The Complex

Russia Preps for Arctic 'Dominance' With Nuclear Icebreakers and Polar Warships

On Nov. 4, Russia's Regional Development Ministry concluded in a report that Moscow was unprepared for a war in the Arctic. Over the next two days, the Kremlin and it partners in the press moved quickly to assure the world that they were stepping up their efforts to establish their military presence in the land of the North Pole - with a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a squadron of warships.

The Regional Development Ministry's report assessed would not be able to quickly respond to an "attack" in the Arctic, with the border checkpoints lacking appropriate equipment and the servicemen the necessary training for "fighting in harsh climate," according to RIA Novosti. Other inhibitions to Russia's Arctic development included the fall in local population and climate change.

But, Arctic players of the world, don't get, um, overheated. After admitting this lapse in attempts to dominate the area, the Russian media quickly came out with reports about Russia's brand new Arctic capabilities.

On Nov. 6, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the Russian army had plans to form a squadron of ice-breaking warships to be deployed by 2014 to protect Arctic shipping routes. Infantry forces that are "to fight in the region" will also be provided with new equipment.

The day before, the Kremlin-backed news service RT reported that Russian shipbuilders set out to build a nuclear-powered mega icebreaker that would be able to cut through Arctic ice at any time of the year. The $1.2 billion ship will be the largest Russian icebreaker yet, and will reportedly carry the creative and original name of "The Arctic." It will be used to collect data along the continental shelf, but also "further increase Russia's dominance in the region."

And Russia really does plan to dominate. In mid-October, the Kremlin announced that Moscow wants to spend $63 billion by 2020 on its Arctic program. RT then somewhat nervously mentioned that the Canadian military was recently discovered to have been secretly testing a $620,000 stealth snowmobile "designed for clandestine operations in the Arctic." Russian officials have said in the past that they were increasing their military presence in the region to protect its shores from drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. Could they have another enemy in mind for their billion dollar icebreakers?

Eight countries put forth claims to the Arctic, which have in the past resulted in several territorial disputes. Only in 2010 did Russia and Norway resolve a 40-year border conflict revolving around the Arctic's natural resources. With Arctic ice melting at a rapid pace due to climate change, these resources will be easier to retrieve. According to the United States Geological Survey, the barren area holds 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas.

Despite the riches hidden under the ice, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis wrote in Foreign Policy that an open conflict in the Arctic was improbable. "The likelihood of a conventional offensive military operation in the Arctic is very low."

But like the Black Watch in Game of Thrones, the Russians are preparing for war with someone, just in case. And if the White Walkers come, we will all be grateful for the Russian icebreakers.

Pink floyd88 a via Wikimedia Commons

The Complex

Is This Tiny Shuttle The Future of Spaceflight?

Late last month, the future of spaceflight -- a mini-space shuttle dubbed the Dream Chaser -- made its first unpowered glide-flight. It was highly successful, at least until it touched down on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base and promptly flipped over onto its back.

Ignominious start though it may be, it's just the beginning. Designer Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to quickly repair the vehicle and fly it again. A second Dream Chaser is under construction.

The Dream Chaser has an airplane-like "lifting" body. That means it can reenter the atmosphere relatively slowly in comparison to traditional capsules, and can glide to a graceful landing rather than plummet down to Earth. No lifting bodies have been used before on operational flights and testing was rare, which makes it a riskier than approach capsules. While the space shuttle's wings generated some lift, the fuselage (as in most aircraft) was aerodynamic deadweight, so it had a poor glide ratio and fast atmospheric re-entry.

But the idea has been around a long time, and Sierra Nevada is taking the least-risky option for such a craft: Dream Chaser is an exact replica of an earlier design ground-tested by NASA, so the company has plenty of wind tunnel data. The NASA design is itself a copy of a Soviet lifting body that flew a handful of times in testing.

Dream Chaser and two other vehicles -- the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 capsules -- are being built largely by government funds through NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) program, which has dished out just over $1 billion to date in an attempt to build a crewed, reusable spacecraft. In many ways, this is a situation that closely parallels the state of aviation in the 1920s, when government funding kept commercial airmail services viable and wealthy individuals paid to test the boundaries.

Much like aviation during that time, access to space is about to get much easier. Satellites are getting smaller and cheaper with the maturing of satellites the size of shoeboxes or smaller (CubeSats, nanosats, picosats, and the like) such that even small colleges can afford to send satellites into orbit. One group even launched the electronic guts of a cellphone into orbit as an experiment (it worked). Such small satellites allow previously unheard-of funders: wealthy individuals, small groups, and Kickstarter can now put satellites into space.

The largest cost to satellite builders is usually launch costs, which vary widely depending on the rocket and necessary orbit. The long-held belief in the space industry is that demand for launches will rise exponentially when the liftoff price drops to $1,000 per pound; the newest systems have brought the cost down around $2,000, and continue dropping with incremental improvements and efficiencies. Getting closer to that goal and (perhaps most importantly) interest from wealthy entrepreneurs and government support has allowed the flexibility to pursue relatively riskier approaches, and more of them.

Getting into space is incredibly hard. Reaching orbital velocity -- about 17,000 miles per hour -- requires perfect coordination and a rocket that can withstand enormous pressures and temperatures, built with high-grade materials and immaculate machining. The complexity means that rockets do not tolerate minor mistakes or the unexpected, such that every single launch is a nail-biting experience for the builders. As such, they are immensely expensive, but usually useful for less than 15 minutes -- several hours at the most if the second stage is required to maneuver once in space. Once done with the job, they are nothing more than expensive scrap, generally left to decay at the bottom of the sea or burn up during atmospheric reentry, or cases simply float around in space for eternity.

Reusability has long been a Holy Grail for spaceflight, and it's easy to understand why. Despite the higher cost of each flight and decreased payload, amortizing the engineering and material costs over a series of flights would be enough to ultimately drag the price down. Though launching is almost always the most expensive part of spaceflight, the obvious first target for reusability is the spacecraft that sits atop the rocket. Spacecraft are relatively small compared to their launch systems and need not be able to do more than basic maneuvering in the vacuum of space, so great margins can be reserved for the weight of heavier structures required for reusability.

Until now, however, it has simply been too risky and expensive to bother with. Only the iconic space shuttles have succeeded in flying twice. And they belonged to a special breed of beast; though conceived to be easily reusable, the shuttle cost well over $1 billion dollars per flight and required months of reconditioning to fly again. The program was largely considered a failure in those terms.

Today's space entrepreneurs want to do more than build a reusable spacecraft, however. They want to fly the entire launch vehicle over and over again. The first stage is the biggest part of the launch vehicle, but is only used for several minutes at most to power the rest of 'the stack' through the thickest part of the atmosphere. Nothing is ever easy with space launches. Making a first stage survivable means both strengthening its structure and figuring out a way to land softly; because each moving part adds complexity, weight, and cost, it has been considered impractical. But the same amortizing logic holds, and several companies are working towards solutions. Elon Musk's SpaceX has recently retired its Grasshopper hover test bed and is building a larger successor. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin has flown a small suborbital test bed at least once. (It blew up. They are reportedly building another.)

Musk, for one, has sworn to build a fully reusable rocket. The biggest challenge (which Musk describes as "super-damn hard") is a reusable second stage. The second stage (on some systems topped by a third and even fourth stage) is what actually brings the spacecraft into space, so making it reusable means it must withstand the full stresses of atmospheric reentry. Oh, and by the way, it must work in a vacuum, and it must be light enough to loft significant payloads at competitive prices, and somehow it must land softly after all that.

Because of the immense costs and risks, launch systems, spacecraft, and satellites have always had a very high barrier to entry. Lowering that barrier means room for more and better versions, and better tolerance for risk -- which itself encourages more of the same. One day someone will break through the $1,000-per-pound barrier, and when they do, just as aircraft builders of the 1920s could not possibly envision modern aviation, we cannot predict the future of spaceflight -- but it is exciting. The sky, to use an old expression, will no longer be the limit.