There and Back Again — A Rocket’s Tale

On Monday history was made. Returning to flight after six months on the ground in the wake of the failure of the CRS-7 mission, Elon Musk and SpaceX accomplished something most people in the industry thought was impossible. For the first time ever a rocket stage that delivered a payload to orbit turned around and returned, landing safely on its tail.

To get into orbit your rocket must overcome both gravity and drag. To do that it’s important to understand how the design of a rocket affects its flight, and why landing it again is so hard.

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Small Sat

Putting the Raspberry Pi into Orbit with a 3D Printed Satellite

A few months ago I attended the Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University. This annual gathering has been a mainstay of the small satellite community for almost thirty years. During the pre-conference workshop on cubesats Craig Kief, one of the directors of the COSMIAC research centre at the University of New Mexico, talked about how the Maker Movement and the open hardware we have built was making its way into the traditionally hidebound aerospace industry.

After his talk I sat down with Craig Kief and Brian Zufelt, also from COSMIAC, to talk about their plans not just to fly commercial off-the-shelf boards like the Raspberry Pi into orbit, but to 3D print the satellite that’s going to take it there.

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The coast of northern Scotland taken during last year’s competition.  (Credit: Barry Fraser, Cameron Fraser)

The Global Space Balloon Challenge

During the course of one weekend in April last year 60 different teams, hailing from 18 countries, and 6 continents, flew balloons to the edge of space in the first ever Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC).

The people who built the balloons came from all walks of life—from elementary schools students in the States, to university students in Brazil, and enthusiastic amateurs from places as far flung as Hong Kong and Australia.

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Several tiny CubeSat satellites are shown in this image photographed by an Expedition 33 crew member on the International Space Station on 4 October 2012. The satellites were released outside the Kibo laboratory using a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer attached to the Japanese module's robotic arm. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide, flight engineer, set up the satellite deployment gear inside the laboratory and placed it in the Kibo airlock. The Japanese robotic arm then grappled the deployment system and its satellites from the airlock for deployment. A portion of the station's solar array panels and a blue and white part of the earth provide the backdrop for the scene.

Taking the Cube Quest Challenge

The NASA Centennial Challenges Program is the agency’s flagship program of technology prize competitions—from lunar landers, to astronaut gloves, to airships. Back in 2011 we even partnered with NASA to develop inexpensive science kits for suborbital flights for the MAKE Space Challenge.

Amongst the latest challenge announcements from the agency is the Cube Quest Challenge which offers a total of $5 million to teams that can design, build, and deliver small spacecraft capable of operating near and beyond the moon. The Challenge is designed to encourage development of technology to allow deep space exploration using small spacecraft—like CubeSats.

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PhoneSat 1.0 during a high-altitude balloon test.

Want a Free Trip to Orbit With NASA?

One of the initiatives introduced by President Obama today at the White House Maker Faire is an “announcement of opportunity” from NASA for CubeSat developers—intended to broaden the reach of existing programs to people who have no previous experience building hardware intended for space. The call is aimed directly at the 21 “rookie states” with no CubeSat presence, and will leverage the Space Grant network of colleges and universities.

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Pushing an asteroid in Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program, now with added asteroid!

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a space program simulator game that’s the closest most of us are going to get to running our own space agency. For those of you who haven’t heard of KSP, it’s awesome, addictive and actually pretty accurate — at least the orbital dynamics and other physics, if not the engineering. And it just got better with a new Asteroid Redirect Mission, created in collaboration with NASA.

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"A Dragon by the Tail"

They promised us flying cars

We may be living in the future, but it hasn’t entirely worked out how we were promised. I remember the predictions clearly: the 21st century was supposed to be full of self-driving cars, personal communicators, replicators and private space ships.

Except, of course, all that has come true. Google just got the first license to drive their cars entirely autonomously on public highways. Apple came along with the iPhone and changed everything. Three-dimensional printers have come out of the laboratories and into the home. And in a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible: late last year, SpaceX launched a spacecraft and returned it to Earth safely. Then they launched another, successfully docked it with the International Space Station, and then again returned it to Earth.

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