Sunday, September 24, 2006


Alan Boyle has interviewed Robert Bigelow and has managed to confirm that the next module to fly after the Genesis II will be a man-rated module named Sundancer.
For now, Bigelow has back-burnered the idea of sending up an intermediate-sized test vehicle that would not be human-rated - the type of inflatable known as the Galaxy or Guardian class.

This is, of course, contingent on the next Genesis flight going well.
If everything goes smoothly, "we have decided to try to cut some of the time" from the initially planned development cycle and go directly from Genesis 2 to a "human-occupiable" module, he said.

So, my prediction wasn't that far off after all. The BA-330 module will not be ready until the 2011-2012 time frame, but the half-scale Sundancer module will be ready sometime in late 2009 or early 2010.

This is actually a very sound plan as it will allow them to establish a viable destination early. This will, hopefully, spark a demand for habitable volume on orbit which he will be able to expand upon fairly rapidly as the BA-330 comes online a couple of years later.

I do hope, though, that they continue to offer the Sundancer module as an alternative to the BA-330. There are probably alot of uses to which a module of that size could be put to use that wouldn't be practical for the BA-330. More on that later.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

A thought about Bigelow's plans

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Bigelow made a somewhat cryptic announcement.

Las Vegas, Nevada – August 11, 2006, 3 p.m. PDT
Due to a number of factors related to the outstanding performance of Genesis I, the hoped-for adequate performance of Genesis II and various additional factors — including, but not limited to, domestic and international issues forecast over the next four to five years bearing upon America’s transportation and launch deficits — we have made several bold decisions. An important announcement early in 2007 subsequent to the launch of Genesis II shall expose some of our plans.

The motivation for this announcement was not well understood at the time; however, there seemed to be plenty of speculation. Some of the more interesting theories were based on some rather sketchy information revealed in a patent filed in November of 2004 and granted in November of 2005.

Then, last week Robert Bigelow appeared as a guest on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston for a two hour long interview. Based on some of his comments during the show, I'm willing to venture a guess that the bold decisions are related to an acceleration of their development and deployment schedule.

(From about 1:10 into the program)
Guardian was a certain sized spacecraft that we decided not to fly mainly because we did not have a lifting vehicle that fit that fit that particular weight class and that size.

As far as I know, there has not been any other mention in the media about this. Of course I could easily have missed something. I also have not heard of there being any other development stage between Genesis II and the BA330 besides the Guardian. So, my conclusion is that they may be planning to skip over their second generation design and go directly to the deployment of a full BA330 module.

Any one else care to venture another theory?

[Update: 09/15/2006] Well, never mind. I have apparently forgotten about the Galaxy class module which will be the next intermediate-sized module flying after the Genesis II. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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Go up young man!

I remember thinking a few years ago that space settlement would never become a practical reality until we had the equivalent of the Conestoga wagon. The wagon provided an economical means for transporting people and large amounts of cargo over difficult terrain. The fact that these vehicles were inexpensive to own and operate meant that a wide variety of people could use them for a wide variety of purposes. Commerce naturally ensued which, in turn, enabled rapid settlement to occur by providing a means to transport essential goods and supplies to those who chose to make a living on the frontier and would eventually call it home.

These thoughts returned to me recently while considering the successful launch and operation of the Genesis module by Bigelow Aerospace. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the modules currently being designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace could very well be the predecessors of the modern equivalent to the Conestoga wagon. The only thing missing is a reliable propulsion module which can be maintained and refueled in space. Judging by some of the graphics depicted on the Bigelow Aerospace website, they may have had this sort of application in mind for future development.

I have more thoughts on other applications for Bigleow's inflatable structures as well as the use of flexible, yet very durable, building materials for construction of large scale structures in space. Hopefully I'll be able to get my thoughts organized before the servers at work come back up and I get sucked back into my research.

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Comments welcomed

My apologies to the half-dozen or so people who tried to leave comments on my earlier posts. Apparently, the comment moderation setting was turned on, but Blogger wasn't notifying me that I had any (at least not in any obvious way). Anyway, I turned off the moderation feature, so feel free to comment at your leisure. Of course, if I start getting comment spam I'll have to turn it back on again, but for now, the traffic to this blog is so low that I don't know why any one would bother spamming it.


Friday, September 01, 2006

So, what do you think about Pluto being demoted?

This is the question I've been asked by no fewer than a half-dozen friends and family. Presumably, they think I must have an opinion on the subject since I'm probably the biggest space-nut they know. Well, it just so happens that I have been following the debate, and I have formed an opinion.

This issue has been hashed and rehashed for weeks in the media so I will not recount all of the arguments for or against retaining Pluto as a planet. My opinion on the matter is not very surprising or revolutionary, but it is ultimately pragmatic.

When asked how I feel about the IAU's decision to redefine the word planet, I turn the question around ask the person what they think a planet is. The responses vary only by a little, but it seems that everyone already has a sense of what a planet is. This speaks directly to the difficulty that the IAU will have in trying to get their new definition accepted. The word is already in common usage, and is already known by nearly everyone on the face of the Earth. While the new technical definition of planet may serve to resolve some issues amongst astronomers, everyone else will be left scratching their head.

"Ok, large body which orbits the Sun. Check."
"Um, does not orbit another larger nearby body. That would be a moon. Ok, check."
"Has managed to clear out its orbit? Huh? What the heck does that mean?"

And there is the problem. That last little criteria (which I'm sure was thrown in there to exclude Ceres, Vesta, 2003 UB313 (a.k.a. Xena) and other similar bodies) seems like an ad hoc kludge, or worse still an arbitrary requirement meant to exclude someone or something from an exclusive group. (By the way, does anyone really believe that Mercury cleared its orbit all by itself? Or for that matter, I think the orbits of Venus, Earth, and Mars are still quite littered with debris. Don't believe me? Have a look at this or this.)

So, we return to the heart of the matter. What is a planet? Well, since the word is already in common usage, I think it very unlikely that any effort to redefine it is going to be successful. The word has already accumulated too much cultural baggage and the family of planets around our sun has been established for more than a century now as consisting of: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Instead of trying to redefine this word and then having to go through all of the trouble of reeducating the public (which they will most likely resist), why not just let the word, and all of its current connotations, stand as is. Astronomers could then choose some new terminology which will allow them to converse without having to resort to using the non-technical term planet.

I personally like the idea put forth by Dr. deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium. He advocates the usage of terms which describe the various families of bodies which inhabit the solar system. The gas giants would include Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; the terrestrials would include Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars; the asteroids would, of course, include Ceres and Vesta; Kuiper belt objects would then encompass Pluto, Charon, 2003 UB313 (Xena), Sedna, and other similar bodies yet to be discovered; and finally Oort cloud bodies. Each of these families possess distinct traits which would, by association, establish some common knowledge about the basic properties of the bodies within each category.

I think this kind of taxonomy is more likely to be widely accepted than the attempt to redefine planets based on the new IAU criteria. Humans are good at categorization if they can be shown how the categories are different. The more distinct the categories are, the easier it is to keep them straight. Ultimately, that is why the new definition of planet will not stick. As far as most people are concerned, the distinction of planet from not planet under the new definition is pretty slim, especially when considering that the accepted planets are not all that similar to begin with.