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  • John Bell

Tech Sense June 2024: Space 2024: Part 1

The bright sun greets the International Space Station in this Nov. 22 scene from the Russian section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members. Image credit: NASA..

Space 2024: Part 1

Every now and then, I move away from computer technology and look at a different area. This month we look at what is going on in space.

Sub-orbital Space

Many organizations consider the Karman line at 100 kilometers to be the border between space and the atmosphere. A satellite is unable to drop below this level and maintain more than a single orbit around the earth. NASA and the USAF, however, consider the division between space and the atmosphere to be at 50 miles or 80 kilometers. They base this on an earlier definition of the Karman line.

Currently two companies offer flights that carry passengers into space but do not take them to orbit. These are Blue Origin in the New Shephard and Virgin Galactic in the Unity 22.

Blue Origin until recently suspended its launches as the company investigated a failed flight in September of 2022. The flight was unmanned, and the capsule survived but the reusable initial stage was lost. It has taken more than a year and a half to return to flight, but Blue Origin has now launched both unmanned and manned flights. The New Shepard launches like a traditional rocket but lands on its own power similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. The capsule separates from the rocket and returns via parachutes. Both the rocket and capsule are reusable.

Virgin Galactic uses a special airplane to carry their spacecraft to space. The mothership drops the spacecraft, which starts a rocket carrying the craft above 80 kilometers to reach space. This ship then changes the configuration to glide back for a ground-based landing. Both the airplane and the rocket ship are reusable and able to launch again within a few weeks. Virgin will suspend flights in June as they build new vehicles that should have much faster turn-around times. They hope to start testing of these new Delta ships toward the end of 2025 with commercial launches in 2026. The goal of the new ships is to be able to launch eight times a month.

New Glenn and Vulcan

The new rocket Blue Origin is building is the New Glenn. This is a much larger ship than the New Shepard with the capability to carry 45 metric tons to low earth orbit (LEO). The first stage is reusable, landing on a barge in a fashion similar to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The New Glenn is using the new BE-4 engine also used by the United Launch Alliance new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is replacing both the Atlas and the Delta IV rockets. The Vulcan is expecting its second launch by the end of the summer and the New Glenn expects to launch before the year’s end.

Vulcan and Dream Chaser

Expected to occur in June the Vulcan launch now appears delayed until at least the fall. This second launch of the Vulcan rocket is supposed to carry a new ship, the Dream Chaser. Think of this craft as a miniature Space Shuttle designed to carry cargo or people. The Dream Chaser is about a quarter of the size of the Space Shuttle, but the design allows lifting it to space atop another rocket. The new Vulcan rocket, first launched in January, will carry the Dream Chaser to the ISS in space when it is ready.

Space Launch System

“Bang Zoom you’re going to the moon!” The Space Launch System or SLS as it is better known is the current plan to bring the US back to the moon and build a moon base through the Artemis program. This will be more complex than simply mimicking the Apollo processes. In addition to the SLS and its Orion capsule, it involves new ships for SpaceX. These are the Super Heavy booster, and three different variants of the starship spacecraft. These variants will provide an orbital refueling tank version, a human landing version, and a cargo delivery version. A number of other companies will be providing instruments, tools, vehicles, and other materials for use building the base.

Did I mention SpaceX?

SpaceX is of course the relatively new company that created the reusable Falcon 9 rockets that are setting launch records weekly. They also launched the Falcon Heavy to handle larger loads, up to 64 metric tons. They have currently embarked on creating a new space vehicle known as the Starship. Starship is two parts or stages, the first being the Super Heavy booster providing the lift to carry the Starship to space and the Starship itself providing engines and cargo and/or people-space configured depending on the type of mission. Starship runs on liquid methane and oxygen with the vision of being able to create fuel on other planets. So far, there have been three spectacular “rapid unscheduled dis-assemblies”. They are moving very rapidly for a rocket company, hopefully they will achieve complete success shortly.

Future Parts

I haven’t even finished the rickets yet and I have so much more to share. I just didn’t have enough space for my article on space. Look for part two next month on rockets and later this year a part three on satellites and other space stuff. Welcome to summer.

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