News & Current Affairs

December 30, 2008

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Dragon capsule (SpaceX)

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry cargo or crew

Cut off in the seclusion of space, crew members living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) depend on regular deliveries of air, water, food and fuel for their survival.

But when the ageing space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, the US space agency (Nasa) will lose a principal means of ferrying crew and cargo to the ISS.

The shuttle’s replacement – Ares-Orion – will not enter service until 2015 at the earliest.

And in April, Nasa told legislators it would stop asking for Congressional permission to buy cargo space on Russian Progress re-supply vehicles after 2011.

I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two
Antonio Elias, executive VP, Orbital

That leaves the US dependent on European and Japanese spacecraft for delivering supplies to the space station.

But Nasa has also been pursuing a commercial approach.

Three years ago, the space agency took the unprecedented step of fostering the development of private spacecraft designed to carry crew and cargo to the ISS.

It offered $500m (£340m) in “seed money” to help stimulate a competitive market for supply flights to the space station.

This month, Nasa awarded two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – with lucrative contracts to provide cargo delivery flights to the ISS up to 2016.

Nasa’s administrator Michael Griffin said he hoped the commercial ventures would succeed. But he told BBC News recently: “It’s not commercial if Nasa is sitting around telling them what to do and how to do it. I don’t think they need that.”

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born entrepreneur who co-founded SpaceX, says: “Even when [Ares-Orion] does come online, it’s sort of overkill to use it for servicing the space station. It would be incredibly expensive. So Nasa looked to the private sector to solve its problem.”

Mr Musk made a fortune from the sale of his internet payment service PayPal to eBay and has invested at least $100m (£68m) of his own money in SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California.

The company’s cargo re-supply plans are based around a rocket called Falcon 9. The standard version of the Falcon 9 is arguably a medium-lift launcher, says Mr Musk, designed to place 9,900kg into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Assembly of the first Falcon 9 at SpaceX’s new launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, should be complete by 31 December 2008.

“To external appearances, it looks like something from the Apollo programme, or Gemini, or Soyuz. But the materials are much more advanced, it’s designed to be reusable – which is an important characteristic,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

Inflatable hotel

Falcon 9 is the intended launch vehicle for a capsule, called Dragon, measuring some three and a half metres (12ft) in diameter. Dragon is designed to carry more than 2,500kg of cargo, or a crew of up to seven, into LEO.

DRAGON CAPSULE
Infographic (BBC/SpaceX)
Pressurised capacity of 2,500kg or 14 cubic metres
Crewed version will carry up to seven astronauts
Highly heat resistant material protects craft on re-entry
Designed for water landing with parachute

It is capable of carrying both pressurised items – those that need to be kept at Earth pressure and are to be used inside the space station – and unpressurised cargo – to be used outside the ISS, such as control moment gyros.

“The Falcon 9-Dragon system is intended to replace the function of the space shuttle when that retires in 2010,” says Elon Musk.

Falcon 9 will place Dragon in an initial parking orbit. From there it will manoeuvre towards the ISS. Dragon will make a slow approach and, once in range, will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm and berthed.

During the high speed return to Earth, Dragon will be protected by a heat shield made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA). This highly heat-resistant material is barely scathed at heat fluxes that would vapourise steel.

The capsule will parachute down to the sea for recovery.

Safety is of paramount consideration: the manned version will have an escape tower to rescue the crew if something goes wrong – a feature absent from the space shuttle.”

“Hopefully we’ll do the first demonstration flight next year of the Falcon 9-Dragon system, then particular demonstrations in 2010 and start doing operation missions possibly by the end of 2010,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

PICA heatshield (SpaceX)

A heatshield made of PICA protects Dragon during re-entry

First of all, Dragon will carry astronauts from Nasa and from other space agencies to the ISS. But Mr Musk hopes also to transport space tourists to private orbiting stations.

One company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to assemble an orbiting “space hotel” based on a series of inflatable modules.

“We have also thought of perhaps carrying private space adventurers on a loop around the Moon,” says Mr Musk, adding that this would probably cost on the order of $40m-$50m per person.

“I think there is a wide range of applications. Perhaps the Falcon 9-Dragon system will ultimately evolve into something that will take people to Mars.”

‘Big empty can’

The other winning bid in Nasa’s cargo re-supply contract was made by Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia.

Orbital’s vehicle consists of a medium-lift rocket called Taurus 2 which will be used to launch the Cygnus capsule. Unlike Dragon, Cygnus will only carry cargo – not astronauts.

CYGNUS CAPSULE
Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Pressurised capacity of 2,000kg, or 18.7 cubic metres
Service module contains propulsion, power and avionics
Accommodates pressurised, unpressurised and cargo return modules
Space station robotic arm used to berth capsule

Launching from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the medium-lift rocket will be able to ferry 5,500kg into LEO. Orbital is due to carry out a demonstration flight in the fourth quarter of 2010.”We took a bunch of existing parts but combined them in a way that is very, very efficient,” says Dr Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vide-president, who is overseeing the development of the new system.

Cygnus is based around a common service module, containing the vehicle’s propulsion, power systems and avionics. To this common module is added one of three types of specialised cargo modules – each designed for different mission scenarios.

One of these specialised modules will carry pressurised cargo, another will transfer unpressurised cargo, and a third type of module will return cargo items from the space station to Earth.

“The one that will be used the most, I believe, is the pressurised cargo module,” Orbital’s executive vice president told BBC News.

Dr Elias describes this module as a “big empty can”. It is “volumetrically efficient and light” because, says Dr Elias, “all it has to do is bring cargo up”.

The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done
John Pike, GlobalSecurity.org

“It gets attached to the station, the hatch opens and crew empty the pressurised ‘can’ of its contents. They fill it up with trash, close the hatch. The service module backs it out of position and de-orbits it over the Pacific Ocean. Both can and service module then perish in a fiery ball of plasma,” Dr Elias told BBC News.

The unpressurised module is less efficient because some complex, heavy mechanisms are required to attach cargo: “The boxes you carry have to be very far apart because the (ISS robotic arm) has to come around and handle them. You have to give it lots of clearance,” says Dr Elias.

The efficiency of the cargo return module, he says, is relatively low because of the shielding, parachutes and other paraphernalia required. He expected only a fraction of re-supply flights would require the use of this module.

Orbital says this approach of using specialised modules keeps development costs low.

Rocket origin

Dr Elias was chief designer of Orbital’s Pegasus rocket, the first privately developed launch vehicle, which made its maiden flight in 1990.

A few years ago, he says, Orbital came up with an idea to re-supply the space station using Pegasus. But, at the time, the benefits were not clear to either Orbital or Nasa.

In fact, the origins of Orbital’s Taurus 2-Cygnus system can be traced to the demise of the Delta 2 rocket.

For two decades, the Delta 2 had been the US fleet’s most reliable medium-lift launcher for military, scientific and commercial payloads. It is still a perfectly good rocket, but Nasa plans to make its final Delta 2 launch at the end of the decade, shifting more of its medium-lift launch traffic to the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 heavy launch vehicles.

SpaceX HQ (SpaceX)

The SpaceX HQ occupies 50,000 sq m in Hawthorne, California

The US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), though significantly bigger, are expected to be comparable in cost in the long run – if not cheaper – than the Delta 2.

“We became concerned that the US government satellites we were bidding for, winning and building in this class would disappear for lack of a launch vehicle,” Dr Elias explains.

“We were concerned this would favour the larger spacecraft launches on [EELVs] and that the market would go to the big companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”

Orbital began designing a successor to the Delta 2 with its own money. Although the company was on solid financial ground, finding a market to justify the expense was not easy. But a new opportunity was about to present itself.

Market forces

In August 2006, Nasa selected two companies – SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler – to develop and demonstrate orbital re-supply vehicles under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, setting the firms aggressive timelines.

The space agency dropped Rocketplane Kistler a year into the programme; the company reportedly failed to meet a development milestone to Nasa’s satisfaction.

“We decided to make an offering whereby Orbital would provide out of its own funds not only the additional money to develop Taurus 2, but also a space vehicle that would be suitable to provide those services,” said Dr Elias.

Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Cygnus will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm

Orbital filled the void left by the departure of Rocketplane Kistler, winning a Nasa contract under Phase II of COTS.

Each of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital in December is worth a potential $3.1bn (£2.1bn). But the market itself remains very small.

“I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two,” Dr Elias told.

“However, as prudent businessmen, we did not embark on this venture believing we would grab 100% of the demand. So we are willing to be profitable in a situation where we only have half of it.”

Artist's impression of Taurus 2 rocket (Orbital)

Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket uses tried and tested technology

Observers point out that Nasa is betting on vehicles which do not yet exist, an approach which presents a major risk for the space agency.Not only is it relying on two companies to keep supplies coming to the ISS, Nasa hopes the rocket and cargo vehicles can be developed in months – not the years it has usually taken other agency programmes.

“The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done,” John Pike, a space policy analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, told the LA Times.

“All of these things strike me as significant challenges for even the biggest aerospace companies.”

But Nasa is not putting all its eggs in one basket. It can still barter for cargo space aboard the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, which is due to enter service in 2009.

Europe also plans to modify the ATV so that it can bring cargo back from the space station, a capability Nasa is eager to have.

Announcing the award of the CRS contract, Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s chief of space operations, said: “This is a pretty monumental thing for us, this is a contract that we really need to keep space station flying and to service space station.”

He added: “I think it’s exciting we’re doing this from the commercial side. We’ve got some good proposals and we’ve chosen the two winners.”

Elon Musk (Getty)
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September 10, 2008

Britain ‘to fall into recession’

Britain ‘to fall into recession’

German car production line

Many exporters have been hit by the stronger euro

The UK, Germany and Spain will fall into recession in 2008, the European Commission has predicted.

Brussels said the three countries would see two negative quarters of economic growth in a row, which is the technical definition of a recession.

In its latest economic forecast, the commission also downgraded its outlook for eurozone growth again.

It said the 15-nation bloc would now grow by 1.3% this year, against previous projections of 1.7%.

Earlier this month, data showed the region’s economy shrank by 0.2% between April and June – the bloc’s first decline since its creation in 1999.

The contraction was driven by a slowdown in exports and consumer spending.

But high inflation in the region led policy makers at the European Central Bank to keep interest rates at 4.25% at its latest meeting, allowing no relief for the eurozone’s slowing economies.

In its latest report, the commission believed that inflation was now likely to creep up to 3.6% in the eurozone – above its previous predictions of 3.2% and way above the government’s target of 2%.

Gloomy outlook

Shaken by a housing slump and volatile financial markets, the Brussels-based organization predicts that the UK economy, which is not a member of the eurozone, will shrink by an annual rate of 0.2% in each of the next two quarters.

The grim outlook echoes forecasts from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) out earlier this week, which were even worse.

According to the latest official figures, the UK economy did not grow at all in the second quarter of 2008.

The European Commission said the UK economy would grow by 1.1% in 2008 – much less than the 1.7% previously forecast and a sharp reduction from the official Treasury forecast of 2.5%.

A second quarter of negative growth is also expected in the German and Spanish economies, which are expected to contract by 0.2% and 0.1% respectively.

Stubborn inflation

Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia blamed ructions in the financial markets, soaring commodity prices and the housing slump for the gloomy outlook.

“In a context of an unusually high degree of uncertainty, the external headwinds not only had a direct adverse impact on inflation and capital costs, but also an indirect one on confidence,” he said.

Stamping out hopes of an interest rate cut in the near term, Mr Almunia said even if economic activity were to slow further, inflation risks were still “tilted to the upside”.

“The risk of second-round effects can not be excluded, although there is no evidence of any widespread such effects so far.”

September 7, 2008

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

Home repossessed in US

US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are set to be put under government control in an attempt to rescue the firms, media reports say.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will outline government plans at a news conference at 1100 (1600 BST).

The move to shore up the shareholder-owned firms, which hold or guarantee half the US mortgage debt, would be the US’s largest ever financial bail-out.

In July, Congress approved a plan aimed

at offering them more liquidity.

This followed huge losses by the two firms as result of a big increase in defaults and repossessions in the US housing market.

‘Management told’

On Saturday, a senior politician, Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had told him the government would use its powers to ensure the continued and stable functioning of the companies.

The Washington Post, quoting senior administration sources, said the firms would be put under a legal status known as “conservatorship” which would greatly reduce the value of the two companies’ common stock.

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston
This is an event of profound significance for the global economy
BBC Business Editor Robert Peston

Other securities – including company debt and preferred shares – would be guaranteed by the government, the paper added.

The New York Times reported that senior executives at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were informed about the plan on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal said it would include changes in the top management.

There would also be quarterly infusions of cash to keep both firms afloat, the papers say. The total cost to taxpayers is not known but could amount to billions of dollars, they add.

The government was being forced to step in because it was dangerous for the US economy for doubts to persist about the two firms’ viability.

Struggling homeowners

HAVE YOUR SAY

Government control over larger portions of the economy can only end badly

TB, US

The two contenders for the US presidency, Barack Obama and John McCain, have been briefed on the takeover by Mr Paulson.

“We’ve got to keep people in their homes,” said the Republican candidate, John McCain.

“There’s got to be restructuring, there’s got to be reorganisation, and there’s got to be some confidence that we’ve stopped this downward spiral,” he added, saying that the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must not benefit executives at the two companies.

The Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, said any action should be focused “on whether it will strengthen our economy and help struggling homeowners”.

“We must not allow government intervention to protect investors and speculators who relied on the government to reap massive profits,” he said, adding “we must protect taxpayers, not bail out the shareholders and management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac”.

Fragile

On Friday, America’s Mortgage Bankers Association reported that at the end of June, about four million homeowners with a mortgage – representing a record 9% – either were behind in their payments or faced repossession.

In the past year, the financial crisis has taken a heavy toll on both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The country’s two largest buyers and backers of mortgages lost a combined $3.1bn between April and June.

Both companies say they have the resources to weather the losses, but their shares have fallen sharply on fears that they could go bankrupt as borrowers default.

The rescue plan passed by Congress in July gave the US government the authority to buy shares and offer liquidity to companies to keep them afloat.

Many analysts believe their collapse would be a major shock to the already fragile global financial system.

Together, the two firms own or guarantee about $5.3 trillion worth of home loans – about half the outstanding mortgages in the US.

That is about 25 times as big as the obligations of Northern Rock – which was nationalised by the UK government earlier this year, and twice the size of the UK economy.

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