All posts by Callum Tyndall

SpaceX explosion: Financial disaster or vital learning experience?

Yesterday, during a pre-launch test for SpaceX’s AMOS-6 mission, an anomaly occurred that resulted in the Falcon 9 rocket exploding. According to SpaceX’s statement: “The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries.”

The question raised however is: with this now being the third explosion SpaceX has suffered, what happens next for the private space company?

SpaceX has probably experienced more success than failure overall. The successful ocean platform landing stands out, but the problem arises from the expense of the failures.

Extensive testing is required for the SpaceX rockets, particularly given their ultimate goal of reusability, and they are unfortunately not going to be given a cash prize every time they manage to get a test right. When one goes wrong, however, not only is it a lot of investment gone up in smoke, but the company’s stock and prospects of future investment are likely to take a blow.

A successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from 2014. Images courtesy of SpaceX

A successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from 2014. Image courtesy of SpaceX

Yet despite failures, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seems indefatigable. His other companies, Tesla and SolarCity, are reported by the Wall Street Journal to be facing “financial crunches” and his personal fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is said to have taken a hit of $779m following the rocket explosion.

The obvious fear that arises is that SpaceX, if continuing to suffer such failures as Thursday’s launch, could soon join the ranks of Tesla and SolarCity as incredibly ambitious companies on the brink of implosion.

Failures at such routines stages as test-firing are worrying for the future. They are not, however, unprecedented, nor are they guarantees of total failure.

Perhaps bizarrely for a business that relies on such huge amounts of money and has so much risk attached to failure, such problems actually contain vital information. While the ideal may be a perfect launch every time, there is an inherent unpredictability to space flight that means what you learn from failure is almost more important than a perfect launch.

It is important to consider that five of the world’s 86 rocket launches last year ended in failure, and SpaceX has in fact had 18 successful payload deliveries since 2012.

Professor Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School who has worked with NASA on its plan for the involvement of the private sector, observed that, “with space missions, even the most advanced simulations cannot replace learning by doing, given the multitude of variables involved and the importance of learning from experience.

“This explosion will not change the long term goals of SpaceX, which are to reduce the cost of space flight through the use of reusable rockets, and eventually to colonise Mars.”

Those long term goals may in fact not be as wholly disjointed by the anomaly as may be expected either as, taking to Twitter post-anomaly, Musk explained that what we actually saw was a very fast fire, not an explosion. More importantly, he believes that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule would have survived fine.

The Dragon is the company’s craft designed to carry people and contains an escape pod that could, in the event of launch failure, eject the crew  in a manner “similar to an ejection seat for a fighter pilot”, according to Space X. It is a reassurance that the pod is believed to be able to survive an event such as that on Thursday but it will be more reassuring once the data from the fire has been incorporated.

Thursday’s anomaly was certainly costly and requires further investigation. The financial impact it may have on SpaceX moving forward is also a concern. Yet, if we are to take the company’s successes into the balance, this may prove valuable learning for a stellar future.

Stanford engineers develop smart textile for cooler clothing

A new material has been developed by engineers at Stanford that can be woven into clothing to cool the wearer down far more efficiently than currently used materials. The newly developed fabric could make the wearer feel as much as 4°C cooler than cotton clothing, and reduce the need for air conditioned offices.

Most of your clothes keep you cool by letting perspiration evaporate through them. The Stanford material does this too, but the innovation lies in its allowing of heat, emitted from the body as infrared radiation (IR), to pass through it.

“40 to 60% of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation when we are sitting in an office,” said Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering who specialises in photonics, which is the study of visible and invisible light. “But until now there has been little or no research on designing the thermal radiation characteristics of textiles.”

The team’s work, which is the subject of a paper published today in the journal Science, stemmed from the exploration of an existing nanoporous polyethylene (nanoPE), a material with microscopic, interconnected pores of a similar size to visible light’s wavelength.

When testing the nanoPE, they found that not only did it allow 90% more infrared radiation through than cotton, but also reflected visible light significantly better than polyethylene, which lets through similar amounts of infrared.

Perhaps strangely, the base material for their work is most commonly used in battery making. The team modified it to allow water vapour to evaporate through the material and then, in order to make it closer to fabric, separated two of the treated sheets with a cotton mesh.

There are advantages to its industrial origins, however, as the fact that the base material is already being mass produced makes it far easier to adapt it to new applications.

“If you want to make a textile, you have to be able to make huge volumes inexpensively,” said Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and of photon science at Stanford.

A visual representation of the difference between the new textile and conventional cotton. Courtesy of Carla Schaffer / AAAS

A visual representation of the difference between the new textile and conventional cotton. Courtesy of Carla Schaffer / AAAS

The team is now working to bring their material further towards the goal of cooler clothing, working on several fronts to add more colours, textures and cloth-like characteristics to the textile.

“In hindsight, some of what we’ve done looks very simple, but it’s because few have really been looking at engineering the radiation characteristics of textiles,” said Fan.

As observed by the researchers, the 4°C difference these clothes can make is enough to make you reconsider turning on a fan or the air con. On top of being low cost and providing comfort in high temperatures, it seems that the Stanford team’s work will serve an environmental purpose.

Moving further forward, the success may have avenues beyond clothing, as the basic principles around the passage of infrared radiation opens up new avenues for passively heating or cooling by tuning materials around said radiation.

For now though, look forward to the development of clothes that are cool in more ways than one.