9.02]

Others... Check out the informative article on space art at Turner's Mars by Stuart Atkinson - New Mars - Sept.9.02 ...

Another amateur makes a big contribution to science - Mighty explosion caught by amateurs - BBC - Oct.7.02 ...

Examine Iraqi secret sites at Tuwaitha - Iraq Special Weapons Facilities - [ Space Imaging sat photos] - GlobalSecurity.org - Sept.10.02.

Oct.8.2002 : Space Tourism Study Shows Strong Market

Futron has released a "comprehensive and detailed survey about public space travel among affluent individual" that includes "20-year forecasts for the orbital and suborbital space tourism markets."

Futron Releases New Space Tourism Publications - By 2021, Commercial Space Travel Could Amount to an Industry Worth over US$1 Billion. - Futron - Oct.7.02

Unfortunately, the full report costs $2750! At least the press release summarizes the findings.

Preliminary results of the survey, which Futron hired Zogby International to carry out, were discussed here back in June. While there have been previous market studies on space tourism, this one is significant because it was done by a top survey firm and they dealt only with wealthy households; that is, the people who can actually afford the high ticket prices.

Space News reported that the survey found "only" 19% of the respondents interested in sub-orbital tourism. While that may not sound significant to a typical aerospace reporter, for the small companies trying to raise money to build sub-orbital vehicles it was cause for great celebration.

They only need a 5 to 10 passengers per month at around $100k per ticket to support a vehicle that will cost a few tens of millions to develop. While there were some earlier indications of a sub-orbital space market, there were many skeptics among the startup rocket companies who doubted that many people would pay for the brief rides. But now its clear that, in fact, there are many who believe that riding a rocket into space, even for a short time, would be the thrill of a lifetime.

The Futron study sees a market for sub-orbital tourism of around 15,000 people per year by 2021 generating total revenues of around $700 million per year. A further $300 million would come from 60 orbital space tourists per year. They also claim substantial elasticity in these numbers, that is, they could be much bigger if the ticket prices come down.

So even at the stiff cover price, I expect many of the startup RLV companies will be snapping up this report to carry with them to fund raising presentations.

Oct.7.2002 : Robot Changelings - Key to Big Space Development?

After we manage to establish a few small permanent outposts, many people will want to move to space and build settlements and communities. These communities will need the development of large structures and, whether in space or on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, this will involve construction under very difficult circumstances.

Such projects will require that most everything be done in space including the mining of raw materials, turning them into building materials, and assembling them into structures.

The physicist Gerard O'Neill and his students showed that no fundamental physics laws or the strengths of available materials prevented the building of huge space habitats. Anyone looking at the size of these structures, though, inevitably wonders how any society could ever afford to build something on that scale.

Yet you can look around and see human-made structures of amazing size and complexity on earth, many of which were entirely financed privately. Examples include gigantic ocean going oil rigs and a tunnel under the English Channel. These show that structures that previously seemed impossible became feasible as technology advanced and construction productivity increased.

To accomplish large scale space construction, I believe robots will become the key tools. Working under human supervision, they will work continuously in space and adapt themselves for particular tasks. NASA, for example, already has its Robonaut in development for working outside of the ISS.

However, for big projects we will need large numbers of space "ants" busily working away for long periods. For example, in his Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson assumed the availability of swarms of reconfigurable and adaptable robots to build various space structures in his stories such as space elevators and to carry out terraforming tasks on Mars.

The field of robotics failed to deliver HAL on time but it is nevertheless making progress. Today I came upon the modular robotics program at PARC (PARC is famous for originating many groundbreaking technologies in computing such as graphical interfaces and the Ethernet). Their modular robots are a big step in the direction towards the kind of adaptable space-worker-ant I'm talking about that could, in large numbers, carry out a wide range of construction and maintenance activities.

Check out some of the the PolyBot videos to get an idea of the potential of reconfigurable robots. More details are available in these articles:

These robots will also need to work together and carry out cooperative activities. Progress is also being made in this area. See, for example, the MARS - Multiple Autonomous Robots project at the University of Pennsylvania. The MARS goals include the capability of hundreds of robots to "learn and adapt to unstructured, dynamic environments and new tasks" and to "allow a single human operator to control an entire fleet of autonomous robots."

Sounds like perfect workers for my Acme Space Construction company. (In their off hours they can play soccer.)

See Space Robotics and SciTech: Robotics for additional links.

Oct.7.2002 : "We finally made it."

The New Mars on line magazine is sponsoring the First Words contest. Enter your choice for what the first person to walk on Mars should say as his or her foot hits the Mars dust. Contest runs between October 4th to midnight October 11th.

Read what some celebrities have suggested.

[What Do We *Say* When We Get to Mars? Offer Your Ideas - Space.com - Oct.8.02]

Oct.6.2002 : JP Aerospace Launches Rocket in Texas

When I turned on my radio to hear NPR news this morning I never expected to hear a report about JP Aerospace. (See article below about Space Volunteers.) Apparently, NPR had come across an Associated Press report concerning JPA's successful launch yesterday of a 14 ft sounding rocket from the Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport.

The rocket flew to 20,000ft (6.1km) and was recovered after safely parachuting to the ground. The launch was held to inaugurate operations at the site. Because of winds, only one of the high altitude balloons was launched rather than the three that were planned.

There are still no details on the JPA website about their Air Force launch contract. I assume it is a sounding rocket and/or high altitude balloon contract. Don't take seriously the item in the MyWestTexas article that states:

"Saturday's launch was by the California-based JP Aerospace, which is under a $20 million contract with the U.S. Air Force to develop a geo-stationary-orbit satellite system for reconnaissance and rocket-launched satellite surveillance of specific targets. " - MyWestTexas.com

Launching geo-sats is just the misunderstanding of an over-enthusastic reporter. However, development of techniques for reconnaissance from sub-orbital rockets and high altitude balloons, which JP has expertise in, is feasible for the small company, which has around 4 paid staff and 50 volunteers.

Note that the launch carried hundreds of Pongsats assembled by Texas students: PongSats Ready For Spaceport Sendoff - Space.com - Oct.4.02

Congratulations to John Powell and his crew on their successful launch.

Oct.5.2002 : Promoting Space Events

I expect public involvement with space to grow steadily as new activities and capabilities develop. The high public interest and excitement raised by the space tourist trips of Tito and Shuttleworth, and by just the possibility of a celebrity like Lance Bass going into space, show what can happen when a space event occurs that people actually identify with.

When the X Prize vehicles begin test flights, probably in 2003, we can expect another big boost in space interest, especially if several teams manage to get their vehicles into the air and the contest appears genuinely competitive.

Such sub-orbital vehicles could also provide impressive displays at venues such as airshows, state fairs, and theme parks. Rocket racing contests would really rev up the excitement.

Along these lines, several companies have sprung up to develop and coordinate space events for entertainment, education, and product advertising.

For example, the company Takeoff Technologies intends to help promote space events and projects, especially those related to the Oklahoma Spaceport.

Their educational efforts include the OK Spaceplanes project in which student built paper airplanes are released from high altitude balloon platforms, and eventually from high altitude rockets. An ID attached to each plane allows recovery at great distances:

[Oct.7.02 - Joan Horvath, president of Takeoff Technologies, thanked me for mentioning her company but wants me to emphasize that "Global Space League is not just an Oklahoma activity, however... we plan to take the concept around the country"...."We'd like to encourage your readership that is actually flying vehicles (or close to it) to contact us to get involved in our flying-for-the-public activities. We also will have some ability to loft small scientific or educational payloads as we build up our flight schedule." ]

Checkout the other space promotional companies, especially MoonFront's snazzy Flash web site.

The failure of Bass to get a ride on the upcoming Soyuz had a great deal to do with a failure of communication between a dull, stolid space company and the flashy, touchy-feely world of entertainment and advertising. Go-between companies like these space promoters, who can talk to both worlds, are needed to facilitate such deals.

The space promoters will accelerate the growth of new space businesses and help develop the infrastructure of a commercial public space industry.

Oct.5.2002 : Elon Musk's Launch Co. + Sooner Spaceport Conf. - RLV News

Oct.4.2002 : X Prize Rocket How-to Guide - RLV News

Oct.3.2002 : Crusing into an Aviation Revolution - SciTech News

Northrop-Grumman concept for a quiet (minimal sonic boom)
supersonic aircraft. Developed for a DARPA funded study(pdf).

[I will occasionally include an entry on non-space technology & science topics selected from the Science & Technology section.]

During 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight, we will hear a great deal about the glorious and amazing history of aviation. However, I expect to hear many commentators claiming that the excitement of flight has long passed.

Until the 1960s the public adored aviation pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and they became celebrity superstars. New flying machines and their daring pilots regularly set new aviation records to the applause of the whole world. Aviation transportation speeds increased steadily and, as airline ticket prices fell, flying became available to more and more people.

But then around 1970 aviation development seemed to hit a plateau. The business failure of the Concorde kept supersonic flight from reaching the masses. And unlike the predictions of many, our city skys do not buzz with helicopters and personal flying cars coming and going from landing pads atop every building.

Instead, we fight the traffic to reach a huge airport far from downtown. Then we pack into a lumbering, smelly bus with wings that doesn't fly us directly to where we want to go but to some over-crowded hub from where we eventually get to our final destination.

But the future of flight has not stopped. Most technologies that attain great impact on our lives actually consist of many sub-technologies, each of which needs to reach a certain level of development before the whole system takes off. For example, the Internet has existed for a couple of decades but to start booming in the late 1990s it required cheap PCs, killer apps like web browsers, widespread networking including high capacity fiber trunk-lines, etc.

Here I list a some of the advances in flight technologies that will make a great impact on our aviation system in the coming years :

  • Air Taxis - instead of flying from a handful of large central airports, you will go to a local general aviation landing strip, jump into a small jet taxi and fly straight to your destination, landing at a similiar small airport.

    • Supporting technologies:
      • Low cost jets such as the Eclipse. This vehicle is priced at around $850,000, a fourth of the cost of the currently cheapest business jet.

        The new Eclipse 500 just made its maiden flight Eclipse 500 Jet Achieves First Flight - Eclipse PR - Aug.26.02 (streamed videos available).

        The vehicle uses a number of technologies such as low weight, high thrust engines developed for cruise missiles.

        The operating costs are similarly much lower than current jets. Over 2000 orders have already been placed for the vehicle which should be FAA certified by early 2004.

      • Free Flight, based on GPS navigation and terrestrial augmentation systems, allows planes to follow the straightest, most fuel efficient flight paths to their destination. See the NASA Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS).
  • New Generation Gyroplanes - Helicopters have a number of limitations including a low top speed and complicated, fragile flight control systems. Gyroplanes, which have a free spinning rotor (i.e. in autorotation) for lift and a separate propeller for forward drive, have been around since the 1930s. Like a helicopter they can provide short or zero distance takeoffs (if the rotor is temporarily connected to the engine and spun up) and landings but since the rotor is always in autorotation it can still land safely if there is engine failure during any phase of the flight.

    New materials, control systems, and design enhancements have made a new generation of vehicles, such as the Hawk 4 from Groen Brothers, much more practical and capable and offer viable alternatives to helicopters. (Gyroplanes can't hover, but most helicopter tasks don't require hovering.)

    A much more ambitious gyroplane is being developed by CarterCopters. As with helicopters, maximum rotor tip speeds limit the top vehicle speeds for conventional gyroplanes. The CarterCopter avoids this by slowing the rotor rotation while in flight. This will allow the vehicle to reach jet like velocities. The rotors, which contain heavy depleted Uranium in the tips to provide high inertia, provide lift at low speeds while the small wings provide efficient lift with low drag at high speeds.

    See the nice overview at The Carter Copter - The Next Big Thing - SW Aviator - May.02

    A prototype has been flying for several months and setting records for rotor vehicle speeds. Designs of large CarterCopter vehicles are in the works that could offer the capabilities of tiltrotor vehicles like the Osprey V-22 but with much higher margins of safety and reliability.

  • Ducted Rotor Vertical Takeoff & Landing (VTOL) Vehicles - while the CarterCopter is a neat approach, the really cool ideal for VTOL is to hide the rotor and offer a compact design that's more practical to use for small landing sites. Such ducted fans require high thrust to weight engines, low weight structures, and sophisticated controls. A number of companies are making progress in such designs and beginning to make test flights:

    • Moller Skycar - Paul Moller has worked on a VTOL vehicles since the 1960's. For the past decade or so he has often predicted that his Skycar was just a year or two away from getting off the ground. In the past few months, though, he has finally flown the SkyCar, but hardly any notice has been paid, perhaps due to his low credibility. (Perhaps also because the company has not yet given out a formal press release or had the press in to watch a flight. But videos and pictures of test flights are available on his site.) The successful low altitude tethered flights, nevertheless, triggered the release of new funding and we can expect more notice to be paid to the Skycar progress in the coming year.

    • SoloTrek Exoskelitor offers similar compact personal VTOL transportation. A prototype, funded by DARPA, has succeeded at short test flights and improved vehicles will be tested in the coming year.

    • Other VTOL projects are multiplying and many look quite promising. Powerful new engines and light weight materials and computer design allow for approaches that were impractical just a few years ago.

  • Quiet Supersonic Vehicles - the Concorde is often cited as proof that supersonic airliners are impractical and uneconomic. But a single vehicle doesn't prove anything. There were several airplanes that tried but failed to achieve economical passenger transportation in the 1920s and 1930s before the DC-3 finally offered all the right features and succeeded. The Concorde was too small - holding only 100 passengers - to serve the Atlantic market and its range was too short to serve the Pacific market where the very long distances would best be served by a supersonic transport.

    And, of course, sonic booms restricted the Concorde from flying supersonically over land. It was long thought that sonic booms were totally unavoidable and would forever prevent supersonic flight over populated areas. In fact ways are under development to amelieorate the booms, perhaps to levels undetectable on the ground, or at least to a non-disturbing level. These techniques include making the vehicles long and thin (see the above image). These low drag designs could also produce highly efficient flight so that the fuel costs are not significantly higher than sub-sonic flight.

    A DARPA "Quiet Supersonic Aircraft" project recently saw the announcement from Northrop Grumman of the first advanced design - Northrop Grumman Unveils Concept for Quiet Supersonic Aircraft - Northrop-Grumman PR - Sept.26.02. See the article Supersonic is Back (Quietly) - Popular Science - Feb.2002 for more about sonic boom reduction.

So progress in aviation has not stopped but is in fact accelerating. The next 100 years of flight may turn out to be just as exciting as the past 100.

Oct.3.2002 : Bounties for Amateur Asteroid Hunters

Kudos and thanks to Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California for sponsoring the successful passage of the Charles `Pete' Conrad Astronomy Awards Act of 2002.

This bill establishes "an awards program in honor of Charles "Pete" Conrad, astronaut and space scientist, for recognizing the discoveries made by amateur astronomers of asteroids with near-Earth orbit trajectories."

The bill doesn't explicitly say what the award size should be but the initial funding includes $10k per year for the next two years. The IAU Minor Planet Center will administer the program and select the winners.

There bill specifies 3 annual award categories:

  1. Prize goes to the amateur astronomer who discovers with his own equipment the largest absolute magnitude new asteroid having a near-Earth orbit for that year.
  2. Prize goes to an amateur astronomer for "pre-discovery and recovery efforts" using professional equipment or results from professional equipment, including old astronomical images for asteroids that have been "lost".
  3. Prize goes to the amateur astronomer, or professional not funded for optical astronomy, who provides the greatest service to update the minor planet catalogue.

It's great that amateur astronomers are recognized at this level for the contributions they make to science and that the country will take advantage of their skills for such an important mission - saving Earth from destruction!

Oct.2.2002 : Satellite Radio - Running Fast Enough?

I once heard that as you get older, you must exercise more and more just to stay at the same weight. My thickening middle-aged middle, despite running frequently and regularly for the first time in my life, unfortunately confirms yet again that life is not fair.

XM Radio and Sirius Radio, the satellite digital radio companies, are also running faster and faster but the big question is whether they are running fast enough to reduce their bulging debts.

XM reported yesterday that over 200,000 subscribers now listen to their broadcasts, slightly exceeding their goal for the third quarter.( XM Satellite jumps subscriber hurdle - CNET.com - Oct.1.02 ). Sirius, is far behind XM in subscriber numbers but they did not begin broadcasting nationwide until this summer, several months after XM.

These promising early numbers come even before the really big market opens up - satellite radios pre-installed as standard features in new cars (i.e. you will see AM/FM/XM or AM/FM/SIRUS on the selection dial). Car companies only began this fall including the radios in new models of luxury cars.

(A portable model will soon be available as well from XM - Boombox satellite radio nears - CNET.com - Sept.30.02.)

Reviews of the satellite broadcasts have been almost uniformly glowing and not just because of the sharp CD quality sound. Local FM radio offers less and less variety as consolidation of ownership of radio stations has resulted in mostly a canned, bland selection. Both satellite companies offer a hundred or so channels with a wide diversity of musical styles to satisfy almost any taste, as well as lots of sports, news and talk stations.

However, after the expense of the satellites and the broadcast studios, both companies find themselves deep in debt. In normal times, say the mid-1990's, the success shown so far would result in bankers lining up to lend them money.

As they grow, the companies will have what banks love most - increasing cash flows. DirecTV and Echostar are considered huge successes, despite seldom reporting quarterly profits, because their huge subscriber bases (approaching 18 million) generate vast amounts of cash every month. This cash goes to pay the interest on the loans from the banks. (The cable TV industry also carries enormous debts but is adored for its cash flow as well.)

However, the depression in the telecommunications industry, coupled with the taint given to all space businesses by the Iridium and Globalstar bankruptcies, has resulted in banks showing great reluctance to refinance the companies. If they don't get money soon, both companies will hit a severe cash crunch by spring or summer of 2003.

DirecTV had the advantage of a big company behind it (Hughes Electronics) to get it through the tough early years as it added subscribers. Both XM and Sirius, however, stand on their own. There is speculation that GM, which is installing XM radios in its cars, will take a majority ownership of XM in exchange for bailing it out.

It's possible, especially for Sirius, the companies may force a refinancing by declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows a company to continue operating without paying its debtors.

Probably we will hear by January how the companies plan to run off all that debt flab.

Oct.2.2002 : Teledesic Throws in the Towel

It began with great bang and a promise of 900 satellies in orbit, but Teledesic ends with a whimper - Teledesic Suspends Work Under Satellite Contract - Teledesic - Sept.30.02. Citing the difficulty of financing new projects in the current gloomy telecommunications environment, the company will not continue funding even the two prototype satellites under construction by the Italian satellite manufacturer Alenia Spazio.

[See Teledesic Memories - RLV News for a reflection on how Teledesic influenced the creation of startup RLV companies in the late 1990s.]

The main force behind the company, Craig McCaw, has seen his investments in other telecom companies drop precipitously and apparently can't maintain Teledesic out of his not-so-deep pocket any longer.

As this news spreads around, we will hear all sorts of obituaries given to LEO satellite constellations for broadband and other telecom services. But it should be noted that the current constellations are still quite alive and growing:

While these stories are not exactly glorious ones, LEO constellations offer unique worldwide services and will not disappear. They now have time out of the spotlight to develop their markets niches and perhaps eventually surprise people with their growth.

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