Science & Technology

This week in space: Nuclear rockets, Virgin times two, Soyuz gets ready to fly again

But in 1968, the program’s biggest supporter, Democratic Senator Clinton Anderson, became gravely ill and had to leave the Senate. Lyndon Johnson had also been a supporter, but then he decided not to run for re-election. Without Johnson to keep up the pressure for NASA funding, the overall NASA budget was cut. And without Anderson to fight for NERVA, the proposed “Saturn S-N,” a version of the Saturn V that would have carried the NERVA as an upper stage, was cut. That suddenly made the whole NERVA program rather pointless. Some additional tests engines were developed, but over the next four years the nuclear rockets were allowed to … fizzle out. Not because it didn’t work. Not because some treaty required it. It just fell to that perennial killer of NASA programs — shifting politics. NASA has looked at the idea a couple of times since then, but the last project was killed by the Clinton administration so … it’s been awhile.

But now the idea appears to be moving forward again. In Russia.

Popular Mechanics: Russia looking to build a nuclear rocket that borrows from US research.

Elon Musk is old news—or rather, old tech. That's the take by Vladimir Koshlakov, the head of Russia's Keldysh Research Center and a man who want to build a nuclear-powered rocket (you heard that right). “Elon Musk is using the existing tech, developed a long time ago,” said Koshlakov, making his weird dig at the SpaceX found in an interview with state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “He is a businessman: he took a solution that was already there, and applied it successfully.”

There are real efficiencies in a nuclear-powered rocket. They’re not going to compete with existing launchers for getting things off the ground, but beyond the atmosphere, their efficient use of propellant could make them a much better way to drive around the Solar System quickly. However, they are not quick enough to get to Mars by 1978.

CNN: Virgin Orbit shows off it’s new rocket, while Virgin Orbit shows its stuff

Virgin CEO Richard Branson opened the doors to CNN this week to show off both what’s happening at space tourism business Virgin Galactic …

Four years ago, a co-pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight. The tragedy left the future in doubt for the space tourism company and derailed its plans to begin commercial flights to the edge of space. Hundreds of people had already reserved tickets that cost between $200,000 and $250,000. Some people lost their nerve and canceled their reservations. But over the last few years, Virgin Galactic has righted itself. It has debuted an upgraded design of its rocket-powered plane, SpaceShipTwo, the first of which is called VSS Unity. Pilots conducted its first powered test flights earlier this year — the strongest indication yet that the company is nearing commercial operations.

Hundreds of people have reserved tickets at over $200,000 apiece? (Pulls out calculator to determine how many Estes ‘D’ engines it would take to send a tourist above the Karman line).

Meanwhile across the hanger at Virgin Orbit

ABC News: Australia-based company looks to join small launcher market.

The five-metre rocket, developed by Queensland-based BlackSky Aerospace, was successfully launched into the sky from a farm in the town of Tarawara, west of Goondiwindi, in the state's outback border region. The rocket is the first in Australia to travel into the sky while carrying a number of commercial products, including sensors, for testing under pressure.

Note that, despite the relatively hefty rocket, this flight peaked at only about 5,100 meters — barely enough to qualify as a sounding rocket and nowhere near the semi-official boundary of space. But it was a good test of concept.

SpaceNews: NASA selects companies to compete for lunar projects.

NASA has picked nine companies, ranging from startups to aerospace giants, to be eligible for future contracts to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon, but with no guarantee of business for any of them. NASA announced Nov. 29 the selections as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where the agency will buy space on future commercial lunar landers to carry science instruments and other payloads. The winning companies are:

These aren’t launch systems, but landing systems. The projects are expected to compete for business in relation to NASA’s planned lunar-orbiting station.

SpaceNews: Amazon gets in the satellite support business.

Jeff Bezos may still be some months or years away from launching satellites on his New Glenn rocket. But Amazon Web Services is looking to get into space in a different way, working with Lockheed to provide support services to existing satellites. 

The new business venture — called AWS Ground Station — brings to bear the cloud-computing capabilities of Amazon Web Services in ground stations where satellite data is uploaded. Lockheed Martin’s contribution to the partnership is a network of distributed antennas that would supplement traditional dish antennas.

This puts aerospace giant Lockheed and giant giant Amazon directly in competition with a number of startups that have moved into this area. Which can’t make those startups, or their investors, happy.

Space Videos: ISS Expedition 58 crew prepares for launch.

If you were wondering how long it would take Russia to decide it was okay to proceed with launching crews on the Soyuz after the recent near-disaster … it will take this long. Launch is slated for Monday.

The Expedition 58 crew made up of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, American NASA Astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques arrived at Baikonur for final training ahead of their launch to the International Space Station. SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight scheduled for Jan 7.

The maiden flight of the Crew Dragon capsule — an uncrewed test mission to the International Space Station (ISS) called Demo-1 — is scheduled to launch Jan. 7, NASA officials announced today (Nov. 21). Crew Dragon will lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which also served as the jumping-off point for Apollo moon missions and space shuttle flights over the years.

And yep, I’ve already put in for press credentials to visit KSC for the launch. Stay tuned for more.

NASA: Insight arrives safely on Mars!

If you missed the excitement earlier this week, here’s a recap of the not-quite-seven-minutes of terror and the exhilaration that followed.

Launch schedule

The end of the year has been pretty packed with launches, and that continues into the next couple of weeks.

December 2  Falcon 9 | Spaceflight SSO-A Rideshare SpaceX launches a “rideshare” mission containing dozens of small satellites.

December 3 Soyuz FG | ISS Expedition 58 The next crewed launch of a Soyuz was actually moved forward from its original launch date. That’s a lot of confidence on Russia’s part.

December 4 Falcon 9 | CRS 16 A cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft heads for the ISS. Which actually has capacity to dock quite a few craft at the same time, and looks like it will need it.

Ariane 5 | GSAT 11  An Arianespace launch from French Guiana carries a comm sat for India and a weather sat for South Korea.

December 7 Delta 4-Heavy | NROL 71 ULA’s big dog carrying a classified military payload.

December 10 Electron | VCLS 1 Rocket Lab espects these things to start flying with almost jaw-dropping regularity. Kind of sad that they don’t seem to be giving them all “It’s business time” or “Just Testing” names. This launch carries 10 educational cube sats for NASA. 

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