Fred LaSor: Two notable space milestones
February 22, 2018
Two bits of news barely caught the public's attention this past week, but both are worthy of note. The first was the SpaceX launch of its "heavy" rocket; the second was the Martian rover still sending photos home.
SpaceX is a private space launch company, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) with the stated aim of "enabling people to live on other planets." Musk has come up with a good selling point here — he wants to capture the space launch business, but wants to do more than merely send payloads to the International Space Station. He dreams of manned missions to other planets, and has promised to be one of the first passenger on a SpaceX mission to Mars. Musk is famous for that kind of visionary thinking. And remember, he's likely talking about a one-way voyage.
An interesting part of last week's heavy launch is it represents a significant change from the early days of space exploration, when the research and development — as well as the funding — was all in government hands. Musk's isn't the only private company to be competing for space launch business: Blue Origin was started by Jeff Bezos (Amazon's founder) and currently planning low earth orbital flights in a year or so. And at least a dozen additional private companies are working on launch vehicles and space craft.
Musk has also pioneered the use of reusable booster engines. The booster lifts the most weight (itself and the payload) so is an expensive part of the rocket. Up until last year boosters were single-use items: they lifted the rocket, then fell into the ocean and sank. Musk has designed and demonstrated a booster that can return and make a soft landing at the space port when they've boosted their load, cutting costs significantly.
It's typical in tests of launch vehicles like last week's SpaceX Heavy to carry concrete ballast that simulates an actual payload. In a quirky move that's typical of Musk, this launch carried as ballast a Tesla roadster painted bright red with a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver's seat. That mannequin is on a trajectory that will take it around the Sun before it returns once again to the neighborhood of Earth and Mars, probably for thousands of years.
The other bit of good space news of the week concerns a NASA mission which landed on Mars in 2004 carrying a roving explorer named Opportunity. Now, 14 years later, the rover continues to roll across the Martian surface and beam back high-resolution photos. The recent news article reported Opportunity had been operating for 5,000 Martian "days," (slightly longer than an Earth day), far longer than the three months of operation it was designed for.
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Opportunity has also broken all distance records for travel on the surface of another celestial body, having moved more than 28 miles since it landed on Mars. It has also returned more than 225,000 images, many of which are still being studied by a variety of scientists to improve our understanding of the makeup of the red planet. Surely Musk will be happy to have all the information he can get when he sets up housekeeping there.
We all benefit from the space program, whether we will be moving to Mars or not, from remote sensing technology to robotics, imaging and other technologies. There's a role for both government and the private sector when it comes to space exploration. After years of allowing America's pioneering role in space travel to languish, we've once again resumed a preeminent role in that effort. That was good news.
Fred LaSor follows space news as an interested amateur.