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Four Mars missions are launching next year (orbitalindex.com)
192 points by tectonic 15 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments



It's worthwhile watching the launch of the Chinese Long March vehicle: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2019/06/china-first-sea-laun...

They appear to shoot the entire vehicle out of a cannon-like container, then air-ignite the booster. I can't think of another launch vehicle that does this. The US did this sort of launch for the Sprint anti-ballistic missile: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msXtgTVMcuA


It's worth noting that's Long March 11, which is a completely different vehicle to the Long March 5 (the one which will launch China's robotic Mars mission(s)) with the only commonality being that they're both Chinese.

Long March 11 is based on solid rocket motors and is much smaller than Long March 5 (roughly equivalent to a Delta IV Heavy or an expendable Falcon 9) which uses kerosene and oxygen for the first stage and hydrogen and oxygen for the second stage.


That's a "cold launch" in ICBM terminology. It was popular during the 1980s - the U.S. Peacekeeper MX and Soviet SS-18 (among others) used it, as did Soviet VLS tubes and every SLBM.


There is a nice SS-18/Dnepr launch video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwvNuZLASdE

The sequence goes like this: - the missile is ejected from the silo by mortar system, that generates a huge amount of gasses under the missile to push it out, acting on a piston part located right under the missile - the missile jumps out of the silo and the piston is ejected sideways via a small solid rocket motor - some wiring harnesses and what looks like guide wheels is ejected from the missile - the first stage engines of the missile (in this case liquid & hypergolic) are ignited and the missile starts to climb

This technique keeps the silo pretty much intact, which is nice for an ICBM acting as a space launch vehicle. Also IIRC for war use, it was theoretically possible to reload the silo and fire another missile before a retaliatory strike could destroy it, causing all kinds of havoc in cold war scenario planning.


Frankly, I'd like to see some kind of maglev-based launch platform that propels the rocket up the side of a mountain, and then lets the rocket's own boosters take over.


How about a very similar concept, but implemented as a deep vertical shaft in the ground? The initial acceleration could be provided by electromagnets with the rockets only kicking in once the vehicle reaches ground level?


The tubular structure of most large rockets is well suited to withstand many gs of load along its axis. It's also quite fragile wrt side forces and bending. Making it stronger makes it also heavier.

A device that can carry several tons to GEO and to start in a slanted position along a mountain would be a very different beast than a usual rocket.

To say nothing about building several miles of an excessively straight maglev bridge along a mountain which is likely not that straight, and also highly visible.


If it’s accelerating along the longitudinal axis, then the slant doesn’t matter. It’ll never experience more than 1g orthogonal to the axis.

The problem is getting out of the thickness of the lower atmosphere. That’s why rockets go up before they go sideways.


That wouldn't fit on most ships.


Yes, I've often found that events using "mountains" are intended to occur on land.


Insert obligatory "we're going to need a bigger boat" comment here.


Very cool.

>They appear to shoot the entire vehicle out of a cannon-like container, then air-ignite the booster.

They have an interesting launch platform, maybe they are trying to limit the damage to equipment? As it is their strategy seems relatively gentle to their launch platform. This could give them faster turnaround on launches.


Don't submarine missiles work like this?


Most man-portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles work like this as well, for obvious reasons.


Yes, but man-portable, AA and anti-tank missiles, and sub-launched ballistic missiles, are not carrying quarter-of-a-billion dollar satellites. Typically, you don't want launch vehicles to have to withstand heavy loads not related to actually flying vehicles into orbit. Ground support stuff is not supposed to impose design loads, but I would imagine that firing the launch vehicle out of a cannon would actually impose high enough loads to cause engineers to design to those loads.


What happens if the rocket fails to fire - I mean, it's a rhetorical question, I can imagine what happens.


It makes a big splash into the ocean?


That's a missle, and lauching like that don't make sense for rockets.


Is anyone exploring modeling an unmanned sample return mission after Zubrin's Mars Direct plan?

It seems like something that could be done with little fundamentally new technology. Demonstrating the real-world application of the synthesis and use of fuel off-planet would be a major milestone in space exploration. To top it off, bringing back the first samples from Mars would be a major feather in the cap of any nation or corporation.


Is ISRU refueling really ready for this? (Methane I assume, as hydrogen sounds much harder.)

To me, getting that set of technologies to an operational level is one of the biggest reasons to go (back) to the Moon. It's cheaper to send demonstrators there, and easier to troubleshoot them.

Once we can do ISRU refueling reliably, the solar system will become dramatically more accessible (to robots, and eventually humans).


Yes, because we are sending an ISRU demo on the Mars 2020 rover which will convert the CO2 atmosphere into oxygen and carbon monoxide (which could be used as a fuel).

You'd have to use a completely different type of ISRU for the Moon, and mining for it on the Moon (i.e. scraping a permanently shadowed crater near a lunar pole) is a lot harder than on Mars where you can just suck in some of the atmosphere. There's not nearly as much commonality as you might think.


I didn't know about the ISRU test on Mars 2020, that's very exciting!


I thought the typical Martian ISRU called for heating soil to extract water vapor and using the hydrogen in that to make fuel. Oxygen is still interesting, for sure, but that robotic mining sounds a lot more difficult.


The carbon monoxide can also be used as rocket fuel. Not commonly considered, but it'd simplify a lot of things.


Zubrin's plan is specific to Mars in that it relies on chemicals present in the Martian atmosphere.

The only equivalent option I know of for the moon would be to collect water ice and break it down to oxygen and hydrogen. The process involved would be quite different.


NASA's Mars 2020 is set to collect samples and place them in a capsule for later pickup; NASA and ESA have announced collaboration on a separate sample return mission to pick up the samples left behind. Lets them save collection hardware weight on the return mission.


The Mars 2020 mission is taking core samples and caching them for a follow on sample return mission to pick up and send back to earth.


NASA has been working on it, more or less, for at least a decade. I think the latest (and IMO much less risky) proposal doesn't involve any in situ fuel creation.


Little new technology, but a substantial financial cost. One would need a much heavier Martian probe that would include return stage for the lander.


Even if people around here think humanity isn't really prepared for a Mars mission yet, what's clear to me is there are nations on this planet that will take far more risks that, say, NASA was prepared to take back in the days of our first space program. I'm not passing judgement, just saying I think it's clear, even if NASA had the funds to go to Mars, we wouldn't be the first to Mars. Maybe not even second or third. And in this politically charged world we seem live in currently, there are likely interesting times ahead.


If you like this issue of Orbital Index, please consider subscribing for free. Orbital Index is a weekly newsletter about the space industry. https://orbitalindex.com/


That sounded a lot like an ad. I was about to ask whether you are affiliated, but it turned out to be easy to find that you're one of the authors.


That's correct! We launched on HN about 4mo ago and now have right around 600 subscribers. It's an unfunded side project for Ben and myself.


By your command.


sobering run down of the realities when living on mars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqKGREZs6-w

The layers of soil we'd have to cover our buildings in really got me!


Tunnels are a much better solution. More radiation protection and built-in structural integrity. Just use giant LCD panels for natural light shafts for windows.


> Just use giant LCD panels for natural light shafts for windows

I read about tech a few years back that simulates the entire atmosphere in about 5cm. Photos of rooms with these lights looked like skylights. "Real" sunlight is probably very important for mental health.


I always wondered why Mars is first on the list for exploration. why not develop the tech to mine astroids and then use the resources for building up human presence on Mars. Plus, the economic benefits alone would drive many private entities to jump into it


> why not develop the tech to mine astroids and then use the resources for building up human presence on Mars

Because we have all the resources we need on Earth to build a base on Mars, and if we make good use of ISRU ("live off the land") on Mars, we can get a lot of what we need right there. See for example synthesising methalox from Martian resources; marscrete; making glass and other chemical processes... Zubrin's "Mars Direct" book goes into many details here.

Building a reusable booster capable of launching vehicles that can do the Mars transfer is much more economical than building intermediate stages like orbital gateways or asteroid mines.

That's not to say mining asteroids is a bad idea though -- there are other companies looking at this too!


Mars is a more interesting scientific target; cislunar space is a more interesting industrial target. Mars is where we should explore; Earth-Moon system is where we should expand to and build permanent space presence.


It involves launching an untested zero-g mining and manufacturing facilities from Earth. It also needs shielding if we use people there.

Mars has gravity and can use our normal mining and manufacturing, it's straightforward to dig in with shovels for shielding. Launching from Mars is easier, so it's a probable path to the belt.

I don't see economical viability for the Earth in any of these scenarios. Maybe only the straight breakthrough in zero-g autonomous mining and return of precious metals from the belt to Earth.


I think it stems from environmental and doomsday concerns on Earth.


What, again?

With so many going to, already at, or already been to Mars, it seems like they should be able spare a probe for Venus.

Mars will never be a place anyone sane would want to be. But Cloud City floating 50 miles above Venus! Who could resist?


> it seems like they should be able spare a probe for Venus.

Venus is hard unless you want to just stay in orbit. Surface temperature that's steady right around 872F (tin melts at 449.4F, lead at 621F, zinc at 787F) and a surface pressure that is equivalent to being under 3000 feet of water.

Sure, something in orbit over Venus could do some mapping and stuff but meh, Mars could have harbored life like we find on Earth now at some point in its past, we can hang out for months or years taking photos from orbit and the ground, on the ground missions can last months or years instead of hours (Venera 12 sent data back for 110 minutes, it could have for longer but was out of range of its orbiter after 110 mimutes) or days that evne modern equipment would be able to survive before you started having multiple failures. Best case you'd have to land something akin to a submarine with expendable coolant and buy some time as you consumed coolant but realistically you aren't going to get more than a couple of days if that on the surface.

Something like a balloon is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed given we have no way to realistically test one before sending it and even then, it's still going to collect very limited amount of data, not much more than the Russians already collected via the various Venera missions.


Cloud City would have no access to raw materials for ISRU, and still have to deal with (low-pressure-gradient) sealing and wind forces. In terms of engineering, easier to build a self-contained environment in a place where the only environmental interactions are heat loss and some dust, and where you can use local materials to make oxygen, concrete, and metals.


> Cloud City would have no access to raw materials for ISRU

Arguably, it would, it would just require the collector to take a dip in the denser parts of the atmosphere. It might be tricky though, and generally the less moving parts a misson has, the better.


Cloud City has easy access to unlimited amounts of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur, and plenty of solar energy. Balloons dipping lower could pick up other needed trace materials.

Balloons don't need to deal with wind forces. They go where the air goes.

More important, though, is that on Mars you're in Nowheresville. Cold, dusty, airless, dim, with possibly unhealthily-low gravity.


What worries me about Cloud City is the sulfuric acid gas in the atmosphere. Is it so hard to handle as I imagine?


Concentrated sulfuric acid is shipped freely in polyethylene bottles.

Polyethylene is just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, all available at altitude.


How much law do we take with us? And whose? See, marslegalcode.org


This is like that time when king gizzard released 5 albums in one year


But why? Such a waste of money, it’s too far away, and there’s nothing there. It’s like the ultimate snake oil investment.

The ROI must be awful. Just think about the cost to get there and the chance of anything of value coming back... a big time net loss no doubt.

I wish I could buy the hype but I’m just not seeing it.


Why sail across the ocean? The new world is just wilderness and indigenous people.

Why move west, across the Mississippi? It's just open prarie and Indians.

Why go camping? It's just dirt and bugs and carcinogens from cooking fires.

Why climb mountains? People get killed all the time in horrible accidents.


Actually, I can think of some things: 1. Manufacturing heavy equipment will be much cheaper due to low gravity and prevalence of iron. Plus shipping it to Earth will still be relatively affordable because you're only escaping Mar's gravity.

2. It'd be a great testing/research site for wild science experiments like artificial creatures and stuff that would go very badly if not contained on Earth.


Any arguments based on lower cost of anything collapse instantly.

Mars has demonstrated high amusement value. That has sustained all the missions thus far. It's all we have any prospect for in decades to come. God knows we'll need a lot as our ecosystem folds up around us.


> Any arguments based on lower cost of anything collapse instantly.

That's too broad an assumption. In truth, it'll depend on WHAT you are trying to manufacture and if you can keep it on Mars and send its product/output back to Earth. I'm not going to try to predict what stuff we'll want in the future because I don't know. But it's too early to dismiss the possibility of "real utility".


Any claim of utility has a very, very high bar to get over. Mars-high.

Asteroid mining, maybe not so much, depending on how much it can be automated. The problem there quickly becomes how not to saturate demand and drive down prices to the point that the material's not worth transporting. Probably the only solution, ultimately, is to create enough demand in situ to absorb excess capacity.


Anything shipped from mars to earth will be 500 days out of date by the time it arrives.


I can't speak for the science value but these missions do inspire people. I often sit with my two sons and watch launches and missions, or set an alarm to see the ISS fly over. They're fascinated that we're able to send machines to Mars and that people are inside that tiny space station flying overheard.


In space there is just a vacuum, why would we ever go there? Let's see. The Microwave oven. GPS. Cancer treatments.

It's impossible to tell what Mars could offer in full, but we do know one of them upfront: surviving a meteor, Yellowstone, a pandemic, or any one of many ways that the entire species could be wiped out.


Microwave ovens work on the ground, and were invented on the ground. GPS satellites operate under remote control. What about cancer treatments? Weightlessness, vacuum, and high ambient radiation don't cure cancer, singly or in combination.

We could survive a Yellowstone eruption much, much, much more easily in Antarctica than on Mars.

Mars is interesting, but not as a place to live.


>Microwave ovens work on the ground, and were invented on the ground

Microwave ovens do have nothing to do with space I'll give you that, however the microwave oven was effectively invented by Percy Spencer and Raytheon, while working for Raytheon, working on defense related contracts for radar in 1945 and space exploration from its infancy has been hand in hand with defense/military research.

>GPS satellites operate under remote control

GPS is a direct result of space exploration. Without space exploration, there would be no GPS. Without GPS we'd be producing considerably less food (farming relies heavily on GPS now), there would be far less international shipping (international shipping as it is now, does not work without GPS), without GPS Uber and Lyft would not exist, without GPS the global economy would be drastically different. All because we spent money on space exploration.

>don't cure cancer,

There has been gobs and gobs of cancer research conducted on ISS. Here's some https://www.issnationallab.org/blog/cancer-research-on-the-s...

We have no idea of what we might discover on Mars. Imagine if we find living extremophiles, their genes could be worth a million times their weight in gold (if they are even DNA based) and the discovery alone would be worth every cent we've ever spent on space exploration as a species.


So, again, microwave ovens have exactly zero to do with space exploration. By the argument, they might better help to justify deploying nuclear weapons.

GPS, likewise, has nothing to do with space exploration. They build them on the ground, and shoot them into orbit, end of story. Further, they don't result in more food production, they just increase profits of tractor owners producing the same amount of food.

Any cancer research conducted aboard the ISS is naked opportunism.

These read like a parody of actual arguments, that taken seriously would lead a reasonable person to conclude instead that all space exploration is pointless. It is fortunate that none would.


>Any cancer research conducted aboard the ISS is naked opportunism.

Um, there are experiments you can do in microgravity that you absolutely can not do on earth.

For one there's no convection due to different relative densities, virtually no no hydrostatic pressure exists, crystals grow larger and more pure which allows for all sorts of things (like far more efficient semiconductors), alloys made in microgravity are more uniform and perform better, etc etc so on and so forth.

We get it, you hate space, that doesn't mean it isn't a gold mine of future innovation.


No one has demonstrated any benefits of space-grown crystals. Semiconductor makers have shown no interest in orbital fabrication. Sintering enables any alloy mixture without weightlessness, and without worry over miscibility that would remain a problem in a weightless melt.

I don't hate space. I just really hate nonsensical, fallacious, and dishonest claims. Promoting falsehoods poisons the well, making legitimate motivations suspect.


Space race is going further: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Race

It’s a wonderful way to demonstrate power without starting a war.


The ROI for the first few successful missions will, long term, be a significant portion of an entire planet.

That's a pretty decent ROI.


There is apparently an economic theory behind this argument. But I doubt it's been published.

Who do the inheritors of Mars sell it to? And what do they swap for it?


Humans have a limited time span. Therefore they care more about year over year numbers than total ROI over a span of tens of thousands of years.


The whole purpose of life is to fill space. Through the genetic algorithm it searches the forms that do it.

The algorithm has developed the current forms that can actually plan ahead and try to push through the gaps of 'nothingness' to keep filling the space.




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