September 3, 2014

10.04.11: Towards a Brave New Decade of Space Exploration.

Artist’s concept of a Falcon Heavy liftoff. (Credit: Space X).

Earlier, this week, two news articles made their way to us via Spaceflight Now that we thought deserved some weekend editorializing in this space. On Tuesday, SpaceX announced its plans for a Falcon Heavy rocket, which could provide 3.8 million pounds of thrust to place a 58+ ton payload into low Earth orbit or a 15 ton payload much farther afield. The first launch may occur as early as 2013, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk envisions two missions a month at the jaw droppingly low rate of 75-125$ million dollars a shot. This would give us a capability we haven’t had on the launch pad since Apollo; the ability to put large payloads into solar orbit. This also came on the heels of an announcement that NASA’s flat line budget may seriously hamper many of the proposed missions on the drawing board for unmanned planetary science. As always, a tension exists between what scientists would like to do, what engineers state is possible, and what politicians and taxpayers will pay for. Do we do a little with a lot, or vice versa? Missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory are great and should be done, but always threaten to gobble up huge chunks of a dwindling budget; we could fund many smarter missions like Messenger or even the atmosphere-bound SOFIA many times over. The launch vehicle is often the elephant in the room when it comes to cost concerns; it’s worth noting that the recent Decadal Survey for planetary exploration was conceived sans launch costs, although that may ultimately be the largest consumer of cash. Still, a launch vehicle like the Falcon Heavy gets astronomers and planetary scientists salivating; we think of the large payload missions and Battlestar Galactica-style platforms we could get into space, without complex unfolding maneuvers and long, looping orbits. We could just get there, without being a tacked on afterthought, and have the gear to do some really cool science.

And of course, there are some thoughts to employ either the Falcon Heavy or a rocket similar to the proposed Ares V to take astronauts to a Near Earth Asteroid. Proposed targets include 2009 OS5, in 2020, 1999 AO10 in 2025, 99942 Apophis in 2029, and 2003 SM84 in 2045. This would give us a chance to explore these worldlets first hand and provide a stepping stone style mission to Mars. But the mission would be a complex one; not only is there the radiation hazard, but the rendezvous would be more akin to a docking than landing. Then there’s the problem of return velocity; astronauts returning from Apophis, for example, would face a blazing 108,000km per hour return, far faster than Apollo and faster than the unmanned Stardust mission at 46,600km per hour. Perhaps a more logical target would be the recently discussed NEO 2010 SO16, currently in a lazy 350 year horseshoe orbit about 0.2 AU distant between the L5 LaGrange point and the Earth.

So, how do we feel about the commercialization of space? I’m curious to see how eager companies may be to fund pure scientific research and exploration that may have little or no short term gain; of course, scientists have historically faced a similar dilemma when competing with military and political interests. I think most fans of the space program are simply happy at the end of the day to have a mission, whether it be to Low Earth Orbit, the Moon, an asteroid, or dare we say Mars. We’re onboard; lets go. A great “turning away” from space is what we all fear most; certainly, the next decade may make or break both manned and unmanned space exploration. Let’s get out of LEO (I don’t care who is paying for the ride) and get back to the business of solar system exploration!                  

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