Thursday, April 19, 2007

Long time, no Blog... Yep.

This blog was read by too many people with competing agendas for my life, so it seemed appropriate to halt it for a time.

Since this began as the Earth Return Vehicle blog, chronicling my efforts do design a vehicle for The Kepler Prize, it seems appropriate to update that subject. I'm competing in a second, very similar, contest to Kepler, which was the event that started this blog in the first place. Kepler was hosted by The Mars Society. This new contest is simply called Mars Sample Return, or MSR, and is hosted by The MarsDrive Consortium. MarsDrive is an affiliation of several pro-space organizations that both works with them and has its own projects. MSR is a design for a vehicle that will fly robotically to Mars, grab a sample, make its own fuel to return with, then fly the sample back home. Whereas the judges for Kepler were Tom Hill (who started it and develops weather satellites for a living) and several other professionals in the field, MarsDrive is judged by what could best be described as leaders with The Mars Society and NASA, along with the MarsDrive organizer/judge in Australia. Tom, judge and founder of Kepler, is a contestant in this competition, with a small team (read: Gulp!). Again I compete alone. There are five teams total in this puppy. For Kepler, there were 20 that started, 12 that made it to the mid-term, and five who finished. They included two universities and three private individuals or teams. The criteria for MarsDrive MSR are tighter than they were for Kepler, and include cost and specifics about flights. Both emphasize the creative.

The contest judging is to be completed at the end of this month. Yes, I'm nervous. When I competed in Kepler, I was shocked I won, so I was hoping against hope to place if anything, or at the very least not come in dead last. I had no idea what the other reports looked like. I went with my strengths, acknowledged my weaknesses, and did my best. In the end, I wasn't completely satisfied with the results, but I was proud of them. It was innovative, but it wasn't idealized. It left no margin for error, which for a first effort is pretty much grounds for a redo. But it was beautiful, unique, and just plain cool. Its other strength was the degree to which it was based on existing designs or things that NASA had considered in the past - and while they took a different route, the fact that the real rocket scientists considered them and did some planning on those designs lended them validity. Also, I spent 5 of the 6+ months in the contest simply getting a huge spreadsheet to calculate values for me. It was clunky, but it worked.

My MSR design picks up where Kepler left off. The huge spreadsheet was streamlined into a single column and enhanced and validated. The column became twenty columns to compare values across different design options. The research base went from a few articles and books to dozens of each to choose from. The design, rather than being pushed to the limit, picked the safest spot in that matrix and built out one iteration of design detail from there, still only using 30 percent of the allowed margin. There is no single system that can fail and take the whole design down, or if there is, there is more than one way to fix it. Everything is either based on existing designs or rendered so simple that you could build a prototype in the garage with enough money and time. The ballistics, cost, and other new territories for me are allowed for. The system takes the best and brightest of current designs and rather than pushing them forward, scales them back to avoid cost overruns. The individual parts are tested, but the overall system is unique and intensely capable and harmonized to do groundbreaking science and exploration. It is robust in design yet bold in ambition - when it hits the surface, it does so like a native, not with timidity but with purpose, much like the next rover planned in 2009. The Kepler was good but it was incomplete, so I did three additional papers on parts of it I felt weren't fully explored. This design, Rigel, is good in my mind - no changes, just expansions of detail and margin.

It also crossed a line with me - it's CAD-worthy.

I honestly want to start digging into its innards and spending the time meticulously drawing parts. The design is so complete in my mind that it really ought to be rendered as such. Then structural masses can be calculated, along with stresses and centers of gravity based on fuel burn. It will take both the design and my ability to design to the next level. It can even be flown in a free simulator called Orbiter after that point, and/or rendered as a movie. Normally, you don't do things like this until you are confident things won't change. This design is complete enough that I don't believe, at least for the first pass, that it will change much. It does need some work on the amount of waste in the system (unburned fuel, unrealized potential in engine efficiency, etc.) that should be margined in in more detail, but that could be done fairly quickly. (It allows large margins for production on landing and during the surface stay, medium margins for mass all around, but little for consumption on takeoff - it's still good because it's ).

If this design is selected, I'll get a flight to Dallas to present it. This is the next big step for design in my world, the next level. The big leagues (for design anyway) - submission to the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). I've certainly read enough papers with an AIAA index number - this year, Lord willing, I'd have written one (assuming it's accepted).

I'll find out in 11 days, barring any extensions by the judges.


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