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Devangshu Datta: Reaching out to the universe

Several exploration initiatives from the private sector mark a new phase in the commercialisation of space

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Until the 21st century, space exploration was completely a government domain. However, more private businesses are now getting interested. The recent mission by SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship (named after the 1960s hit Puff the Magic Dragon) to the International Space Station (ISS) could mark the beginning of a new epoch in commercialisation.

There are several other private initiatives in various stages of planning. The most ambitious is Planetary Resources’ grandiose idea of mining asteroids for minerals. But Virgin Galactic is also developing its plans for near-space tourism and there could soon be some interest in private lunar and Mars missions.

From the early days of the Gemini and Mercury programmes, 50 years ago, National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has tendered out for equipment. But it used to do the designs itself and set the specifications. The switch to using privately-designed, commercial service providers for the Commercial Orbital Service Programme to provision the is a big vote of confidence in the design ability of the private sector.

Although a faulty valve in the Falcon-9 rocket booster led to an initially aborted launch, the Dragon took off at its second attempt on May 22. The key point, “Max Q”, when the rocket undergoes maximum structural stress passed without problems about 85 seconds after lift-off.

The two-stage rocket worked without problems, with the first stage switching off and the second stage switching on before it went into an orbital flight and deployed solar panels. The Dragon performed a protracted series of test manoeuvres for three days before it inched closer to the ISS.

A lot of complicated close-range manoeuvres were performed within 250 metres of the ISS to test responses, when different commands are relayed at the same time from ISS and ground control. There was one problem when the Dragon’s (light detection and radar sensors) were confused by reflections off the ISS. Eventually, that was sorted out (by shutting down most of the LIDAR) and the dragon was pulled in by the ISS’ robot arm, Canadarm2. It was bolted to the ISS after it docked.

The cargo bay opened without a hitch and about 460 kg of equipment and food supplies were transferred. The crew of the ISS appeared enthusiastic about the Dragon, commenting that its interior “smelt like a new car”. During a five-day stay at the ISS, the Dragon was reloaded with around 600 kg of cargo, including both garbage and scientific equipment.

It is scheduled to return to the earth late on Thursday evening (this column was written on Thursday afternoon), splashing down in the Pacific about 800 km from the California coast after a six-hour return journey. Assuming it survives re-entry with undamaged cargo, it will become a reusable supply vehicle for the ISS.

There are upgrades in store. Eventually Dragon will be converted to carry human passengers, and it will also land on solid ground The Commercial Crew Development Contract from calls for the Dragon to carry up to seven human passengers in its pressurised 10 cubic metre cabin area. The spacecraft has been over-engineered since it’s designed to handle potential lunar flights and Mars landings as well. The heat shield has to be very robust to handle the required speeds.

Although various components will be discarded after each mission, the reusability of the core vehicle is crucial to cost-effectiveness. The NASA re-supply contract calls for Dragon to fly at least 12 supply missions that transport 20,000 kg to the ISS. The payment starts at around $1.6 billion and could rise to about $3 billion if given benchmarks are exceeded.

It will cost at least another $500 million to develop a crewed version that has 30 days of life-support for the on-board astronauts. SpaceX estimates that each “seat” on a seven-person “Dragonrider” craft will cost about $20 million per mission. This is a third of the current Soyuz launch cost of $63 million per seat. Eventually, SpaceX intends to modify the basic platform to convert it into an unmanned Mars lander that will deliver 1000 kg scientific payloads to the red planet.

Unlike SpaceX’s cargo-plus-humans concept, carrying human passengers is the key to Virgin Galactic’s vision. The spaceflight component of Richard Branson’s aviation strategy depends on turning the prototype, Spaceship Two, into a six-passenger vehicle that zips to sub-orbital levels of about 110 km above the Earth.

Spaceship Two is a souped-up version of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One — the lovely vehicle that won the $10 million Ansari X prize for demonstrating private suborbital capability. SapceShip One was designed by Scaled Composites, which has since been taken over by military aviation specialists, Northrop Grumman.

SpaceShip Two has done 15-odd test flights so far. The concept is to carry it up to a certain height beneath a carrier jet. Once released from beneath the carrier’s belly, SpaceShip two will fire its own rockets to push it to 110-115 km above the earth. Virgin Galactic has already sold over 500 tickets at $200,000 a ticket for the exotic experience of spending an hour circling around in zero gravity.

It will probably take another two or three years before we see the next phase of commercialisation of space. But the writing is on the wall and once it does happen, it may spark a wave of interest, with many others getting into the act.

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