Skylon: The UK’s Space Plane

The allure of the space plane has always been the cost saving associated with the fact that every major component can be reused. The rocket fuselage, its engines the crew accommodations, all of the electronics, hydraulics, avionics, virtually everything is preserved.

The United States’ space shuttle was the only operational space plane to date, although the Buran of the former Soviet Union did make one unmanned flight.

Great Britain’s effort was centered on a program known as the Horizontal Take-Off and Landing (HOTOL) design. The program began in 1982 and was cancelled in 1988 when a lack of progress on technical issues discouraged the British government from providing further funding.

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Nanocraft: Exploring Alpha Centauri

We have barely stepped off our planet and a proposal has been made to attempt to step out of our solar system as well.

Breakthrough Initiatives, a company founded by billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner has proposed sending a nanocraft to Alpha Centauri. At at a distance of 4.37 light years from Earth Alpha Centauri is our closest star-neighbor.

Our fundamental frame of reference about our place in the universe is about to change in a manner somewhat analogous to what Polynesians must have experienced when their outriggers made landfall on a strange island after days or weeks at sea. It’s not just what they discovered when they got there: it was the fact that there was a “there”. There world was suddenly immeasurably larger, their own size and importance in somehow diminished.

The journey is commensurate with our technology. In some way we face some of the same issues the Polynesians faced. We have to take life with us as we go. Not fishing lines but freezers. Dried grain and fruits in plastic containers and bags instead of baskets and jars. Or maybe synthesized by an advanced 3D printer!

The difference is of course that they were still breathing air and living under the same sun. Their scale was measured in days at sea. The scale we face today is measured in lifetimes.
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NASA’s hot new engine coming soon

In an important step toward developing better propulsion for space travel NASA announced on April 19th that Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc. has been selected to “design and develop” an advanced electric propulsion system to be used on its Asteroid Redirect Mission and the manned mission to Mars. The system would also be made available for commercial use.

The phrase “design and develop” does not mean that Aerojet is starting at the theoretical level. Rather Aerojet will be working with theory and technology which has been evolving since the 1950’s

Quoting NASA:

“Aerojet Rocketdyne will oversee the development and delivery of an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. NASA has developed and tested a prototype thruster and PPU that the company can use as a reference design.”

Aerojet’s contract is for thirty-six months with an estimated value of $67 million.
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