SpaceX to build small version of BFR’s spaceship for use on Falcon 9, says Elon Musk

A view of spaceship (BFS) separating from BFR booster (BFB). (SpaceX)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has taken to Twitter to announce a new development program: in order to gain experience with the new design and recovery strategy, SpaceX engineers and technicians will apparently build a miniature version of BFR’s winged spaceship able to launch atop Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy.

According to Musk, the company aims to conduct the first orbital flight of this mini-BFS as early as June 2019, just eight months away.

Described as a “SpaceX tech tree build”, Musk seems to be implying that the strategic purpose of this new development is to act as a stepping stone between Falcon 9 and BFR, two dramatically different launch vehicles relying on a variety of entirely distinct technologies. Based on the fact that Musk believes the mini-BFS could reach orbit as early as June 2019, it seems likely that the miniature spaceship will essentially just be a strengthened Falcon 9 upper stage with fins and a heat shield attached versus a more extreme departure, where the stage would literally be a mini-BFS.

In the latter scenario, SpaceX could use the opportunity to extensively test – albeit on a smaller scale – a number of immature BFR technologies, including all-composite propellant tanks, autogenous pressurization, a sea level-optimized rocket engine on an orbital upper stage, methane and oxygen (methalox) propellant, actuatable tripod fins, new heat shield materials, and more. If SpaceX has been working on this for several months, there is still a chance that those technologies will be tested on this step-change Falcon 9 S2 variant, but it seems improbable that Musk would have been able to stay totally silent on the plans during his September 2018 update to the BFR program.

Falcon 9 upper-stage recovery

Going off of what little information we have, it seems more likely that the “mini-BFR ship” described by Musk is an effort to realize Falcon 9 upper stage recovery and test BFR’s orbital spaceship recovery strategies than it is an extensive development platform for all critical BFR technologies. Prior to today’s tweet, Musk announced early this year (April, to be precise) that SpaceX would attempt to recovery Falcon 9’s upper stage with a “giant…balloon”, or an inflatable decelerator to use the technical terminology.

Given this new development, it’s unclear if those plans are still on – as a small spaceship, Falcon 9’s upper stage would likely be able to reenter Earth’s atmosphere without the need for something like a single-use inflatable decelerator, which would have always been a suboptimal crutch for the recovery of any orbital spacecraft, be it Falcon 9 or BFR. With this new plan, it appears that SpaceX wants to kill at least two birds with one stone, building a platform capable of flight-testing a handful of new technologies critical to BFR’s success while also potentially realizing the dream of a fully-reusable Falcon 9.

A gif of Raptor throttling over the course of a 90+ second static-fire test in McGregor, Texas. (SpaceX)

Given recent reports from Reuters that Musk has demanded that SpaceX’s Starlink team work towards the first launch of an operational batch of satellites by mid-2019, his target date for a mini-BFS Falcon 9 upper stage is likely no coincidence. Given the potential risk of being the first to launch on an unproven variant of Falcon 9, it’s possible (if not probable) that SpaceX will conduct its own launch of the rocket prior to flying paying customers – a perfect way to avoid wasting that launch would be risking a few of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites in place of a customer’s payload.

Musk seems to be confident that SpaceX has effectively ‘solved’ propulsive rocket landings, stating that the purpose of this new variant will be dedicated to testing an “ultra light heat shield and high Mach control surfaces”. Judging from a number of recent job postings focused on new thermal protection systems (and affixing them to composite structures) and an official request for information (RFI) from NASA Ames about its lightweight TUFROC heat shield material, this is a major focus and one of several critical paths for BFR development.

For prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket recovery fleet check out our brand new LaunchPad and LandingZone newsletters!

SpaceX to build small version of BFR’s spaceship for use on Falcon 9, says Elon Musk

Sponsored Content

Don't miss this rare opportunity to own an exclusive, hand signed SpaceX Falcon Heavy collection by rocket photographers Tom Cross and Pauline Acalin.


Tesla patent hints at 4-way split screen for apps and customized taskbar

A recently published patent has revealed that Tesla is exploring the idea of a user interface allowing drivers to launch and display up to four apps simultaneously in a four-way split screen arrangement. What’s more, Tesla also seems to be preparing a setting that will enable users to customize the arrangement of icons in their vehicles’ main taskbar.

The new features were outlined in a patent published on November 1, 2018. Simply titled as “Vehicular Interface System for Launching an Application,” the patent describes updates to the way users interact with Tesla’s graphical user interface. The patent, whose illustrations still reflect the company’s V8 design, included some GUI updates that were included in the Software Version 9 release. Among these are a taskbar that’s repositioned to the bottom of the display for Model S and X vehicles, as well as the capability to resize open windows after apps are launched.

Among the illustrations that Tesla included for the patent, though, is a feature that is yet to make its way to Version 9 — the capability to launch up to four apps that are displayed in a four-way split screen. The feature would be activated by selecting an icon on the taskbar, which would, in turn, display options on which portion of the display the app would launch. 

Tesla’s recently published patent includes a four-way split screen arrangement for active applications. [Credit: US Patent Office]

Apart from the capability to launch multiple apps in a four-way split screen arrangement, Tesla’s patent also included references to users having the ability to configure app shortcuts displayed on the taskbar. Such a system is an update to the current taskbar setup, where shortcuts are typically representative of apps “for which frequent access is desired.” 

“Within (the) taskbar are icons representative of the applications that provide the user with shortcut access to each of the designated applications, for example, applications that control various vehicle subsystems. In one embodiment the application shortcuts located within the taskbar are configured by a third party (e.g., the system or vehicle manufacturer) while in another embodiment the application shortcuts located within the taskbar are configured by the end user.

“In the illustrated GUI a portion of the screen is used for persistent controls that remain on the display screen regardless of the applications being displayed on the screen. These persistent controls may be selected based on the need for frequent access (e.g., temperature controllers, seat warmers, climate controller, and audio volume controller, etc.) or for safety (e.g., front defroster controller, rear defroster controller, etc.). In the exemplary screen, a “settings” button is also shown, which provides the user with instant access to the various vehicle settings (e.g., lights, sunroof control, etc.). The persistent controls may be configured by the user, the system/vehicle manufacturer, or by a third party.”

Tesla Model S with software Version 9. [Credit: Teslarati]

The full text of Tesla’s patent on its GUI updates could be accessed here.

Considering that Tesla had already rolled out some of the features outlined in its recently published patent in Version 9, it seems safe to assume that the four-way split screen capability and taskbar customizations are likely coming in future software updates. Hence, it could very well be just a matter of time before these features are introduced to Tesla’s fleet of electric vehicles. It must be noted that Tesla’s V9 update introduced notable changes and optimizations even to cars that are equipped with older hardware. Thus, there is a good chance that even Tesla’s Gen 1 vehicles would also receive taskbar customizations and four-way split screen capabilities.

Tesla’s recently published patents have covered a rather wide range of improvements for the electric car maker’s vehicles. Last month, for example, a patent teased the introduction of an automatic tire inflation system for the Tesla Semi, which opens opportunities for the company’s present and upcoming vehicles like the Model X, Model Y, and the Tesla pickup truck to acquire off-road capabilities. A patent for a clever clamping assembly that allows Tesla to address misaligned panels during the manufacturing process was recently published earlier this month as well. Apart from these, a rigid structural cable design that could help the company automate its vehicle production process further was also outlined in a patent published in October. 


Feasibility study suggests use of high-power lasers to contact alien civilizations

We currently have, or could quickly develop, the technology to communicate with nearby alien worlds, according to a study recently published by the Astrophysical Journal. To accomplish such a feat, the study proposes using a 2-megawatt laser, pointed through a 30-meter telescope, to build a beacon with significant enough reach to be detected by civilizations up to thousands of light years away. With over 3,800 exoplanets already confirmed and around 3,000 others awaiting confirmation, communicating with those thought to be habitable is one of the next questions to consider.

If intelligent life were to exist on one of the planets surrounding our nearest stars, messages could potentially be sent between worlds using such a laser beacon in patterns similar to Morse code. A few years between messages might seem stark compared to the rate of exchange we’ve become used to amongst ourselves, and the wait for a first response might be daunting. However, the definitive revelation of not being alone in the universe might be worth the time invested.

51 Pegasi b is about 50 light years from Earth. A little far for a pen pal, but still a possibility! | Credit: NASA/JPL

In the study conducted at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, author James R. Clark suggested that the beacon’s initial role would be to attract the attention of alien astronomers similar to how our attention is gained in identifying exoplanets. We study anomalies in the electromagnetic spectrums of other stars to find planets, and thus, our star’s spectrum would potentially seem unusual with a projecting laser beam, meriting more attention.

Clark noted that it would take a minimum of 2MW of energy to stand out against our sun’s infrared signal in a “cursory survey by an extraterrestrial intelligence”, which is how the size and wattage of the beacon were calculated. The feasibility of creating this communication tool was explored as part of a graduate school class Clark was enrolled in, and the study’s co-author is his professor, Kerri Cahoy.

Are there potentially habitable planets close enough to even justify utilizing such a technology? Perhaps. One of the better candidates could be the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system in the constellation Aquarius, where a star boasts at least 7 planets in orbit with rocky surfaces and sizes similar to Earth and Venus. Three have been determined to be potentially habitable.

An artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 system. | Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The 40-light-year distance of the TRAPPIST-1 system from Earth would have a significant communications delay, however. At only 4 light years away, though, the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b, a slightly larger than Earth planet orbiting red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, could be a more promising candidate for finding alien pen pals.

Recent studies have pointed to hopeful prospects for its habitability, thus making a communication tool like the beacon in this study even more relevant. Further discussion would be needed, of course – do we want to reach out to other worlds? But the combination of a potentially habitable planet and the ability to communicate with it is an exciting consideration.

Watch the NASA video below for more information about the TRAPPIST-1 system.



Ex-SpaceX engineer leads Stratolaunch to major rocket engine test milestone

Stratolaunch has successfully completed the first full-scale test of its 200,000-lbf thrust PGA rocket engine. (Stratolaunch)

Led by rocket propulsion expert Jeff Thornburg, Stratolaunch – famous for owning the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever built – has completed the first hot-fire test of a full-scale rocket engine component known as the preburner, a major milestone in the development of any launch vehicle or propulsion system.

Despite the significant size and power of the component, destined to support an engine that will generate 200,000 pounds (~900 kN) of thrust, Thornburg and his team of engineers and technicians have managed to go from designing the preburner to successfully hot-firing a full-scale test article, an extraordinary achievement by any measure.

Aside from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Aerojet-Rocketdyne, Stratolaunch is the only private entity developing – let alone testing full-scale parts for – a liquid-fueled rocket engine as large as PGA. Shorthand for the Stratolaunch’s late founder and bankroller Paul G. Allen, PGA is a fuel-rich staged combustion cycle engine that uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen (hydrolox) fuel and oxidizer, typically resulting in high efficiency. In terms of scale and thrust, PGA is very closely comparable to SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine, which uses kerosene instead of hydrogen but produces roughly 190,000 lbf (850 kN) of thrust and stands 4 feet (1.2m) wide and ~10 feet (~3m) tall.

Another major difference between PGA and Merlin 1D is the fact Merlin 1D’s nozzle is largely optimized for sea level while PGA is being built for a rocket that will be “launched” from a massive plane flying around 35,000 feet (~10.5 km), ultimately resulting in a nozzle that is much wider and longer, featuring nearly the same proportions as fully vacuum-optimized engines like SpaceX’s MVac. By widening the nozzle relative to the rest of the engine, rocket engines are able to operate far more efficiently at higher altitudes, where Earth’s atmosphere thins and exerts less pressure on the escaping exhaust gases. This is visualized well by the visible expansion of rocket exhausts during launches, morphing from a straight cylinder to a massive teardrop-shaped plume. At lower altitudes (and thus higher atmospheric pressures), wider nozzles can produce extreme turbulence and will ultimately shake themselves to destruction, preventing their usage on ground-launched rocket boosters.

Judging from official renders of the engine, PGA’s in-atmosphere variant appears to utilize a form of regenerative nozzle cooling very similar to that used on M1D, where liquid propellant flows through thin capillaries sandwiched between two or more layers of metal to cool the nozzle much like cold water chills the skin of an uninsulated water bottle.

Testing rocket engine preburners

In the case of staged combustion cycle hydrolox rocket engines, a small portion of liquid oxygen and all of the liquid hydrogen (hence “fuel-rich”) are mixed and combusted to generate hot gas that then spools up the engine’s primary turbopump(s), ultimately drawing fuel and oxidizer into the combustion quickly enough to ignite the engine and generate sustained thrust. The components that get those main turbopumps started are known collectively as the preburner, which is what Stratolaunch successfully tested – at full-scale – for the first time ever last week. For any liquid rocket engine that cannot solely rely on propellant tank pressure to deliver fuel to the combustion chamber, full-scale tests of preburners or gas-generators effectively mark the moment that engines truly become real.

“This is the first step in proving the performance and highly efficient design of the PGA engine. The hot-fire test is an incredible milestone for both the propulsion team and Stratolaunch.” – Jeff Thornburg, VP of Propulsion, Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch’s propulsion team will continue to test the preburner for longer durations and at higher power levels over the next several months, likely optimizing operations and tweaking or upgrading the preburner’s hardware as real tests produce valuable lessons-learned. Built entirely with additive manufacturing (3D printing), the team should be able to rapidly iterate on the physical design of the engine, a rarity in a field where traditional fabrication methods can take weeks or months to produce complex turbomachinery components with mercilessly strict tolerances.

According to Thornburg, the ultimate goal is to continue that additive-manufacturing-only strategy throughout the development of this rocket engine, theoretically enabling unprecedented design flexibility while also slashing production time throughout. PGA will ultimately power the creatively-named Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV), a small-ish air-launched rocket designed to place a respectable 3400 kg into low Earth orbit (LEO) as early as 2022, as well as a Heavy version of MLV and, potentially, a reusable spaceplane somewhere down the line.


For prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket recovery fleet check out our brand new LaunchPad and LandingZone newsletters!


Tesla’s Autopilot improvements are the result of Elon Musk’s frontline leadership style

Tesla’s Autopilot has undergone notable improvements over the past years. With the rollout of Software Version 9 and the eventual release of Navigate on Autopilot, the company has moved closer to Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of having a fleet of vehicles capable of full self-driving. Just like the company’s ongoing production ramp for the Model 3, the rapid rollout of Autopilot’s improvements is partly the result of Musk’s frontline leadership style and his bold approach to software testing.

When Tesla runs into difficulties, Musk makes it a point to deal with challenges firsthand. During the production ramp of the Model X, Musk started sleeping on the floor of the Fremont factory so that he could “lead from the front lines.” He adopted the same approach in the Model 3 ramp, as the company struggled to hit its self-imposed manufacturing targets, particularly at the end of the second quarter. Apart from sleeping at the Fremont factory once more, anecdotes from the Tesla community indicated that when the company was setting up GA4 on the grounds of the facility, Musk was there, torquing bolts with his workers.

A new report from The Information noted that Elon Musk adopts the same frontline approach to Autopilot testing. According to the publication’s sources, Musk personally drives an “engineering car” that allows him to adjust the sensitivity settings of pre-released “development build” versions of the driver-assist system. This allows Musk to make the software as aggressive as possible, thereby testing the limits of Autopilot’s capabilities. Members of the Autopilot team use developer builds of the system in their personal vehicles as well, but no one reportedly pushes Autopilot as much as Musk.

By pushing the driver-assist system to its limits, Musk has found himself in “situations that many of us wouldn’t want to be in,” according to one of the publication’s sources. While undeniably risky, Musk has also been pivotal in finding the “big bugs” in the system, while identifying the most notable areas where Autopilot should improve. In one such instance, Musk’s experiences while testing the software ended up improving Autopilot’s capability to steer clear from large vehicles that may unintentionally cross into a Tesla’s lane.

Elon Musk’s tendency to consistently test Autopilot’s limits has undoubtedly contributed to the relatively quick improvements in Autopilot that Tesla’s customers are enjoying today. Navigate on Autopilot, for one, introduced highway on-ramp to off-ramp capabilities to the driver-assist system — a feature that Musk mentioned during the 2018 Annual Shareholder Meeting. Navigate on Autopilot’s Mad Max setting, which is available on Tesla’s vehicles after a recent update, was teased by Elon Musk on Twitter prior to its rollout as well.

Considering the pace of Tesla’s constant innovation, the upcoming release of Advanced Summon, the first features of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving suite, and the rollout of the company’s custom-built Hardware 3, there is a good chance that Elon Musk’s vision of having a fleet of electric cars equipped with full autonomy could soon become a reality. And once it does, owners would have Musk to thank for being Autopilot’s main tester.


Neurotechnology to treat spinal cord injury sees early success in human spine implant

Doctors in surgery. | Credit: Pixabay

A spinal implant device developed by scientists and doctors in Switzerland has enabled three paralyzed men to walk again. The men, aged 30, 35, and 48, participated in a trial conducted by research institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) wherein the device was first surgically implanted in the cervical (neck) part of their spines followed by rehabilitative therapy. Within one week, all of the men were able to regain motion in their lower limbs, and after three months, they were able to walk hands-free with hip support in a gravity-assist mechanism.

Spinal cord injury interferes with the cell communication essential in the nervous system for enabling neurological functions. When a human or animal wants to move a limb, the brain sends electrical signals down the spinal cord which trigger, or “innervate”, nerve cells connected to muscles to move as instructed. In the case of severe or complete paralysis, as was the case with the three men treated, the signals from the brain are too weak to reach the areas that are paralyzed. The implant used in the trial provided a targeted boost to the signals used for lower limb movement.

The device, an “implantable pulse generator” which delivers epidural electrical stimulation (EES) to the spinal cord, is commonly used for deep brain stimulation but was modified to enable wireless commands to meet the trial’s needs. To achieve the necessary types of impulses to the spine, researchers studied the bodies’ electrical activity behavior when motion was attempted by participants. That information was used to develop algorithms which would control electrical pulses sent from the device.

As detailed in the research paper reporting the experiments and results for the implant, different types of muscle movements involve different groups of nerve cells being activated. The three men who participated in the trial were able choose the types of motion they wanted to attempt, i.e., standing or walking, via a tablet with a mobile app. The app would then communicate with the implant to direct the types of pulses sent to match the signals for the nerve cell groups associated with the movement desired.

Surprisingly for researchers, the trial also resulted in limited repair of the previously damaged spinal cord nerve connections responsible for participants’ paralysis. One of the participants was even able to walk a few paces without the device’s signals after a few months of therapy. Additionally, the animal portion of the trial showed nerve fibers growing back and connecting to the brain again.

There are many positive potential treatment developments indicated by the success of this trial, but certain limitations should be noted. First, the electrical pulses cause discomfort for participants and thus can’t be maintained for long periods of time. This initial trial was only able to enable walking for approximately one hour. Second, the treatment carries a high price tag. The cost of the device and therapy together puts the paralysis treatment out of reach for many of its would-be beneficiaries.  As more research continues along with expended trials planned to take place in the next three years, it’s possible for it to be available on a wide scale.

To Top