Category Archives: All Posts

Preliminary design of an experimental world-circling spaceship

The title of this post also is the title of the first RAND report, SM-11827, which was issued on 5 May 1946 when Project RAND still was part of the Douglas Aircraft Company. The basic concept for an oxygen-alcohol fueled multi-stage world-circling spaceship is shown below.

Source: RAND

Source: RAND

Now, more than 70 years later, it’s very interesting to read this report to gain an appreciation of the state of the art of rocketry in the U.S. in 1946, which already was benefiting from German experience with the V-2 and other rocket programs during WW II.

RAND offers the following abstract for SM-11827:

“More than eleven years before the orbiting of Sputnik, history’s first artificial space satellite, Project RAND — then active within Douglas Aircraft Company’s Engineering Division — released its first report: Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (SM-11827), May 2, 1946. Interest in the feasibility of space satellites had surfaced somewhat earlier in a Navy proposal for an interservice space program (March 1946). Major General Curtis E. LeMay, then Deputy Chief of the Air Staff for Research and Development, considered space operations to be an extension of air operations. He tasked Project RAND to undertake a feasibility study of its own with a three-week deadline. The resulting report arrived two days before a critical review of the subject with the Navy. The central argument turns on the feasibility of such a space vehicle from an engineering standpoint, but alongside the curves and tabulations are visionary statements, such as that by Louis Ridenour on the significance of satellites to man’s store of knowledge, and that of Francis Clauser on the possibility of man in space. But the most riveting observation, one that deserves an honored place in the Central Premonitions Registry, was made by one of the contributors, Jimmy Lipp (head of Project RAND’s Missile Division), in a follow-on paper nine months later: ‘Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualize the impact on the world, one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the United States were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.’”

You can buy the book from several on-line sellers or directly from RAND. However you also can download the complete report for free in three pdf files that you’ll find on the RAND website at the following link:



Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize Winners Announced

In my 24 December 2016 post, I reported that the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize committee had selected two teams to continue into the finals: Dynamical Biomarkers Group and Final Frontier Medical Devices.   On 12 April 2017, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize committee announced the winners…and yes, there were two winners:

“Of the 300 teams that joined the pursuit of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group were both announced winners at the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE awards ceremony on April 12, 2017.

Final Frontier Medical Devices was announced the highest performing team and received $2.5M for their achievement and Dynamical Biomarkers Group received $1M for 2nd place. Both teams exceeded the competition requirements for user experience, nearly met the challenging audacious benchmarks for diagnosing the 13 disease states, and with their prototypes, have taken humanity one step closer to realizing Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century sci-fi vision. XPRIZE congratulates Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group on their amazing achievements.”

Learn more about Final Frontier Medical Devices and their winning tricorder named DxtER here:

Learn more about Dynamical Biomarkers Group and their 2nd place tricorder system comprised of three modules here:

OK, neither XPrize tricorder prototype looks like Dr. McCoy’s hand-held tricorder seen on Star Trek (the original series), but the automated diagnostic capabilities offered by the XPrize tricorder prototypes really are a giant leap forward in the development of tricorder technology for the real world. The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition has been successful in making this happen on an accelerated schedule.

McCoy and his tricorder. Source: Star Trek (the original series), Desilu Productions

Star Trek Tricorder replica. Source:


56 Years Ago: Yuri Gagarin Became the First Person in Space

On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union launched the Vostok 1 (“East” 1) spacecraft and astronaut Major Yuri Gagarin from a launch site in Kazakhstan on the first ever manned space mission. Gagarin became the first person to fly above the Karman line that marks the beginning of space, at 62 miles (330,000 feet, 100 km) above the Earth. He also became the first person to achieve Earth orbit.

Yuri Gagarin. Source: Daily Mail

Basic orbital parameters for Vostok 1 were: apogee: 203 miles (327 km), perigee: 117 miles (189 km), and orbital period: 89.1 minutes. Gagarin completed one orbit. After re-entry, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok capsule at an altitude of about 4.3 miles (7 km) and parachuted to the ground. The capsule descended under its own parachute and was recovered near Engels, Russia. Gagarin’s total flight time was 1 hour, 48 minutes.

The path of Gagarin’s historic flight, including important flight milestones, is shown on the following map:


The configuration of the Vostok spacecraft is shown in the following diagram. The reentry vehicle is the spherical capsule, which on the left is shown attached to the instrument module.

Vostok 1 configuration.  Source: Pinterest

The complete spacecraft had a mass of 4.73 tons (4,300 kg) and measured 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) in length and 8 feet (2.43 meters) in diameter. The placement of the spacecraft inside the nose shroud of the launch vehicle is shown in the following diagram.


Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok I capsule is on display at the RKK Energiya museum, which is on the grounds of the RKK Energiya factory in Korolyov, near Moscow. Gagarin died in a jet training flight on 27 March 1968.

Vostok 1 capsule. Source: SiefkinDR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Soviet’s Vostok launch vehicle was unveiled to the public at the June 1967 Paris Air Show. This was a big launch vehicle for the time, with a length of 126 feet (38.4 m) and a diameter of about 35 feet (10.7 m).

Soviet Vostok launcher mockup at 1976 Paris Air Show. Source:

The Vostok launcher, designed by Sergei Korolov, was based on the Soviet R-7 (Semyorka) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Earlier versions of the R-7 were used to put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, in Earth orbit on 4 October 1957 and to launch the early Luna spacecraft that, in 1959, achieved the milestones of first spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity and enter a solar orbit (Luna 1) and first spacecraft to impact the Moon (Luna 2).

About one month after Gagarin’s milestone orbital flight, U.S. Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was launched on 5 May 1961 by a Mercury-Redstone booster on a 15-minute suborbital flight. In the Freedom 7 capsule, Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 116.5 miles (187.5 km) and was recovered about 302 miles (487 km) downrange from Cape Canaveral after landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The Freedom 7 capsule is on display in the museum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point in Boston, on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Alan Shepard died on 21 July 1998.

On 20 February 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to reach Earth orbit. The Mercury-Atlas booster placed the Friendship 7 capsule and Glenn into a low Earth orbit with the following basic parameters: apogee: 154 miles (248 km), perigee: 87 miles (140 km), and orbital period: 88.5 minutes. Glenn completed three orbits in a flight lasting 4 hours and 55 minutes, with recovery in the Atlantic Ocean. The Friendship 7 capsule is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. John Glenn died on 8 December 2016.

A comparison of the Mercury and Vostok reentry capsules is shown in the following scale diagram.


So here we are, 56 years later and some things haven’t changed. Just as in 1961, the U.S. has no means of its own to send astronauts into Earth orbit. The first orbital test of an unmanned SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft, launched by a SpaceX Falcon booster, is scheduled for November 2017, with the first crewed mission occurring in 2018. When it occurs, this manned Dragon 2 mission will be the first U.S. manned spacecraft to reach orbit since the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011. Dragon 2 will provide regular service to replace International Space Station (ISS) crews and to perform other orbital missions requiring a crew. In the meantime, the U.S. depends on Russia and their Soyuz spacecraft to deliver and return crews from the ISS. Soyuz is a larger, more modern version of the basic Vostok spacecraft and spherical reentry capsule. You can find out more about the Soyuz spacecraft currently serving the ISS on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website at the following link:

NASA’s manned space program will take even longer to resume manned spaceflight missions. The first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the new Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle currently is expected to occur in 2018. As currently planned, the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will be an unmanned mission. NASA is considering making EM-1 a manned mission and launching in 2019.




Reusable Space Launch Vehicles are Becoming a Reality

In my 12 April 2016 post, “Landing a Reusable Booster Rocket on a Dime,” I discussed the first successful flights and recoveries of the SpaceX Falcon 9 orbital booster rocket and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital booster rocket. In the past year, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have successfully launched and recovered several rockets. In addition, SpaceX and Blue Origin both have reused one or more booster rockets that were flown on previous missions.

Here’s a quick look at the SpaceX and Blue Origin track records and their future plans for even more ambitious recoverable launch vehicles. We’ll also take a brief look at what competitors are doing with their existing and planned launch vehicles.

SpaceX reusable booster rockets: Falcon 9 v1.2, Falcon Heavy, and Interplanetary Transport System

The Falcon 9 v1.2 is the current, operational version of this commercial, medium-lift, two-stage family of launch vehicles. This booster has a length of 230 ft (70 m) with the payload fairing and a booster diameter of 12 ft (3.66 m). The first stage generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from seven Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene. The second stage uses a single Merlin engine optimized for vacuum conditions. The Falcon 9 v1.2 specified payload mass is:

  • 50,265 pounds (22.8 metric tons, 22,800 kg) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO),
  • 18,298 pounds (8.3 metric tons, 8,300 kg) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), or
  • 8,862 pounds (4.02 metric tons, 4,020 kg) to escape velocity.

Falcon Heavy is an advanced heavy-lift, two-stage launch vehicle with a first stage comprised of three Falcon 9 booster rockets. The first stage generates 5.1 million pounds of thrust from 21 Merlin engines. The Falcon Heavy specified payload mass is:

  • 119,931 pounds (54.4 metric tons, 54,400 kg) to LEO,
  • 48,942 pounds (22.2 metric tons, 22,200 kg) to GTO, or
  • 29,983 pounds (13.6 metric tons, 13,600) kg to escape velocity.

The first Falcon Heavy is expected to be launched in late 2017.

The Falcon 9 v1.2 family and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are shown in the following diagram. The scale-up from Falcon 9 V1.2 to Falcon Heavy is relatively straightforward. Versions designed for recovering the first stage include four extendable landing legs near the base of the rocket. In the diagram below, you can see that one version of the Falcon 9 does not include the landing legs, sacrificing booster recovery for greater booster performance.

  Source: SpaceX   

SpaceX describes their Falcon 9 booster recovery process as follows:

“After being jettisoned, the first stage (autonomously) initiates a flip maneuver and begins a powered return back to Earth. Using a combination of reaction control thrusters, forward-mounted grid fins, and thrust from one to three of the main engines, the first stage flies either to a remotely-operated ship in the Atlantic (or Pacific) Ocean, or to land. Upon arrival, the vehicle deploys a set of landing legs and sets itself down upright.”

In practice, SpaceX expects to recover about 1/3 of its boosters on land, back near the launch site. Boosters for most of the remaining missions (primarily the higher-energy missions) will be recovered on a downrange drone ship. You can watch a short video explaining these two mission profiles at the following link:

A recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster rocket is very large:

  • overall length of about 151 ft (46 m) in landing configuration,
  • dry mass is about 50,706 pounds (23,000 kg), and
  • estimated total mass is 94,578 pounds (42,900 kg) with 5% residual fuel after landing.

The large scale of the Falcon 9 booster is apparent in the following photo taken after a landing on the stationary drone ship.

Source: SpaceXSource: Ken Kremer/

You can see a video of the January 2017 Falcon 9 v1.2 launch and booster recovery at the following link:

The SpaceX mission on 30 March 2017 marked two important milestones:

  • The first reuse of a Falcon 9 booster stage, which was recovered on the drone barge and will be available again for reuse.
  • The first recovery of the costly (about $6 million) payload fairing, which was jettisoned during ascent and returned under parachute for an ocean splashdown.  The payload fairing will be reused.

As of 3 April 2017, the SpaceX Falcon 9 scorecard is:

  • Thirteen booster recoveries attempted
  • Three successful recoveries on land; first in December 2015
  • Six successful recoveries on a drone ship at sea, first in April 2016
  • Four drone ship recovery failures
  • One booster stage reused

The number of times a Falcon 9 first stage can be re-flown is not clearly specified. However, Elon Musk placed that number at 10 – 20 additional missions, and, with minor refurbishment, up to 100 missions.

Falcon Heavy missions will involve considerably more complex, simultaneous, autonomous booster recovery operations. The port and starboard Falcon 9 boosters will separate first and fly to designated recovery points, likely on land. The core booster will burn longer before separating from the second stage, which will take the payload into orbit. After separation, the core Falcon 9 booster also will fly to a designated recovery point, likely on a downrange drone ship. After a Falcon Heavy launch, it literally will be raining Falcon 9 boosters. This will be a spectacular demonstration of autonomous flight control and range safety.

You’ll find a list of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, booster recovery status, and future missions at the following link:

SpaceX has been developing the recoverable Dragon space capsule as a family of spacecraft to be launched by the Falcon booster to conduct a variety of orbital and interplanetary missions. Like the recoverable Falcon booster, the Dragon capsule uses aerodynamic forces to slow its descent into the atmosphere and rocket propulsion for the final landing phase.

  • Dragon CRS: Since October 2012, this unmanned cargo version of the Dragon space capsule has been conducting Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and returning cargo to Earth.
  • Dragon CRS “free-flyer”: The Dragon capsule also can operate independently in Earth orbit carrying a variety of payloads and returning them to Earth.
  • Dragon 2: This is a human-rated version of the Dragon space capsule. The first manned orbital flight in expected 2018.
  • Red Dragon: This is an unmanned version of Dragon 2 adapted for a mission to Mars and launched by a Falcon Heavy. Red Dragon is designed to make a propulsive landing on Mars’ surface with a 2,200 pound (1,000 kg) payload. The first launch of a Red Dragon mission could occur as early as 2018. Thereafter, SpaceX plans to conduct “regular “ (as suitable launch windows occur) Red Dragon missions to Mars.

The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) is a concept for an enormous launch vehicle, a manned interplanetary spacecraft, and a tanker spacecraft for refueling the interplanetary spacecraft in Earth orbit before starting the interplanetary phase of the mission. ITS will enable transportation of a large crew and equipment to Mars starting in the late 2020s. Later, when propellant plants have been established on distant bodies in the solar system, the ITS interplanetary spacecraft will be able to refuel in deep space and journey beyond Mars. The ITS is “conceptualized to be fully reusable with 1,000 uses per booster, 100 uses per tanker and 12 round trips to Mars with one spacecraft over a period of over 25 years.”

As shown in the following diagram, the ITS booster rocket carrying the interplanetary spacecraft is much larger than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Saturn V used in the 1960s and 1970s on the Apollo lunar missions. At launch, the ITS will be 400 ft (122 m) tall and 39.4 ft (12 m) in diameter.

  ITS & Saturn V. Source: SpaceX

 With 42 Raptor sub-cooled liquid methane / liquid oxygen engines, the first stage will have a liftoff thrust of about 26 million pounds, which is more than three times the thrust of Saturn V. This engine configuration is reminiscent of the Soviet N-1 moon rocket, (circa late 1960s), which clustered 30 engines in a similar configuration.

  ITS 1st stage Raptor engines. Source: SpaceX

The ITS specified payload mass is:

  • 1 million pounds (500 metric tons, 500,000 kg) to LEO with a fully expendable booster, or
  • 661,000 pounds (300 metric tons, 300,000 kg) to LEO with a reusable booster

ITS can lift ten times the payload of the Falcon Heavy booster.

The first stage of the ITS launch vehicle will be designed to fly back to the launch site for rapid servicing and reuse (i.e., to launch the refueling tanker spacecraft). In landing configuration, the ITS booster stage will be about 254 ft (77.5 m) long with a dry mass of about 275 tons (25 metric tons, 250,000 kg).

You can watch Elon Musk’s briefing on the ITS concept, including a short video of the ITS launch and interplanetary mission profile, at the following link.

Can you spell A M B I T I O U S? The SpaceX ITS concept certainly is ambitious, but it offers a much more compelling vision of future manned spaceflight than anything NASA has offered over the past decade.

Blue Origin reusable booster rockets: New Shepard and New Glenn

New Shepard is a small, single stage, suborbital rocket intended for research and commercial passenger service to the fringe of space, above the Karman line at 62 miles (330,000 ft, 100 km) above the Earth. New Shepard is named for Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, who, on 5 May 1961, made the first U.S. suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by a Redstone rocket. The New Shepard, in launch and recovery configurations, is shown in the following figure.


You can see a short video showing the June 2016 fourth launch and recovery of the New Shepard booster and capsule at the following link:

As of 3 April 2017, the New Shepard scorecard is:

  • Six booster recoveries attempted
  • Five successful recoveries on land; first in November 2015
  • One booster recovery failure
  • One booster stage recovered and used five times

In all of these New Shepard unmanned test flights, the passenger capsule was recovered.

Blue Origin expects to conduct the first manned tests of New Shepard in late 2017. Commercial passenger flights, with up to six people in the space capsule, could begin in 2018.  Blue Origin has stated that they may be able to conduct as many as 50 New Shepard flights per year.

You’ll find a list of New Shepard launches and booster recovery status, at the following link:

On 29 March 2017, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) announced that it selected Blue Origin New Shepard to receive the prestigious 2016 Robert J. Collier Trophy. The award reads:

“… for successfully demonstrating rocket booster reusability with the New Shepard human spaceflight vehicle through five successful test flights of a single booster and engine, all of which performed powered vertical landings on Earth.”

You can read the complete NAA press release at the following link:

On 12 September 2016, Jeff Bezos announced Blue Origin’s plans to develop New Glenn, which is a very large, heavy-lift, 2- or 3-stage reusable launch vehicle. New Glenn is named for Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who, on 20 February 1962, became the first U.S. astronaut to reach orbit. John Glenn flew in the Friendship 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by an Atlas rocket.

The size of New Glenn is apparent n the following diagram. The two-stage version will be 270 ft (82 m) tall, and the three-stage version will be 313 ft (95 m) tall, approaching the size of NASA’s Saturn V.

Source: Blue Origin

 The New Glenn first stage is powered by seven BE-4 methane / LOX engines rated at a combined 3.85 million pounds of thrust (about ½ of the Saturn V), the second stage is powered by a single BE-4 engine optimized for vacuum conditions and rated at 550,000 pounds of thrust, and the third stage is powered by one BE-3 liquid hydrogen / LOX engine rated at 110,000 pounds thrust. The BE-4 engines in the reusable first stage are designed with a 100-flight lifetime.

A more detailed size comparison between New Shepard, Falcon 9 and New Glenn is shown in the following diagram.

  Source: zisadesign I /u/zisa

The scale-up from New Shepard, which is not yet operational, to New Glenn is tremendous. The specified payload mass for the two-stage version of New Glenn is:

  • 99,000 pounds (45 metric tons, 45,000 kg) to LEO,
  • 29,000 pounds (13 metric tons, 13,000 kg) to GTO

The three-stage New Glenn will carry heavier payloads.

The first stage of the New Glenn booster is being designed to fly to a designated landing site to be recovered. Aerodynamic surfaces on the first stage will give New Glenn more aerodynamic maneuvering capability than the SpaceX Falcon during the descent to landing. On 7 March 2017, Jeff Bezos gave the following details on the recovery of the first stage.

“Those aerodynamic surfaces allow us to operate with very high availability in very high wind conditions……..We don’t want to constrain the availability of launch based on the availability of the landing of the reusable booster. We put a lot of effort into letting the vehicle fly back with aerodynamic surface control instead of with propulsion.”

Of course, rocket propulsion is needed for the final phase of landing on a large, moving platform at sea. The first stage has six extendable landing legs, and can land safely if only five deploy.

New Glenn landing. Source: Blue Origin

You’ll find a short animated video showing the launch and recovery process for New Glenn at the following link:

New Glenn flights are expected to start in 2020, about three years after the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy flight.

What are other launch vehicle competitors doing?

No other operational or planned launch vehicles offer the extent of reusability found in the SpaceX Falcon and ITS and the Blue Origin New Shepard and New Glenn. The following launch vehicles will offer only partial reusability.

NASA: partially-reusable Space Launch System (SLS)

 NASA is developing the SLS to launch heavy payloads into Earth orbit and to launch the Orion manned spacecraft on a variety of near-Earth and deep space missions. As shown in the following diagram,  the SLS booster rocket has a large, liquid-fueled, two-stage core flanked by two large solid rocket boosters manufactured by Orbital ATK.

SLS is designed to put 150,000 to 290,000 pounds (70,000 to 130,000 kg) into LEO.

SLS launch vehicle: Source: NASA

As with the NASA Space Shuttle, the solid rocket boosters are designed to be recovered and reused. However, the liquid-fueled first stage booster is expendable; not designed for reuse.

United Launch Alliance (ULA): partially-reusable Vulcan

ULA currently provides medium- and heavy-lift launch with the expendable Atlas V, Delta III and Delta IV boosters. In April 2015, ULA announced that they were developing Vulcan as their Next-Generation Launch System (NGLS) to support a wide variety of Earth-orbital and interplanetary missions. In August 2016, ULA announced plans to qualify Vulcan for manned space missions.

As shown in the following diagram, Vulcan is comprised of a liquid-fueled, two-stage core rocket that can be augmented with up to six solid rocket boosters as needed for the specific mission. This basic architecture is quite similar to ULA’s current Delta III booster, but on a larger scale.

Vulcan launch vehicle. Source: ULA

Vulcan’s maximum payload capacity is expected to fall between ULA’s current Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. ULA expects that “bare bones” Vulcan launch services will sell for half the price of an Atlas V, which is less costly to fly than the Delta IV.

The Vulcan first stage is not designed to be recovered as a unit and reused like the SpaceX Falcon. Instead, ULA is planning a future version that will be partially reusable. In this version, the engines will be designed to detach from the booster after engine cutoff, descend through the atmosphere inside a heat shield, and deploy a parachute for final descent and recovery.

European Space Agency (ESA): expendable Ariane 5 & partially-reusable Ariane 6

ESA’s current Ariane 5 medium- to heavy-lift booster has a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by two large solid rocket boosters. The basic configuration of Ariane 5 is shown in the following diagram. Ariane V is an expendable booster, not designed for reuse.

Ariane 5. Source: Arianespace

Ariane 5 first flew in June 1996 and has been employed on a wide variety of Earth orbital and interplanetary missions. Versions of Ariane 5 can deliver a payload of more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) to LEO or 23,100 pounds (10,735 kg) to GTO.

In 2014, ESA announced the basic configuration of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle. Like Ariane 5, Arian 6 will have a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by solid rocket boosters.

Ariane 6.  Source: adapted from BBC

Two versions are being developed:

  • Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 11,000 pounds (5,000 kg) to GTO
  • Ariane 64, with four solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 24,000 pounds (11,000 kg) to GTO

Ariane 62 and 64 are expendable boosters, not designed for reuse.

In 2015, Airbus Defense and Space announced plans to develop a partially reusable first stage named Adeline that could enter service on a future version of Ariane 6 in the 2025 – 2030 time frame. Like ULA’s plans for Vulcan, only the Ariane 6 first stage high-value parts (i.e., the engine) would be recovered for reuse.

Stratolaunch Systems: giant aircraft plus potentially reusable, air-launched rocket booster

Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems is building what will become the world’s largest aircraft, for use as an airborne launch platform for a variety of booster rockets that will take small-to-medium payloads into Earth orbit. The Stratolaunch Carrier will have two fuselages, six jet engines, a length of 238 feet (72 m), and a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m). The giant plane is designed to carry a rocket and payload with a combined weight of up to 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) to a launch altitude of about 30,000 ft (9,144 m). Payloads up to 13,500 pounds (6,136 kg) can be delivered to LEO. The Stratolaunch Carrier can fly more than 1,000 miles to reach the launch point, giving it unprecedented operational flexibility for delivering payloads to orbit. An example mission profile is shown in the following figure.

Source: Stratolaunch

In 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it planned to use Stratolaunch as the launch platform for a scaled version of its Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, initially for unmanned missions and later for manned missions with up to three astronauts. As shown in the following concept drawing, Dream Chaser appears to mounted on a winged, recoverable booster rocket.  For more information on the Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, visit the SNC website at the following link:

Stratolauncher Carrier with Dream Chaser. Source: Sierra Nevada

In 2014, a planned partnership between Stratolaunch Systems and SpaceX for an air-dropped version of the Falcon booster failed to materialize. In October 2016, Stratolaunch announced a partnership with Orbital ATK, which will provide Pegasus XL expendable boosters for use in launching small satellites into Earth orbit from the Stratolaunch aircraft.

The Stratolaunch Carrier was reported to be 76% complete in 2016. Stratolaunch Systems expects the aircraft to be operational by the end of this decade. You’ll find more information on Stratolaunch here:

Other launch systems

You’ll find a list of worldwide orbital launch systems at the following link.  Most of these are expendable launch systems.

A comparison of these orbital launch systems is available here:

Not included in the above list is the new Next Generation Launch (NGL) System announced by Orbital ATK on 6 April 2017. Two versions of this new, expendable, three-stage booster will be developed to handle medium-to-large payloads, roughly comparable to the payload capability of the SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable booster. The first two stages of the NGL System will be solid fueled.   First flight is planned for 2021. You’ll find a fact sheet on the NGL system at the following link:

In conclusion

In the highly competitive launch vehicle market, booster reusability should yield a significant economic advantage. In the long run, demonstrating better launch service economies will determine the success or failure of reusable launch vehicles.

While SpaceX and Blue Origin have demonstrated the technical ability to recover and reuse the first stage of a launch vehicle, they have not yet demonstrated the long-term economic value of that capability. In 2017, SpaceX plans to re-fly about six Falcon 9 v1.2 boosters, with even more recycled boosters to be launched in 2018. Blue Origin will likely start New Shepard passenger flights in 2018.

I’m betting that SpaceX and Blue Origin will be successful and reusable boosters will find a permanent role in reducing the price for delivering cargo and people into space.




Antediluvian Continents and Modern Sovereignty Over Continental Seabeds

Ignatius Donnelly was the author of the book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which was published in 1882. I remember reading this book in 1969, and being fascinated by the concept of a lost continent hidden somewhere beneath today’s oceans. While Atlantis is yet to be found, researchers have reported finding extensive continental landmasses beneath the waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. Let’s take a look at these two mostly submerged continents and how improved knowledge of their subsea geography and geology can affect the definition of sovereign maritime zones.


In a 2016 paper entitled, “Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent,” the authors, N. Mortimer, et al., reported on finding a submerged, coherent (i.e., not a collection of continental fragments) continental landmass about the size of India, located in the South Pacific Ocean off the eastern coast of Australia and generally centered on New Zealand. The extent of Zealandia is shown in the following map.

Source: N. Mortimer, et al., “Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent,” GSA Today

The authors explain:

“A 4.9 Mkm2 region of the southwest Pacific Ocean is made up of continental crust. The region has elevated bathymetry relative to surrounding oceanic crust, diverse and silica-rich rocks, and relatively thick and low-velocity crustal structure. Its isolation from Australia and large area support its definition as a continent—Zealandia. Zealandia was formerly part of (the ancient supercontinent) Gondwana. Today it is 94% submerged, mainly as a result of widespread Late Cretaceous crustal thinning preceding supercontinent breakup and consequent isostatic balance. The identification of Zealandia as a geological continent, rather than a collection of continental islands, fragments, and slices, more correctly represents the geology of this part of Earth. Zealandia provides a fresh context in which to investigate processes of continental rifting, thinning, and breakup.”

The authors claim that Zealandia is the seventh largest continental landmass, the youngest, and thinnest. While they also claim it is the “most submerged,” that claim may have been eclipsed by the discovery of another continental landmass in the Indian Ocean.

You can read the complete paper on Zealandia on the Geological Society of America (GSA) website at the following link:


In the February 2013 paper, “A Precambrian microcontinent in the Indian Ocean,” authors T. Torsvik, et al., noted that an arc of volcanic islands in the western Indian Ocean, stretching from the west coast of India to the east coast of Madagascar, had been thought to be formed by the Réunion mantle plume (a hotspot in the Earth’s crust) and then distributed by tectonic plate movement over the past 65 million years. Their analysis of ancient rock zircons 660 million to 2 billion years old, found in beach sand, led them to a different conclusion. The presence of the ancient zircons was inconsistent with the geology of the more recently formed volcanic islands, and was evidence of “ancient fragments of continental lithosphere beneath Mauritius (that) were brought to the surface by plume-related lavas.”

The ages of the zircon samples were determined using U-Pb (uranium-lead) dating. This dating technique is particularly effective with zircons, which originally contain uranium and thorium, but no lead. The lead content of a present-day zircon is attributed to uranium and thorium radioactive decay that has occurred since the zircon was formed. The authors also used gravity data inversion (a technique to extract 3-D structural details from gravity survey data) to map crustal thicknesses in their areas of interest in the Indian Ocean.

The key results from this study were:

“…..Mauritius forms part of a contiguous block of anomalously thick crust that extends in an arc northwards to the Seychelles. Using plate tectonic reconstructions, we show that Mauritius and the adjacent Mascarene Plateau may overlie a Precambrian microcontinent that we call Mauritia.”

This paper is available for purchase on the Nature Geoscience website at the following link:

This ancient continent of Mauritia is better defined in the 2016 article, “Archaean zircons in Miocene oceanic hotspot rocks establish ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius,” by L. Ashwai, et al.. The authors provide further evidence of this submerged continental landmass, the approximate extent of which is shown in the following map.Source: L. Ashwai, et al., Nature Communications

The authors report:

“A fragment of continental crust has been postulated to underlie the young plume-related lavas of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius based on the recovery of Proterozoic zircons from basaltic beach sands. Here we document the first U–Pb zircon ages recovered directly from 5.7 Ma (million year old) Mauritian trachytic rocks (a type of igneous volcanic rock). We identified concordant Archaean xenocrystic zircons ranging in age between 2.5 and 3.0 Ga (billion years old) within a trachyte plug that crosscuts Older Series plume-related basalts of Mauritius. Our results demonstrate the existence of ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius; based on the entire spectrum of U–Pb ages for old Mauritian zircons, we demonstrate that this ancient crust is of central-east Madagascar affinity, which is presently located ∼700 km west of Mauritius. This makes possible a detailed reconstruction of Mauritius and other Mauritian continental fragments, which once formed part of the ancient nucleus of Madagascar and southern India.”

Starting about 85 million years ago, the authors suggest that the former contiguous continental landmass of Mauritia was “fragmented into a ribbon-like configuration because of a series of mid-ocean ridge jumps,” associated with various tectonic and volcanic events.

You can read the complete article on the Nature Communications website at the following link:

Implications to the definition of maritime zones

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides the basic framework whereby nations define their territorial sea, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These maritime zones are depicted below.


UNCLOS Article 76 defines the basis whereby a nation can claim an extended territorial sea by demonstrating an “extended continental shelf,” using one of two methods: formula lines or constraint lines. These options are defined below.


You’ll find more details (than you ever wanted to know) in the paper, “A Practical Overview of Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” at the following link:

New Zealand’s Article 76 application

New Zealand ratified UNCLOS in 1996 and undertook the Continental Shelf Project with the firm GNS Science “to identify submarine areas that are the prolongation of the New Zealand landmass”. New Zealand submitted an Article 76 application on 19 April 2006. Recommendations by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) were adopted on 22 August 2008. A UN summary of New Zealand’s application is available here:

The detailed CLCS recommendations are available here:

Additional information in support of New Zealand’s application is available on the GNS Science website here:

Seychelles and Mauritius joint Article 76 application

The Republic of Seychelles ratified UNCLOS on 16 November 1994 and the Republic of Mauritius followed suit on 4 December 1994. On 1 December 2008, these countries jointly made an Article 76 application claiming continental shelf extensions in the region of the Mascarene Plateau. A UN summary of this joint application is available here:

The CLCS recommendations were adopted on 30 March 2011, and are available here:

Implications for the future

The recent definitions of the mostly submerged continents of Zealandia and Mauritia greatly improve our understanding of how our planet evolved from a supercontinent in a global sea to the distributed landmasses in multiple oceans we know today.

Beyond the obvious scientific interest, improved knowledge of subsea geography and geology can give a nation the technical basis for claiming a continental shelf extension that expands their EEZ. The new data on Zealandia and Mauritia postdate the UNCLOS Article 76 applications by New Zealand, Seychelles and Mauritius, which already have been resolved. It will be interesting to see if these nations use the new research findings on Zealandia and Mauritia to file new Article 76 applications with broader claims.

Stratospheric Tourism Coming Soon

On 31 May 1931 Professor Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer made the first balloon flight into the stratosphere in a pressurized gondola. These aeronauts reached an altitude of 51,777 ft (15,782 m) above Augsburg, Germany in the balloon named FNRS (Belgian National Foundation for Scientific Research). At that time, a state-of-the-art high-altitude balloon was made of relatively heavy rubberized fabric. Several nations made stratospheric balloon flights in the 1930s, with the U.S. National Geographic Society’s Explorer II setting an altitude record of 72,395 ft (22,065 m) on 11 November 1935.

After World War II, very large, lightweight, polyethylene plastic balloons were developed in the U.S. by Jean Piccard (August Piccard’s twin brother) and Otto Winzen. These balloons were used primarily by the U.S. military to fly payloads to very high altitudes for a variety of research and other projects.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) launched its first Project Skyhook balloon (a Piccard-Winzen balloon) on 25 September 1947, and launched more than 1,500 Skyhook balloons during the following decade. The first manned flight in a Skyhook balloon occurred in 1949.

The record for the highest unmanned balloon flight was set in 1972 by the Winzen Research Balloon, which achieved a record altitude of 170,000 ft (51,816 m) over Chico, CA.

USAF Project Man High & U.S. Navy Strato-Lab: 1956 – 1961

Manned stratospheric balloon flights became common in the 1950s and early 1960s under the U.S. Air Force’s Man High program and the U.S. Navy’s Strato-Lab program. One goal of these flights was to gather physiological data on humans in pressure suits exposed to near-space conditions at altitudes of about 20 miles (32.2 km) above the Earth. You’ll find an overview of these military programs at the following link:

Three Man High flights were conducted between June 1957 and October 1958. In August 1957, the Man High II balloon flight by Major David Simons reached the highest altitude of the program: 101,516 feet (30,942 m). The rather cramped Man High II gondola is shown in the following diagram.

Man High II gondola. Source: USAF.

The Man High II gondola is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, OH. You’ll find details on the Man High II mission at the following link:

Five Strato-Lab flights were made between August 1956 and May 1961, with some flights using a pressurized gondola and others an open, unpressurized gondola. The last mission, Strato-Lab High V, carrying Commander Malcolm Ross and scientist Victor Prather in an unpressurized gondola, reached a maximum altitude of 113,740 ft (34,575 meters) on the 4 May 1961. The main objective of this flight was to test the Navy’s Mark IV full-pressure flight suit.

Strato-Lab V open gondola. Source:

See the following link for details on Strato-Lab missions.

USAF Project Excelsior: 1959 – 60

To study the effects of high-altitude bailout on pilots, the USAF conducted Project Excelsior in 1959 and 1960, with USAF Capt. Joseph Kittinger making all three Excelsior balloon flights. In the Excelsior III flight on 16 August 1960, Capt. Kittinger bailed out from the unpressurized gondola at an altitude of 102,800 feet (31,330 m) and was in free-fall for 4 minutes 36 seconds. Thanks to lessons learned on the previous Excelsior flights, a small drogue stabilized Kittinger’s free-fall, during which he reached a maximum vertical velocity of 614 mph (988 km/h) before slowing to a typical skydiving velocity of 110 – 120 mph (177 – 193 kph) in the lower atmosphere. You’ll find Capt. Kittinger’s personal account of this record parachute jump at the following link:

Project Stargazer: 1960

Capt. Kittinger and astronomer William White performed 18 hours of astronomical observations from the open gondola of the Stargazer balloon. The flight, conducted on 13 – 14 December 1960, reached a maximum altitude of 82,200 feet (25,100 m).

Red Bull Stratos: 2012

On 14 October 2012, Felix Baumgartner exited the Red Bull Stratos balloon gondola at 128,100 feet (39,045 m) and broke Joe Kittinger’s 52-year old record for the highest parachute jump. Shortly after release, Baumgartner started gyrating uncontrollably due to asymmetric drag in the thin upper atmosphere and no means to stabilize his attitude until reaching denser atmosphere. During his perilous 4 minute 40 second free-fall to an altitude of about 8,200 ft (2,500 m), he went supersonic and reached a maximum vertical velocity of 833.9 mph (1,342.8 kph, Mach 1.263).

You’ll find details on Baumgartner’s mission at the following link:

Capt. Kittinger was an advisor to the Red Bull Stratos team. The gondola, Felix Baumgartner’s pressure suit and parachute are on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Red Bull Stratos gondola & pressure suit. Source: Smithsonian

Stratospheric Explorer: 2014

Baumgartner’s record was short-lived, being broken on 14 October 2014 when Alan Eustace jumped from the Stratospheric Explorer (StratEx) balloon at an altitude of 135,899 ft (41,422 meters).  Eustace used a drogue device to help maintain stability during the free-fall, before his main parachute opened. He fell 123,235 ft (37,623 meters) with the drogue and reached a maximum vertical velocity of 822 mph (1,320 km/h); faster than the speed of sound. You can read an interview of Alan Eustace, including his thoughts on stratosphere balloon tourism, at the following link:

More information of this record-setting parachute jump is at the following link:

World View® Voyager

If you’re not ready to sign up for a passenger rocket flight, and the idea of bailing out of a balloon high in the stratosphere isn’t your cup of tea, then perhaps you’d consider a less stressful flight into the stratosphere in the pressurized gondola of the Voyager passenger balloon being developed by World View Enterprises, Inc. They describe an ascent in the Voyager passenger balloon as follows:

“With World View®, you’ll discover what it’s like to leave the surface of the Earth behind. Every tree, every building, even the mountains themselves become smaller and smaller as you gently and effortlessly rise above. The world becomes a natural collage of magnificent beauty, one you can only appreciate from space. Floating up more than 100,000 feet within the layers of the atmosphere, you will be safely and securely sailing at the very threshold of the heavens, skimming the edge of space for hours. The breathtaking view unfolds before you—our home planet suspended in the deep, beckoning cosmos. Your world view will be forever changed.”

You can view an animated video of such a flight at the following link:

The following screenshots from this video show the very large balloon and the pressurized Voyager gondola, which is suspended beneath a pre-deployed parafoil parachute connected to the balloon. After reaching maximum altitude, the Voyager balloon will descend until appropriate conditions are met for releasing the parafoil and gondola, which will glide back to a predetermined landing point.

Source for five screenshots, above:  WorldView Enterprises, Inc.

In February 2017, World View opened a large facility at Spaceport Tucson to support its plans for developing and deploying unmanned balloons for a variety of missions as well as Voyager passenger balloons. World View announced plans to a fly a test vehicle named Explorer from Spaceport Tucson in early 2018, with edge-of-space passenger flights by the end of the decade.

For more information on World View Enterprises and the Voyager stratosphere balloon, visit their website at the following link:



Significant Advances in the Use of Flow Cell Batteries

My 31 January 2015 post, “Flow Cell Battery Technology Being Tested as an Automotive Power Source,” addressed flow cell battery (also known as redox flow cell battery) technology being applied by the Swiss firm nanoFlowcell AG for use in automotive all-electric power plants. The operating principles of their nanoFlowcell® battery are discussed here:

This flow cell battery doesn’t use rare or hard-to-recycle raw materials and is refueled by adding “bi-ION” aqueous electrolytes that are “neither toxic nor harmful to the environment and neither flammable nor explosive.” Water vapor is the only “exhaust gas” generated by a nanoFlowcell®.

The e-Sportlimousine and the QUANT FE cars successfully demonstrated a high-voltage electric power automotive application of nanoFlowcell® technology.

Since my 2015 post, flow cell batteries have not made significant inroads as an automotive power source, however, the firm now named nanoFlowcell Holdings remains the leader in automotive applications of this battery technology. You can get an update on their current low-voltage (48 volt) automotive flow cell battery technology and two very stylish cars, the QUANT 48VOLT and the QUANTiNO, at the following link:

QUANT 48VOLT. Source: nanoFlowcell Holdings.QUANTiNO. Source: nanoFlowcell Holdings.

In contrast to most other electric car manufacturers, nanoFlowcell Holdings has adopted a low voltage (48 volt) electric power system for which it claims the following significant benefits.

“The intrinsic safety of the nanoFlowcell® means its poles can be touched without danger to life and limb. In contrast to conventional lithium-ion battery systems, there is no risk of an electric shock to road users or first responders even in the event of a serious accident. Thermal runaway, as can occur with lithium-ion batteries and lead to the vehicle catching fire, is not structurally possible with a nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT drive. The bi-ION electrolyte liquid – the liquid “fuel” of the nanoFlowcell® – is neither flammable nor explosive. Furthermore, the electrolyte solution is in no way harmful to health or the environment. Even in the worst-case scenario, no danger could possibly arise from either the nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT low-voltage drive or the bi-ION electrolyte solution.”

In comparison, the more conventional lithium-ion battery systems in the Tesla, Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 electric cars typically operate in the 355 – 375 volt range and the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric power system operates at about 650 volts.

In the high-performance QUANT 48VOLT “supercar,” the low-voltage application of flow cell technology delivers extreme performance [560 kW (751 hp), 300 km/h (186 mph) top speed] and commendable range [ >1,000 kilometers (621 miles)]. The car’s four-wheel drive system is comprised of four 140 kW (188 hp), 45-phase, low-voltage motors and has been optimized to minimize the volume and weight of the power system relative to the previous high-voltage systems in the e-Sportlimousine and QUANT FE.

The smaller QUANTiNO is designed as a practical “every day driver.”  You can read about a 2016 road test in Switzerland, which covered 1,167 km (725 miles) without refueling, at the following link:

A version of the QUANTiNO without supercapacitors currently is being tested. In this version, the energy for the electric motors comes directly from the flow cell battery, without any buffer storage in between. These tests are intended to refine the battery management system (BMS) and demonstrate the practicality of an even simpler, but lower performance, 48-volt power system.

Both the QUANT 48VOLT and QUANTiNO were represented at the 2017 Geneva Auto Show.

QUANT 48VOLT (left) and QUANTiNO (right). Source: nanoFlowcell Holdings.

You can read more about these cars at this auto show at the following link:

I think the automotive applications of flow cell battery technology look very promising, particularly with the long driving range possible with these batteries, the low environmental impact of the electrolytes, and the inherent safety of the low-voltage power system. I wouldn’t mind having a QUANT 48VOLT or QUANTiNO in my garage, as long as I could refuel at the end of a long trip.

Electrical utility-scale applications of flow cell batteries

In my 4 March 2016 post, “Dispatchable Power from Energy Storage Systems Help Maintain Grid Stability,” I noted that the reason we need dispatchable grid storage systems is because of the proliferation of grid-connected intermittent generators and the need for grid operators to manage grid stability regionally and across the nation. I also noted that battery storage is only one of several technologies available for grid-connected energy storage systems.

Flow cell battery technology has entered the market as a utility-scale energy storage / power system that offers some advantages over more conventional battery storage systems, such as the sodium-sulfur (NaS) battery system offered by Mitsubishi, the lithium-ion battery systems currently dominating this market, offered by GS Yuasa International Ltd. (system supplied by Mitsubishi), LG Chem, Tesla, and others, and the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery system being tested in California’s GridSaverTM program. Flow cell battery advantages include:

  • Flow cell batteries have no “memory effect” and are capable of more than 10,000 “charge cycles”. In comparison, the lifetime of lead-acid batteries is about 500 charge cycles and lithium-ion battery lifetime is about 1,000 charge cycles. While a 1,000 charge cycle lifetime may be adequate for automotive applications, this relatively short battery lifetime will require an inordinate number of battery replacements during the operating lifetime of a utility-scale, grid-connected energy storage system.
  • The energy converter (the flow cell) and the energy storage medium (the electrolyte) are separate. The amount of energy stored is not dependent on the size of the battery cell, as it is for conventional battery systems. This allows better storage system scalability and optimization in terms of maximum power output (i.e., MW) vs. energy storage (i.e., MWh).
  • No risk of thermal runaway, as may occur in lithium-ion battery systems

The firm UniEnergy Technologies (UET) offers two modular energy storage systems based on flow cell battery technology: ReFlex and the much larger Uni.System™, which can be applied in utility-scale dispatchable power systems. UET describes the Uni.System™ as follows:

“Each Uni.System™ delivers 600kW power and 2.2MWh maximum energy in a compact footprint of only five 20’ containers. Designed to be modular, multiple Uni.System can be deployed and operated with a density of more than 20 MW per acre, and 40 MW per acre if the containers are double-stacked.”

One Uni.System™ module. Source: UET

You can read more on the Uni.System™ at the following link:

The website Global Energy World reported that UET recently installed a 2 MW / 8 MWh vanadium flow battery system at a Snohomish Public Utility District (PUD) substation near Everett, Wash. This installation was one of five different energy storage projects awarded matching grants in 2014 through the state’s Clean Energy Fund. See the short article at the following link:

Source: Snohomish PUD

Snohomish PUD concurrently is operating a modular, smaller (1 MW / 0.5 MWh) lithium ion battery energy storage installation. The PUD explains:

“The utility is managing its energy storage projects with an Energy Storage Optimizer (ESO), a software platform that runs in its control center and maximizes the economics of its projects by matching energy assets to the most valuable mix of options on a day-ahead, hour-ahead and real-time basis.”

You can read more about these Snohomish PUD energy storage systems at the following link:

The design of both Snohomish PUD systems are based on the Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA), which is described as, “an open, non-proprietary set of specifications and standards developed by an industry consortium of electric utilities and technology suppliers. Through standardization, MESA accelerates interoperability, scalability, safety, quality, availability, and affordability in energy storage components and systems.” You’ll find more information on MESA standards here:

Application of the MESA standards should permit future system upgrades and module replacements as energy storage technologies mature.


Many LLNL Atmospheric Nuclear Test Videos Declassified

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has posted 64 declassified videos of nuclear weapons tests on YouTube. LLNL reports:

“The U.S. conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever.

For the past five years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a crack team of film experts, archivists and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze and declassify these decomposing films. The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it’s lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists who use computer codes to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective.”

Operation Hardtack-1 – Nutmeg 51538. Source: LLNL

Here’s the link:


The Event Horizon Telescope

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a huge synthetic array for Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is created through the collaboration of millimeter / submillimeter wave radio telescopes and arrays around the world. The goal of the EHT “is to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole with angular resolution comparable to the event horizon.”

The primary target for observation is Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), which is the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This target is of particular interest to the EHT team because it “presents the largest apparent event horizon size of any black hole candidate in the Universe.” The Sgr A* event horizon is estimated to have a Schwarzschild radius of 12 million kilometers (7.46 million miles) or a diameter of 24 million km (14.9 million miles). The galactic core (and hence Sgr A*) is estimated to be 7.6 to 8.7 kiloparsecs (about 25,000 to 28,000 lightyears, or 1.47 to 1.64e+17 miles) from Earth. At that distance, the Sgr A* black hole subtends an angle of about 2e-5 arcseconds (20 microarcseconds).

Another EHT target of interest is a much more distant black hole in the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy.

The member arrays and telescopes supporting EHT are:

  • Arizona Radio Observatory /Submillimeter Wave Telescope (ARO/SMT, Arizona, USA)
  • Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX, Chile)
  • Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE, Chile)
  • Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA, California, USA)
  • Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (Hawaii, USA)
  • Institute de Radioastronomie Millimetrique (IRAM, Spain)
  • James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT, Hawaii)
  • Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano (LMT, Mexico)
  • The Submillimeter Array (Hawaii, USA)

The following arrays and telescopes are expected to join the EHT collaboration:

  • Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA, Chile)
  • Northern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA, France)
  • South Pole Telescope (SPT, Antarctica)

Collectively, the arrays and telescopes forming the EHT provide a synthetic aperture that is almost equal to the diameter of the Earth (12,742 km, 7,918 miles).

EHT array sizeSource: graphics adapted by A. Cuadra / Science; data from Event Horizon Telescope

Technical improvements to the member telescopes and arrays are underway with the goal of systematically improving EHT performance. These improvements include development and deployment of:

  • Submillimeter dual-polarization receivers (energy content of cosmic radiation is split between two polarizations)
  • Highly stable frequency standards to enable VLBI at frequencies between 230 to 450 GHz (wavelengths of 1.3 mm – 0.6 mm).
  • Higher-bandwidth digital VLBI backends and recorders

In operations to date, EHT has been observing the Sgr A* and M87 black holes at 230 GHz (1.3 mm) with only some of the member arrays and telescopes participating. These observations have yielded angular resolutions of better than 60 microarcseconds. Significantly higher angular resolutions, up to about 15 microarcseconds, are expected from the mature EHT operating at higher observing frequencies and with longer baselines.

Coordinating observing time among all of the EHT members is a challenge, since participation in EHT is not a dedicated mission for any site. Site-specific weather also is a factor, since water in the atmosphere absorbs radiation in the EHT observing frequency bands. The next observing opportunity is scheduled between 5 – 14 April 2017. Processing the data from this observing run will take time, hence results are not expected to be known until later this year.

For more information on EHT, see the 2 March 2017 article by Daniel Clery entitled, ”This global telescope may finally see the event horizon of our galaxy’s giant black hole,” at the following link:

Much more information is available on the EHT website at the following link:

Radio telescope resolution

An article on the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) website explains how the angular resolution of radio telescopes, including VLBI arrays, is determined. In this article, the author, D. Stuart Lowe, states that “an array of radio telescopes of 217 km in diameter can produce an image with a resolution equivalent to the Hubble Space Telescope.” You’ll find this article here:

The Hubble Space Telescope has an angular resolution of 1/10th of an arcsecond (1e-1 arcsecond).

A VLBI array with the diameter of the Earth (1.27e+6 meters) operating in the EHT’s millimeter / submillimeter wavelength band (1.3e-3 to 6.0e-4 meters) has a theoretical angular resolution of 2.5e-5 to 1.2e-5 arcseconds (25 to 12 microarcseconds).

EHT should be capable of meeting its goal of angular resolution comparable to a black hole’s event horizon.

X-ray observation of Sgr A*

Combining infrared images from the Hubble Space Telescope with images the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA created the following composite image showing the galactic core in the vicinity of Sgr A*. NASA reports:

“The large image contains X-rays from Chandra in blue and infrared emission from the Hubble Space Telescope in red and yellow. The inset shows a close-up view of Sgr A* in X-rays only, covering a region half a light year wide. The diffuse X-ray emission is from hot gas captured by the black hole and being pulled inwards.”

This image gives you a perspective on the resolution of Sgr A* possible at X-ray frequencies with current equipment. EHT will have much higher resolution in its radio frequency bands.

NASA Sgr A* picSource: X-Ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

More details on this image are available at the following NASA link:

Animation of Sgr A* effects on nearby stars

In my 24 January 2017 post, “The Black Hole at our Galactic Center is Revealed Through Animations,” I reported on how teams of astronomers were developing a better understanding of the unseen Sgr A* black hole through long-term observations of the relative motions of nearby stars that are under the influence of this black hole.

The First Test of Standard and Holographic Cosmology Models Ends in a Draw

Utrecht University (Netherlands) Professor Gerard ’t Hooft was the first to propose the “holographic principle,” in which all information about a volume of space can be thought of as being encoded on a lower-dimensional “boundary” of that volume.

Stanford Professor Leonard Susskind was one of the founders of string theory and, in 1995, developed the first string theory interpretation of the holographic principle to black holes. Dr. Susskind’s analysis showed that, consistent with quantum theory, information is not lost when matter falls into a black hole. Instead, it is encoded on a lower-dimensional “boundary” of the black hole, namely the event horizon.

Black hole event horizonSource: screenshot from video, “Is the Universe a Hologram?”

Extending the holographic principle to the universe as a whole, a lower-dimensional “boundary,” or “cosmic horizon,” around the universe can be thought of as a hologram of the universe. Quantum superposition suggests that this hologram is indistinguishable from the volume of space within the cosmic horizon.

You can see a short (15:49 minute) 2015 video interview of Dr. Susskind, “Is The Universe A Hologram?” at the following link:

If you have the time, also check out the longer (55:26) video lecture by Dr. Susskind entitled, “Leonard Susskind on The World As Hologram.” In this video, he explains the meaning of “information” and how information on an arbitrary volume of space can be encoded in one less dimension on a surface surrounding the volume.

You also might enjoy the more detailed story in Dr. Susskind’s 2008 book, “The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics.”

Leonard Susskind book cover   Source: Little, Brown and Company

In my 28 September 2016 post, “The Universe is Isotropic,” I reported on a conclusion reached by researchers using data from the Planck spacecraft’s all-sky survey of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The researchers noted that an anisotropic universe would leave telltale patterns in the CMB. However, these researchers found that the actual CMB shows only random noise and no signs of such patterns.

More recently, a team of researchers from Canada, UK and Italy, also using the Planck spacecraft’s CBM data set, have offered an alternative view that the universe may be a hologram.  You’ll find the abstract for the 27 January 2017 original research paper by N. Afshordi, et al., “From Planck Data to Planck Era: Observational Tests of Holographic Cosmology,” in Physical Review Letters at the following link:

The authors note:

“We test a class of holographic models for the very early Universe against cosmological observations and find that they are competitive to the standard cold dark matter model with a cosmological constant (Λ CDM) of cosmology.”

“Competitive” means that neither model disproves the other.  So, we have a draw.

If you are a subscriber to Physical Review Letters, you can download the complete paper by N. Afshordi, et al. from the Physical Review Letters site.