Stories tagged private space exploration

Dec
20
2011

The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.
The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.Courtesy Stratolaunch Systems
Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.

Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!

And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)

All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.

This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.

(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)

While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.

But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.

And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?

The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)

We've had a number of post about private space travel recently. Here's the story of a private rocket shot off over the weekend that's disappeared just a couple minutes after launch. Where did it go? If it was one of those model rockets I shot off when I was a kid, it would be wedged between some tree branches.

Sep
15
2007

Money for the moon: You can win up to $25 million if you're the first person in the next five years to successfully get a roving craft to the moon and send data back to Earth. Good luck! (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Money for the moon: You can win up to $25 million if you're the first person in the next five years to successfully get a roving craft to the moon and send data back to Earth. Good luck! (Photo courtesy of NASA)
Looking for a good science fair project and wanting to make a little cash on the side at the same time? Then check this out.

The X Prize Foundation in connection with Google has announced it will give $25 million to the first successful entity to land a rover on the moon and send back electronic data back to Earth.

The foundation is the same group that back in 2004 challenged private aerospace efforts to pilot a craft into the threshold of space.

So here’s exactly what you need to do to get $20 million:
• Get your rover to the moon.
• Have it travel at least 500 meters across the moon’s surface.
• Send back high-resolution video, photos or other data.

For an additional $5 million bonus prize, you need to:
• Have the rover cover 5,000 meters of moon surface
• Send back images of man-made artifacts on the moon, such as lunar craft from the Apollo missions.

The full values of the prizes will be available until Dec. 31, 2012, or when some group successfully completes the tasks. Then the reward drops to $15 million for the next couple years.

Full details on the contest are available at www.xprize.org.