The ‘trickiest’ part of Elon Musk’s Mars spaceship — a giant black orb — just passed a critical test

Prior to the barge pressure test in early November, Musk said SpaceX performed “initial tests with the cryogenic propellant” that “actually look quite positive.”

“We have not seen any leaks or major issues,” he added.

If the company has already pumped methane into the spherical tank before, it stands to reason that it will try again to get even more data on its performance for incorporating into a flight version.

Business Insider asked a SpaceX representative for more details on the upcoming “full cryo test”, which is presumably when the carbon-fiber fuel tank will be pumped full of a liquid methane.

However, the company declined to tell us more about that test, when it would occur, or what cryogenic liquid it’d be using.

Whatever the case, the fact that it’s happening on ocean barge is telling: It says there’s a chance the device could not just merely leak but burst or explode. If no one is around and it does, the shrapnel (and possibly flames) can’t hurt anyone.

After all, SpaceX does have a history of testing its gear on ocean barges, sometimes with catastrophic effect:

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Will Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crash Land On Planet Trump?

In the case of Tesla, the Los Angeles Times calculated last year the upstart automaker had received $2.4 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies, mainly from California (where it is headquartered), Nevada (where it is building the biggest lithium-ion battery factory in the world), and the federal government. SolarCity, the Times calculated, had received $2.5 billion in subsidies — mainly in federal assistance for solar installations and New York state support for building the biggest solar-panel plant in the Western Hemisphere in Buffalo.

And then there is SpaceX, a supplier of launch services to NASA, the military and various commercial customers. SpaceX has not received much in the way of subsidies, but its survival depends very much on government contracts — over $6 billion in awards for resupplying the International Space Station, launching military satellites, and supporting various other missions. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will begin lofting U.S. astronauts into orbit before the end of the decade, displacing Russian rockets that have been doing that since the Space Shuttle retired.

However, there is good reason to believe that all will not go according to plan — not just for SpaceX, but for the rest of Musk’s empire. In the case of Tesla and SolarCity, the fact that President-elect Trump has appointed a climate-change skeptic to lead his transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency speaks volumes about how federal priorities are likely to change on the energy front. Trump has pledged to cut off money for United Nations climate-change programs and lift regulations limiting exploration for fossil fuels.

With SolarCity already facing financial troubles, the disappearance of federal subsidies could prove fatal. Musk has moved to preempt a crisis by folding the solar-services provider into Tesla, but Tesla could soon be facing its own problems. So the second explosion of a SpaceX rocket in less than two years just as the general-election campaign was moving into high gear couldn’t have come at a worse time. SpaceX’s main U.S. competitor in the launch business, United Launch Alliance, hasn’t lost a single rocket since it was founded over ten years ago.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the co-owners of United Launch Alliance, both contribute to my think tank (Lockheed is a consulting client), so I’ve been getting an earful for the last few years about the risks of relying on low-cost launch providers to get into space. Those risks will become a lot more politically potent if SpaceX is allowed to begin lofting astronauts using a proposed fueling technique that would require the crew to be sitting on the rocket while the fuel is loaded. The spectacular explosion of a SpaceX rocket on September 1 occurred while the vehicle was being fueled.

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Europe’s Inmarsat is “looking at alternatives.”

On Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appeared on CNBCand seemed to confirm that the company had found the cause of the September 1st explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket during a test firing.

“I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem,” Musk said, describing the issue as one that had “never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.” Musk didn’t give a detailed explanation, only saying that the failure involved a combination of liquid helium, the rocket’s carbon-fiber materials, and supercooled solid oxygen.

At press time, the company had not published an official statement finalizing the investigation, but Musk’s statements were in line with preliminary findings.

Musk concluded by saying that, with the mystery solved, SpaceX launches would likely resume by mid-December.

But that might not be fast enough for some customers. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the European satellite company Inmarsat was, in the words of its CEO Rupert Pearce, “actively looking at alternatives” to SpaceX for at least one upcoming satellite launch.

Inmarsat officials seem to be less worried about the reliability of future SpaceX launches than about scheduling problems caused by the halt in launches following the accident. Inmarsat has an early launch slot for its next Global Xpress satellite, part of a plan to provide global wireless broadband, and says it will still launch that craft with SpaceX.

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Letter raises questions about SpaceX fueling plans and committee roles

“Independent advisory groups provide input on commercial crew safety considerations, among which the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is the primary independent adviser for commercial crew activity,” the agency said. “The ISS Advisory Committee focuses on the International Space Station and international systems.”

The charter of the ISS Advisory Committee, approved and signed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September, states that the committee’s objective is to “provide advice and recommendations to NASA on all ISS aspects related to safety and operational readiness, utilization, and exploration.”

The description of duties for the ISS Advisory Committee, also stated in the charter, do not explicitly mention commercial crew systems. The charter does mention “program and project management, including spaceflight safety and mission assurance strategies” as part of its scope, but the only crew vehicle mentioned is the Soyuz.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) does regularly review commercial crew vehicle development, and has included its assessment in its annual reports in the last several years. Minutes of the last five ASAP meetings, from December 2015 to October 2016, do not mention any discussion of the SpaceX fueling issue.

NASA, though, indicated in its statement that it would still address the ISS Advisory Committee’s letter despite it being beyond the strict scope of its activities. “Other groups, such as the ISS Advisory Committee, also seek information, and we treat all inquiries seriously,” it said.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX May Lose Inmarsat Launch Order

LONDONElon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. may lose a spacecraft launch order from a major customer, Inmarsat PLC, even as the European satellite operator voiced confidence in the rocket company’s ability to return to flight this year.

SpaceX, as the rocket company is named, lost one of its Falcon 9 rockets in an explosion during a routine refueling exercise in September at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It destroyed an Israeli satellite Facebook Inc. planned to use to provide internet access to people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Investigators believe a refueling procedure led to the failure. Company officials hope to resume flights before year-end. Pentagon and industry officials said launch resumption before mid-January is doubtful.

Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce said Thursday the launch of its fourth Global Xpress satellite due this year on a SpaceX rocket would be delayed until next year and that the company may shift a spacecraft due for launch next year to another rocket.

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Elon Musk is ‘risking astronauts lives’ with plan to refuel SpaceX rockets while they are onboard, experts warn NASA

A proposal by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to fuel its rockets while astronauts are aboard poses safety risks, a group of space industry experts that advises NASA has told the U.S. space agency.

‘This is a hazardous operation,’ Space Station Advisory Committee Chairman Thomas Stafford, a former NASA astronaut and retired Air Force general, said during a conference call on Monday.

Stafford said the group’s concerns were heightened after an explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket while it was being fueled on Sept. 1.

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Elon Musk Is Treating Mars Like It’s a Moore’s Law Problem. It’s Not

Why Elon Musk’s Mars Vision Needs ‘Some Real Imagination

When Elon Musk introduced earthlings last month to his vision for cities on Mars, his 90-minute remarks fired up imaginations everywhere—except on Mars. For now.

Kim Stanley Robinson has done as much as anyone to bring the idea of colonizing Mars into the mainstream. The writer entwined knowledge, reasoning, and imagination into his landmark Mars trilogy—Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996).

And to Robinson, Musk’s Martian future looks a lot like other people’s familiar past.

“Musk’s plan,” he said, “is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard.”

An edited transcript of an interview follows:

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Elon Musk’s Wild Ride

Elon Musk recently took the stage in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the performance he’s waited a lifetime to give. Sporting a new, oddly manicured mustache, Musk did his best shy Tony Stark impersonation, informing a crowd of space enthusiasts that, yes, he does plan to colonize Mars. Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, will send thousands of rockets and people to the Red Planet—perhaps within the decade and perhaps at a cost of just $10 billion. Some of the astronauts will die as part of the experiment. Others will live out their days in … well, Musk was not very specific on that.

Musk continues to befuddle planet earth. He’s part techno messiah—a being sent here from the future to save mankind from itself—and part charlatan—a slick businessman dragging foolish investors along on ever grander, cash-burning bets. Every time one of his companies stumbles, Musk seems to have another spectacular thing to announce—a new mode of transportation, the space internet, or a Martian colony—to thrill and confuse. Is Musk trying to distract us from the troubling aspects of his companies, or are the doubters just the shortsighted, risk-averse people holding us all back from a fantastic future?

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