Monday, June 4, 2012

Mission: Small Business $250K grant

For those that want to help out by clicking on links, we have registered for the Mission: Small Business $250K grant competition. You'll need a facebook login to vote, but presumably you already have one...

You can get instructions from our home page:

But basically you go to the site, log in using facebook, search for "Universal Transport Systems" in the search box, and then press "vote".

For every person that does that, Chase and Livingsocial add $5 to the pot. Small companies that get over 250 votes will be eligible to get a $250K grant!

Status updates

This last Saturday we spent the day firing the new test engines. I was expecting a lot of trouble, as this particular engineering challenge sounds pretty bad on paper. We needed a seal that could hold high pressure, hot gasses in the chamber but still move freely.

But then it worked perfectly, first time. We re-ran the tests, and it worked perfectly again! Since things were moving so well, we decided to move on to the next tests early. This next test is to stop the engine's burn before the next propellant segment ignites.

We didn't have enough time to do anything fancy, so we just threw something together (involving cut out cardboard!). Amazingly enough, it actually almost worked - the engine was almost shut down before it re-lit. A simple amazing result, considering how quickly we put the test together.

We are progressing very rapidly, and should have more interesting things to share soon!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Google Lunar X Prize

For a short while, I was on a team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Unfortunately circumstances conspired against us, but I'd like to share some of my thoughts on the difficulties involved in the prize.

The basics of the prize are that your team designs a lunar rover that can drive around on the moon and take video. Very possible - but you only win if your vehicle actually gets to the moon. The prize is about the rover - it doesn't matter how you get to the moon. Most teams were planning on tagging along on either a NASA or Russian flight.

To me, the primary issue is that the activity that a team undertakes to attempt to win the prize is a tiny percentage of the project effort, and the team controls almost none of the failure risk. Most of the challenge in driving a rover on the moon is in getting to the moon, not the rover! Getting to the moon costs billions in development for the transit vehicles - even the incremental costs are in the hundreds of millions.

It just seems a little suboptimal to have a prize that awards a team for getting a government space program to select your rover as additional payload on a government mission, rather than anything that an average team has any control over.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Poll results - How much would you spend to visit space?

Here is how readers have responded to "How much would you spend to visit space?"

33% Six month's pay
66% Only if I won the lottery

Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge

This is the most exciting news I've seen out of NASA in quite a while! This is right in line with what we have been planning.


Objective: to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week.

PRIZE PURSE: $2 Million

Satellite mass - at least 1 kg
Satellite dimensions - at least 10 cm cube

Must complete at least one Earth orbit. Task must be accomplished twice in one week.

Purpose: To stimulate innovations in launch technology and to encourage creation of commercial nano-sat delivery services.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Moon Ice Water Rocket

NASA recently announced the discovery of vast amounts of water ice on the moon. If you are a lunar geologist, it is extremely exciting news - but most people don't see a way to take advantage of it in the short term. Cracking ice into rocket fuel is just too hard, and will take too much infrastructure.

But there is another way to use the ice - a simple water rocket!

From the moon's surface to lunar orbit takes an impulse of about 2 km/s. Going all the way back to the Earth takes about 3 km/s. Really good water rockets can get about 1000 m/s exhaust velocity, or an Isp of 100 seconds or so. Using the rocket equation:

delta-v=(exhaust velocity)*ln(mass ratio)

The required mass ratios are 7.5 to lunar orbit, or 20 to Earth return. That means that for every pound lifted off the moon, you would need 7.5-20 pounds of water melted from the ice. Gathering this is a lot more manageable than setting up a chemical plant on the moon! It could be as simple as smashing the ice using heated tools, and dumping it into a slightly heated hopper.

The engine is really just a water pump. There are many pump designs that can pump dirty water, so there is no need to even filter the "mined" ice. The pump's power is related to the flow rate and pressure required. For example, a 200 atmosphere pump that lifts 1 ton would need to pump 0.01 cubic meters of water a second. This would require only 200 kilowatts of power, while typical rocket engines generate megawatts or even gigawatts!

You can almost certainly do better than that, though. If you start with a normal rocket engine, and inject water near the throat you can get higher Isp at much lower pressures. Just using 5-10% normal rocket propellant in your mass flow provides enough energy to completely vaporize the water, greatly increasing Isp.

Each pound landed on the moon takes over 50 pounds of propellant to get it there. It costs about $10,000 or so per pound delivered to lunar orbit. So not having to bring your return propellant with you is a big deal!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Quick Update

Just a quick update, since we haven't said anything for a while...

We have been working on the business side of things for a bit: hiring people, seeking additional funding, that sort of thing. We have also simplified the engine design dramatically while keeping all the good features - hopefully we will be able to discuss that soon as well. We're hoping to have some engine tests in the coming months, making flames and shock diamonds!