Headlines > News > UK Team “Nebula” Talk to the Space Fellowship about Entering the N-Prize

UK Team “Nebula” Talk to the Space Fellowship about Entering the N-Prize

Published by Rob on Tue Jul 8, 2008 7:29 am
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Carrying on with our series on the N-Prize I got in contact with Peter Jones, Manager and Chief Engineer for the Nebula N-prize team. I asked Peter a series of questions to find out what his team were really about, the answers follow:

Who are the Nebula N-prize team?
We’re a team of 4. Husband, wife and two small kids. I provide all of the technical input, while my other half lends expertise in her own areas of experience ie Marketing, Sponsorship and Public Relations. My two youngsters, while being too small to lend a hand in any great way, are fascinated be the whole thing and we couldn’t have a team without them.

A little background about myself:
After graduating, I spent 8 years at GEC’s Flight Automation Research Laboratory (FARL) on the Advanced Projects Team working on two main areas of research: High accuracy passive navigation tecniques, and Pilot line-of-sight sensing. I moved on to Flight Operations Simulation developing software flight models for theoretical jet aircraft.

I set up a consultancy company and spent some time consulting on such diverse areas as Option Pricing models and secure website design. After around 6 years, focus moved from consultancy to manufacturing and I designed, manufactured and distributed a digital television PC card and software called DigiTV which enjoyed a number of years success.
Most recently, I set up a company called Nebula Media Solutions Ltd that designs home entertainment and control equipment. My current focus (aside from the n-prize) is in the develoment of an accessible Digital TV set-top-box for the visually impaired.

What do you want to achieve?
My childhood ambition was always to place something (anything) on the moon. When the n-prize came up, it showed that it didn’t have to be just a dream and was the final element needed to convince me that I should do something to realise the ambition. Getting something to orbit seemed a logical first step.

How do you plan to achieve this?
The plan is to use a designed-from-scratch single stage to orbit craft. I say ‘designed-from-scratch’ quite deliberately for two main reasons: Firstly, it seems to be the current fashion among rocket designers to put together exisiting motor etc designs and expect the craft to perform in some new way. The n-prize fosters a more thought-experiment based approach and potentially paves the way for some exciting new thinking. It would seem wrong somehow to tarnish this by saying that I’m not going to have a go at a new design.

Secondly, it wouldn’t be much of a personal challenge if I took other people’s designs and ideas and just bolted them all together.

Before even entering for the prize, I wrote some simulation software to get to grips with exactly what it took to get something into Low Earth Orbit and it quickly became apparent that the accuracy required for an orbital insertion that didn’t just make its way around a fraction of the planet was very high. Far too high to risk to something that wasn’t guided. Working through, calculations showed that it was very unlikely to get a successful craft off the ground for the asking price of GBP £999.99 unless all of the major bits were donated or scavenged.

This evetually led to the idea for a reusable craft that would cost several times this figure, but the cost averaged out over a few launches would qualify it for entry. Of course I now have to get the whole thing back, otherwise the mission is deemed a failure.

What work have you done already, towards achieving your goals?
I’ve now finished the physics simulation platform (called “LaunchSim” rather imaginatively) and have simulated most aspects of the mission profile from launch, through satellite release to re-entry and recovery to my current satisfaction. The simulaton software will need tweaking of course, but I’m leaving that until I have real-world data.

I have completed just about all aspects of the rocket design including aerospike engine, fuel and oxidiser delivery, navigation, telemetry and remote sensing, thermal management, orbital manoeuvring and recovery mechanisms.
The current state of play with regard to stuff that’s actually been built is:
- Physics simulation software
- A gimballed satellite/rocket tracking groundstation with integrated GPS (incl. controlling software)
- Prototypes of three of the four satellites that I’m launching.
- Test versions of the recovery system including a scale model of the auto-steering ‘chute.
- The flight-control computer and strap-down IN platform
- A prototype ‘enginlette’ that will form one of the 8 in the final aerospike design.

Have you got a schedule for progress?
Yes …. to finish before the competition end-date! I don’t tend to let on my planning milestones as this just invites laughter when it all goes wrong

What can we expect to see from you in 2008?
The end of 2008 should see the first launch test. Its not going to be spectacular since it will be a low-height launch, hover and land test only. This is intended to test all elements of the control-law software/IN platform that governs the differential throttling of the aerospike engine.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle in achieving your goals?
In a word, funding. But this is addressed in an answer further down.

What will happen to your team after the N-Prize is won?
I’ve already started to incorporate Nebula Aerospace Ltd to take advantage of the various facilities that having a specialist company provides. This may mean that if all goes well after the competition has ended I’ll consider extending the orbital launchfacility to other interested parties.

Will you continue with your ambitions if you do not win the competition?
Yes. If I don’t get something (again, anything) to the moon eventually then I’ll consider it an opportunity lost. I don’t care if it crash lands or sends back live hi-def video of the Apollo 11 lander – if it gets there at all I’ll be happy, although I may mourn the loss of all the equipment if it ploughs into the regolith.

Are you currently working on any other projects other than the N-Prize?
Not currently related to spacefilght, although I do have half an eye on the Google X-Prize. First things first though.

Do you have any long-term plans for human flight beyond a satellite launch?
No. I believe this is an area that is adequately being covered by companies with resources that dwarf my own. Market forces are a powerful thing, and currently there aren’t enough of them to attract the big spenders to very low cost orbital launch. This means that for this competition at least, the little guy has at least a chance to shine.

What are your estimated costs for launching a satellite into orbit?
Right now, and ignoring development costs, a payload of 2kg to LEO (200km) will cost between GBP£4K and GBP£7K. Although I may like to revise this figure at a later date! Don’t forget that the plan is for a nearly 100% reusable lauch craft.

How do you plan on funding your project?
Its all being personally funded by me right now, although we are actively looking for sponsorship. If we don’t get any, then all that will happen is that the project will take a lot longer than it might otherwise have taken. It will still go ahead, even past the point where someone else wins the prize …..

If someone was interested in helping you with your project, what skills would you be looking for?
Sorry, team entry is closed now. Even if your name is Jones ….

Do you plan on openly sharing your progress or would you prefer to keep it hidden from your competitors?
I believe in total and utter transparency with what I’m doing and if one of the other competitors can make use of work that I’ve done then I’ll be pleased to have helped in whatever way. Winning the competition is not the issue for me, although I will of course abide by the competition’s rules on the off-chance that I might. I do have to be careful that I don’t unwittingly aid people that would use anything I’ve done to harm others, but I have this covered by keeping back data that I believe to be sensitive. I post everything that I do, with a suitable time-delay to allow adequate testing, on my website: http://www.nebula-aerospace.com

This is all a (now vindicated) personal challenge that is just a small step towards a larger goal. We’re only here once and if we owe it to ourselves to at least try and do something novel.

Other N-Prize Stories:

A Q&A session with N-Prize contenders “Epsilon Vee”

N-Prize Founder, Dr. Paul Dear Talks to the Space Fellowship about Starting up a Space Prize (with a Bottle of Pinot Grigio)

“MICROLAUNCHERS” Discuss Their Plans With The Space Fellowship

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