February 26, 2020

The Ares X-1 Test Launch!

The “rubber hits the road” tomorrow for NASA’s next generation of spacecraft with the first test launch of the Ares X-1 rocket. Liftoff is scheduled for Tuesday, October 27 at 8:00 AM EDT from launch pad 39B. The shuttle Atlantis is also currently sitting at launch pad 39A for launch on November 16th to the International Space Station (ISS). Tomorrow’s Ares X-1 will be an unmanned launch and perform a short duration ballistic flight to test key systems over a 30 minute mission. Viewers along Florida’s Space Coast should get a good show, weather willing.

Speaking of which, there is currently a 30% chance of rain along the coast, but sometimes cooler mornings here in Florida lend themselves to a less dynamic atmosphere. The launch window extends until noon local. The flight profile calls for the Ares to attain an apogee of 40 miles, and splashdown will happen about 140 miles out to sea. The systems to be tested will include first stage separation, aerodynamics characterization and recovery, as well as testing of the stabilization and roll control system. A dummy upper stage simulator will be mounted atop the Ares X-1. If the solid rocket motor of the Ares X-1 looks slightly familiar, that’s because it is; its a modified shuttle solid rocket booster with an extra fifth segment. Eventually, the Ares I (sometimes called “the Stick”) will launch the Orion command module, which will carry a crew of 4 to 6, hence the “Apollo on steroids” nickname. We probably won’t see manned flights to the ISS via Ares/Orion until early 2014. Its sister rocket, the Ares V, is much larger and scheduled to debut in 2018. It will carry supplies as well as the beefed up Altair lunar lander. The entire party will them assemble in low Earth orbit for the journey to the Moon. Incidentally, the multi-rocket, Earth orbit rendezvous was an original plan for Apollo in the early 60′s. Another major departure will be putting astronauts directly atop the solid rocket booster of Ares, as opposed to the liquid fuel stages of Apollo. Warner von Braun himself once considered this as too dangerous to attempt. Still, NASA feels that the SRB has a tried and true track record. Its odd to think that we’ve been flying space shuttles for over 30 years now, longer than we’ve had anything else! With the findings of the Augustine Commission out earlier this year, its yet to be seen seen which direction NASA is going to take in the coming decade; will it be a bold step forward ala Kennedy, or a return to the lean years of the late 70′s? With any luck, we may see the first lunar “re-foot fall” by 2019, about half a century after Neil’s! Anyway, be sure to pop your head out of your home/office if you’re positioned to see the launch tomorrow, or watch it on NASA TV… it’s a tiny step, we know, but its at least a concrete one to hopefully get us back out and about the solar system!

The term for this week is sub-orbital flight. In order to escape the surly bounds of Earth, one must achieve an equivalent of 11.2 km/sec as measured from its surface. So why doesn’t a rocket like the Saturn V look like its moving that fast? Keep in mind that this is only relative to the surface constant of gravity, and a rocket is constantly pushing from a dead standstill, and thus accelerating via Newton’s laws of motion. This acceleration is thus stretched over time as the rocket climbs out of Earth’s gravity well. If orbital velocity equivalent of thrust is not achieved, the craft will fall back to Earth, in what’s termed a ballistic trajectory. Alan Sheppard’s first Mercury flight was such a flight, as is Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip1, and tomorrows’ Ares X-1 flight. Sometimes, a ballistic suborbital flight is an unintended consequence of a mission failure, such as the failed launch of Pioneer 1 in 1958, which splashed back down in the south Pacific 43 hours after launch. A technical way to think of sub-orbital flight is that even though you have a physical apogee above the Earth’s atmosphere, your calculated perigee would be located below the Earth’s surface!

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