The SpaceX Dragon launches March 1, 2013 at 10:10am EST, are you ready? For the past few of weeks we've been breaking down key systems of the Falcon 9 and Dragon to get you prepped for the SpaceX CRS-2 Commercial Resupply Services flight. Here's what you missed—
Short for Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging, LIDAR is used for a variety of mapping, distance and speed measuring tasks. It is a key feature in unmanned vehicles, like the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX and NASA worked with Advanced Scientific Concepts (ASC) to design DragonEye, the 3D Flash LIDAR Space Camera developed for the Dragon. While a DragonEye LIDAR sounds like a subplot to a James Bond movie, it is what the Dragon spacecraft uses to approach and position itself to dock with the International Space Station. Laser precision comes in handy when trying to attach the 1.3-meter hatch of the Dragon to the football-field-sized space station which travels at an astounding speed of 4.71 miles per second. Once the Dragon capsule passes the R-Bar, it has to preform a series of staggered maneuvers to gradually approach the ISS Keep out Zone, a 200-meter border around the ISS, and get ready for the Canada Arm to grab it at 10-meters out.
Elon Musk is no stranger to media coverage, but the media covers him quite strangely. He is most often labeled as a billionaire, secondly as an entrepreneur, and thirdly by his corporate titles. While those labels are factually correct they don't seem accurate. Elon Musk is a billionaire but lives like a starving artist. You might be thinking I'm on some serious drugs because you know he just bought a $17 million home and has a private jet among other amenities. So where does my starving artist label come in? It's in the way he uses his money and, life's most valuable resource, time. It starts after his PayPal days. With millions of dollars in hand, he could have invested it and lived a nicer life than most of us will ever know. Instead he celebrated the PayPal sale by buying some nice things and used most of his remaining net worth, not to start another internet company that would've likely been successful but, to start SpaceX a venture he thought would likely fail. The source of his motivations are not monetary they stem from a desire to create, to develop an idea that does not yet exist, and he does so whether or not people understand him. Much like an artist, he invests most his time and money bringing his ideas to life except his canvas is humanity, his paintbrush is physics, and his color palette is technology.
The thruster we will see in action on SpaceX's next launch on March 1st will be the Draco. The Draco thruster is the smallest engine in the SpaceX fleet but don't let the size fool you, it packs 90 pounds (400 N) of thrust. The Draco is a liquid propellant thruster that uses Monomethyl Hydranzine. There is an oxidizer needed with a liquid rocket engine and SpaceX uses Nitrogen Tetroxide, the combination of orbital propellant and oxidizer that were used for the Space Shuttle. SpaceX went with a liquid fuel rocket because, while the thruster design is more complex, the advantage is variable thrust meaning the amount of fuel and the fuel burn rate can change during flight. Liquid fuel rocket engines can not only be throttled but are able to shut down and be restarted. Having so many options for throttle and restart are helpful in a redundancy situation. It also aides in maneuvering the precise approach required for to berth with the International Space Station (ISS). The combination of the propellant and the oxidizer keeps the fuel stable allowing the Dragon capsule to be berthed to the ISS for up to a year, providing a life boat of sorts for our cosmonauts.
Today marks the one month countdown to the SpaceX launch for the next NASA Commercial Resupply Services Mission (CRS-2). Pinehead is going get you prepped for launch by covering SpaceX from the outside, in. We are going to start with the big picture and drill down to various rocket/spacecraft components and launch preparations as we get closer to T-minus zero for CRS-2, scheduled for March 1st. SpaceX is set up in several locations around the United States including a small Pacific island. Headquarters is located in Hawthorne, California. Their rocket testing facility is in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has launch complexes at Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, and Omelek Island about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. They are also considering a launch site Brownsville, Texas located at the southern tip of the state.
On August 5, 2012, the world's attention was captured by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landing. One of the key components in the multifaceted landing of the Curiosity rover safely on Mars was the Thermal Protection System (TPS), or heat shield, on the spacecraft carrying the rover. Sensors being added to the Mars Science Lab heat shield. Photo by NASA. The thing people remember most about the heat shield is when it popped off the spacecraft and flung like a frisbee across the Martian landscape, landing with a plume of dust. Measuring nearly 15 ft (4.5 m) in diameter, the MSL heat shield was the largest to ever travel to another planet. That may sound impressive, when it comes to entering an atmosphere bigger is not necessarily better. While more resistance can act as a natural braking system the trade off is enormous heat build up on the spacecraft. And we're talking serious heat here, 3360º F (1850º C), almost twice as hot as molten lava.
Most concepts at SpaceX are designed from the ground up and the parts are manufactured on site at SpaceX. The Merlin engine, which launches the Falcon rocket, is no exception. Tom Mueller, posing with the Merlin rocket engines at SpaceX's Hawthorne headquarters. Photo by Roger Gilbertson. Photo courtesy Tom Mueller via kcet.org The rockstar of SpaceX may be Elon Musk, but the lead man behind the fire power is Tom Mueller. He is the Vice President of Propulsion Development and founding employee at SpaceX. Musk sought Mueller out in 2001 when Musk decided to build his own rockets instead of buying some from the Russians. Musk caught wind of a rocket engine Mueller built in his garage and "apparently had a religious experience" once he saw it. If you didn't know, Elon Musk used $100 million of his Paypal money to start SpaceX. That money was used to build the Merlin engine Mueller had designed. The Merlin engine is the first new American booster engine in ten years and only the second in the last 25 years.
For SpaceX, 2012 was the year of the Dragon. In 2013 the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX's heavy lift vehicle, is set to steal some of the spotlight away from the Dragon. The Falcon Heavy is currently in development and builds off of the Falcon 9 first stage and the Merlin 1D engine, an upgrade of the engine currently flying on the Falcon 9. What makes the Falcon 9 design so reliable is the ability to handle several engine failures without having to abort or experience a R.U.D. (SpaceX lingo for an explosion, a.k.a. Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly). Along with the engine reliability the Falcon Heavy will be the first rocket in history to feature propellant cross-feed from the side boosters. Since the rocket does not need full throttle to maintain acceleration as it travels into the atmosphere, the center core reduces throttle as the rocket ascends with the side cores still at full throttle. This allows for the core stage to be close to full of propellant when the side boosters separate, essentially leaving a fully fueled Falcon 9 ready for liftoff many miles above the earth.
In May of this year, SpaceX completed the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demo for NASA showing they could take on the job of cargo taxi to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. In October, SpaceX celebrated the successful launch and return of its first of twelve contracted Commercial Resupply Service missions to the ISS. SpaceX is not only the first private company to achieve this goal but it's doing so at a 90% cost reduction to the taxpayer. SpaceX is making money and NASA is saving money. Job well done; mission accomplished. Not quite.