Sep 29, 2017

Will Elon Musk’s BFR give Qantas its non-stop flights Sydney-London?

Mars by spaceliner by 2022, Sydney or Melbourne non-stop to London in less than an hour. SpaceX reveals its new aspirations

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

SpaceX shows off BFRs on the Moon, but they can be used for Australia-London non-stops

Brash, and this afternoon, not easily heard SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, announced a solution to the Qantas quest for non-stop flights between Sydney or Melbourne and London.

Well, he actually announced that as the incredibly successful maker of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo ship, which have already flown validation supply missions to the International Space Station for NASA, SpaceX could fly a new BFR spaceliner between any two points on Earth in less than one hour, as well as take between 80-120 people to bases on the Moon or Mars.

Mr Musk quoted times of 29 minutes for flights from a barge near Manhattan to a barge near London, or similarly 39 minutes to Shanghai, but as Sydney-London is on Earth too, it also means Qantas CEO Alan Joyce should be leaping up from his desk shouting something like ‘Eureka, who needs Boeing or Airbus.’

It was as delegates are being reported are saying, the most self-styled ‘aspirational’ presentation the man who has already totally disrupted the rocket launching business, has ever given, even if apparently heavily jet lagged during its delivery.

This report in the Washington Post canvasses for lay readers the numerous remarkable features of the update Mr Musk gave the International Astronautical Congress on its final day in Adelaide.

He said the proposed BFR acronym didn’t mean anything, however the US tech media who follow Mr Musk wherever he goes, said it stands for Big F*cking Rocket, which wouldn’t surprise anyone across the do it, and do it for less, and really well culture that permeates SpaceX.

This is an uncouth, totally iconoclastic but enormously success rocket and spaceship company, associated through Mr Musk with the Tesla electric auto maker and latest technology heavy duty industrial and residential battery storage technology. The rockets, the cars, and the batteries, have turned industries like poles, wires, and coal dependent power generation businesses into threatened species.

The Washington Post, and various technical aerospace journals like TechCrunch have described the process by which Mr Musk plans to combine the elements of the existing Falcon 9 lifters and Dragon deliverers into a BFR that has more pressurised internal payload room than an Airbus A380.

As Brad Tucker, a delegate and astronomer at the Australian National University said amid the post presentation euphoria that followed the aspirational update, Musk is talking about using the BFR for Earth to Earth services that would make it as safe as Qantas.

The update overwrites SpaceX’s previous indifference to becoming involved in a Moon Base, although it now has an even shorter timetable for flying cargo and then passenger carrying spaceships to Mars by 2022-2024.

Unknown at this hour is whether or not SpaceX sees itself as flying Mars colonists on one way or return missions. The update did not discuss the lethal risks solar flares could pose to passengers on the long flight to Mars.

What SpaceX has in mind should, on its achievements so far, not be mocked. The story has only been aspirationalised and summarised. Its fuller description and the road map that was described this afternoon has not yet been posted by SpaceX as a document, something everyone would be very keen to study. Including no doubt Airbus, Boeing, …. and Qantas.

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27 thoughts on “Will Elon Musk’s BFR give Qantas its non-stop flights Sydney-London?

  1. Jacob HSR

    Interesting stuff. But how many G would the passengers experience when rocketing from AUS to Europe?

    And it is about time airlines start disclosing what the air pressure is inside their aircraft when flying 39,000 feet above the planet. How many bar?

    1. Ben Sandilands

      Not sure how many G, I expect similar to the Shuttle which should be on Google. Rockets need to punch through mach 1 very quickly to reach more efficient climb rates and lower air pressure resistance.

      However there is no secret about cabin pressure in airliners, as Boeing keeps reminding us in relation to the Dreamliner. In the early jet days Qantas and all would announce 7200 feet for their 707s or DC-8s, unless they were landing at places like Mexico city or La Paz, which have airstrips higher than normal pressurisation levels, so they used a higher setting on approach to prevent too many instances of cabin attendants being blown out through the door after landing when it was manually opened, as did happen a few times. As I’ve often reported, airlines using high altitude strips in the PRC often land at altitudes almost as high as parts of the Mt Blanc massif. In fact the Dreamliner claims are only a few hundred feet lower than the first 707s and 727s, but often these days you find regular jet flights at close to 8000 feet inside. Must be something about saving on the stresses of high cycle usage. One of the wrinkles that saw airlines reluctant to fly a direct path across Tibet between Bangkok and Europe was a need to remain above 16,000 feet or more because of the very high terrain below. But in the event of a cabin depressurisation or in some cases, an engine loss near peaks of up to 26000 feet or more the procedure for avoiding potentially lethal damage to passengers still required a descent in most regs to 13,000 feet or less in a fairly short period of time, which was impossible in that part of the world. This required fitting special long duration supplementary oxygen supplies to last more than the statutory 30 minutes or so required for normal jet operations so that in the event of a trans Tibet depressuristion the jet could reach areas with lower terrain below. Concorde which usually cruised in the high 50,000 feet range and even touching 60,000 feet at times had a lower cabin pressure setting to assist in getting a flight suffering a pressurisation failure down to safe levels over the Atlantic in a time similar to that required of a subsonic jet at 33,000 feet. I’m not in a position to do your research for you at length, but Google is your friend, and a simple search will provide the exact answers. This is just how I remember the briefings.

      My first flights were on domestic DC-3s and DC-4s, which were unpressurised. I remember flying past the western side of the Snowy Mountains and looking up at ridge lines that were maybe 2000 feet higher than our cruising level.

      1. Jacob HSR

        Ben, thanks for your insight into air pressure in civilian aircraft.

        “cabin attendants being blown out through the door after landing”! Crazy stuff. 8000 feet eh?

        At sea level the air pressure is 100 kPa and 80 kPa at 2 km. Air pressure is measured in kPa or bar or PSI. Quite silly for airlines to say the pressure is 8000 feet.

        Google says astronauts endure 3G. Not sure if it is viable for SpaceX to have slower acceleration in order to get the G force down to an acceptable level. There is also the issue of sonic booms upon landing which can be heard in SpaceX landings.

        1. Kim-Son Nguyen

          According to Elon’s posts on Instagram and Twitter

          “Assuming max acceleration of 2 to 3 g’s, but in a comfortable direction. Will feel like a mild to moderate amusement park ride on ascent and then smooth, peaceful & silent in zero gravity for most of the trip until landing”

          “Fly to most places on Earth in under 30 mins and anywhere in under 60. Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft. Forgot to mention that.”

          If he pulls it off, he will have disrupted the aviation industry on the order of the instruction of the jet engine.
          Here in Australia, it could be huge – the tyranny of distance becoming a thing of the past.

          I can’t see SpaceX selling their rockets – they would operate it themselves or create a majority owned subsidiary for Earth transport. They are so vertically integrated that I can’t see them selling the rockets themselves.
          If they can get the launch and landing of of such large rockets on offshore barges – they can stay just outside territorial waters (about 30km from what I’ve read) in international waters which keeps them on the right side of US ITAR laws (restricting export of space technology) and negates the sonic boom issues.
          The jetset could become the spaceset and the only competitor that seems like a credible challenge is Jeff Bezos Blue Origin (they are the only other rocket and launch company with a credible reusable rocket plan).
          Could this become the 21st century version of the Howard Hughes vs Juan Trippe?

          There are a lot of challenges before it gets up but after what Musk has achieved, who is willing to write him off at this stage?
          After all this video from 2011 at the time look fantastical but now looks more like a statement of intent (granted not all of it has come to pass but the underlying principles were there)

          1. Jacob HSR

            He did not forget to mention that but deliberately omitted it so people in the media speculate on the price and G forces – thus keeping him in the news longer.

            2.5 G in a “comfortable direction”. Must be another phrase to keep the media guessing and keep him in the news even longer. I suspect the launch will be too noisy to take off from Garden Island unless the corrupt politicians have sold off even Garden Island by then. The G forces are too high for everyone except fit people. Maybe corporate executives will be required to be fit!

            It could be good for cargo if the fuel consumption is less than all other cargo aircraft. And you would want the BFR to be proven using hundreds of cargo missions before a human passenger goes in it.

  2. Anthony Holmes

    ‘Did not discuss the lethal risks of solar flares’ – there are other press reports mentioning ‘solar flare shelters’, so he’s at least thinking of this, even if he may not yet have a practical design. What interests me is, given the amount of fuel required to travel to Mars, will the ‘spacious’ accommodation have a seat pitch of 29”?

    1. Ben Sandilands

      Ha. Cabins for two for three months. Choose your companions well, as 20th century explorer and mountaineer Bill Tilman said, “as you may have to eat them.” Mars trips require time and juxtaposition between the orbits of the third and fourth rocks from the sun more than added fuel, although shortening the trip times with more fuel would reduce the hazards of long term zero G and wayward solar flares.

  3. comet

    We’ve always considered previous hypersonic vehicle ideas as ludicrous and fanciful. The only thing that gives this story credibility is Elon Musk.

    1. Ben Sandilands

      Agree. But he’s made reusable lifter rocket reuseability work. This swings open previously closed and even what were only recently unimaginable efficiency gains.

      1. comet

        It’s pretty incredible that one man – Musk – changes the whole space equation. One man changes a fantasy into a possibility.

  4. Deano DD

    2 unanswered questions
    How much would it cost per seat ?
    What are the current chances of a mishap / crash as it seems that they have not yet reached 100% results on blast off and blast down

  5. Roger Clifton

    If the passenger list consisted solely of robots on one-way trips to Mars, it would save on the need for pressurisation, radiation protection, life-support, in-flight entertainment, long delays at each end of the journey, midflight drinks and so on. With nuclear powered ion drive, the duration of the trip could be determined by celestial mechanics instead of fuel limitations, so a journey of several years could go to more interesting places like Titan. With the much vaunted capacity to land and take off again, the vehicle can take off samples and rubbish for disposal back on earth. Via the next stop, of course. For that matter, the vehicles could establish a bus route around the planets…

  6. dirtysnowball

    Musk is talking about the Moon rather than just Mars because he’s hoping lunar missions by the Americans/Europeans/whoever will help pay for the development of the BFR.
    I can’t help wondering if the point-to-point BFRliner is more a headline grabber than a serious project.

    1. Jacob HSR

      Dirtysnowball, I wish Musk would give up on Mars and instead develop technology that would be useful to humans today. Such as slashing the cost of car hoists. He slashed the price of batteries by building a colossal factory to make them. I just moved into a house with a single garage and I am not the only one. There are hoists that can be used to park 1 car above another but I think they are for indoor use only!

      So Tesla should design one for outdoor use. Maybe even develop one that allows cars to be parked above garages.

      1. Tom the first and best

        If you want a cheaper car hoist an outdoor car hoist and think there is a market for them, why don`t you try starting your own car hoist company?

        Personally I think there is not much a market for outdoor car hoists because people wanting car hoists are usually wanting indoor car protection as well and/or are flat dwellers/owners corporations needing somewhere in their building for cars to be parked.

  7. Dan Dair

    The Hotol & Skylon projects have ‘collectively’ been around for 40 or so years.
    The idea of a jet powered take-off which switched to an oxygen-supported mode for sub-orbital flight, & then back to a standard jet for landing has been around for decades.!
    The ‘scramjet’ concept exists & is in the form of a reusable airframe which will never subject passengers to excessive G-forces.
    Maybe Elon Musk will match or exceed these parameters….. or maybe not.?

  8. George Glass

    ” Musk is talking about using the BFR for Earth to Earth services that would make it as safe as Qantas.”
    I guess its churlish to point out that NONE of Musks enterprises have made a profit.
    Or that his claims of interplanetary travel are non-physical.
    Or not economically remotely feasible.
    But hey, why not? We live in the facebook world where simply believing is enough and wanting something has its own virtue.
    La La land.
    How in heavens name did we get to this place?
    Is the education system that hopeless?
    We might as well hand over the keys to the Chinese.At least they have some idea of what they are doing.

    1. Jacob HSR

      Wow. Musk is not an Arab airline, so you should love him.

      Chinese? They did not even get high speed rail correct. A HSR train crashed into another on 23 July 2011. How hard was it to get 3G signalling and backup satellite signalling? Plus China has so many ghost apartment blocks and even a ghost CBD.

      1. Dan Dair

        “They did not even get high speed rail correct”
        That’s a bit churlish,
        at least they have had the boules to actually spend the money & build an HSR system.!
        Sure, they’ve made a mistake, but only one so far. If it becomes an epidemic, it’s a real issue. Time will tell.

        I can’t honestly think of anything which is actually standing in the way of a Melbourne to Sydney, via Canberra HSR, other than the cold-feet of the state or the Australian business community.

        The case for HSR linking the capital & the two largest cities is self-evident. But I’ll be very surprised if it get’s built (or even started) in my children’s lifetime.?

    2. Tom the first and best

      Some of Musk`s enterprises have made money and that is some of how he funds building up he new companies.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        Agree. The tall poppy syndrome is one of the least attractive characteristics of public debate in Australia. People shouldn’t be denigrated for having a go, regardless of the outcome. (Which is different from discussing reasons for succeeding or failing in the course of trying something new or different.)

  9. Tango

    I don’t see this happening.

    Regularity issues alone would stop it.

    Cost prohibitive.

    1. noogie

      You are certainly correct that there are substantial cost and regulatory issues.
      However Musk’s track record has been impressive – making a private rocket company (including manufacturing and design) from scratch and making rocket reuse work is truly impressive.
      Sure his timelines are “aspirational”. However, his science and engineering and cost engineering have been excellent to date. I would’t write it off at this stage.
      The big if here is if he can get his rockets to that level of reliability and reusability. If you can reuse the rocket hundreds of times, the cost of fuel becomes the major factor and fuel for his future rockets are cheap – they run on liquid oxygen and methane (purified LNG).

      1. Dan Dair

        I’m genuinely impressed by Musk’s rocket,
        but they’ve had a couple of successful landings & a lot of unsuccessful ones.
        I wouldn’t mind flying in it.
        It’s take-off & flight capabilities have been reasonably well proved in the tests so far…….
        but the landing bit still leaves far too much to be desired for my liking.?

        1. Dan Dair

          I’m not especially committed (at a purely personal level) to the Hotol/Skylon thingy,
          but I have generally followed it’s progress (or lack of it) for around 40 years.

          Having qualified my point,
          The difference between a ballistic rocket & a ‘spaceplane’, is that with a spaceplane you can expect a similar experience to a normal aircraft launch & landing. Which essentially means a minimum ‘g’ take-off & a ‘normal’ rolling-landing.

          Elon Musk’s BFR might work for intercontinental flight, but there are still so many unproven aspects, that I can’t believe it’s being touted-around as ‘the next big thing’.?
          Richard Branson’s Virgin Spaceplane was all set to begin final trials & then it went ‘tits-up’, when everything had been looking positive.

          I really think that whilst the BFR might work, eventually,
          I honestly can’t see it flying from Sydney to London or San Francisco by the middle of the next decade, still less to the Moon or Mars by then.?

          1. Jacob HSR

            Dan Dair, the next big thing might be the return of supersonic civilian flights. The firm is named Boom. I wish it was named ProSonic. The trouble with the Concorde was that it could not fly from USA to Japan/China/Taiwan and it had too many seats (100).

            I think Boom will fly a 1/3 scale model next year. 5 airlines have reportedly placed orders with Boom and each aircraft will make use of carbon fibre – instead of aluminium – in order to be 30% more fuel efficient than the Concorde.

          2. Dan Dair

            Jacob HSR,
            Had the ‘oil crisis’ not happened
            & Boeing not surreptitiously & extremely effectively motivated public opinion in New York,
            Concorde MIGHT have been a huge financial success.???
            IF it had been a success,
            you would imagine that future developments of the aircraft would have increased the range &/or the capacity.?

            “to be 30% more fuel efficient than the Concorde”……..
            you would imagine it would be as good as the old Concorde but 30% bigger,
            or the same size as the old Concorde but with newer engines & aerodynamics.?

            Unfortunately, the current crop of supersonic turkeys appear to be neither.?
            They’re 30% more efficient, only because they’re 60% smaller & therefore considerably lighter than a real airliner.
            #bizjet/feederliner ?

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