Thursday, August 31, 2017

How to evaluate a Launcher Startup.

This post started as a 7 tweet tweet book . Several people asked me to put it together in a way that can be permanently linked. This is the result.

I'm assuming there is a valid business case. The business concept with  cost estimates and identified customers etc... needs to work before any of this matters.  I assume that any business evaluation will include the business fundamentals. I personally believe that a low cost dedicated nanosat launcher makes business sense and I have personally worked on  such a business plan. I see a lot of launcher startups being funded so I must assume that others agree the business case might work.
What I see looking out at the world is a complete failure in technical evaluation of the various launcher startups.  I'm trying to provide a rough guide for technical evaluation of a launcher startup.
To state the obvious, the first goal of any launcher  company will be to get payloads into orbit,
that is the hard part of the business. Added services, responsiveness, cool features etc... are all irrelevant until you have a vehicle getting to orbit.

So what does it take to get to orbit and how does that differ from getting to space?
10: Newton's Orbital Cannon - Top 10 Isaac Newton ...

The official line of space is 100Km or 328K ft. In the scale of the earth a tiny distance.  Suborbital vehicles, like Space Ship 1, and Blue Origin's New Shepard are suborbital. They go to space, but they do not go into orbit. This may be useful as a tourist vehicle, and for limited scientific experiments, but its not really relevant if you are trying to build an orbital vehicle.

The potential energy necessary to get to space (straight up) is (approximately)
where m is mass, g is acceleration due to gravity and h is height. So for one kg  
1*9.81*100,000m = 981,000 nm of energy.
The minimum speed to be in orbit is around 7500 m/sec
so for the same 1 Kg in orbit we add an additional
0.5*7500*7500=28,125,000N-m of energy.
So the total is ~ 29,106,000 NM or 29 times the energy of a suborbital vehicle.

So if a space company says we have gotten to space and we will be in orbit real soon now; realize it's like an airline company offering you a ride from San Francisco to New York City, yet the farthest their plane has ever flown is from SFO to Sacramento.

So what does it take to actually get to orbit:
  1. Mass Fraction (Hard)
  2. Motor performance (Hard)
  3. Guidance (Medium Hard and getting easier)
  4. Regulatory approval (Medium Hard)

Mass Fraction.

Mass fraction is the ratio of propellant mass to empty weight. For example a 2L coke bottle has a mass fraction of about 40.  I.e., the bottle full of coke weights 40 times what it weighs empty.
This is a good mental model for a rocket, the mass ration of the upgraded Falcon 9 is estimated to be 25:1.
Any orbital vehicle using chemical propulsion will look like a big tank.
So when evaluating a potential launcher company you need to ask what is the Mass Fraction of hardware you have on hand and can show me.  When evaluating this don't accept paper numbers, insist on knowing what the numbers are for the hardware on hand.

Motor Performance.

Rocket motors (assuming they work at all) have one major and two minor performance parameters.
  • ISP. It's usually stated in seconds. IE a motor with an ISP of 300 will make 300lb sec of thrust for one lb of propellant.Orbital vehicles have had rocket motors varying in ISP from 220 (shuttle big solids) to 450 (high stress staged combustion Lox/H2 SSME) Lox RP1 motors are in the 300 to 330 range.
  • Thrust to Weight: What is the ratio of motor weight to motor thrust. If the rocket motor is accounted for in the Mass Fraction of the overall vehicle, this is sort of irrelevant. Its also a bit hard to score as the value varies depending on where you draw the line between the rocket motor and the rest of the vehicle. The Main propellant valves for instance, do they belong to the tank or the Motor?
  • Burn Duration: The rocket motor need to last long enough to get you to orbit. This is not really relevant to most liquids, but for small solids, it's really hard to increase this number due to the physics of solid propellant burning and insulation requirements.
I've marked this part of the four fundamentals as Hard.  I'd actually score the motor as Medium hard, but getting all the instrumentation and test together to optimize and really know what your motor is really doing pushes this into the hard category.  


The rocket needs to go where you want it to go. You'll also have to convince the regulatory agencies that you really do have control of where it's going so it won't be a hazard. As computer simulations get better and better getting this part right gets easier. It's really easy to have the simulation right, and have errors in the vehicle where the actuator direction is backwards or the simulation inertia scale is wrong lbs/kg anyone?
So, does the rocket company have a plan to verify and reality check the hardware with the simulation without destroying the rocket?  I test flew my hovering rockets under a forklift so I could discover guidance errors without destroying the vehicle. The difference between this video and this video is the sign of a single term in the guidance equations.


If you're in the U.S. you are going to have to get FAA permission to launch your vehicle.
Where you launch from and how you mitigate risk to the general public are a big part of this process.
It's not really that hard, it just must be planned for in the development of the vehicle. It's not something you can just "Stick OK" a completed vehicle if you have given zero thought to things like ranges, range safety and EC (expected casualty)  The FAA is going to care about what the rocket parts can hit if things do not go to plan. That's why I've always given very little credence to inland spaceports like the one in NM or Odessa as a place for orbital launches. If you launch from NM you're going to stage somewhere over the densely populated parts of Tx. Short of a planet wide emergency,  like in Seveneves, it's never going to be allowed.

Putting it all together with the rocket equation

The rocket equation   
Delta V= ln(MI/MF)*ISP*g
MI initial stage mass, ie the weight of everything....including upper stages and propellant
MF final stage mass ie the weight of everything minus all the burned propellant.
ISP the Motor ISP number. (Not really a fixed number improves with altitude)
g 9.81 m/sec acceleration due to gravity.....

Calculate this Delta V for each stage in the vehicle.
The Mass of the fully fueled stages above the one you are calculating Dv for must be included in both the initial and final weights.

Once you have calculated ALL of the stage Dv and added them up, if the number is > 9000m/sec then you have a chance at getting to orbit. This number will vary somewhat with the vehicle acceleration profile and size. I personally like this paper "How Small can a launch vehicle be" for evaluating concepts as a first order check.
If the number is not yet to 9000m/sec and the plan to fix mass fraction and ISP to get to 9000m/sec is not the number one issue for EVERY technical person working on the vehicle, I would be doubtful they will succeed.

The Team

Building a new Rocket is an exercise in creativity. There is not a formula that given inputs generates a rocket. Unless the engineering team shows the ability to design, build, evaluate, and repeat in a creative way, nothing else is going to matter. Building hardware is different than building software, rockets are hardware. When you talk to the CTO/Chief engineer/Chief Wizard without notes can he tell you what his mass fractions, ISP and current achieved weight vs planned weight numbers are?
If he can't then who in his organization can? If no one can, then they are not going to succeed.
Walk through the shop and engineering, do you see a scale?  Does every engineer building a piece part know what his weight budget is and if he's going to make the weight budget?
Before XCOR failed, I personally thought about investing in their company several times, every time I got a tour of their facility, I was turned off by the complete lack of weight control. The half finished linx had many parts that look like they belonged on a truck, not a space craft. The complete lack of detailed weight control on all the minor parts spelled failure to me and I never invested for just this reason.
Eventually the team will need to learn operations, and as it grows it will need HR, middle management and all the other parts of a company. But unless it gets the creative engineering part right up front it's going to run out of $$ long before any of these things matter.

To quote from my tweet storm:
  • Pretty Paint does not matter.
  • Fancy Building does not matter.
  • Previous Dinospace experience does not matter.
  • Cool animations of a paper rocket do not matter.
  • Until they have hardware that can do 9000m/sec DV, operational issues don't matter.

Why doesn't previous dinospace experience matter? Because other than SpaceX, all of the other launch providers had their creative how do we do the base design done in the 60's and 70's. The creative steely eyed missile men that made that fabulous leap to the moon and beyond are no longer part of the current dinospace environment. It's a very different thing to manage and evolve an existing system than it is to create a new one from scratch.

Please feel free to comment on errors or omissions or areas that need clarification in this post. I will try to correct, enhance and improve over the coming few weeks.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Slides from Space Access.. 2016

Here is a link to my Space Access 2016 slides..

Some pictures if you don't want to mess with PPT...

Thursday, March 10, 2016

An interesting EMC tale..

I spent much of the last week doing EMC testing on a new NetBurner module, for FCC and CE qualification.  The basic process is you take a unit to the test lab and they do various emissions and immunity tests.  This happens with basically every electronic product you ever purchase.

This week we had an odd result that is worth of a write up...
Most EMC tests start with emissions testing as that is the most often failed part so get that done first.

One of the tests in the middle is Radiated Immunity...
For normal consumer products they put the unit in an RF field of about 3V per meter and sweep the frequency.  This test is done in a 3M RF chamber and in the place we test this is split into 16 parts....

Front, back,right, left  in each of vertical and horizontal polarity with two sweeps one up to 1Ghz and one from 1 Ghz to 2.7Ghz.   Your unit is supposed to remain operational during the test...
So for this new unit a Wifi /Ethernet to serial unit we put a loop back cable between the serial connections and do an ethernet ping and tcp over wifi loop back through the serial connection.
We monitor that data goes out and back and is reliable.  Running 2.4Ghz wifi we expect some packet loss when they sweep through 2.4Ghz, but the unit should recover.

The first 8 tests under 1Ghz were uneventful....
For over 1Ghz they swap out the drive antenna for a wide band horn and different amplifier.
The first 4 tests, left, right x horizontal,vertical all went well.

Then we started doing the front and back of the unit and the Wifi in the unit started acting flakey. It would loose the wifi connection and nothing I could do would make it come back. This was with the  chamber open and the signal turned off.  It seemed like physically moving the unit caused it to die.
I got through one more set, the back, leaving just the front of the unit to test and I just could not get it to work ,,,, So I aborted the testing on Tuesday and drove back to the office from the test lab in orange county.
Since moving the unit caused it to die I assumed a bad solder joint.
When I got back to the office I re-flowed the wifi module and and retested wifh while violently shaking the unit.  It worked flawlessly...

So I went back to the lab on Wednesday, EFT, surge, ESD, conducted immunity etc...
Everything worked flawlessly for the next two days. The WIFI was really solid....

This afternoon we had one test left >1Ghz radiated immunity to the front, horizontal and vertical...

The unit fired right up and worked flawlessly....
We finished the horizontal test, the drive was off no signal...
The test technician went into the chamber and rotated the drive horn from Horizontal to Vertical...
WIFI died. I rebooted the unit and nothing I did could make wifi work...
So I asked them to turn off their amplifier.... and the wifi  came back to life...
(This is with the drive to the AMP turned off)  Amp on wifi dead, amp off wifi works....

We then rotated the drive antenna back to horizontal and turned the amp on...
Wifi worked.... we rotated the  feed horn wifi died...

The strange part is when the tests were actually running IE they were driving RF energy in to the AMP and out the antenna at our unit WIFI worked flawlessly. It only died when the test set was idle.

The WIFI antenna on our unit could be rotated to vertical or horizontal, so as long as that antenna was  of opposite polarity to the test antenna everything worked....

What is even stranger is we could be dead and idle and turn on the test IE drive energy and things worked....

So we did the last test with the WIFI antenna horizontal..

The whole time our unit could scan for the WIFI router and recieve fine, when it tried to transmit things died...
So what is going on?  The only theory I have is that our WIFI signal was coupling into the amplifier and causing some king of feedback, ie like Microphone squeal...

The guys running the EMC lab have been doing this for 30 years and they have never seen anything like it... It was a strange Day...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Flight of 12 19 15

Some background on GPS.... this post is chronologically challenged as it flips back and forth)

I have three approaches to getting the GPS to work.
They are somewhat related.....

1)Use a Swift navigation PIKSI with custom firmware.
I've flown this unit with stock firmware twice, and with custom firmware once.
Flight 1 Stock firmware, lost lock at ~5 gee, marginal GPS in all cases.
Flight 2 Custom firmware with wide open GPS tracking loops... over did it as the units were tracking sats that were not there.....
Flight 3a) (12/19/15)
Newer version of Stock firmware GPS performance much improved, still lost lock at 6 gee, but recovered at burnout...
flight 3b)Same flight different piksi hooked up to intel compute stick to log RAW signals from the front end.

2)Use a RTL SDR dongle with GNSS-SDR and write custom firmware..
Thanks to some help from a follower/friend I have this runnign on the ground with my survey grade 35DB trimble antenna, but not with the flight weight antennas, I'm waingin for some low nosie amps to make this work wiht the flight weight antennas.

3)Build my own GPS with full IMU tight integration.
This will use the same Maxim GPS front end as Piksi, but with the Zynq CPU.
I have all the prototype pieces in work....

After action...

Thursday, Friday and Saturday I had a bad sore throat and cold.
On Thursday I determined that the RTL-SDR was not going to work without the LNA I did not have.
So I switched to trying to record the raw signals from the piksi...
After napping much of the day Friday to get better I finished the Piksi raw record  about midnight Friday.

Saturday I got up at 4:45 rechecked that everything was working, packed all the stuff into the car and drove to the airport.  I took off about 7am in the 182 Headed to FAR , I landed on the private dirt road next to FAR at about 8:15.

Started prepping the HPR for the flight using one of John Newmans ~M experimental motors.
one of the Altimeters failed the deployment charge conductivity test, took me about 2 hours to find the broken wire down inside the avionics module.  Launched the rocket at 11:07:26  It went to ~12K ft. The GPS experiments and batteries added a lot of weight to the nose cone and I did not upgrade the main chute retention nylon bolts. So when the drouge deployed at appogee the main also deployed.   After driving around in  the desert on the quad for an hour gave up looking for the rocket and switched to the airplane.... it took us about 5 min in the 182 to find the rocket. It was 4 miles from launch and withing 25 ft of a paved road.  So we landed back at FAR and Ted took me to get the rocket in his jeep.  Kind of fun to ride in a really capable off road vehicle...  The rocket barely fit in the jeep and on the way back to far we jumped over a rock pile the rocket came loose and broke Ted's window ;-(  When people try to budget projects like this and understand costs no one puts things like Jeep windows in the budget.....

Once back at FAR I took the GPS modules out of the nose cone, I  packed up and flew to Oceanside...(OKB) The flying club I'm part of had its Christmas party Saturday afternoon and I had promised I'd give breezy rides, so I left the 182 at OKB and took the Breezy to CRQ... it was too cold and I had no breezy ride takers.... so I took the breezy back to
OKB put it away and flew the 182 back to CRQ unpacked and drove home.  I got home about 6 pm and went to bed early. It was a long day...

Saturday I downloaded the data from the GPS modules.  The SBP format file  from the first Piksi is here: SBP format Datafile The SBP format is defined here

Decoding that the Piksi with the current stock firmware lost lock at about 6 gee and regained lock at burn out.

The second piksi was recording raw RF from the front end via the intel compute stick... from time to time it had a FPGA fifo error and the sampler would restart.... inside this zip file are a bunch of raw data files.  The file ending in 110731 has the first 4 seconds of flight. The File 110822 has the balance of the boost phase.  

These dat files are supposed to run in the swift nav peregrine software GPS receiver, alas my linux fu is not working and I'm unable to get peregrine working as it looks like swift has moved its library python bindings from a separate module into the libswiftnav, alas that integrated version python will not build on my VM....
If anyone wants to play with this you can find info on peregrine here: Peregrine

That's all for now. I'll update when I manage to get some info from the raw data.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

After Action report...

So this was  a FAR weekend.
I had intended to do three tests, only got one done.

I fired the 3D printed motor with larger diameter plumbing on the main valve and a turbine flow meter so I can measure C* and ISP.

Results are mixed....
The test stand I'm using is an amalgamation of an old test stand and a bunch of valves from the silver ball.  In short it is a mess. I worked on making it better this week. (largely why I only got one of my tests done)  We hydroed the basic structure and tested the relief valve a few weeks ago, and all of that is solid.  The new valves and arrangements form the main outlet to the motor are solid.

The valves for the fuel side and the pressurization system are 100% Silver ball leftovers.
They largely worked two weeks ago when we ran it, this weekend two of the fuel side valves were frozen and the actuators died.  I had one spare actuator with me so I replaced the fuel valve actuator and changed the fuel side vent to manual operations.

The 2nd deficiency of the system is that all the wiring is an unreliable mess. I hope to clean that up repackage the electronics and make it all a solid solution before I use the stand again.
I  left the test stand at FAR but brought all the valves and sensors home.
The actuators are all dynamixel RX-64, 18V actuators  run off a 5 cell lipo and an ac power supply to keep things topped up.  I have a nice 40V  13.8V AC powered supply, thinking about trading the RX-64 for MX-64 that would be happy running at 13.8V. This is a $1K decision, I need to sleep on that.

My old sureflow pump for loading oxidizer died this year. I bought an air powered diaphram pump from McMaster car to replace it as the model of sureflow pump is not longer made.
The problem with this pump is that is really pulses, the flow is not smooth so hoses jump around and do unpredictable things.  I mounted the pump to a 3 hp roll around aircompressor and added a remote dead man switch activated valve to turn the pump on/off.  I also changed the loading procedure form opening the top of the tank to having a separate valve and a hard connection on the bottom for fueling, no ladders involved. These changes mostly worked as designed and I'm happy with them. much less risk drama in oxidizer loading.  I need to do something similar for the fuel side and will do so.  I still have hope that I can find a good steady electric self priming oxidizer pump..... I've ordered a couple of candidates, we will see how they turn out.

The firing ran well about 78 seconds. The CAT pack worked well and I got good data. The feed pressure was up about 20 psi from last time, the chamber pressure was up about 10, not sure where the other 10psi went.... motor ran at about 180 PSI target is 200. On shutdown the fuel feed pressure stayed up witht he fuel valve closed.  So I suspect that rebuilding the fuel side of the system in the mojave dust introduced enough material to clog the fuel orfices.  I've ordered a small sintered 10 micron fuel filter to add to the system.  Well see when I examine the engine this week....

I forgot to do a final last minute tightness check on all the plumbing. Got distracted by a rocket launch that required everyone under cover and for got to tighten one pressure transducer... sprayed peroxide all over everything...this part was after the main valve so was not part of the pre-fill leak check.

Then wheil disassembling things I dumped fuel all over the open ox inlet port on the motor.
So before I run it again it needs to come apart and be properly lcleaned for oxidizer service.

Things to do before next test:
Rebuild and test all the valves and actuators.
Package the electronics in a more robust manner.
Add flow meter to the fuel side.

I'll probably run another motor test the first FAR event of January that should be Jan 2nd
For the Far event on the 19th of December I'm going to try and fly my GPS experiment and test the little TJ-20A turbine as a potential first stage motor.  

I'll try and post some of the test data when I have looked at it later this week.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Working on full layout

Looking at various possible layouts for the bottom of the Third Stage.
(IE the one where weight really matters....)

Friday, November 20, 2015

motor design...

Here is a quick note about the Motor we are going to fire on Saturday...

The Grey is the 3D printed motor.
The Light Blue is the part I turned and machined (4 times)
The Gold is the peroxide going down the cooling passages...
The Red is the peroxide coming back up the cooling passages... (The gold and red connect at the right end of this drawing.
The Green is the Catalyst pack that turns the oxidizer from liquid to Steam and hot Oxygen.
The Yellow in the band around the middle and in (two shown) the four fuel injectors that inject fuel just below the cat pack.