Air Cargo World Magazine - Features
After a series of delays involving modifications to command software, commercial firm Space Exploration Technologies finally launched its Dragon cargo spacecraft from Florida on May 22. A planned May 7 launch date, already pushed back from dates in February and April, resulted in nothing more than a “static fire test” of the rocket engines on the launch pad. On May 19, launch officials found an engine glitch seconds before liftoff. But Dragon is now on its way, carrying a genuine payload of cargo. If this commercial venture succeeds, a new freight mode must be added to the traditional cargo roster of road, rail, air and water.
The moment is significant, and so hotly awaited, because Dragon is the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to carry out such a mission. Dragon was expected to dock with the International Space Station to unload its cargo three or four days after launch.
The U.S. government decided several years back that “routine” transportation to low-Earth orbit, if anything in space can be described that way — tasks such as supplying the ISS and launching satellites — should be doled out to contractors. This meant the Space Shuttle program, with its increasingly high maintenance costs, could be retired, and NASA could move on to develop the systems needed for exploring, and perhaps later mining, Mars and the asteroid belt.
The ISS, essentially a $100 billion research lab co-owned and operated by the U.S., Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe, is the biggest piece of hardware in space, weighing 360 tonnes. Orbiting about 390 kilometers above the Earth, it can accommodate six crew members; many scientific experiments take place on board in zero gravity. The shuttles played a key role in building and replenishing the ISS.
When the Atlantis returned to Earth for the last time in July 2011, the 30-year shuttle program came to an end, briefly leaving other nationalities in charge of resupplying the station. The European Space Agency sends up periodic Automated Transfer Vehicles via its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. The latest to make the journey, ATV-3, delivered 7.2 tonnes of key supplies in March; it was the largest shipment to date. The one-trip ATVs burn up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, as do Japanese supply capsules. A fourth ATV is currently under construction.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft make regular departures to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with replacement crew and supplies. A Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress M-14M, made its final journey in April as scheduled, undocking from the ISS to conduct scientific experiments and falling into the Pacific Ocean nine days later. Progress freighters have completed more than 130 space missions of various types in the past 40 years, with only one failure.
In line with the long-term U.S. strategy of using private-sector spacecraft to help keep the ISS supplied, NASA awarded contracts worth a combined $3.6 billion back in 2008 to two private aerospace firms under its Commercial Resupply Services program. Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., were contracted to haul 20 tonnes of cargo to the Space Station through 2016. SpaceX will make 12 flights with its Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft, while Orbital’s Antares and Cygnus spacecraft will undertake eight flights.
Ever since completing a maiden flight in December 2010, SpaceX has worked toward launching Dragon into low-Earth orbit. While in space, a robotic arm carrying a 521-kilogram payload of food, other consumables and non-critical equipment will reach out to grab the ISS, and astronauts onboard the station will offload the cargo. The plan is for Dragon to remain attached to the ISS for several weeks before returning to Earth with a 660-kilogram payload, far beyond the capacity of the Soyuz capsules. The craft will then splash down in the Pacific in order to be recovered. SpaceX ultimately intends to develop a thruster system that will allow Dragon to return to a spaceport. In two to three years, the system will be further developed so that astronauts can be transported too, a role only the Russians can currently fulfill.
NASA is so far reported to have invested $380 million in SpaceX under a separate funding program, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, while the company and its external investors have put in around $700 million. Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive and chief designer, recently addressed a media conference about the impending flight.
“This is a test flight, and we may not succeed in getting all the way to the Space Station,” he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but it’s important to acknowledge that a lot can go wrong.
“The Space Station is going around the Earth at 17,000 mph, 12 times faster than a bullet from an assault rifle, and you’ve got to be tracking it to within inches for rendezvous,” he continued.
The second commercial party, Orbital, is a few months behind the SpaceX schedule, but hopes to testfire its Antares rocket this summer, followed by a demonstration mission to the ISS with the Cygnus capsule attached in the fourth quarter. Its launch site is the NASA operated Wallops Island facility near Washington, D.C.; the first live CRS mission is currently planned for early next year. The company’s three-part system for CRS comprises Antares, Cygnus and a pressurized cargo module developed by Orbital’s industrial partner, Thales Alenia Space. With this equipment, Orbital will be able to deliver up to 2,700 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the ISS. The single-use system will pick up waste from the station and burn up on reentry.
Antares will put satellites and other payloads into a variety of low-Earth and geosynchronous transfer orbits. Orbital is offering this facility to civil government, military and intelligence, and commercial customers, and has a 10-launch backlog.
A number of other private concerns are in the long-term mix to fly people and cargo into space. XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic were among seven companies chosen by NASA in August 2011 to receive two years of financial support for further research into delivering cargo, initially to the edge of space, on reusable vehicles. NASA’s aim is to be able to draw from a wider pool of companies for payload integration and flight services. The seven firms are sharing $10 million of seed funding via the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program.
XCOR, based in Mojave, Calif., has spent the last seven years developing the Lynx, a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable rocket-powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. The company, backed by high-profile investors, including top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and former venture capitalists, aims to make a short debut test flight later this year or in early 2013.
“Over the following 12-to-18 months, we will gradually expand the envelope of flight until we are performing the full mission profile,” explains the company’s Mike Massee. The Lynx Mark I prototype vehicle is designed to achieve an altitude of 61 kilometers. “This is generally recognized, in civilian terms, as the edge of space, and 99.9999 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is below you,” Massee says.
The first production model, Lynx Mark II, will be able to reach 100 kilometers and will service both the suborbital tourism market and scientific/commercial markets. Envisioned to enter service by 2015 or 2016, it will be FAA- /AST-licensed and will operate like an aircraft up to four times per day. It will initially fly from Mojave Air and Space Port, in clear weather only on visual flight rules — in practice, it can operate through any licensed spaceport with a 2,400-meter runway.
The spacecraft is designed for low-cost operation, with the capability of a full turnaround in as little as two hours. The craft will also be available for wet lease. It can carry small payloads in its pressurized cabin. A later Mark III version will additionally carry an external dorsal pod with a payload capacity for experimental apparatus of 650 kilograms. The Lynx family of vehicles will offer the opportunity for research and scientific missions, private spaceflight, and micro-satellite launch.
XCOR has a $60 million plus backlog of orders for Lynx suborbital vehicles, flights on Lynx, and its reusable rocket engines. Its longer-term objective is a two-stage orbital system that is large enough to deliver people or payloads to the ISS or other space stations. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today; it was developed from SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft. Vehicles now being built for Virgin Galactic by Mojave-based Scaled Composites will carry up to six customers on sub-orbital space flights from the operator’s future headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic’s two-vehicle system involves a mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, carrying a suborbital spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it to fire its rocket engine and fly to space. The company is testing the vehicles both mated together on “captive carry” flights and on glide flights, where SpaceShipTwo is released to fly free, as will happen on commercial flights.
William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, says passenger seats can be removed for research flights, but the near-term ambition is to offer the research community longer periods of microgravity than it can get from current drop towers or parabolic flights.
NASA has so far chartered one full flight of SpaceShipTwo, with options for two additional flights. The craft is not designed to reach orbit, so it could not deliver cargo. But Pomerantz says Virgin Galactic and its founder, Sir Richard Branson, are targeting orbital flights as something for the future.
At least once a day, Richard Malkin shuffles into the small study of his New York home, selects a record from one of the tall bookcases stuffed with music, and whiles away some time listening to one of his favorite composers. read more
One early afternoon toward the end of June 2011, KLM launched a Boeing 737-800 flight from Amsterdam to Paris carrying 171 passengers, fueled by a blend of cooking oil and jet fuel. It was the start of what the carrier hopes will be 200 such flights. Most important, though, it was a huge leap toward efficient, environmentally friendly aviation for KLM.
While the KLM flight wasn’t the first to use a blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel in airplane engines, the passenger service is indicative of a recent, growing trend in aviation. In January, Lufthansa concluded its own six-month biofuel trials, which had seen Airbus A321 flights from Frankfurt powered by a biofuel blend. Qantas brought Australia into the fray with the country’s first flight using fuel made from cooking oil on April 13. More recently, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have put aside their rivalries to proceed on a unified front in developing and testing alternative sources of jet fuel.
These trials and explorations signal a growing awareness of environmental sustainability in the aviation field that has been growing for the past five years. And while the tests have all been conducted on passenger flights, they nevertheless point the path forward for a greener air cargo landscape. Though acceptance of biofuels is no longer an issue and new alternative fuel sources are being approved every year, barriers to entry still remain. Regardless, the airline industry has built a critical mass and is slowly moving toward global implementation of alternative fuel sources.
Qantas, Lufthansa and other carriers have launched test flights to gain experience with biofuel and to prove that it’s a viable alternative — biofuel blends do, in fact, work just like kerosene. These airlines also get a bit of positive public relations out of the launches. The problem with these events, however, is that the tests aren’t done using a market-based pricing scheme. The cost of these small flight batches would be prohibitive if they were conducted on a larger scale. Currently, the cost of producing biofuels is the main barrier to entry into the alternative fuel world; while the demand might be there at a lower cost, the supply hasn’t caught up.
According to Boeing’s Terrance Scott, 85 percent of the cost of production is tied to feedstock — growing it, cultivating it and bringing it to market. Once producers figure out how to decrease their costs, biofuels will become more affordable, Scott explains. More research into Jatropha, Camelina and other viable biofuel sources is needed to figure out how to increase the production yield and grow these plants more economically. Until then, test flights are simply an exercise in what could be.
“We’ve now moved beyond the technical feasibility questions. We know it works; we know there are no engine issues; we know the performance values. The issue now is not technical, it’s quantity. There’s a demonstrated industry demand for these fuels, but there’s not enough to go around,” Scott says. “The challenge is, how do you increase capacity and reduce the price.”
Boeing, Scott says, moved into the alternative fuels field because of its customers, who were under pressure from a variety of sources. Astronomical fuel prices are, of course, a primary motivating factor for airlines. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as carbon goals set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, are also important factors.
The manufacturer’s ultimate goal — and one Scott thinks can be achieved with the help of Airbus and Embraer — is to have 1 percent of all aviation jetfuel from bio-derived sources by 2015. Scott says that’s around 600 million gallons of fuel made from alcohol, algae, cooking oil or whatever else is in the approval pipeline. By working together among its partners, he says, the companies have a much louder voice and will be able to push biofuels into the market.
This aggressive target will take three to five regional biofuel facilities. Scott thinks its achievable, especially considering the amount of progress that has been made so far. Internationally accepted fuel specifications were only amended to include biofuels less than a year ago, so the alternative fuel industry is actually in its infancy. And since no manufacturers were going to set up shop before the fuels were approved, many of the producers are just getting into the game.
“We’re really in the very early stages of this,” he says. “The first percent is the hardest percent. If we can get to that first percent, we know how to get to three, five, seven and so on.”
There are currently three technology pathways for aviation fuel. The jet fuel specifications were the first to be expanded; use of synthetic material was approved in 2010, and in 2011 the use of oil seed was introduced. Scott sees in the pipeline the use of alcohol, cellulostic materials and even woody biomass. Once approved, all of these sources will function the same as a fuel drop-in. There is no need to have one single source of biofuel.
“You’re going to see additional pathways coming forward,” he says. “Basically, as long as it meets the performance specification, it all performs the same regardless of where it comes from. It’s not about the feedstock, it’s about the technology processing.”
Pilots for LAN first flew an Airbus 320 on a blend of refined vegetable oil in March, marking the first step in what officials think will be a march toward a sustainable future for the airline. According to Enrique Guzman, LAN’s environment manager, the airline’s partnership with producer Air BP Copec market a first for both companies and a significant milestone in the development of biofuels in South America.
LAN officials had been carefully studying biofuel feedstock since 2011. Though they ultimately chose vegetable oil for this flight, Guzman says they could have easily picked a different biofuel source. Fuel blends made from algae, Jatropha, Camelina and halophytes were under consideration. The hope is to expand the tests and ultimately offer flights fueled by a blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel. But one major obstacle, in addition to price, is supply.
“The region is not yet ready to provide or refine enough raw materials to provide a sustainable biofuel source, in order to use biofuel in a profitable way,” Guzman says. “That is precisely why we had this first flight, in order to further explore and to give support to all the existing initiatives, organizations or leaders who are taking the first steps to create a sustainable biofuel industry for the future of aviation in the region.”
But ultimately, it all comes down to cost. The test flight for LAN was important, but was conducted at significant extra expense. Until the price goes down, flights will be limited, he says. “Today, biofuels are between six and eight times more expensive than traditional jetfuel,” Guzman says. “We hope the region is able to develop the raw materials and also the technology that will permit the price to be at a competitive level.”
In today’s fast-moving world, 2006 seems like ages ago. One reason it took five years between acceptance of biofuel as a legitimate way to power airplanes and the start of testing is the different requirements that exist for aviation fuel. Scientists were making biofuels long before 2006, but first-generation alternative fuels designed for cars are very different than second-generation biofuel blends destined for cargo planes. Thomas Roetger, IATA’s assistant director of environmental technology, points out that automotive fuels like bioethanol or biodiesel — something that is chemically very different from regular diesel — don’t have the kerosene-like characteristics needed for jet fuel.
Last summer, biofuels for aviation were finally deemed appropriate and safe. Before that, only limited test flights could be flown with a biofuel mixture. And with an open opportunity to fly with greener fuels, airlines have jumped at the chance.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from the airlines, who really wanted to engage themselves in green technologies and to show that they are capable of doing environmentally friendly flights,” Roetger says.
That currently certified biofuels are close cousins of kerosene is important. Alternative fuels are certified for use as drop-in products, meaning that airlines can replace up to 50 percent of their fuel blend with biofuels without harming the engines or fuel systems. The amount of biofuels used in flights could eventually increase, but for the time being, he says 50 percent is likely to be the tipping point. From an operational standpoint, fueling stations at airports can easily integrate biofuels into their systems.
“The technological challenges are more or less mastered; of course, we are always looking for alternative solutions that offer chances to have alternative production paths that are still more efficient or cheaper,” he says. “The main challenge is really the economic and business challenge. We need investors now in that industry.”
Governments around the world are getting behind the greening of aviation, but the relationship between the alternative aviation fuel industry and those in power hasn’t always been so friendly. At first, airlines were an afterthought when people mentioned biofuels. Everyone was focused on cars and other applications, says Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative. His organization’s membership includes more than 60 fuel companies, 17 U.S. government agencies and a few international partners in Brazil and Australia.
Altman has helped turn aviation from an also-ran into the leading voice of biofuels. The industry then set a goal of achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020. Through his organization’s work, aviation biofuels have now been made a priority in the U.S. President Obama recently put in place a $510 million framework to develop biofuel facilities.
“Our goal was to take an aviation industry that basically had been ignored as a candidate for sustainable alternative fuels and to move it from being an afterthought to the cutting edge,” he says.
Airlines are a good choice for biofuels, Altman says, because of the industry’s reliance on liquid-based fuel — “There’s discussions of electric cars and all kinds of other alternatives for ground transportation; we don’t have any,” he says — and a built in fueling infrastructure already developed by airports. He recalls a session during the recent World Biofuels Markets conference when attendees were asked if aviation was a clear first customer for biofuel products. More than 68 percent of the attendees said yes. In 2006, Altman says, those same producers most likely would have come to a different conclusion.
Support is growing for alternative aviation fuels, and Altman says the next step is to secure commercial purchasing agreements for flights. This isn’t to say there isn’t merit in the test flights, which are important steps in the movement toward alternative fuels. Operationally, however, these flights shouldn’t be any different than any of the million flights carriers undertake using traditional fuel.
“There should be nothing different because this is totally drop-in fuel. However, you’ve got to show me,” Altman says. “The operations people are in the show-me mode; they’re not in the that’s-a-nice-theory mode.”
He wants to move beyond simple tests conducted in small batches and achieve a financially viable structure for alternative fuels. In fact, one of his main goals for the next two years is making biofuels affordable. His organization has set a goal of seeing 10 commercial biofuel operations in some stage of execution by 2013.
“The important thing this year will be to see a real commercial arrangement on practical buying terms. That’s doable,” he says. “Having at least a couple of those this year on the way to multiplying that next year, I think is certainly something we’re looking forward to.”