Chair Force Engineer

Friday, January 29, 2010

Flight of the Raptor-ski

Russia's new fifth-generation fighter jet, currently known as PAK-FA, made its first flight yesterday. The Russian media is already billing the plane as a competitor to the F-22.

NATO has already given the plane the reporting name of "FIREFOX," parodying the Russian super-fighter from the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. (Under the NATO reporting system, all Russian & Chinese fighters get names that start with the letter F.) But the plane's similarities to the F-22 Raptor are enough for me to give it the nickname "Raptor-ski."

The plane's angular appearance and aft-set diamond wing make comparisons to the F-22 easy, at least initially. Unlike it's American counterpart, PAK-FA has tiny vertical stabilizers that move as a single unit for yawing. The size of the vertical stabilizers tells me that thrust-vectoring engine nozzles are essential for yaw stability (and likely for pitch stability too, based on the tiny horizontal stabilizers.) The Russian aerospace industry has been focusing on thrust vectoring for over 15 years as an upgrade to the Su-27 Flanker (Su-35 in its upgraded form.)

But a great airframe alone does not guarantee a great fighter aircraft. Even maneuverability does not guarantee success in flight regimes other than visual-range, close-in dogfighting. If PAK-FA is the Superman of fighter jets, then the F-22 Raptor is Batman covered in armor and packing a lump of Kryptonite. The F-22 is so far ahead of other fighters in the realms of avionics, stealthiness and supercruise that it's scary. Can Russia's Sukhoi design bureau compete with Lockheed-Martin's unrivaled experience in designing stealthy planes? PAK-FA may benefit from the downed F-117 wreckage recovered from Serbia, but the F-22 is still a generation ahead. The only way PAK-FA can compete in the avionics realm is if a Russian mole delivered the plans for the F-22 radar set to the motherland. (It's not unheard of. The same thing happened with the F-18 radar during the MiG-29 program.)

Another impediment to the PAK-FA is a protracted development schedule. The Su-34, a two-seat fighter-bomber based on the Su-27, had a very lengthy development in spite of being a fairly straightforward modification of the Su-27 airframe. (Again, avionics makes the big difference in fighter development and cost; the Su-34 program was no different.) It will be years before Russia fields a squadron of PAK-FA's.

What happens if a PAK-FA "Raptor-ski" gets in a battle with an F-22 Raptor? Using the plane's superior radar and stealthiness, the Raptor pilot fires missiles and takes out the PAK-FA before the Russian pilot knows there's an F-22 around. All the agility in the world won't help if you can't even see the other fighter (although it does aid in shaking off missiles.) The long-range intercept scenario is the reason why the F-14 Tomcat was the only American plane that Russian pilots truly feared. The Tomcat's AWG-9 radar and Phoenix missile system was amazing for its day and still sends shudders down the spines of fighter jocks. It could detect and engage six bogeys at the same time at a range far longer than other fighters could. A similar logic applies with the F-22 today, with the addition of stealth to prevent the fighter from being spotted by its adversaries until it was too late.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Back to Mars, the Battlestar Galactica Way

Courtesy of Scott Lowther, I recently checked out a recent study of an "austere mission to Mars" conducted by personnel at JPL and The Aerospace Corporation. Space fanatics should definitely check it out.

Studies of human missions to Mars always fascinate me, even if many of them are incredibly impractical. A few years back I took a look at a similar study to the current "austere" study that was conducted by SpaceWorks Engineering. Both studies made use of multiple Ares rockets to assemble the spacecraft, in an approach that Bob Zubrin derisively calls "Battlestar Galactica."

While JPL+Aerospace Corp (and previously SpaceWorks Engineering) spun their study as evidence that a human mission to Mars is feasible, I take a very different view. A manned Mars mission is feasible but expensive, lengthy and impractical without adopting nuclear propulsion (either nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric) and in-situ resource utilization. The development pricetag for this "austere" four-crew mission is fairly low compared to the SpaceWorks estimate at around $75 billion for an all-US program, and $63 billion for an international one. Each mission would require twelve Ares V launches to assemble, plus one Ares I for crew launch. (Compare this to the nuclear-thermal Boeing IMIS plan from 1968, which used six uprated Saturn V's plus two Saturn 1B's for crewed launches.)

The austere study uses some innovative approaches to solving the mission's technical challenges. Crew habitation on-orbit is similar to the ISS "Zvezda" module. The Mars Orbit Insertion module performs a relatively short burn at Mars arrival to put the spacecrafdt into a highly elliptical orbit, which is circularized by aerobraking. (This seems to be a compromise between a fuel-intensive capture into circular orbit, and a risky orbit insertion that purely involves aerobraking.) The Mars landers rely on rockets only to decelerate and land on the Red Planet, with no assistance from parachutes (which is probably for the best, given the reduced effectiveness of parachutes in Mars's thin atmosphere.) One concern of mine regards the Orion heat shield. With its heat shield exposed to the extreme heat and cold of space on a multi-year mission, I wonder how well Orion would hold up during re-entry.

Like Scott Lowther, I'm also disappointed at the way PowerPoint has killed the lavish aviation art we used to see from the big aerospace companies. The "scale" model in the presentation is hokey, bordering on ridiculous. It's clearly a bash of the Revell Mir Space Station kit with a toy Saturn V. There's no excuse why the model builder couldn't have used the much more realistic (and widely available) Revell-Monogram Saturn V kit for the model. And apparently we're to ignore the scale of the CEV, since the Apollo command module was used to represent the much bigger Orion CEV.