“Space Is Hard” Is The Wrong Answer

They say “Space is hard

Orbital Sciences crashed a rocket equipped with two 40 year old engines. Physically that old. They were an interim solution and they were working towards new engines. We don’t know at this point if the engines were to blame, but, to me, it is likely: engine brightening and thrust loss points to that. No people were hurt. In may this year, a similar NK-33 engine exploded in a test stand at NASA Stennis.


Last friday, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo disintegrated soon after its hybrid rocket engine was started. One of the two pilots was killed.

Many leaders had already quit the organization this year. Scaled had been critizised by some people in the industry for choosing a hybrid motor in the aircraft. Scaled Composites won the X Prize in 2004, ten years ago with the much smaller SpaceShipOne and a hybrid motor built by SpaceDev. The two flights to 100 km were successful. But scaling up to SpaceShipTwo size has taken unexpectedly long. They had a test stand explosion already in 2007, killing three people. The large amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) is dangerous as it is a monopropellant. A chain reaction can occur that will cause an explosion without any propellant mixing. The solid fuel part of the hybrid system can disintegrate and pieces of the solid can block the nozzle. Such things have happened with solid rockets, raising pressure and causing a runaway pressure rise and a catastrophic explosive failure.

I have not followerd Scaled Composites that closely, and I don’t know how many ground tests they have done. There has been talk that they were moving to a new fuel chemistry, but it is unclear if that was on this flight. SpaceshipTwo had already done some successful supersonic flights so the craft was not exploring new flight territory when it was destroyed.


To someone watching from afar, it might seem that failures would actually not be so hard to avoid. Could both of them have been avoided with a simple cure? Just 1) have more ground firings of the engine.

I’m in no position to say so myself for certain, but it seems like quite a simple.

No people were lost on the Orbital Antares flight. The payload was their own Cygnus unmanned space station resupply vehicle. So they can just rebuild the pad and fly again. With no lives at stake, it’s rational to go from engine tests to flight at a much earlier point.

With SpaceShipTwo the situation is much more severe. Two test pilots were flying the vehicle. The design was such that it required large amounts of pressurized monopropellant (N2O) and the engine chamber was large, containing large amounts of hot high pressure gas when operating.

In  a liquid rocket engine, the risks can be mitigated a lot more easily since the chamber is a lot smaller than in a hybrid. The propellants (if ordinary ones are chosen) can not explode by themselves, and only a very small amount of them are mixed at any time in the preburners, pumps and chamber. So one way to avoid accidents like these is to 2) pick a fundamentally less dangerous approach.

There is even a third way to avoid accidents. Make the system resilient to individual component failures. Compared to Antares, in a SpaceX Falcon 9, would a single main engine giving up the ghost a few seconds into the flight resulted in a pad crash? If the stage would have stayed intact and the engine would not have exploded so violently that it would have destroyed other ones (if there were sensors for automatic engine shutdown), the mission would perhaps still have ended in failure but the pad might have been saved. If it had occurred later in flight, even the mission might have been salvageable.

And what about reusable vehicles, like SpaceShipTwo? Its design is like it’s made for tolerating engine problems: after the release in case of any trouble it can just glide to an easy landing, (possibly after venting the oxidizer). There’s no dangerous low altitude zone like with some ground launched vehicles. So the problem is just making really good sensors and having the engine stop at any sign of a problem. And of course making the engine stoppable. Hybrids are stoppable (compared to solids), but the amount of high pressure gas is still so big that it’s not straight forward to sense problems and control the system. The nitrous being a monopropellant can also cause issues.

So Scaled had a dream system. They built a great carrier aircraft, White Knight Two, which had similar avionics and cockpits and systems to SpaceshipTwo, and they test flew that a lot. They had carry and glide tests for SpaceshipTwo, made some changes and ironed out that part. They really knew how to do the aeroplane part, having built multiple record breaking craft before. What really is the tragedy here is that their propulsion seems to have too big failure modes – and just that one bit them now. So 3) Make the system always abortable.


This should apply to software business as well. You should have things like software component testing, regression, internal testing, customer testing. You should also have good software design like for example transactionality and constraints in databases. This stuff is also more than 40 years old, and if done right, categorically prevents a large amount of data corruption problems.

Have fail operational infrastructure design (multiple hard disks, multiple network connections, multiple servers in different physical locations (data centers with redundant power and cooling) with different service providers, backups with restore tests, hot spares, gracefully degraded modes in case of for example data transfer problems).

And then there’s the software development change management process which is another can of worms. I’ll write more about it in a couple of years…


Michael Alsbury was the SpaceshipTwo pilot who was killed in the accident. We should respect his memory and try to publicize ways to make space access safer for all. We should not say “space is hard”. We should say that space requires both a good comprehensive dedication as well as an open attitude towards safety.

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Building rockets like disposable gloves

There’s two fundamental approaches to lower space launch cost:

K-strategy: Building sophisticated reusable rockets that can fly quickly again after landing.

r-strategy: Instead building simple expendable rockets by the mass as cheaply as possible.

Firefly, looks to do just the latter.

It looks to be a straightforward simple design:

  • lox-methane
  • self-pressurized pressure fed
  • eight engines in the first stage
  • one similar engine in the second stage
  • carbon fiber tanks
  • “aerospike” in the first stage, though the individual bells are relatively large and few compared to some others. It might still work.

Their California office sits 100 meters from SpaceX, and Markusic is from SpaceX. Also, Scorpius which has built carbon rockets and pressure vessels is just a few blocks away.

They speak of smallish satellites, possible with modern tech. I’m slightly skeptical of the r strategy – but they sure are free to try. It might work well in this niche.

What are the fundamentals deciding which strategy is better – why are disposable gloves used for some cases, and reusable for some others?

Of course one could just compute the one-time, fixed and per-flight costs for each and find out some crossover points. But I feel there’s something more. So I don’t have a clear answer to this yet. The thinking has been going on for years.

Disclaimer, according to Wikipedia, the r/K selection theory of quantity vs quality offspring is already outdated.

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Trying tumblr again


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These ram air kites by Skysails power flying in a figure eight circuit can develop power and also work as ship propulsion. Ideas like this have probably been toyed by many, it’s nice to see some execution. The biggest current product is 320 square meters and produces something equivalent to 2 MW of propulsion.

A flexible structure might be easy to store and the absolute lift is probably much more important than lift to drag at these low vessel speeds. I still wonder what high speed high aspect ratio glider style vehicles (tailed or tailles) could do in these applications. Control surfaces and all. Since lift is proportional to square of velocity.

And wouldn’t flying a circle or flattened ellipse or oval be more aerodynamically efficient with less tight turns and produce gentler load changes? Maybe there’s symmetry problems if you always go in a particular direction at higher altitude where the wind speed is higher. Or maybe the pull direction varies more.

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Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

What is it? A new mode of transportation that’s supposed to be very fast like Concorde, on ground level and requires no rails.

What could it be? Dylan thinks it’s a tube mail system. Jacques thinks so as well, and says Elon said it’s not a vacuum tube.

Here’s my not entirely serious guess (lots of problems here):

A two dimensional low drag (subsonic laminar flow) body suspended from a single maglev rail. One problem is sideways acceleration: you can’t tilt and generate vertical (eyeballs-up) lift with this, only sideways lift, which would feel quite uncomfortable to passengers, unless maybe you tilt the seats. It might be best to keep it aerodynamically neutral and let the rail do all the guiding. The two dimensional shape is nice for entering though, since it can easily be standing height. The door must be at the rear since there can be no breaks in the front of the fuselage. I imagine it could be relatively silent, traveling around 400 km/h (100 m/s) in the countryside. It could be relatively easy to integrate right into city centers as well, seeing it doesn’t claim much ground space except at stations. Since the cabin only has single dimensional curvature, it would be extremely easy, quick and cheap to build with high aerodynamic quality. You could build thousands very quickly by contractors. The magnetic head could be complicated though since it would need active clearance control. Energy usage could approach that of bicycling, the king of efficient transport.

There’s lots more somewhat similar suspended cabin concepts in this Popular Mechanics magazine from 1971, though they use mechanical propulsion and are stubby low speed shapes. Funky looking. Some still operate quite succesfully, like the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit.


On a strained related note, it’s also interesting that Helsinki is pondering a suspended cable car to link the eastern island of Laajasalo to the city center directly. That could bring the city’s land prices up quite significantly, making the large transport investment profitable.

Posted in Transportation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Long time no post

Haven’t really had the time and stuff feels so clunky. WordPress feels quite old-fashioned. With modern blogging platforms you ought to be able to drag photos to upload in the background and whatever. I have valtteri.openphoto.me for occasional photos but it lacks one core functionality: to actually show the photos in any reasonable size. As a result it’s almost useless.

Maybe I should install something else than wordpress, but I don’t want to spend time in configuration hell…

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Flynano prototype shown to public

Flynano, the sub-70 kg carbon fiber seaplane designed to go around regulations by sheer lack of mass. Their first prototype that was retired and is now exhibited at verkkokauppa in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki, Finland. I took a few photos, more after the break.

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Cameras and physics of light

This should be highschool level deduction.

The basics

In short:

Assuming equivalent sensor technology where read noise or thermal noise doesn’t dominate:

1. Low light performance (low noise in low light photos) is dependent on absolute aperture size

2. Dynamic range (avoiding saturation in bright areas while still lighting dark areas) is dependent on pixel size

In slightly more length:

1. You catch more photons from the same target with a bigger aperture. With more photons, there is less randomness.

2. A small pixel saturates with less photons than a large one. If you have low dynamic range, you either blow highlights or lower the exposure so that highlights are not blown, but then you get more noise in the shadows.

What this does not mean

A larger sensor by itself does NOT improve low light capability. The lens with a certain aperture diameter (mm) can only catch so many photons*

You have to enlarge the optics to get a good low light performance, not the sensor. You can keep a smaller sensor and just enlarge the optics to reach the same result as with big optics and big sensor.

What you are being sold

Let’s see what cameras are sold with:

A. Zoom factor. More of this usually includes the lens design tradeoff of making the aperture much smaller so it hurts low light performance.

B. Megapixels. More of them means the pixels are smaller and that lowers dynamic range.

As a result we get cameras that have blown highlights and/or noisy dark areas outdoors (too small pixels) at best, and completely noisy images everywhere when used inside (too small aperture).

The fix would be:

1. Enlargen the aperture. So throw away the zoom lenses and go with well designed primes. Immediate improvement in low light performance.

2. Lessen the amount of megapixels. People have to resize down for web anyway. 2 megapixels could be good. 1000×2000 is bigger than almost any web graphics. One could go down to half a megapixel, 500×1000.

The results could be phenomenal. The photos could be indistinguishable from full frame DSLR photos at the same half megapixel resolution and modest focal lengths! Except maybe for background defocus. Even a 0.7 megapixel image won’t fit here, you have to click it:

A 0.7 megapixel image by Jean-Marie Huet. WordPress isn’t very good with images I’m afraid so you have to click the image. It’s shot with a 5 D mark II.

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Winter Bicycling in Style


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How are we going to heat our cities in the future?

Changed the title picture again. Air happened to be in such a configuration that the smoke from the hood district heating plant travelled horizontally. It uses fuel oil and isn’t in use most days. Only when it’s quite cold like today (about -10 C).

Making coal electricity and using the waste heat for district heating apartment buildings is quite effective and has a pretty low workload compared to separate houses and oil heaters or what you have.

There isn’t any really good “green” solution for this. Making district heat with wood has its problems for example, and having heat pumps everywhere is inefficient and even inelegant in many senses. First making electricity with a low efficiency and then using that to make heat again with a low multiplier. You need magnets and bearings and whatnot in both devices. Are there even enough rare earths?

Building nuclear plants close to cities isn’t nice either. If you built them far away, you’d need to build really long pipes and that gets inefficient again. It also hurts the nuke’s electricity output surprisingly much. You could probably optimize the plant for better district heat production though, and the Russians have done that in some cold cities. But you can’t have a single nuclear plant as the only thing that’s heating a city: it would be devastating if an unplanned break left a million people cold in their homes.

In the future though, buildings can be much more energy efficient, so that’s the biggest saver. That too can be overdone, and I don’t like many modern buildings which have tiny awkwardly placed windows. A human produces about 70 watts of heat, and electronic equipment produces some waste heat too. “Zero energy” houses can take the heat from the exiting air and use it to heat the incoming air (like penguins do with the blood in their feet), making large savings (and at the same time making it hard to retrofit some old buildings.)

Dividing Finland’s yearly energy consumption with all the seconds in the year and all the people, we get nine kilowatts of constant power, day and night, summer and winter, for each person. That’s huge.

One big part of that is heating. It’s also a big missing part of the discussion.

Posted in Architecture, Energy | 3 Comments