The SpaceX Grasshopper: The Future of Rocket Technology

SpaceX has created the first reusable rocket. It is ten stories tall and known as the Grasshopper. It is not just in the design stages anymore as it has made several test flights. In the most recent flight it performed a controlled launch up to 820 feet where it hovered and then descended before making a perfect landing in the exact spot where it took off. SpaceX plans to continue increasing the height of the test flights incrementally until the rocket is able to leave the earth’s atmosphere and then return to its launch pad. They are careful to not test the limits of the rocket too soon, as a small accident could cost a lot of time and money to the private company. The ultimate goal with this type of rocket is to use it to ferry humans to and from Mars working to aid colonization on the red planet.

According to the SpaceX, reusable rockets are not only the future of rocket technology, but they are a crucial step if commercial space travel is going to become more affordable. Currently, fuel and oxygen only make up about 0.3% of the overall cost of a rocket. If a rocket could become reusable, the cost of commercial space travel would become 100 times cheaper according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Musk has stated that all other modes of transportation are reusable, so if space travel is to become a viable means of transportation, the most affordable way to do it would be with a reusable rocket.

Other than having landing gear and being reusable, there is nothing particularly different about the general structure of the Grasshopper. Its aerodynamic profile, material makeup, and fuel type are relatively similar to most other rockets of its size.  This is great news because it means that it does not require a new extremely complex rocket design in order for this reusability idea to work. Because of this level of practicality, I imagine that we will see most rocket companies making the transition to reusable designs within our lifetimes.

 

References:

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/09/tech/innovation/elon-musk-sxsw

http://scitechdaily.com/spacex-grasshopper-is-first-reusable-rocket/

 

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The Future of Skydiving? No Parachute. No Atmosphere.

Solar System Express is in the process of designing a suit that will literally take skydiving to a whole new level. The future of skydiving for the ultimate thrill seeker in the future will be skydiving in a space suit, known as the RL MARK VI Space Diving Suit, from outside of earth’s atmosphere!

Yes, you read that correctly. The participant will be launched out of Earth’s atmosphere to altitudes of over 130,000 feet, at which point they will unstrap themselves from the launch rocket and they will “skydive” back to Earth’s surface.

In order to make this possible, Solar System Express had to make the suit from lightweight layers of aerogel and NASA Space Shuttle-like flexible insulation blankets to protect the jumper from the lack of atmosphere, pressure,  and air to breathe at that level of elevation.

And as if skydiving for 130,000 feet was not thrilling enough, the suit will not have a parachute. Instead, the jumper will have miniature aerospike engines on his boots which will allow him to decelerate and then make an incredible two-footed landing (think Iron Man). Gyroscopic boots will kick in at lower elevation to ensure a level and controlled descent using the aerospike engines. Testing for this landing technique will take place in 2016.

Also like Iron Man, the RL MARK VI Space Diving Suit will have an interactive screen in the helmet. The technology of this is much like that of Google glass: projected information in the wearer’s field of view. Info like fuel levels, altitude, speed, acceleration, heart rate, and internal temperature of the suit will all be displayed using “optical see-through” technology rather than real time video.

Another creative feature of the suit will be a “high intensity LED chest piece” powered by energy-storing super capacitors and equipped with miniature stereo cameras. This will collect much of the data about the jump and will allow for the recreation of the jump in a 3D computer simulation!

So I think that this suit concept clearly is in competition with my previous post about Yves Rossy’s jet propelled wing in terms of today’s version of an Iron Man suit. It amazes me that we have the technology to even consider strapping rockets to an untrained person’s feet. This shows the designers trust in the ability of the gyroscopic boots to stabilize a person in free-fall and allow them to land on Earth on both feet without the use of a parachute.  If this becomes even remotely affordable, skydiving from outer space will definitely be the next addition to my bucket list. 

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The Passenger Plane of 2050: The EADS Hypersonic Jet

About two years ago the European company EADS showcased their idea for a hypersonic passenger jet at the Paris Le Bourget air show. At this point the aircraft is still purely a concept with blueprints as EADS has said it will probably be another 40 years until commercial flights take place. Nevertheless, the designs planned for this airplane are unlike any passenger plane the world has ever seen.

First of all, it would fly at over 3,000 mph. At about Mach 4, that is faster than some military jets, and at this speed, it would be able to fly from London to Tokyo in 2 hours, cutting about 9 hours off of the flight time. It will be able to do this because of its three different types of engines. For takeoff it has a set of regular jet engines. This is to prevent the loud sonic boom near ground level upon surpassing the speed of sound (this was one of the problems that bothered people about the Concord design. Once the plane reaches a sufficient altitude, the pilot engages the rocket engines which propel the aircraft much faster and closer to the edge of our atmosphere. At that point, the final engines, known as ramjets would kick in. These engines are extremely powerful and are typically used in missiles for speeds over 1,000 mph. Also, all of these engines will be powered using hydrogen and oxygen biofuels resulting in the only emissions being water.

In order to get up to that high of speeds, the aircraft will be flying at an altitude of more than 100,000 ft (still within the earth’s atmosphere). This is 70,000 feet higher than the altitude a typical Boeing 747 passenger plane flies at!

One of the problems with this design however, is that it will only hold about 100 passengers maximum which will make it difficult for the airlines to make money from using this plane. That is not going to stop EADS from designing the plane however, because they believe that by the middle of the century, these types of planes will be the only large passenger aircraft in use.

Honestly, all of this technology is just so incredibly innovative to me. It makes me proud that there are companies who want to pursue these innovative and revolutionary aircraft designs even though there is a significant level of financial risk involved.

 

References:

 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2005513/London-Tokyo-2-hours-Blueprints-3-000mph-hypersonic-plane-unveiled.html

http://www.aerospace-technology.com/news/news122551.html

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The Boeing 787 Dreamliner: The Most Innovative Commercial Passenger Plane in Existence

Boeing has designed this aircraft in a number of creative ways that were intended to make flying a much more enjoyable experience. Unfortunately the plane has undergone many problems with various components of its design, especially the battery, which is most likely due to the sheer number of new features in this plane that have not been fully tested. While the plane itself may not be a perfect example of successful innovation in aerospace, many of the technologies incorporated on the plane are very impressive and worth discussing.

For starters, the Dreamliner is 60% less noisy than other planes of similar size. This is mostly due to the materials used in the cabin and on the exterior as well. The fuselage is made of lightweight composite materials including a carbon fiber and epoxy composite that make the plane very fuel efficient. The design is so fuel efficient in fact that it would have been the first midsize plane to be able to fly long distance trips.

The design is also very space efficient as seen by its 30% larger overhead storage area and window size compared to similar size planes. The windows also no longer have the plastic shade. Boeing came up with a creative idea here that suits this decade much better than a simple shade. Each window has a button that allows for the adjustment of transparency of the window using an electrochromic dimming system. This works by applying a burst of electricity to reduce the transparency in the special type of glass that the window is made of. So basically each window seat passenger gets to control the brightness of their window using a button instead of a shade.

Another aspect of the Dreamliner that Boeing is particularly proud of is the LED mood lighting installed in the cabin. The lights are programmed to glow certain colors at particular times such as an orange light during meal time and a soft lavender glow when passengers need to relax. Many studies have been done on testing the effects of color on our moods and I think this is quite an interesting use of that information.

Probably the feature that was getting the Dreamliner the most media attention is the fact that it runs on a biofuel blend of mostly used cooking oil. Combined with the technological innovations, this fuel would have resulted in the plane emitting a total of 30% less greenhouse gasses than other planes of the same size.

The concept that I find the most innovative and impressive about this design is its turbulence reducing system. The engineers on this project came up with algorithms that work in combination with sensors and accelerometers on the plane in order to predict a big turbulence bump and change the wing control surfaces in minor ways in order to mitigate the effects of the turbulence.

I honestly have no idea what other applications this technology can have, aside from possibly increased stability control on other aircraft. I am simply fascinated that we have technology so advanced that we can design a system to target and counteract forces as random as turbulence. Overall there are many technological innovations in this plane that I believe have the potential to become much more popular in the future designs of commercial aircraft.

Reference:

CNNGo Staff. “787 Dreamliner Takes Flight” CNN Travel. Web. October, 2011. <http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/whats-so-special-about-Boeing-dreamliner-766616>

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Lockheed Unmanned Military Helicopter is Huge Success

Charles Kaman invented the K-Max in the 1940’s. It was a new type of helicopter called a synchropter that had two main rotors that spun in opposite directions in order to provide more lift and get rid of the need for a tail rotor. It was mainly used in the logging industry.

Today, missions to get food and supplies to our soldiers in Afghanistan have become increasingly more dangerous due to roadside bombs which have been the cause of over half of our soldier’s deaths since 2008. The Navy and Marine Corps looked into this and ultimately decided to have a competition where they allowed certain companies to design an unmanned aerial cargo transport vehicle for military purposes. Naturally with today’s technology the Navy wanted an unmanned aerial system, not only for safety reasons, but also to allow it to carry more cargo because of the absence of onboard human weight. Lockheed Martin took the K-Max synchropter and redesigned it to fit the Navy’s needs. Over the past year and a half or so it has successfully flown over 1000 missions and delivered over 3 million pounds of cargo to our troops.

The technology in this helicopter is so advanced that it does not even need a person to fly it through remote controls, although that is an option. In fact, the K-Max can be programmed to fly to specific destinations and it carries out its route using GPS along with onboard altitude and orientation sensors. It can fly at 115 mph for up to 250 miles, and it can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo which is a much heavier load than previous cargo helicopters. It also is very good at hovering in place which is an ideal skill when lowering cargo to the ground. This technology here is clearly the future of cargo transport in warzones and also in unmanned aerial vehicle systems in general.

What impresses me the most about this innovative helicopter is that it does not need a pilot at all. Most unmanned aerial systems have a pilot that controls the aircraft by remote control from a base somewhere while looking at the live video feeds from the aircraft. GPS and other orientation technologies have become so advanced that we can now program large aircraft to fly wherever we want them to at the touch of a button, eliminating the need for a pilot altogether. This makes me think about how long it will be before an airline develops a passenger plane that’s flight is entirely determined by complex computer programming as opposed to a human pilot. I realize that this idea will scare many people because of the natural tendency to trust fellow humans over machines, but I do not it will be too long before we see the first passenger plane that has implemented technology similar to the unmanned K-Max.

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Yves Rossy: The Closest Person to a Real Life Iron Man

In 2006 Yves Rossy became the first person to fly with a jet propelled wing. Yes, you read that correctly: a kerosene powered, jet turbine propelled, six foot wide wing that is strapped to one person’s back. To this day he is the only person who has done this.

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Source: http://www.jetman.com/?page_id=869

Yves knew since he was a child that he loved flying and he wanted to become a pilot. He eventually accomplished this dream by becoming a pilot in the military. He loved flying so much however that he decided to experiment with many more natural forms of it including skydiving and wing-suit diving. This was not enough however. He wanted to do more flying and less falling so he invented his first wing which was a rigid harness with inflatable panels for wings that allowed him to “fall forward”. This led him to come up with the idea for a powered wing, similar to a jet pack.

From that idea, his first engine powered wing was born in 2005. It had two turbines and did not have enough power to propel him upwards, but enough to maintain level flight. Now he has a much more advanced wing powered by four turbines that allow him to do complicated aerial maneuvers and fly for 10-13 minutes at an average speed of 125 mph. After he has flown for about 8 minutes he pulls the cord that opens his parachute and he calmly glides back down to earth.

The fascinating thing about this design that distinguishes it from a miniature airplane is that the wing is strapped straight to Rossy’s back, and it has no control surfaces whatsoever. The pitch, yaw, and roll are entirely controlled by Rossy’s body movements and a throttle control that he holds in his hand. This type of control is very similar to wing suit diving and skydiving, and he plans to keep his future designs controlled in this same manner.

His current wing does not have enough power or control to take off from the ground so Rossy has to fly up in an airplane and from there he jumps out and starts his wings engines. There are rumors that he is developing the next generation wing that will allow him to fly from base jumping off of cliffs instead of having to fly up to a high altitude in an airplane. Already he has been able to do some incredible stunts including flying over the Grand Canyon and even flying in formation with other planes.

There are not many words that can describe my excitement about this technology. It is essentially the beginning of individual Iron Man flight suits and I seriously hope that I will live to see the day where I can buy one of these for myself.

 

Jet Wing vs Iron Man Capabilities

Not Yet

 

YES

Rocket launcher

X

 

 

Helmet with integrated humanoid robot analyst

X

 

 

Incredible user controlled flight capabilities

 

 

X

 Source: Author

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The Solar Impulse: The World’s Most Advanced Solar Powered Plane

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The Solar Impulse is currently the most advanced plane in existence that runs entirely on solar power. In 2010 the Solar Impulse made headlines when it completed the first ever solar powered night flight, flying 26 hours non-stop. In 2012 it flew from Europe to Africa which was the first intercontinental solar powered flight. In 2015 the founders are planning to make the first solar powered coast to coast flight which will start in San Francisco and end in New York.

The plane has a massive wingspan of over 208 feet, weighs less than a car, and has a cockpit just big enough for the pilot with no passengers. Most of the wing area is covered in photovoltaic cells (solar panels) that power the plane in daylight while also sending power to be stored in the plane’s battery which is what allows the plane to fly at night. One of the things that amazes me about the Solar Impulse it that the solar panels only generate enough power to give the plane about 8 HP. This is about the amount of power the Wright brothers were working with when they made their first powered flight! It is practically nothing and as a result the plane has a top speed of just 43 mph with a maximum bank angle of 10 degrees. It is also vulnerable to bad weather and it cannot fly through clouds so, overall it is quite fragile. The creators of the Solar Impulse have stated that the technology employed in their plane would not come close to replacing jet fuel powered commercial airplanes. To power a commercial airliner it would take two solar panels roughly the size of football fields which would obviously not be feasible at all.

It is clear that this plane is more of a demonstration of the potential of solar power in the future and also the movement towards using environmentally conscious forms of energy as much as possible. So while this may not be a very practical design for today’s airplanes, it is still very much a feat of remarkable engineering and it gives me the feeling that I am getting a glimpse into the future of one area of the aerospace industry. The creators of the Solar Impulse are already working on the next generation solar powered plane which will supposedly be able to complete the first solar powered flight around the world. After that, who knows where this technology will take us. I imagine that someday we might be able to use solar power to travel to outer space.

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