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50th Anniversary of the First Manned Moon Landing, a Very Long Time Since the Last Manned Moon Landing

On July 16th, 1969, 13:32:00 UTC, the Saturn V launch vehicle, SA-506, lifted off from Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on the Apollo 11 mission with astronauts Neil Armstrong (Mission commander), Michael Collins (Command Module pilot) and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin (Lunar Module pilot).

L to R:  Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Buzz Aldrin.  
Source: NASA
Apollo 11 insignia: Eagle with wings outstretched holding 
an olive branch above the Moon with Earth in the background. Source: NASA via Wikipedia

The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three modules: 

  • The three-person Command Module (CM), named Columbia, was the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of the lunar landing mission.
  • The Service Module (SM) contained the propulsion system, electrical fuel cells, consumables storage tanks (oxygen, hydrogen) and various service / support systems. 
  • The two-person, two-stage Lunar Module (LM), named Eagle, would make the Moon landing with two astronauts and return them to the CM.  

The LM’s descent stage (bottom part of the LM with the landing legs) remained on the lunar surface and served as the launch pad for the ascent stage (upper part of the LM with the crew compartment).  Only the 4.9 ton CM was designed to withstand Earth reentry conditions and return the astronauts safely to Earth.

General configuration of the Apollo spacecraft.  The “CSM” is the combined Command Module and Service Module.  Source:  NASA

From its initial low Earth parking orbit, Apollo 11 flew a direct trans-lunar trajectory to the Moon, inserting into lunar orbit about 76 hours after liftoff.  The Apollo 11 mission profile to and from the Moon is shown in the following diagram, and is described in detail here: https://www.mpoweruk.com/Apollo_Moon_Shot.htm

Source:  NASA

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle LM in the Sea of Tranquility on 20 July 1969, at 20:17 UTC (about 103 hours elapsed time since launch), while Michael Collins remained in a near-circular lunar orbit aboard the CSM.  Neil Armstrong characterized the lunar surface at the Tranquility Base landing site with the observation, “it has a stark beauty all its own.”

In the two and a half hours they spent on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 21.55 kg (47.51 lb) of rock samples, took photographs and set up the Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR), which would be left behind on the Moon. The PSEP provided the first lunar seismic data, returning data for three weeks after the astronauts left, and the LRRR allows precise distance measurements to be collected to this day.  Neil Armstrong made an unscheduled jaunt to Little West crater, about 50 m (164 feet) east of the LM, and provided the first view into a lunar crater.

Apollo 11 PSEP in the foreground with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the LRRR behind it, then the Eagle LM, the American flag, and the TV camera on the left horizon
beyond the American flag.  Source: NASA
Neil Armstrong’s photo showing the Eagle LM from Little West crater
(33 meters in diameter). Source: NASA
Apollo 11 landing site captured from 24 km (15 miles) above the surface
by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
Source: adapted from NASA Goddard/Arizona State University
Apollo 11 “traverse” map.  
Source: NASA via Smithsonian https://airandspace.si.edu/

Armstrong and Aldrin departed the Moon on 21 July 1969 at 17:54 UTC in the ascent stage of the Eagle LM and then rendezvoused and docked with Collins in the CSM about 3-1/2 hours later. 

LM Eagle ascent stage with Armstrong and Aldrin approaching the CSM Columbia piloted by Collins.  Source: NASA

After discarding the ascent stage, the CSM main engine was fired and Apollo 11 left lunar orbit on 22 July 1969 at 04:55:42 UTC and began its trans-Earth trajectory.  As the Apollo spacecraft approached Earth, the SM was jettisoned. 

The CM reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the North Pacific on 24 July 1969 at 16:50:35 UTC.  The astronauts and the Apollo 11 spacecraft were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  President Nixon personally visited and congratulated the astronauts while they were still in quarantine aboard the USS Hornet.  You can watch a video of this meeting here:

Mankind’s first lunar landing mission was a great success.

Postscript to the first Moon landing

A month after returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronauts were given a ticker tape parade in New York City, then termed as the largest such parade in the city’s history.

New York City ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts.  
Source: NASA / Bill Taub

There were a total of six Apollo lunar landings (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17), with the last mission, Apollo 17, returning to Earth on 19 December 1972.  Their landing sites are shown in the following graphic.

The Apollo landing sites.  Source: NASA

In the past 46+ years since Apollo 17, there have been no manned missions to the Moon by the U.S. or any other nation.

You’ll find extensive Apollo historical resources on the NASA website starting from the following link to the Apollo program webpage: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/index.html

Along with astronaut John Glenn, the first American to fly in Earth orbit, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were awarded the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on 16 November 2011. This is the Congress’ highest civilian award and expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.

Neil Armstrong died on 25 August 2012 at the age of 82.

The Apollo 11 command module Columbia was physically transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1971 and has been on display for decades at the National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington D.C.  For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Columbia will be on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, as the star of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.”  You can get a look at this exhibit at the following link:  http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-041319a-destination-moon-seattle-apollo.html

The Apollo 11 command module Columbia at 
The Museum of Flight in Seattle. Source: collectSPACE

After years of changing priorities under the Bush and Obama administrations, NASA’s current vision for the next U.S. manned lunar landing mission is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of hunting and twin sister of Apollo.  NASA currently is developing the following spaceflight systems for the Artemis mission:

  • The Space Launch System (SLS) heavy launch vehicle.
  • A manned “Gateway” station that will be placed in lunar orbit, where it will serve as a transportation node for lunar landing vehicles and manned spacecraft for deep space missions.
  • The Orion multi-purpose manned spacecraft, which will deliver astronauts from Earth to the Gateway, and also can be configured for deep space missions.
  • Lunar landing vehicles, which will shuttle between the Gateway and destinations on the lunar surface.
The Orion spacecraft is functionally comparable to the Apollo command and
service modules.  Source:  NASA

While NASA has a tentative goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024, the development schedules for the necessary Artemis systems may not be able to meet this ambitious schedule.  The landing site for the Artemis mission will be in the Moon’s south polar region. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has stated that Artemis will deliver the first woman to the Moon.

NASA reported the Artemis moon program status in May 2019 at the following link: https://www.nasa.gov/artemis-moon-program-advances

Additional reading on Project Apollo and the first Moon landing mission:

  • Roger D. Launis, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” Smithsonian Books, 14 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1588346490
  • Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Edwin Aldrin, “First on the Moon,” William Konecky Assoc., 15 October 2002, ISBN-13: 978-1568523989
  • Michael Collins, “Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); 3 edition, 28 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374312022
  • Michael Collins, “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys: 50th Anniversary Edition Anniversary Edition,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 16 April 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374537760
  • Edwin Aldrin, “Return to Earth,” Random House; 1st edition, 1973, ISBN-13: 978-0394488325

India Poised to Become the 4th Nation to Land a Spacecraft on the Moon

After the failure of Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft to execute a soft landing on the Moon in April 2019, India is the next new contender for lunar soft landing honors with their Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft.  We’ll take a look at the Chandrayaan-2 mission in this post.

If you’re not familiar with the Israel’s Beresheet lunar mission, see my 4 April 2019 post at the following link:  https://lynceans.org/all-posts/israel-is-poised-to-become-the-4th-nation-to-land-a-spacecraft-on-the-moon/

1. Background:  India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon

India’s first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1, was a mapping mission designed to operate in a circular (selenocentric) polar orbit at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi).  The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which had an initial mass of 1,380 kg (3,040 lb), consisted of two modules, an orbiter and a Moon Impact Probe (MIP). Chandrayaan-1 carried 11 scientific instruments for chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon.  The spacecraft was built in India by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and included instruments from the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria.  

Chandrayaan-1 was launched on 22 October 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) in Sriharikota on an “extended” version of the indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle designated PSLV-XL. Initially, the spacecraft was placed into a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and was sent to the Moon in a series of orbit-increasing maneuvers around the Earth over a period of 21 days.  A lunar transfer maneuver enabled the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to be captured by lunar gravity and then maneuvered to the intended lunar mapping orbit.   This is similar to the five-week orbital transfer process used by Israel’s Bersheet lunar spacecraft to move from an initial GTO to a lunar circular orbit.

The goal of MIP was to make detailed measurements during descent using three instruments: a radar altimeter, a visible imaging camera, and a mass spectrometer known as Chandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer (CHACE), which directly sampled the Moon’s tenuous gaseous atmosphere throughout the descent.  On 14 November 2008, the 34 kg (75 lb) MIP separated from the orbiter and descended for 25 minutes while transmitting data back to the orbiter.  MIP’s mission ended with the expected hard landing in the South Pole region near Shackelton crater at 85 degrees south latitude.

In May 2009, controllers raised the orbit to 200 km (124 miles) and the orbiter mission continued until 28 August 2009, when communications with Earth ground stations were lost.  The spacecraft was “found” in 2017 by NASA ground-based radar, still in its 200 km orbit.

Numerous reports have been published describing the detection by the Chandrayaan-1 mission of water in the top layers of the lunar regolith.  The data from CHACE produced a lunar atmosphere profile from orbit down to the surface, and may have detected trace quantities of water in the atmosphere.  You’ll find more information on the Chandrayaan-1 mission at the following links:

2. India’s upcoming Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon

Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to be launched on 15 July 2019. After achieving a 100 km (62 mile) circular polar orbit around the Moon, a lander module will separate from the orbiting spacecraft and descend to the lunar surface for a soft landing, which currently is expected to occur in the first week of September 2019.  The target landing area is in the Moon’s southern polar region, where no lunar lander has operated before.  A small rover vehicle will be deployed from the lander to conduct a 14-day mission on the lunar surface.  The orbiting spacecraft is designed to conduct a one-year mapping mission.

Artist’s illustration of India’s lunar lander and the small rover vehicle
on the surface of the moon. Source: ISRO

The launch vehicle

India will launch Chandrayaan-2 using the medium-lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III) developed and manufactured by ISRO.  As its name implies, GSLV Mk III was developed primarily to launch communication satellites into geostationary orbit.  Variants of this launch vehicle also are used for science missions and a human-rated version is being developed to serve as the launch vehicle for the Indian Human Spaceflight Program.

The GSLV III launch vehicle will place the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into an elliptical parking orbit (EPO) from which the spacecraft will execute orbital transfer maneuvers comparable to those successfully executed by Chandrayaan-1 on its way to lunar orbit in 2008.  The Chandrayaan-2 mission profile is shown in the following graphic. You’ll find more information on the GSLV Mk III on the ISRO website at the following link:  https://www.isro.gov.in/launchers/gslv-mk-iii

Source:  ISRO
GSLV Mk III D2 on the launch pad at SDSC for the launch of the GSAT-29 communications satellite
in 2018. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
GSLV Mk III D1 lifting off from the SDSC with the GSAT-19 communications satellite
in 2017. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
Transporting the partially integrated GSLV MkIII M1 launch vehicle
 for the Chandrayaan-2 mission on the Mobile Launch Pedestal.  
Source: ISRO

The spacecraft

Chandrayaan-2 builds on the design and operating experience from the previous Chandrayaan-1 mission.  The new spacecraft developed by ISRO has an initial mass of 3,877 kg (8,547 lb).  It consists of three modules: an Orbiter Craft (OC) module, the Vikram Lander Craft (LC) module, and the small Pragyan rover vehicle, which is carried by the LC.  The three modules are shown in the following diagram.

Three spacecraft modules (not to scale).  Source: ISRO

Chandrayaan-2 carries 13 Indian payloads — eight on the orbiter, three on the lander and two on the rover. In addition, the lander carries a passive Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) provided by NASA. 

The OC and the LC are stacked together within the payload fairing of the launch vehicle and remain stacked until the LC separates in lunar orbit and starts its descent to the lunar surface.

Orbiter (bottom) & lander (top) in stacked configuration.  Source: ISRO

The solar-powered orbiter is designed for a one-year mission to map lunar surface characteristics (chemical, mineralogical, topographical), probe the lunar surface for water ice, and map the lunar exosphere using the CHACE-2 mass spectrometer.  The orbiter also will relay communication between Earth and Vikram lander.

The orbiter.  Source: ISRO

The solar-powered Vikram lander weighs 1,471 kg (3,243 lb).  The scientific instruments on the lander will measure lunar seismicity, measure thermal properties of the lunar regolith in the polar region, and measure near-surface plasma density and its changes with time. 

The Vikram lander with the Pragyan rover on the ramp. Source: ISRO

The 27 kg (59.5 lb) six-wheeled Pragyan rover, whose name means “wisdom” in Sanskrit, is solar-powered and capable of traveling up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the lunar surface. The rover can communicate only with the Vikram lander.  It is designed for a 14-day mission on the lunar surface.  It is equipped with cameras and two spectroscopes to study the elemental composition of lunar soil.

Rover details.  Source: ISRO

You’ll find more information on the spacecraft in the 2018 article by V. Sundararajan, “Overview and Technical Architecture of India’s Chandrayaan-2 Mission to the Moon,” at the following link:

http://epizodsspace.airbase.ru/bibl/inostr-yazyki/Chandrayaan-2.pdf

Also see the ISRO webpage for the GSLV-Mk III – M1 / Chandrayaan-2 mission at the following link:

https://www.isro.gov.in/launcher/gslv-mk-iii-m1-chandrayaan-2-mission

Best wishes to the Chandrayaan-2 mission team for a successful soft lunar landing and long-term lunar mapping mission.

Riding the Phantom Zephyr

1.  Background

When charged molecules in the air are subjected to an electric field, they are accelerated. When these charged molecules collide with neutral ones, they transfer part of their momentum, leading to air movement known as an “ionic wind.”  This basic process is shown in the following diagram, which depicts a strong electric field between a discharge electrode (left) and a ground electrode (right), and the motion of negative ions toward the ground electrode where they are collected.  The neutral molecules pass through the ground electrode and generate the thrust called the ionic wind.

This post summarizes work that has been done to develop ionic wind propulsion systems for aircraft.  The particular projects summarized are the following:

  • Major Alexander de Seversky’s Ionocraft vertical lifter (1964)
  • The Festo b-IONIC Airfish airship (2005)
  • NASA ionic wind study (2009)
  • The MIT electroaerodynamic (EAD) heaver-than-air, fixed wing aircraft (2018)

2.  Scale model of ion-propelled Ionocraft vertical takeoff lifter flew in 1964

Major Alexander de Seversky developed the design concept for a novel aircraft concept called the “Ionocraft,” which was capable of hovering or moving in any direction at high altitudes by means of ionic discharge. His design for the Ionocraft is described in US Patent 3,130,945, “Ionocraft,” dated 28 April 1964.  You can read this patent here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US3130945A/en

The operating principle of de Seversky’s Ionocraft propulsion system is depicted in the following graphic.

Ion propulsion scheme implemented in the de Seversky Ionocraft. 
Source: Popular Mechanics, August 1964

In 1964, de Seversky built a two-ounce (57 gram) Ionocraft scale model and demonstrated its ability to fly while powered from an external 90 watt power conversion system (30,000 volts at 3 mA), significantly higher that conventional aircraft and helicopters.  This translated into a power-to-weight ratio of about 0.96 hp/pound.  You can watch a short 1964 video of a scale model Ionocraft test flight here: 

Screenshot showing Ionocraft scale model in flight
Screenshot showing ionic wind downdraft under an Ionocraft scale model in flight

De Seversky’s Ionocraft and its test program are described in an article in the August 1964 Popular Mechanics magazine, which is available at the following link:  https://books.google.com/books?id=ROMDAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Alexander de Seversky’s one-man Ionocraft concept.
Source: Popular Mechanics Archive, August 1964
Alexander de Seversky’s Ionocraft commuter concept.
Source: Popular Mechanics Archive, August 1964
1960s Soviet concept for a passenger carrying Ionocraft.
The Museum of Unnatural Mystery, http://www.unmuseum.org/

In the 1960s, engineers found that Ionocraft technology did not scale up well and they were unable to build a vehicle that could generate enough lift to carry the equipment needed to produce the electricity needed to drive it.

3.  The first free-flying ion-propelled aircraft flew in 2005: the Festo b-IONIC Airfish

The Festo b-IONIC Airfish airship was developed at the Technical University of Berlinwith guidance of the firm Festo AG & Co. KG.  This small, non-rigid airship is notable because, in 2005, it became the first aircraft to fly with a solid state propulsion system.  The neutrally-buoyant Airfish only flew indoors, in a controlled environment, at a very slow speed, but it flew.

Airfish. Source:  Festo AG & Co. KG

Some of the technical characteristics of the Airfish are listed below:

  • Length:  7.5 meters (24.6 ft)
  • Span: 3.0 meters (9.8 ft)
  • Shell diameter: 1.83 meters (6 ft)
  • Helium volume:  9.0 m3(318 ft3)
  • Total weight:  9.04 kg (19.9 lb)
  • Power source in tail: 12 x 1,500 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (18 Ah total)
  • Power source per wing (two wings): 9 x 3,200 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (28.8 Ah total)
  • High voltage: 20,000 to 30,000 volts
  • Buoyancy:  9.0 – 9.3 kg (19.8 – 20.5 lb)
  • Total thrust:  8 – 10 grams (0.018 – 0.022 pounds) 
  • Maximum velocity: 0.7 meters/sec (2.5 kph; 1.6 mph)

The b-IONIC Airfish employed two solid state propulsion systems, an electrostatic ionic jet and a plasma ray, which Festo describes as follows:

  • Electrostatic ionic jet:  “At the tail end Airfish uses the classic principle of an electrostatic ionic jet propulsion engine. High-voltage DC-fields (20-30 kV) along thin copper wires tear electrons away from air molecules. The positive ions thus created are then accelerated towards the negatively charged counter electrodes (ring-shaped aluminum foils) at high speeds (300-400 m/s), pulling along additional neutral air molecules. This creates an effective ion stream with speeds of up to 10 m/s.”
  • Plasma-ray:  “The side wings of Airfish are equipped with a new bionic plasma-ray propulsion system, which mimics the wing based stroke principle used by birds, such as penguins, without actually applying movable mechanical parts. As is the case with the natural role model, the plasma-ray system accelerates air in a wavelike pattern while it is moving across the wings.”
Airfish.  Source: Festo AG & Co. KG
Airfish.  Source: Festo AG & Co

The Festo b-IONIC Airfish demonstrated that a solid state propulsion system was possible.  The tests also demonstrated that the solid state propulsion systems also reduced drag, raising the intriguing possibility that it may be possible to significantly reduce drag if an entire vessel could be enclosed in a ionized plasma bubble.You’ll find more information on the Festo b-IONIC Airfish, its solid state propulsion system and implications for drag reduction in the the Festo brochure here: https://www.festo.com/net/SupportPortal/Files/344798/b_IONIC_Airfish_en.pdf

You can watch a 2005 short video on the Festo b-IONIC Airfish flight here:

4.  NASA ionic wind study – 2009

A corona discharge device generates an ionic wind, and thrust, when a high voltage corona discharge is struck between sharply pointed electrodes and larger radius ground electrodes.

In 2009, National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) researchers Jack Wilson, Hugh Perkins and William Thompson conducted a study to examine whether the thrust of corona discharge systems could be scaled to values of interest for aircraft propulsion.  Their results are reported in report NASA/TM-2009-215822, which you’ll find at the following link: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20100000021.pdf

Key points of the study included:

  • Different types of high voltage electrodes were tried, including wires, knife-edges, and arrays of pins. A pin array was found to be optimum. 
  • Parametric experiments, and theory, showed that the thrust per unit power could be raised from early values of 5 N/kW to values approaching 50 N/kW, but only by lowering the thrust produced, and raising the voltage applied. 
  • In addition to using DC voltage, pulsed excitation, with and without a DC bias, was examined. The results were inconclusive as to whether this was advantageous. 
  • It was concluded that the use of a corona discharge for aircraft propulsion did not seem very practical.”

5.  The first heavier-than-air, fixed-wing, ion-propelled aircraft flew in 2018

On 21 November 2018, MIT researchers reported successfully flying the world’s first heavier-than-air, fixed-wing, ion-propelled (electroaerodynamic, EAD) aircraft.  You can read the paper by Haofeng Xu, et al., “Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion,” on the Nature website here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0707-9

The design of the MIT EAD aircraft is shown below:

a, Computer-generated rendering of the EAD airplane. 
b, Photograph of actual EAD airplane (after multiple flight trials).

Some of the technical characteristics of this MIT aircraft are listed below:

  • Wingspan: 4.9 meters (16 ft)
  • Total weight: 2.45 kg (5.4 lb)
  • Power source: powered by 54 x 3.7 volt 150 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (8.1 Ah total)
  • High voltage: 40,000 volts (+ 20,000 volts / – 20,000 volts)
  • Total thrust: 3.2 N, 326 grams (0.718 pounds) 
  • Maximum velocity: 4.8 meters/sec (17.3 kph; 10.7 mph)

In their paper, the MIT researchers reported:

  • “We performed ten flights with the full-scale experimental aircraft at the MIT Johnson Indoor Track…. Owing to the limited length of the indoor space (60 m), we used a bungeed launch system to accelerate the aircraft from stationary to a steady flight velocity of 5 meters/sec within 5 meters, and performed free flight in the remaining 55 meters of flight space. We also performed ten unpowered glides with the thrusters turned off, in which the airplane flew for less than 10 meters. We used cameras and a computer vision algorithm to track the aircraft position and determine the flight trajectory.”
  • “All flights gained height over the 8–9 second segment of steady flight, which covered a distance of 40–45 meters…. The average physical height gain of all flights was 0.47 meters…. However, for some of the flights, the aircraft velocity decreased during the flight. An adjustment for this loss of kinetic energy…. results in an energy equivalent height gain, which is the height gain that would have been achieved had the velocity remained constant. This was positive for seven of the ten flights, showing that better than steady-level flight had been achieved in those cases.”
  • “In this proof of concept for this method of propulsion, the realized thrust-to-power ratio was 5 N/kW1, which is of the order of conventional airplane propulsion methods such as the jet engine.”  Overall efficiency was estimated to be 2.56%.

The propulsion principles of the MIT EAD aircraft are explained in relation to the following diagram in the November 2018 article by Franck Plouraboué, “Flying With Ionic Wind,” which you can read on the Nature website at the following link:  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07411-z

The following diagram and explanatory text are reproduced from that article.

  • In Figure a, above: …an electric field (not shown) is applied to the region surrounding a fine wire called the emitter (shown in cross-section). The field induces electron cascades, whereby free electrons collide with air molecules (not shown in the cascades) and consequently free up more electrons. This process produces charged air molecules in the vicinity of the emitter — a corona discharge. Depending on the electric field, negatively or positively charged molecules drift away (red arrows) from the emitter. These molecules collide with neutral air molecules, generating an ionic wind (black arrows). 
  • In Figure b, above: The aircraft uses a series of emitters and devices called collectors, the longitudinal directions of which are perpendicular to the ionic wind. The flow of charged air molecules occurs mainly along the directions (red arrows) joining emitters and collectors. Consequently, the ionic wind is accelerated (black arrows) predominantly in these regions. 

You can view a short video of the MIT EAD aircraft test flights here:  

6.  The future of ionic propulsion for aerospace applications.

If it can be successfully developed to much larger scales, ionic propulsion offers the potential for aircraft to fly in the atmosphere on a variety of practical missions using only ionized air for propulsion.  Using other ionized fluid media, ionic propulsion could develop into a means to fly directly from the surface of the earth into the vacuum of space and then operate in that environment.In 2006, the Technical University of Berlin’s Airfish project manager, Berkant Göksel, founded the firm Electrofluidsystems Ltd., which in 2012 was rebranded as IB Göksel Electrofluidsystems.  This firm presently is developing a new third generation of plasma-driven airships with highly reduced ozone and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, magneto-plasma actuators for plasma flow control, and the company’s own blended wing type flying wing products.  You’ll find their website here:  https://www.electrofluidsystems.com

Source: Electrofluidsystems TU Berlin
Advanced plasma-driven aircraft concept. Source:  Electrofluidsystems TU Berlin

MIT researchers are developing designs for high-performance aircraft using ionic propulsion.  Theoretically, efficiency improves with speed, with an efficiency of 50% possible at a speed of about 1,000 kph (621 mph).  You can watch a short video on MIT work to develop a Star Trek-like ion drive aircraft here:  

7.  More reading on electrodynamic propulsion for aircraft

General

MIT electroaerodynamic aircraft

Ionocraft lifters

Declassified Military Satellite Imagery has Applications in a Wide Variety of Civilian Geospatial Studies

1. Overview of US military optical reconnaissance satellite programs

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is responsible for developing and operating space reconnaissance systems and conducting intelligence-related activities for US national security.  NRO developed several generations of classified Keyhole (KH) military optical reconnaissance satellites that have been the primary sources of Earth imagery for the US Department of Defense (DoD) and intelligence agencies.  NRO’s website is here:

https://www.nro.gov

NRO’s early generations of Keyhole satellites were placed in low Earth orbits, acquired the desired photographic images on film during relatively short-duration missions, and then returned the film to Earth in small reentry capsules for airborne recovery. After recovery, the film was processed and analyzed.  The first US military optical reconnaissance satellite program, code named CORONA, pioneered the development and refinement of the technologies, equipment and systems needed to deploy an operational orbital optical reconnaissance capability. The first successful CORONA film recovery occurred on 19 August 1960.

Specially modified US Air Force C-119J aircraft recovers a
CORONA film canister in flight.  Source: US Air Force
First reconnaissance picture taken in orbit and successfully recovered on Earth;  taken on 18 August 1960 by a CORONA KH-1 satellite dubbed Discoverer 14.  Image shows the Mys Shmidta airfield in the Chukotka region of the Russian Arctic, with a resolution of about 40 feet (12.2 meters).  Source: Wikipedia

Keyhole satellites are identified by a code word and a “KH” designator, as summarized in the following table.

In 1976, NRO deployed its first electronic imaging optical reconnaissance satellite known as KENNEN KH-11 (renamed CRYSTAL in 1982), which eventually replaced the KH-9, and brought an end to reconnaissance satellite missions requiring film return.  The KH-11 flies long-duration missions and returns its digital images in near real time to ground stations for processing and analysis.  The KH-11, or an advanced version sometimes referred to as the KH-12, is operational today.

US film-return reconnaissance satellites from KH-1 to KH-9 shown to scale
with the KH-11 electronic imaging reconaissance satellite.  
Credit: Giuseppe De Chiara and The Space Review.

Geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, is the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth. GEOINT consists of imagery, imagery intelligence and geospatial information.  Satellite imagery from Keyhole reconnaissance satellites is an important information source for national security-related GEOINT activities.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which was formed in 2003, has the primary mission of collecting, analyzing, and distributing GEOINT in support of national security.  NGA’s predecessor agencies, with comparable missions, were:

  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), 1996 – 2003
  • National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), a joint project of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and DoD, 1961 – 1996

The NGA’s web homepage, at the following link: https://www.nga.mil/Pages/Default.aspx

The NGA’s webpage for declassified satellite imagery is here: https://www.nga.mil/ProductsServices/Pages/Imagery.aspx

2. The advent of the US civilian Earth observation programs

Collecting Earth imagery from orbit became an operational US military capability more than a decade before the start of the joint National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) / US Geological Survey (USGS) civilian Landsat Earth observation program.  The first Landsat satellite was launched on 23 July 1972 with two electronic observing systems, both of which had a spatial resolution of about 80 meters (262 feet). 

Since 1972, Landsat satellites have continuously acquired low-to-moderate resolution digital images of the Earth’s land surface, providing long-term data about the status of natural resources and the environment. Resolution of the current generation multi-spectral scanner on Landsat 9 is 30 meters (98 feet) in visible light bands. 

You’ll find more information on the Landsat program on the USGS website here: https://www.usgs.gov/land-resources/nli/landsat

3. Declassification of certain military reconnaissance satellite imagery

All military reconnaissance satellite imagery was highly classified until 1995, when some imagery from early defense reconnaissance satellite programs was declassified.  The USGS explains:

“The images were originally used for reconnaissance and to produce maps for U.S. intelligence agencies. In 1992, an Environmental Task Force evaluated the application of early satellite data for environmental studies. Since the CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD data were no longer critical to national security and could be of historical value for global change research, the images were declassified by Executive Order 12951 in 1995”

You can read Executive Order 12951 here: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/WCPD-1995-02-27/pdf/WCPD-1995-02-27-Pg304.pdf

Additional sets of military reconnaissance satellite imagery were declassified in 2002 and 2011 based on extensions of Executive Order 12951.

The declassified imagery is held by the following two organizations:

  • The original film is held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
  • Duplicate film held in the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center archive is used to produce digital copies of the imagery for distribution to users.

The declassified military satellite imagery available in the EROS archive is summarized below:

USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 1 (1960 to 1972)

  • This set of photos, declassified in 1995, consists of more than 860,000 images of the Earth’s surface from the CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD satellite systems.
  • CORONA image resolution improved from 40 feet (12.2 meters) for the KH-1 to about 6 feet (1.8 meters) for the KH-4B.
  • KH-5 ARGON image resolution was about 460 feet (140 meters).
  • KH-6 LANYARD  image resolution was about 6 feet (1.8 meters).

USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 2 (1963 to 1980)

  • This set of photos, declassified in 2002, consists of photographs from the KH-7 GAMBIT surveillance system and KH-9 HEXAGON mapping program.
  • KH-7 image resolution is 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters).  About 18,000 black-and-white images and 230 color images are available.
  • The KH-9 mapping camera was designed to support mapping requirements and exact positioning of geographical points. Not all KH-9 satellite missions included a mapping camera.  Image resolution is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters); significantly better than the 98 feet (30 meter) resolution of LANDSAT imagery.  About 29,000 mapping images are available.

USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 3 (1971 to 1984)

  • This set of photos, declassified in 2011, consists of more photographs from the KH-9 HEXAGON mapping program.  Image resolution is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters).

More information on the declassified imagery resources is available from the USGS EROS Archive – Products Overview webpage at the following link (see heading “Declassified Data”): https://www.usgs.gov/centers/eros/science/usgs-eros-archive-products-overview?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects

4.  Example applications of declassified military reconnaissance satellite imagery

The declassified military reconnaissance satellite imagery provides views of the Earth starting in the early 1960s, more than a decade before civilian Earth observation satellites became operational.  The military reconnaissance satellite imagery, except from ARGON KH-5, is higher resolution than is available today from Landsat civilian earth observation satellites. The declassified imagery is an important supplement to other Earth imagery sources.  Several examples applications of the declassified imagery are described below.

Assessing Aral Sea depletion:

USGS reports: “The Aral Sea once covered about 68,000 square kilometers, a little bigger than the U.S. state of West Virginia. It was the 4th largest lake in the world. It is now only about 10% of the size it was in 1960…..In the 1990s, a dam was built to prevent North Aral water from flowing into the South Aral. It was rebuilt in 2005 and named the Kok-Aral Dam…..The North Aral has stabilized but the South Aral has continued to shrink and become saltier. Up until the 1960s, Aral Sea salinity was around 10 grams per liter, less than one-third the salinity of the ocean. The salinity level now exceeds 100 grams per liter in the South Aral, which is about three times saltier than the ocean.”

On the USGS website, the “Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change” webpages show the visible changes at many locations on Earth over a 50+ year time period.  The table of contents to the Earthshots webpages is shown below and is at the following link: http:// https://earthshots.usgs.gov/earthshots/

USGS Earthshots Table of Contents

For the Aral Sea region, the Earthshots photo sequences start with ARGON KH-5 photos taken in 1964.  Below are three screenshots  of the USGS Earthshots pages showing the KH-5 images for the whole the Aral Sea, the North Aral Sea region and the South Aral Sea region. You can explore the Aral Sea Earthshots photo sequences at the following link: https://earthshots.usgs.gov/earthshots/node/91#ad-image-0-0

Assessing Antarctic ice shelf condition:

In a 7 June 2016 article entitled, ”Spy satellites reveal early start to Antarctic ice shelf collapse,” Thomas Sumner reported:

“Analyzing declassified images from spy satellites, researchers discovered that the downhill flow of ice on Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf was already accelerating as early as the 1960s and ’70s. By the late 1980s, the average ice velocity at the front of the shelf was around 20 percent faster than in the preceding decades,….”

You can read the complete article on the ScienceNews website here: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/spy-satellites-reveal-early-start-antarctic-ice-shelf-collapse

Satellite images taken by the ARGON KH-5 satellite have revealed how the accelerated movement that triggered the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula began in the 1960s. The declassified images taken by the satellite on 29 August 1963 and 1 September 1963 are pictured right.  
Source: Daily Mail, 10 June 2016

Assessing Himalayan glacier condition:  

In a 19 June 2019 paper “Acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas over the past 40 years,” the authors, reported on the use of HEXAGON KH-9 mapping camera imagery to improve their understanding of trends affecting the Himalayan glaciers from 1975 to 2016:

“Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater to densely populated catchments in South Asia, and regional observations of glacier change over multiple decades are needed to understand climate drivers and assess resulting impacts on glacier-fed rivers. Here, we quantify changes in ice thickness during the intervals 1975–2000 and 2000–2016 across the Himalayas, using a set of digital elevation models derived from cold war–era spy satellite film and modern stereo satellite imagery.”

“The majority of the KH-9 images here were acquired within a 3-year interval (1973–1976), and we processed a total of 42 images to provide sufficient spatial coverage.”

“We observe consistent ice loss along the entire 2000-km transect for both intervals and find a doubling of the average loss rate during 2000–2016.”

“Our compilation includes glaciers comprising approximately 34% of the total glacierized area in the region, which represents roughly 55% of the total ice volume based on recent ice thickness estimates.”

You can read the complete paper by J. M. Maurer, et al., on the Science Advances website here: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/6/eaav7266

3-D image of the Himalayas derived from HEXAGON KH-9 satellite mapping photographs taken on December 20, 1975. Source:  J. M. Maurer/LDEO

Discovering archaeological sites:

The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, a University of Arkansas / U.S. Geological Survey collaboration, has undertaken the CORONA Atlas Project using military reconnaissance satellite imagery to create the “CORONA Atlas & Referencing System”. The current Atlas focuses on the Middle East and a small area of Peru, and is derived from 1,024 CORONA images taken on 50 missions. The Atlas contains 833 archaeological sites.

“In regions like the Middle East, CORONA imagery is particularly important for archaeology because urban development, agricultural intensification, and reservoir construction over the past several decades have obscured or destroyed countless archaeological sites and other ancient features such as roads and canals. These sites are often clearly visible on CORONA imagery, enabling researchers to map sites that have been lost and to discover many that have never before been documented. However, the unique imaging geometry of the CORONA satellite cameras, which produced long, narrow film strips, makes correcting spatial distortions in the images very challenging and has therefore limited their use by researchers.”

Screenshot of the CORONA Atlas showing regions in the Middle East
with data available.

CAST reports that they have “developed methods for efficient 

orthorectification of CORONA imagery and now provides free public access to our imagery database for non-commercial use. Images can be viewed online and full resolution images can be downloaded in NITF format.”  

The can explore the CORONA Atlas & Referencing System here: https://corona.cast.uark.edu

Conducting commercial geospatial analytics over a broader period of time:

The firm Orbital Insight, founded in 2013, is an example of commercial firms that are mining geospatial data and developing valuable information products for a wide range of customers. Orbital Insight reports:

“Orbital Insight turns millions of images into a big-picture understanding of Earth. Not only does this create unprecedented transparency, but it also empowers business and policy decision makers with new insights and unbiased knowledge of socio-economic trends. As the number of Earth-observing devices grows and their data output expands, Orbital Insight’s geospatial analytics platform finds observational truth in an interconnected world. We map out and quantify the world’s complexities so that organizations can make more informed decisions.”

“By applying artificial intelligence to satellite, UAV, and other geospatial data sources, we seek to discover and quantify societal and economic trends on Earth that are indistinguishable to the human eye. Combining this information with terrestrial data, such as mobile and location-based data, unlocks new sources of intelligence.”

The Orbital Insight website is here: https://orbitalinsight.com/company/

5. Additional reading related to US optical reconnaissance satellites

You’ll find more information on the NRO’s film-return, optical reconnaissance satellites (KH-1 to KH-9) at the following links:

  • Robert Perry, “A History of Satellite Reconnaissance,” Volumes I to V, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), various dates 1973 – 1974; released under FOIA and available for download on the NASA Spaceflight.com website, here: https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=20232.0

You’ll find details on NRO’s electronic optical reconnaissance satellites (KH-11, KH-12) at the following links:

6. Additional reading related to civilian use of declassified spy satellite imagery

General:

Assessing Aral Sea depletion:

Assessing Antarctic ice sheet condition:

Assessing Himalayan glacier condition:

Discovering archaeological sites:

70th Anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four and it’s Still a Cautionary Tale for Our Own Future

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published 70 years ago, on 8 June 1949. Together with his political allegory Animal Farm published in 1945, Nineteen Eighty-Four brought Orwell worldwide fame. As I hope you know, Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a dystopian future occurring in 1984 (now 35 years in our past) in which a totalitarian government imposes repressive regimentation on all persons and behaviors through prescriptive laws, propaganda, manipulation of history, and omnipresent surveillance.  Fortunately for us, the real year 1984 fared much better.  However, Orwell’s vision of the future, as expressed in this novel, still may be a timely and cautionary tale of a future yet to come.

First edition cover.
Source: Wikipedia
George Orwell.  Source: BBC

You’ll find an interesting collection of quotations attributed to George Orwell on the AZ Quotes website here:

https://www.azquotes.com/author/11147-George_Orwell

You can read Nineteen Eighty-Four chapter-by-chapter online on The Complete Works of George Orwell website at the following link, which also contains other Orwell novels.

https://www.george-orwell.org/1984

You also can read Nineteen Eighty-Four as one file on the Project Gutenberg Australia website at the following link:

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100021.txt

Here, it’s easy to search the whole novel for key words and phrases, like “Though Police,” “Big Brother,” “Ministry of Truth,” “thoughtcrime,” “crimethink,” and “face crime,” and see how they are used in context.

Orwell was right about the concept that an entire population can be kept under constant surveillance.  However, he probably didn’t appreciate the commercial value of such surveillance and that people voluntarily would surrender so much information into an insecure (online) environment, thereby making it easy for agents to legally or illicitly collect and process the information they want. Today, it’s hard to know if Big Brother is the government or anonymous aggregations of commercial firms seeking to derive value from your data and influence your behavior.

With the increasing polarization in our society today, it seems to me that we are entering more precarious times, where our own poorly defined terms, such as “politically correct” and “hate speech,” are becoming tools to stifle alternative views and legitimate dissent.

I remember in the late 1970s when I first read the words “politically correct” in Jim Holman’s local San Diego newspaper, Reader. My first reaction to this poorly defined term was that it will lead to no good.  Since then, use of  “politically correct” has grown dramatically, as shown in the following Google Ngram.  While I agree that political correctness has its place in a polite society, the muddled jargon of political correctness easily can becomes a means to obfuscate a subject under discussion.

Ngram 1800 – 2008.  Source: Google

In the past two decades, use of the term “hate speech” has become commonplace, as shown in the following Google Ngram. While laws have been written to define and combat actual “hate speech,” this term is easily misused to stifle dissent, even legitimate dissent, by forcefully mischaracterizing one side of a discussion that never was intended to be hateful.  Our ability to hold opposing views without being mischaracterized as a “hater” is being eroded in our increasingly polarized society, where self-appointed (and often anonymous) Thought Police are using social media (What an oxymoron!) to punish the perceived offenders. Such “policing” is not centralized, as in Orwell’s novel, but its effects can be very damaging to its victims.

Ngram 1800 – 2008.  Source: Google

Of course, the word “dissent” has been in common usage for a very long time and is a fundamental right of American citizens.

Ngram 1800 – 2008.  Source: Google

Seventy years after first being published, Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four still stands as a relevant cautionary tale for our own future.  I encourage you to read it again, keep an open mind, and piss off the self-declared Thought Police from time to time.

Source: Libertymaniacs.com, 2011

Higgins Landing Craft had a Major Impact on the Outcome of World War II

Higgins landing craft are the ubiquitous, flat-bottomed, shallow-draft, barge-like boats used widely throughout WW II to deliver troops, vehicles and supplies from offshore ship to the beach during opposed (the enemy was shooting back) amphibious landings.  Designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins, these boats were built in large quantities at the Higgins Industries shipyard in New Orleans, LA, using a diverse labor force. 

The Higgins Memorial Project provides a biography of A. J. Higgins at the following link:

http://www.higginsmemorial.com/higgins.asp

The biographer notes: “In 1964, Dwight D. Eisenhower called Andrew Jackson Higgins ‘the man who won the war for us’.  Without Higgins’ famous landing crafts (LCPs, LCPLs, LCVPs, LCMs), the strategy of World War II would have been much different and winning the war much more difficult.”

Andrew Jackson Higgins
Source: Higgins Memorial Project

Higgins designed more than 60 types of landing craft, all built largely of mahogany plywood (same as the Higgins and other WW II PT boats), with a strong, internal wooden frame structure, and limited use of steel.  By the end of WW II, Higgins Industries has built more than 20,000 boats; 12,500 of them were LCVPs.

The first Higgins boats be used were the LCPs (Landing Craft, Personnel) and LCP(L)s (Landing Craft, Personnel, Large), which did not have a bow loading ramp. Men had to jump over the gunwales after the boat landed on the beach.

Higgins LCP(L).  Source: Wikipedia

Higgins LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) were the primary way that soldiers, sailors, Marines and supplies got to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.  The LCVPs has a steel bow loading ramp and steel armor plate added on the exterior of the hull.  They could ferry a platoon-sized complement of 36 soldiers with their equipment to shore at 9 knots (17 kph).  LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized) carried larger vehicles, including tanks, to shore. 

Source:  https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/courses/ww2/projects/fighting-vehicles/higgins-boat.htm
LCVP, circa April 1945.  Source: U.S. Navy photo

At the following link, you can read a 3 June 2019 article by David Kindy, “The Invention That Won World War II – Patented in 1944, the Higgins boat gave the Allies the advantage in amphibious assaults.” 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/invention-won-world-war-ii-180972327/

That article notes one of the few surviving LCVPs is now on display outside of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters and National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

A surviving LCVP on display in Alexandria, VA. 
Source:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/

A replica of a Higgins LCVP is at the National WW II Museum in New Orleans.

You can watch a 10-minute YouTube video history of the Higgins boats here:

The men who rode into combat during WW II in these little vessels were very brave men.  We owe them a debt of gratitude for their costly success in storming the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago and turning the tide of WW II.

The Huge Scale of the Latest Generation of Wind Turbines is Challenging Available Manufacturing and Transportation Infrastructure

In an effort to improve the generating and economic performance of wind turbines, manufacturers have been designing and building increasingly larger machines.  Practical limits on transporting these very long and heavy components between the factories and the installation sites may limit the scale of the wind turbines selected for some applications and may require novel solutions that affect component design, factory siting and choice of transportation mode.  In this post, we’ll take a look at these issues.

1. The latest generation of wind turbines

1.1 GE Cypress platform

On 13 March 2019, General Electric (GE) Renewable Energy announced that its largest onshore wind turbine prototype, named Cypress, started commercial operation in the Netherlands.  Unlike other large wind turbines, the prototype Cypress composite turbine blades come in two pieces and are assembled on site. Cypress was announced in September 2017 and construction of the prototype began in 2018.

The 5.3 MW Cypress prototype wind turbine. Source:  GE

The Cypress 5.3-158 prototype has a nominal generating capacity of 5.3 MW.  A smaller Cypress 4.8-158 (with a 4.8 MW rating) is currently under production at GE’s Salzbergen, Germany factory, and it is expected to be commissioned by the end of the 2019.  Both have a rotor diameter of 158 meters (518.3 ft).

Anatomy of a GE Cypress wind turbine. Source:  GE

GE reports that the Cypress platform is “powered by a revolutionary two-piece blade design that makes it possible to use larger rotors and site the turbines in a wider variety of locations. The Annual Electricity Production (AEP) improvements from the longer rotors help to drive down Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), and the proprietary blade design allows these larger turbines to be installed in locations that were previously inaccessible.” Site accessibility can be limited by the practicality of ground transportation of single-piece blades that can be nearly 91.4 meters (300 feet) long.

1.2 GE LM 88.4 P, the longest one-piece rotor blade in the world

LM Wind Power, a GE Renewable Energy business, has delivered the longest one-piece wind turbine blades built to date, the LM 88.4 P, which measure 88.4 meters (290 ft) long.  Three of these giant blades are installed onshore in Denmark on an Adwen’s AD 8-180 wind turbine, which has an 8 MW nominal generating capacity and a 180 meter (590.5 ft) rotor diameter.  You can get a sense of the size of an LM 88.4 P in the following photo showing a rotor blade leaving the factory.

88.4 meter (290 ft) LM 88.4 P wind turbine rotor blade 
leaving the factory.  Source: LM Wind Power

1.3 GE Haliade-X platform

GE is developing an even larger wind turbine platform, the Haliade X, which will become the world’s largest wind turbine when it is completed.  This 12 MW platform, which is being developed primarily for offshore wind farms, features 107 meter (351 ft) long one-piece blades and a 220 meter (722 ft) rotor diameter. The first prototype unit will be installed onshore near Rotterdam, Netherlands, where it will stand 259 meters (850 ft) tall, from the base of the tower to the top of the blade sweep.

Anatomy of a GE 12 MW Haliade-X wind turbine. Source: GE

Construction of the prototype Haliade-X wind turbine began in 2019.  The first blade is shown in the photo below. After securing a “type certificate” for the Haliade-X platform, GE plans to start selling this wind turbine commercially as early as 2021. The near-term market focus appears to be new wind turbines sited in the North Sea.

The first 107 meter (351 ft) Haliade-X blade at the factory in Cherbourg, France.  Source GE Renewable Energy

1.4 Siemens Gamesa SG 10.0-193 DD platform

In January 2019, Siemens Gamesa launched its next generation (Generation V) of very large offshore wind turbines, the SG 10.0-193 DD, which has a nominal generator rating of 10 MW, blade length of 94 meters (308 ft) and a rotor diameter of 193 meters (633 ft).  The nacelle housing the wind turbine hub and generator weighs up to 400 tons.

You’ll find the Siemens product brochure for this Generation V wind turbine here: https://www.siemensgamesa.com/en-int/-/media/siemensgamesa/downloads/en/products-and-services/offshore/brochures/siemens-gamesa-offshore-wind-turbine-sg-10-0-193-dd-en-double.pdf

The 10 MW Siemens SG 10.0-193 DD. Source: Siemens Gamesa

1.5 Vestas EnVestusTM platform

The EnVestusTM platform, which was introduced in 2019, is Vestas’ next generation in its evolution of wind turbines. The V162-5.6 MW has a rotor diameter of 162 meters (531 ft), which is the largest rotor size offered in the current EnVestusTM product portfolio.  Various tower sizes are offered, with hub heights up to 166 meters (545 ft).  With this tallest tower, the blade sweep of a V162-5.6 MW wind turbine reaches a height of 247 meters (810 ft).

V162-5.6 MW nacelle.  Source:  Vestas

The trend in Vestas wind turbine maximum rotor size is evident in the following diagram.  In comparison, the largest GE wind turbine, the Haliade-X will have a rotor diameter of 220 meter (722 ft), and the largest Siemens Generation V wind turbine will have a rotor diameter of 193 meters (633 ft).  

Source: Vestas

You can read and download the EnVestusTMproduct line brochure here: https://nozebra.ipapercms.dk/Vestas/Communication/Productbrochure/enventus/enventus-product-brochure/?page=1

2. Transporting very large wind turbine components

The manufacturer’s efforts to improve wind turbine generating and economic performance has resulted in increasingly larger machine components, which are challenging the limits of today’s transportation infrastructure as the components are moved from the manufacturer’s factories to the installation sites.  Here, we’ll look at the various ways these large components are transported.

2.1 Transportation of wind turbine components by land

Popular Mechanics reported that, “Moving long turbine blades is such a logistical nightmare that the companies involved sometimes resort to building new roads for the sole purpose of moving blades.” Transporting wind turbine tower and nacelle components can be equally challenging.  You’ll find an interesting assessment by CGS Labs of the challenges of wind farm ground transportation planning at the following link: https://www.cgs-labs.com/Software/Autopath/Articles/Windturbinetransport.aspx

As noted previously, the GE one-piece LM 88.4 P, which is 88.4 meters (290 ft) long, is the longest wind turbine rotor blade currently in service.  You can watch a short video of a single LM 88.4 P blade being transported 218 km (135 miles) to the construction site at the following link.  Total transport weight was 60 tons (120,000 lb, 54,431 kg). https://www.lmwindpower.com/en/products-and-services/blade-types/longest-blade-in-the-world

88.4 meter (290 ft) LM 88.4 P wind turbine blade during transport. 
Source: Screenshot from LM Wind Power video

Specialized trucks are employed to negotiate existing roads. Examples of difficult transportation situations are shown in the following photos.

Siemens 75 m (243 ft) rotor blade was transported 320 km (199 miles) by road.  Source: utilities-me.com, 14 Aug 2012
Making a sharp turn with a specialized truck for transporting a
 Vestas V117 57.5 meter (189 ft) wind turbine blade.  
Source: CNN.com, 5 October 2017

Watch a short 2017 video of this maneuver here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxvuMv2MED0

Specially-designed trucks move 52.4 meter (172 foot) long wind turbine blades on narrow roads on Baoding Mountain in China.  Source:  Business Insider, 2 Mar 2017

Watch a short 2015 video of this amazing truck convoy here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cnHui4pFBU

2.2. Transportation of wind turbine components by sea

The single-piece blades for the GE Haliade X wind turbine are so long that they couldn’t be transported by land from GE’s existing factories.  Therefore, a new LM Wind Power blade factory for the offshore wind market was built in Cherbourg, France, on the banks of the English Channel in Normandy.  This factory can load blades directly onto ships for delivery to offshore wind turbine sites.

GE wind turbine blades shipped by sea.  
Source:  LM Wind Power

In December 2016, Siemens Gamesa reported, “When our new factories in Hull, England and Cuxhaven, Germany become fully operational, and both Ro-Ro (“roll-on, roll-off”) vessels are in service as interconnection of our manufacturing and installation network, we expect savings of 15-20 percent in logistics costs compared to current transport procedures. This is another important contributor reducing the cost of electricity from offshore wind.”

The Hull, UK rotor blade factory, located at the Alexandra Docks on the harbor, was completed in 2016.  The Esbjerg, Denmark factory also is located on the harbor with direct access to shipping.

In 2018, Siemens Gamesa opened its modern factory in Cuxhaven, Germany for manufacturing offshore wind turbine nacelles.  These three Siemens wind turbine factories have direct Ro-Ro access to shipping.In November 2016, Siemens commissioned its first specialized Ro-Ro transport vessel, the Rotra Vente.  This ship is designed to transport multiple heavy nacelles, or up to nine tower sections, or three to four sets of rotor blades, depending on what else is being transported.  A second specialized Ro-Ro transport vessel, the Rotra Mare, was commissioned in the spring of 2017 to transport tower sections and up to 12 rotor blades.  These specialized transport vessels link the Siemens factories and transport the finished wind turbine components to the respective installation harbor.

The Rotra Vente provides Ro-Ro access for large Siemens wind turbine components.  Source: Siemens

2.3. Transportation of wind turbine components by airship

For more than two decades, there has been significant interest in the use of modern lighter-than-air craft and hybrid airships in a variety of heavy-lift roles.  One such role is the transportation of large wind turbine components.  Airships offer the potential to transport the components quickly between factory and installation site without the constraints of current ground and sea transportation networks.

Three examples of airship concepts for transporting wind turbine components are described below. 

Hybrid airships

In 2017, Lockheed-Martin proposed its LMH-1 hybrid airship to deliver large wind turbine components weighing up to 23.5 tons (47,000 lb; 21,000 kg).  The LMH-1 will be capable of flying 1,400 nautical miles (2,593 km) at a speed of about 70 knots (80 mph, 129 kph).  Lockheed-Martin is expected to fly the commercial prototype of its LMH-1 hybrid airship in 2019. You can read Lockheed-Martin’s proposal for airship transport of wind turbine components here: https://www.lockheedmartin.com/content/dam/lockheed-martin/eo/documents/webt/transporting-wind-turbine-blades.pdf

This type of airship conducts short takeoff and landing (STOL) operations when transporting heavy loads, but can operate from relatively unprepared sites.  When off-loading heavy cargo, this airship must take on ballast at the landing site. 

After LMH-1, Lockheed Martin has plans to build a medium-size (90 ton cargo) hybrid airship that would be more competitive with trucking and rail transport.  

Anatomy of the LMH-1 hybrid airship.  Source:  Lockheed Martin

Variable buoyancy airships

In January 2013, Worldwide Aeros Corp. (Aeros), located in Montebello, CA, conducted the first “float test” of their Dragon Dream variable buoyancy airship.  More recently, Aeros has reported that they are working on the first commercial prototype of a larger variable buoyancy airship to be known as the ML866 / Aeroscraft Gen 2, which will be 169 meters (555 ft) long.  This airship is being designed with great range (3,100 nautical miles; 5,741 km) and a cruise speed of 100 – 120 knots.  The ML866 will have a cargo capacity of 66 tons (132,000 lb; 59,874 kg).  The first ML866 prototype is not expected to fly before the early 2020s.

This type of airship is designed to conduct vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) operations with a full cargo load, and can hover above a site and take on or deliver cargo without landing and without transferring ballast to/from the ground site.

Concept drawing of an Aeroscraft variable buoyancy airship delivering wind turbine blades to a site.  Source: Worldwide Aeros Corp.

Semi-rigid airships

The KNARR initiative is a project created by two Danish design architects, Rune Kirt and Mads Thomsen to design a freight solution using modern airships to reduce the cost and energy consumption of today’s wind turbine freight business and make the logistics for wind turbine freight simpler and more efficient.  Their main point is that transportation and installation costs can be up to 60% of the total cost of a new wind turbine, and these activities have a large carbon footprint.  Their solution is a modern airship that is designed specifically for transporting very large and heavy wind turbine components directly from the manufacturer’s factory to the installation  site. For their work, they were awarded both the Danish Design Center’s Special Prize and the International Core77 Design “Speculative Concept.”.  You can read more about the firm, KIRT x THOMSEN aps, and the KNARR initiative here: https://www.kirt-thomsen.com/case10_airship-knarr

and here: https://projectknarr.wordpress.com/what-is-knarr/

The KNARR semi-rigid airship would be 360 meters (1,181 ft) long and would carry the wind turbine components in a large internal cargo bay. This type of airship is designed to conduct VTOL operations with a full cargo load.  When off-loading heavy cargo, this airship must take on ballast at the landing site.

The KNARR airship is a concept only.  No prototype is being built at this time.  You can view a short video defining the wind turbine transport application of KNARR airship here: https://vimeo.com/21023051

Concept drawing of a KNARR airships it lifts off after making a delivery.
Source: https://www.kirt-thomsen.com/
Concept drawing of a KNARR airship flying over a wind farm.
Source: https://www.kirt-thomsen.com/

3. Conclusions

The scale of the latest generation of wind turbines, particularly the GE LM 88.4 P, which measure 88.4 meters (290 ft) long, is approaching the limits of existing ground transportation infrastructure to handle delivery of such blades from the factory to the installation site.  GE’s introduction of two-piece blades on their new Cypress platform will significantly improve the logistics for delivering these large blades to installation sites.

Siemens’ practice of siting its wind turbine component factories with ready access to Ro-Ro shipping at an adjacent port facility greatly reduces the complexity of delivering large components to a port near an installation site.  GE has adopted the same approach with their latest factory for manufacturing the Haliad-X rotor blades in Cherbourg, France, on the English Channel.

Airships could revolutionize the transportation of large, heavy items such as wind turbine components.  However, the earliest likely candidate, the Lockheed Martin LMH-1 will not be available until the early 2020s and will  be limited to a maximum load of 23.5 tons (47,000 lb; 21,000 kg).  It seems unlikely that larger heavy-lift airships will be introduced before about 2025. 

So, in the meantime, we’ll see the largest wind turbines being installed in offshore sites.  For onshore sites, we’ll see more creative ground transportation schemes, and, probably, a broader introduction of multi-part rotor blades.

4. Recommended additional reading on wind turbines:

Exascale Computing is at the Doorstep

The best current supercomputers are “petascale” machines.  This term refers to supercomputers capable of performing at least 1.0 petaflops [PFLOPS; 1015  floating-point operations per second (FLOPS)], and also refers to data storage systems capable of storing at least 1.0 petabyte (PB; 1015  bytes) of data.

In my 13 November 2018 post, I reported the latest TOP500 ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers.  The new leaders were two US supercomputers: Summit and Sierra.

  • Summit:  The #1 ranked IBM Summit is installed at the Department of Energy (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.  It has a LINPACK Benchmark Rmax (maximal achieved performance) rating of 143.5 PFLOPS and an Rpeak (theoretical peak performance) rating of 200.8 PFLOPS.
  • Sierra:The #2 ranked IBM Sierra is installed at the DOE Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. It has an Rmax rating of 94.64 PFLOPS and an Rpeak rating of 125.7 PFLOPS.

The next update of the TOP500 ranking will be in June 2019. Check out their website here: 

http:// https://www.top500.org

New exascale machines are only a year or two away

The next big step up in supercomputing power will be the arrival of “exascale” machines, which refers to supercomputers capable of performing at least 1.0 exaflops (EFLOPS; 1018  FLOPS), and also refers to data storage systems capable of storing at least 1.0 exabyte (EB, 1018  bytes) of data.  As you might suspect, there is intense international completion to be the first nation to operate an exascale supercomputer.  The main players are the US, China and Japan.

In the US, DOE awarded contracts to build two new exascale supercomputers: Aurora (announced in March 2019) and Frontier (announced in May 2019).

Aurora supercomputer concept drawing.
Source: DOE / Argonne National Laboratory

The Aurora supercomputer is being built at Argonne National Laboratory by the team of Intel (prime contractor) and Cray (subcontractor), under a contract valued at more than $500 million. 

The computer architecture is based on the Cray “Shasta” system and Intel’s Xeon Scalable processor, Xe compute architecture, Optane Datacenter Persistent Memory, and One API software. Those Cray and Intel technologies will be integrated into more than 200 Shasta cabinets, all connected by Cray’s Slingshot interconnect and associated software stack. 

Aurora is expected to come online by the end of 2021 and likely will be the first exascale supercomputer in the US.  It is being designed for sustained performance of one exaflops.  An Argonne spokesman stated, “This platform is designed to tackle the largest AI (artificial intelligence) training and inference problems that we know about.”

Frontier supercomputer concept drawing.
Source:  DOE / Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Frontier supercomputer is being built by at ORNL by the team of Cray (prime contractor) and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD, subcontractor), under a contract valued at about $600 million. 

The computer architecture is based on the Cray “Shasta” system and will consist of more than 100 Cray Shasta cabinets with high density “compute blades” that support a 4:1 GPU to CPU ratio using AMD EPYC processors (CPUs) and Radeon Instinct GPU accelerators purpose-built for the needs of exascale computing. Cray and AMD are co-designing and developing enhanced GPU programming tools.  

Frontier is expected to come online in 2022 after Aurora, but is expected to be more powerful, with a rating of 1.5 exaflops. Frontier will find applications in deep learning, machine learning and data analytics for applications ranging from manufacturing to human health.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise acquires Cray in May 2019

On 17 May 2019, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) announced that it has acquired Cray, Inc. for about $1.3 billion.  The following charts from the November 2018 TOP500 report gives some interesting insight into HPE’s rationale for acquiring Cray.  In the Vendor’s System Share chart, both HPE and Cray have a 9 – 9.6% share of the market based on the number of installed TOP500 systems.  In the Vendor’s Performance Share chart, the aggregate installed performance of Cray systems far exceeds the aggregate performance of a similar number of lower-end HPE systems (25.5% vs. 7.3%).  The Cray product line fits above the existing HPE product line, and the acquisition of Cray should enable HPE to compete directly with IBM in the supercomputer market.  HPE reported that it sees a growing market for exascale computing. The primary US customers are government laboratories.

TOP500 ranking of supercomputer vendors, Nov 2018
Source:  https://www.top500.org
 

Meanwhile in China:

On 19 May 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that China is making a multi-billion dollar investment to re-take the lead in supercomputer power.  In the near-term (possibly in 2019), the newest Shuguang supercomputers are expected to operate about 50% faster than the US Summit supercomputer. This should put the new Chinese super computers in the Rmax = 210 – 250 PFLOPS range. 

In addition, China is expected to have its own exascale supercomputer operating in 2020, a year ahead of the first US exascale machine, with most, if not all, of the hardware and software being developed in China.  This computer will be installed at the Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing.

You’ll find a description of China’s three exascale prototypes installed in 2018 and a synopsis of what is known about the first exascale machine on the TOP500 website at the following link:

https://www.top500.org/news/china-spills-details-on-exascale-prototypes/

Where to next?

Why, zettascale, of course.  These will be supercomputers performing at least 1.0 zettaflops (ZFLOPS; 1021  FLOPS), while consuming about 100 megawatts (MW) of electrical power.

Check out the December 2018 article by Tiffany Trader, “Zettascale by 2035? China thinks so,” at the following link:

https://www.hpcwire.com/2018/12/06/zettascale-by-2035/

Phoenix Makes Its First Flight With Variable Buoyancy Propulsion. What’s Old is New Again!

The Phoenix Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is a small, autonomous airship designed to serve as a very long endurance, high-altitude “atmospheric satellite” that is capable of station keeping using an innovative variable buoyancy propulsion system.  The UAV is intended for use in telecommunications and a range of other civil and military applications.

Phoenix development is being lead by a consortium of UK universities, businesses, and innovation centers, with a distribution of roles and responsibilities as shown in the following graphic.

Source:  https://phoenixuas.co.uk

This project runs for three years. It is one of several projects supported the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), through the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and Innovate UK, to invest in “research and technology projects to deliver world leading aerospace technologies in the UK.”

The Phoenix project website is here: https://phoenixuas.co.uk

The Phoenix UAV is a small, variable buoyancy airship measuring 15 meters (49 feet) long, with a wingspan of 10.5 meters (34 feet).  The UAV’s teardrop-shaped fuselage is constructed from a Vectran fabric, with short wings and a cruciform tail made of carbon fiber composite material. Thin film solar panels on the wing and horizontal stabilizer surfaces generate electric power for the UAV’s systems and to charge an onboard battery that provides continuous power at night and during inclement weather.

Source:  https://phoenixuas.co.uk
Source:  https://phoenixuas.co.uk

The fuselage contains 120 cubic meters (4,238 cubic feet) of helium lifting gas (hydrogen is an alternative), a supply of lifting gas, and a separate inflatable 6 cubic meter (212 cubic feet) cell containing heavier air.  I would expect that the Phoenix is ballasted for near neutral buoyancy so that the control span of the buoyancy control system can produce both positive and negative buoyancy.

To increase buoyancy, air in the inflatable cell is released to the atmosphere via a vent in the tail.  If needed, lifting gas can be released to the gas envelope to gain positive buoyancy.  As the lighter-than-air Phoenix gains altitude, the aerodynamic surfaces generate forward momentum, propelling the UAV forward during the unpowered climb.  

At the top of the climb, buoyancy is decreased by pumping outside air into the inflatable cell, increasing the gross weight of the UAV. As the now heavier-than-air Phoenix enters an unpowered dive, the aerodynamic surfaces continue generating forward momentum to propel the UAV.

During an extended mission, the climb-dive cycle is repeated as often as needed to provide propulsion for controlling the position of the UAV.

First indoor flight.  Source: https://phoenixuas.co.uk

On 21 March 2019, the Phoenix UAV made its first successful flight indoors, covering about 120 meters (394 feet) and becoming the world’s first large variable buoyancy powered autonomous UAV. Outdoor tests will be conducted after the UK Civil Aviation Authority certifies the UAV.  As currently configured the developers expect that Phoenix can operate at altitudes up to about 914 meters (3,000 feet).

You can watch a short video of the first flight here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcqPvKfZjac

But was it the first ever flight of an airship using variable buoyancy propulsion?

No it wasn’t.  

Back in the 1860s, Dr. Solomon Andrews invented the directionally maneuverable, hydrogen-filled airship named Aereonthat used variable buoyancy and airflow around the airship’s gas envelope to provide propulsion without an engine.  The gas envelope on the original Aereon airship consisted of three side-by-side, cigar-shaped balloons, each with seven internal cells containing the hydrogen lifting gas. The balloons formed a gas envelope measuring 80 feet (24.4 meters) long and 13 feet (4 meters) wide. 

  • Buoyancy of the airship was controlled by venting some hydrogen lift gas or dropping some sand ballast.  
  • The angle-of-attack (pitch angle) of the gas envelope was controlled by moving the center of gravity of the gondola (i.e., by moving people in the gondola fore and aft as needed)
  • Propulsive force was generated by alternating between positive buoyancy (lighter-than-air) flight and negative buoyancy (heavier-than-air) flight, and by coordinating the pitch angle of the gas envelope. 
    • During a buoyant ascent, the pitch angle was adjusted to as much as 15 degrees up.  Air flow along the top surface of the envelope moved from bow to stern and drove the airship forward.   The airship can continue to ascend until it reaches its “pressure altitude” where the decreasing atmospheric air density reduces airship buoyancy from positive to neutral.
    • During a semi-buoyant descent, the pitch angle was adjusted to as much as 15 degrees down.  Air flow along the bottom surface of the envelope moved from bow to stern and continued to drive the airship forward.
  • Direction was controlled by a rudder at the stern of the airship
Source:  Popular Science Monthly, January 1932

Andrews first flew Aereon over Perth Amboy, NJ on 1 June 1863 and flew at least three times more.  With Aereon, he demonstrated the ability to fly in any direction, including against the wind, make broad 360 degree turns, and navigate back to and land at his starting point.  Aereon’s gondola could carry the pilot and three passengers.

On 5 July 1864, the US Patent Office issued Patent # 43,449 to Solomon Andrews for his invention of a balloon that was capable of directed flight and could even be flown against the wind.  You can read the patent here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US43449

Lithograph of Solomon Andrews’s first airship “Aereon”
Source: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division,
digital ID cph.3b01438.

Andrews’ second airship, Aereon 2, had a different gas envelope design, described as “a flattened lemon, sharply pointed at both ends.”  Aereon 2 also used a different approach for controlling buoyancy.  The new approach used a complex set of ropes and pulleys to squeeze or release external pressure on the hydrogen gas bags, thereby changing their volume and how much air was being displaced.  Aereon 2 flew over New York City on 25 May and 5 June 1866. The second trip ended up about 30 miles away with a landing in Oyster Bay, Long Island. This was Andrews’ last flight. 

Source: Skinner Auctioneers

Andrews organized the Aerial Navigation Company, which was chartered in November 1865 for “the transportation of passengers, merchandise and other matter from place to place.”  The firm intended to build commercial airships and establish regular airship service between New York and Philadelphia.  During the post-Civil War economic crisis, many banks failed and Aerial Navigation Co. went bankrupt, ending the plans for the first commercial passenger and freight air service in the world.

Source: Worthpoint

What’s old is new again!

In the past two decades, winged underwater gliders implementing Andrews’ basic variable buoyance propulsion principle have been developed.  See the 2001 article, “Autonomous Buoyancy-driven Underwater Gliders,” which you can read here:

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8b21/111dee323c13a57079767b4973ce30bc6c24.pdf

Now, the UK Phoenix team has demonstrated variable buoyancy propulsion in a small, unmanned airship, 156 years after Solomon Andrews first flew the much larger Aeron with passengers in Perth Amboy, NJ.

Additional resources on the Phoenix UAV

Additional resources on Solomon Andrews and the Aereon

Additional resources on buoyancy-driven airships

Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Aircraft Makes its First Flight, but With an Uncertain Business Plan

Background

The firm Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Sciences Corporation) was the first to develop a commercial, air-launched rocket capable of placing payloads into Earth orbit.  Initial tests of their modest-size Pegasus launch vehicle were made in 1990 from the NASA B-52 that previously had been used as the “mothership” for the X-15 experimental manned space plane and many other experimental vehicles.

Since 1994, Orbital ATK has been using a specially modified civilian Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, a former airliner renamed Stargazer, as a mothership to carry a Pegasus launch vehicle to high altitude, where the rocket is released to fly a variety of missions, including carrying satellites into orbit.  With a Pegasus XL  as its payload (launch vehicle + satellite), Stargazer is lifting up to 23,130 kg (50,990 pounds) to a launch point at an altitude of about 12.2 km (40,000 feet).

Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket released from Stargazer.  
Source: NASA / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov

You can watch a 2015 video celebrating 25 years of Orbital ATK’s Pegasus air-launched rocket at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L47cpXTzQU

Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems Corporation (https://www.stratolaunch.com) was founded in 2011 to take this air-launch concept to a new level with their giant, twin-fuselage, six-engine Stratolaunch carrier aircraft.  The aircraft has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m), which is the greatest of any aircraft ever built, a length of 238 feet (72.5 m), and a height of 50 feet (15.2 m) to the top of the vertical tails. The empty weight of the aircraft is about 500,000 pounds (226,796 kg).  It is designed for a maximum takeoff weight of 1,300,000 pounds (589,670 kg), leaving about 550,000 pounds (249,486 kg) for its payload and the balance for fuel and crew.  It will be able to carry multiple launch vehicles on a single mission to a launch point at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,700 m).  A mission profile for the Stratolaunch aircraft is shown in the following diagram.

Typical air-launch mission profile. Source: Stratolaunch Systems

Stratolaunch rollout – 2017

Built by Scaled Composites, the Stratolaunch aircraft was unveiled on 31 May 2017 when it was rolled out at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA.  Following is a series of photos from Stratolaunch Systems showing the rollout.

Stratolaunch ground tests – 2017 to 2019

Ground testing of the aircraft systems started after rollout. By mid-September 2017, the first phase of engine testing was completed, with all six Pratt & Whitney PW4000 turbofan engines operating for the first time.  The first low-speed ground tests conducted in December 2017 reached a modest speed of 25 knot (46 kph).  By January 2019, the high-speed taxi tests had reached a speed of about 119 knots (220 kph) with the nose wheel was off the runway, almost ready for lift off. Following is a series of photos from Stratolaunch Systems showing the taxi tests.

Stratolaunch first flight

The Stratolaunch aircraft, named Roc, made an unannounced first flight from the Mojave Air & Space Port on 13 April 2019.  The aircraft stayed aloft for 2.5 hours, reached a peak altitude of 17,000 feet (5,180 m) and a top speed of 189 mph (304 kph). Following is a series of photos from Stratolaunch Systems showing the Stratolaunch aircraft during its first flight.

Stratolaunch posted an impressive short video of the first flight, which you can view here:

Stratolaunch family of launch vehicles: ambitious plans, but subject to change

In August 2018, Stratolaunch announced its ambitious launch vehicle development plans, which included the family of launch vehicles shown in the following graphic:

  • Up to three Pegasus XL launch vehicles from Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK) can be carried on a single Stratolaunch flight. Each Pegasus XL is capable of placing up to 370 kg (816 lb) into a low Earth orbit (LEO, 400 km / 249 mile circular orbit).
  • Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) capable of placing up to 3,400 kg (7,496 lb) into LEO and intended for short satellite integration timelines, affordable launch and flexible launch profiles.  MLV was under development and first flight was planned for 2022.
  • Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy, which uses three MLV cores in its first stage. That vehicle would be able to place 6,000 kg (13,228 lb) into LEO.  MLV-Heavy was in the early development stage.
  • A fully reusable space plane named Black Ice, initially intended for orbital cargo delivery and return, with a possible follow-on variant for transporting astronauts to and from orbit.  The space plane was a design study.

Stratolaunch was developing a 200,000 pound thrust, high-performance, liquid fuel hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine, known as the “PGA engine”, for use in their family of launch vehicles.  Additive manufacturing was being widely used to enable rapid prototyping, development and manufacturing.   Successful tests of a 100% additive manufactured major subsystem called the hydrogen preburner were conducted in November 2018.

Stratolaunch Systems planned family of launch vehicles announced in August 2018.
Source: Stratolaunch Systems

After Paul Allen’s death on 15 October 2018, the focus of Stratolaunch Corp was greatly revised. On 18 January 2019, the company announced that it was ending work on its own family of launch vehicles and the PGA rocket engine. The firm announced, “We are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle.”    

You’ll find an article describing Stratolaunch Systems’ frequently changing launch vehicle plans in an article on the SpaceNews website here:

https://spacenews.com/stratolaunch-abandons-launch-vehicle-program/

What is the future for Stratolaunch?

With only the Pegasus XL as a launch vehicle, and Northrop Grumman having their own Stargazer carrier aircraft for the Pegasus XL, the business case for the Stratolaunch aircraft has been greatly weakened.  Air launch certainly offers a great deal of flexibility for launching small satellites. However, it appears that the newest generation of small orbital launch vehicles, like Electron (Rocket Lab, New Zealand) and Prime (Orbix, UK) will be able to offer similar launch services at lower cost.  Electron is operational now, and Prime is expected to enter service in 2021.  

In a cost competitive launch services market, Stratolaunch does not seem to have an advantage with only the Pegasus XL in its launch vehicle inventory.  Hopefully, they have something else up their sleeve that will take advantage of the remarkable capabilities of the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft.

Stratolaunch’s main competition:  The Northrop Grumman Stargazer at the Mojave Air and Space Port in January 2019, available for its next Pegasus XL launch mission.  Source: Author’s photo