Top of the news this week was the successful launch and delivery of a SpaceX Dragon supply craft to the International Space Station. The launch on Tuesday was picture perfect — no seriously, absolutely gorgeous, check this out:
CRS-6 was notable for two reasons. First, the resupply mission brought coffee to the astronauts. Well, a coffee cup. And for someone drinking his first cups of coffee in a few months, that’s awesome. Wired has a great article on the cups, which are designed to allow hot-beverage-sipping in microgravity, and their design.
Second, for those of you interested in SpaceX progress on landing and reusing their first stages, there was mixed news. It definitely landed. But it came in just a teensy bit too fast, and only stood upright for about two seconds before tipping over and exploding on the deck of the autonomous drone ship (I love typing those words) “Just Read The Instructions.” Here’s a shot of it nailing the aim:
And here’s a video clip of it not actually staying vertical.
Oh, so, so close. If only they’d had some more powerful lateral thrusters on the nose. Next time. Maybe. Landing the first stage is, of course, the holy grail of reusability — once the first stage can be returned and reused, the price per launch should drop dramatically. But, as this and earlier attempts have shown, it’s not as easy as you’d think. I’m looking your way, Jeff Bezos.
United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space, and Security, announced their next generation rocket design this week. The name was chosen by an online vote with over a million participants, which picked the name Vulcan (confession: I voted for Vulcan, too, so I’m particularly pleased about this outcome). The Vulcan, whose first stage will be powered by two Blue Origin BE-4 methane/oxygen engines (rather than the Delta IV’s Russian-made RD-180) is intended to be reusable. Well, not all of it: just the engines. After launch, the first stage will jettison the BE-4s, which will have inflatable heat shields and parachutes. As they drift to the Earth, a ULA helicopter will (apparently) go snag them midair for reuse. I don’t know that I believe it, but it’s sure going to be an interesting thing to watch if it happens. The release of the Vulcan will be incremental, starting with the first-stage carrying current-tech second stage solid rocket boosters, but eventually moving to the ACES second stage system which will boost its capabilities substantially. As for the name, well, don’t get too attached: they’re already being sued by Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. Gizmag has more on the plans and capabilities of the Vulcan rocket.
Let the Lawsuits Begin
The FCC’s new Net Neutrality rules were published to the Federal Register this week, and you know what that means: lawsuits! Not that anyone was expecting anything else, but the NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association), the ACA (American Cable Association), and AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph — didn’t think I’d expand that one, did you?) have all signed up to sue the FCC on the basis that, basically, they wouldn’t do all the things the new rules would prevent them from doing, so honestly, why have new rules anyway? They’ll just ruin everything forever. The ACTA and AT&T are calling the rules “arbitrary,” “capricious,” and “an abuse.” All of which just sounds like they’re just plugging their ears and singing “lalalala” whenever someone calmly explains why they can’t always have what they want. I imagine these lawsuits will take years and millions of dollars to settle, but let’s keep hoping the legal system in the US isn’t as broken as we’re all pretty sure it is in the meantime. The Verge has more on the story.
Liquid Water on Mars
New data from NASA’s Curiosity rover revealed this week the likely presence of liquid water below the surface of Mars. Well, liquid water of a kind. To stay liquid at the incredibly cold temperatures on the red planet, it would have to be a brine, composed of high levels of calcium perchlorate, which can keep water liquid down to around -70°C. Just so we’re clear, this isn’t exactly great news for life. As wikipedia explains about the chemical, “inhalation, ingestion or contact (skin, eyes) with vapors or substance may cause severe injury, burns or death. Fire may produce irritating, corrosive and/or toxic gases. Runoff from fire control or dilution water may cause pollution.” Still, liquid water is liquid water, and extremophiles on Earth have been known to survive insane conditions that should, in all honesty, kill everything. Check out the article in the Guardian for more.
Researchers and engineers are Siemens have developed a new electric motor that could pave the way for all-electric or hybrid-electric passenger airplanes. The new engine, which weighs just 50kg, produces 260kW. For reference, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a four-seater, has an engine that produces between 120kW and 157kW. While it may not be enough to propel a jumbo jet anytime soon, the company thinks 50-100 seat planes with hybrid-electric engines are a realistic goal for the “medium-term,” which is good news because of the environmental impact of all our air travel. Phys.org has more details on the story.
Best of the Rest
Here are just some of the other things I couldn’t get to covering this week (but which are still totally interesting):
- The Japanese have made a bullet train that even faster.
- Google’s trying to implement as faster standard for internet traffic named, honestly, “QUIC.”
- Scientists have made capturing carbon just a little easier, thanks to little capsules that soak it up.
- New research suggests that skin cells may act like bacteria, using “quorum sensing” to react to changes, and
- Soon you might be able to get yourself a robot chef, which is great if you don’t like cooking and are rich (so, not me).
I’ll leave you with the latest trailer for Star Wars episode seven, The Force Awakens. I know, the title only sounds a notch above “Attack of the Clones,” but it looks like it might actually be good. Just, someone get that guy an inhaler, he’s making me nervous.