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How Elon Musk could recover rockets with balloons — just not the party kind

On Sunday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk warned his Twitter followers that he had an idea that was “gonna sound crazy:” his company might use a “giant party balloon” to recover the upper stage of its Falcon 9 rocket from orbit.

How could a party balloon help SpaceX bring back a rocket that’s traveling thousands of miles per hour through space? Well, Musk has made bizarre SpaceX decrees before, which have later become reality: The company did launch his Tesla into deep space, after all.

And this balloon concept does have a history: for decades, NASA and other researchers have studied how to use inflatable structures to slow down spacecraft leaving orbit. Balloons are a lightweight tool that can change the shape and density of a spacecraft quickly, altering how that vehicle tumbles to Earth.

A balloon can act like a big space brake and provide shielding from the enormous amount of heat a spacecraft experiences when plunging through the atmosphere. “It’s like when a Soyuz capsule is coming home,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert, tells The Verge. “It needs a heat shield.”

Balloons have their own challenges. They can be hard to stabilize when falling through the sky, and they must be made of extra rigid, durable materials to survive. So, not exactly a party balloon, but one made to withstand incredibly high temperatures and rushing winds.

But this approach could let SpaceX recover the last big piece of its Falcon 9 rocket intact.

SpaceX has already mastered how to bring back most of its Falcon 9 rocket after launch. The vehicle’s first stage — or the 14-story body of the rocket that contains most of the engines and fuel — can return to a ground landing pad or a floating drone ship after takeoff. Once it starts to fall back to Earth, the stage reignites its engines a few times to control its descent.

This slows the rocket down enough so that it can land upright on a flat surface.

But the second stage of the Falcon 9 — the top of the rocket that carries the payload into orbit — is way more difficult to recover. This part of the rocket travels much faster than the bottom portion of the vehicle. The Falcon 9’s first stage can reach up to 5,000 miles per hour before it breaks away and returns to Earth.

But the second stage stays in space throughout the flight; to drop off a satellite in low Earth orbit, for instance, the second stage has to reach up to 17,000 miles per hour.

So whenever a second stage falls back to our planet, it’s coming in fast — and hot. The faster you descend, the more heating you experience. The upper stage may be as much as 27 times hotter than the first stage, according to Dave Akin, an aerospace engineer at the University of Maryland. (And if you look at the engines of a landed Falcon 9 first stage, they do get pretty charred.) The extreme temperature that the second stage experiences causes portions of the rocket to melt, and ultimately the whole thing breaks apart.

Musk is looking for a way to slow the rocket without the vehicle getting too hot.

Or at least that’s what his tweet indicated to Quinn Kupec, a sophomore aerospace major at the University of Maryland, who is working on high altitude balloons and heat shield technology. Kupec saw the balloon tweet and understood what Musk needed. “I thought, ‘An inflatable structure? That kind of sounds like a deployable heat shield,'” Kupec tells The Verge, referring to the technology he’s testing.

He responded to Musk on Twitter. Musk replied, “Yeah, exactly! Would be great to hear your thoughts. We’re going to try a few approaches.”

It’s possible that SpaceX could deploy an inflatable balloon at the base of the upper stage, according to Kupec, providing a large shield between the rocket and the atmosphere.

This would make the stage bigger at the bottom, and that could help spread all of the intense heat over a larger area. Thus the heat would be less concentrated.

But the big thing that a balloon can do is change how the second stage is affected by air resistance. Objects that are big in shape but lightweight for their size have a harder time overcoming air resistance, so they fall much more slowly.

You can see this when you drop a piece of paper and bowling ball from the same height. The paper falls at a leisurely pace because it’s less dense and gets caught up in the air more easily.

The balloon, deployed at the bottom of the upper stage, could turn the rocket into more of a piece of paper than a bowling ball. That means the stage will start slowing down much more rapidly when it hits the upper atmosphere, so there are lower temperatures surrounding your spacecraft. “If I can come in with more area — if I get bigger and flatter — I’ll decelerate sooner and higher,” Akin, who is also Kupec’s teacher, tells The Verge. “And that will be less heat when I get down into the denser atmosphere.”

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Now, a balloon isn’t totally necessary to do the trick.

What the rocket needs is some kind of lightweight material that can be deployed quickly to change the shape of a spacecraft. Balloons are good for that because you just need a thin material and air to fill them up fast. But a lightweight upside-down umbrella could also provide a similar affect, something that Kupec and his team have tested out.

And it’s not just the University of Maryland that has looked into this, either.

NASA has also tested out inflatable heat shields with programs like the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD, and the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment, or IRVE. And in 2000, Russia attempted to return the upper stage of a rocket from orbit using an inflatable heat shield. No one knows if it worked; the vehicle was never found.

And then land on a bouncy house

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 16, 2018

But inflatable heat shields can get unwieldy when falling from high heights.

At slower speeds, subsonic ones, the vehicle can become unstable. “It wants to flip over,” says Kupec. That’s not what engineers want, though. One way to fix this could be to deploy a balloon that completely engulfs the vehicle, turning it into a big beach ball instead.

It also may be tough for SpaceX to catch the inflated rocket on the way down.

The vehicle could use its engine to land, like the first stage does. But the second stage’s engine is designed to work in space, not inside the atmosphere, so it may not be effective for that. Musk did indicate that SpaceX may try to catch the upper stage, with a “bouncy castle.” However, the company has been struggling with catching objects: SpaceX has been trying to catch part of the Falcon 9’s nose cone, using a boat with a giant net.

Those efforts haven’t been successful yet, and catching a big inflated ball may be even more difficult than that. “The question is how controllable is it on the way down,” says McDowell.

It’ll be interesting to see what SpaceX comes up with (and what exactly Musk means by bouncy castle).

Since Musk said the company would try different options, we may see multiple types of balloon-like structures on the Falcon 9.

It just depends on what can be installed on the rocket for the lowest cost. “I’m sure he’s looking for a system that’s simple and lightweight,” says Akin. “Anything you carry all the way to orbit is payload you don’t get paid to carry.”

Sulida Hipseat Ergonomic Baby Carrier Backpack (Green) – Price Deal

Sulida Baby Carrier With HipSeat For Hands Free Baby Wearing For 3 months, 6 months up to 3 years olds Do you suffer from back pains from carrying your baby for prolonged periods? Do you get fatigue and back pain in your arms and shoulders carrying your 1 year old as they grow? Is your baby carrier too bulky and complicated to use?

Waist belt for great back and shoulder relief The well-conceived ergonomic design offers high carrying comfort throughout the time it is used. The generously padded waist belt and the shaped, padded shoulder straps relieve your back and shoulders.

Package indcludes:1 * Baby Carrier 4-way front and back carrying The baby carrier features three front positions and one back position. The newborn position allows you to carry your newborn baby in an optimal way–high up on your chest and close to your heart. When your child is a little older, the height can be lowered and you can choose to either carry facing inwards or outwards. You can also choose between normal and wide leg positions. From 12 months you can carry your toddler on your back.

Material:pearl wool+Air cotton,Polyester Belt:120*14cm, Adjustable extent:20-36cm Stool:25*16cm Gradient:32.7℃ Suitable for 3 months – 36 months baby Recommended weight:3.5-30kg/7.72-66.13 lbs

Please note that the minimum age for outwards front carrying is 5 months and the minimum age for back carrying is 12 months!

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Discounted: Sale Products

Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold

“Comprehensive” is the best word to describe infrastructure management[1] service Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold (which begins at £2,656 for up to 25 devices). While Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold doesn’t completely fulfill every feature requirement you might have on your administrative wish list, it does cover three broad categories of IT management quite well: infrastructure management, application performance management[2] (APM), and network monitoring[3]. With all that under one hood, many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) will find that Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold is all they need.

But, while Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold does compete effectively in all these categories, it doesn’t manage to distinguish itself in any of them well enough to warrant an Editors’ Choice award. Still, for those IT professionals who are partial to its interface and management interface, it remains an effective option. (Our Editors’ Choice award in the infrastructure management category instead goes to MMSoft Pulseway[4]). If you use Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold, then everything must run on-premises in order to perform all monitoring tasks, which means you’ll need a Windows machine (either Windows 7 and up for a client machine or Windows Server 2008 and up if you want to run it on a server), between 4 GB and 32 GB of RAM depending upon how many devices you’re monitoring, and at least 15 GB of disk space (though I’d recommend considerably more if you intend on storing log files on the same machine for any length of time).

Ipswitch recommends running Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold on a server platform. On the upside, unlike many of the infrastructure management solutions delivered as cloud services, you won’t need to install any agents on your various infrastructure bits because Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold utilizes existing management protocols such as Simple Network Management Protocol[5] (SNMP) and Windows Management Instrumentation[6] (WMI) to gather its information. Microsoft officially deprecated[7] support for SNMP with the release of Windows Server 2012 and recommends the use of the Common Information Model[8] (CIM) through Windows Remote Management (WRM) instead.

However, SNMP and SNMP WMI Provider is still available on Windows Server 2016 by simply selecting a check box and setting up community names, so reports of its demise may have been premature. Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold will support CIM by the time Microsoft ends support for SNMP, according to the company. The lack of support for a cloud-based console means that you won’t be able to manage inward from the cloud.

However, IpSwitch WhatsUp Gold now fully supports monitoring of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure instances. You can also monitor Linux and Apache web servers and Microsoft SharePoint. Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold shines when it comes to network management.

For one thing, it provides a much better graphical display of ongoing network usage than either Idera Uptime Infrastructure Monitor[9] or ManageEngine OpManager[10]. [embedded content]

New Version and Capabilities

Ipswitch announced a new version of WhatsUp Gold timed to ship as this update was being completed. We had a brief look at the pre-release version of this package, and it continues with the well-designed web UI, and it adds a collection of important new capabilities.

The new capabilities include cloud performance monitoring for AWS and Azure as well as billing performance monitoring, AWS virtual machine (VM) monitoring, support for Cisco Meraki, Cisco AP discovery and monitoring, SSID and interface utilization overlays to create heat maps, and support for Dell Compellant storage discovery and monitoring. Plus it now allows you to post to Slack channel action. A mobile access capability exists as well, although you’ll need to work some port forwarding magic to get it to work in most cases.

On the virtualization front, you’ll find good support for VMware VMs and for Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

Fast Installation

One of the areas Ipswitch focused on for the latest release of Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold is the user installation and discovery experience. They wanted to make Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold the easiest product to get installed and running in the shortest amount of time. And it looks like they succeeded because I was able to get everything installed and a network scan completed in under 30 minutes.

Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold found a total of 45 devices on my network including a few that similar products have failed to find. Figure 1 above shows the Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold Admin Console app with the Active Monitor Library dialog open, allowing the creation of a New NT Service Monitor. This feature makes it possible to create unique monitor elements to keep track of critical infrastructure services.

In this case, I created an Active Monitor to watch the Microsoft IIS service running on the system with the address Configuring the Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold mobile access requires either a server with a public IP address or port forwarding at the corporate firewall. The Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold documentation isn’t a lot of help at this point, stating, “If you want WhatsUp Gold Mobile Access to be accessible via the Internet, then make sure it is available on a server with a public IP.” That’s a fairly limited implementation of mobility when you compare it to products such as MMSoft Pulseway and Stackify Retrace[11] that both offer easy and full-featured web access.

Management Interface

Even though its server-side software still needs to be installed locally, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold has a web-based user interface (UI).

The previous Windows app has been deprecated and is now only available for a few special functions such as system migration. The web-based UI is very busy with plenty of tabs and buttons to distract you. On a positive note, once you get used to them, all of those tabs actually make it easier to jump from the home page to a specific device or problem displayed on its dashboard.

The Layer 2 topology map shows a nice amount of detail including system name or IP address and the port number connection on the switch (see Figure 2 above). You can swap to a details view with a single click and see most of the same information in tabular form. Figure 3 below shows what happens when you select one of the devices and then right-click with the mouse.

Selecting the device brings up a detail box with additional information. A right-click operation displays a menu of options allowing you to quickly launch a remote desktop session or the web task manager. The Problem Areas tab gives a quick overview of all devices either in a completely down state or with down active monitors.

As with other screens, a single click will take you directly to the information page for that device to help identify the problem. The Alerts screen under the Dashboard tab provides a good overview of all problem areas across the board to include infrastructure, network, and apps. Configuring alerts consists of selecting an existing item from the Alert Center Threshold Library or creating a new one.

A custom performance monitor can draw from a range of sources to include PowerShell scripts, SQL Queries, WMI parameters and even UPS status. In general, each performance monitor will trigger an alert when the monitored item exceeds or falls below the threshold value for a specified amount of time. Notification policies provide a way to send either an SMS message or email when individual alerts occur or when the number of alerts cross a threshold.

Slick Application Performance Management Plug-In

On the application performance management (APM) front, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold includes support for an aforementioned plug-in, appropriately dubbed “WhatsUp Gold APM.” With this add-on module, you can gain access to a large library of turnkey app profiles that has been updated in version 16.3 to include support for Oracle’s eBusiness Suite, Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager (CUCM), and a wide variety of Microsoft back-office platforms such as Active Directory (AD), Dynamics, Exchange, SQL Server, and more.

You can also set up custom app profiles using the add-on’s Application Profile Development Utility, though your mileage may vary depending upon the guts of the target app. For its part, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold provides access to a Management Information Base[12] (MIB) browser and a WMI library to make this functionality as broad as possible. Once installed, WhatsUp Gold APM delivers APM starting with a dashboard showing multiple app states (up, warning, down, maintenance, and unknown) and can be set to have threshold values for each of these.

So, if a particular folder has reached 90 percent of its storage capacity, for example, then WhatsUp Gold APM can be configured to show it as being in a warning state. This can also be extended to app dependencies such as, if your IIS Server is down, then so is your SharePoint instance, which means you can configure IIS as a component of SharePoint for the purposes of APM. Finally, in response to specific app states, WhatsUp Gold APM can be configured to employ user-defined action policies and alert processes.

Choose between text or email for alerting, for example, or kick off a certain PowerShell script in response to a certain app warning. You can keep track of all of this via a series of customizable dashboards as well as historical status reports.

Tally Your Pricing

Pricing for Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold starts at £2,656 for up to 25 devices, which sounds expensive but, compared to products such as ManageEngine OpManager, it’s actually fairly reasonable once you get to an actual tally of devices and options. Adding plug-ins, however, can run the price up considerably, depending upon the plug-in.

Ipswitch’s WhatsVirtual plug-in, for example, adds deeper insight into vCenter and VMware ESXi hosts, at a starting price of £1,809. Overall, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold definitely qualifies as a one-product-fits-all for the three categories reviewed (i.e., infrastructure management, app performance management, and network monitoring). It does have some pieces missing; however, because of its broad support for customization, scripting, and management standards, there are often workarounds for those looking to run the package in non-standard implementations.

Ipswitch isn’t of much help if things go wrong in such situations, however, so going this route typically isn’t for the faint of heart.

Still, for most SMBs, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold will provide everything an IT administrator will need, as long as there’s some local server muscle for deployment.

Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold

Bottom Line: Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold is a comprehensive infrastructure management service.

Its new version offers capabilities such as cloud performance monitoring for Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure as well as billing performance monitoring.


  1. ^ infrastructure management (
  2. ^ application performance management (
  3. ^ network monitoring (
  4. ^ MMSoft Pulseway (
  5. ^ Simple Network Management Protocol (
  6. ^ Windows Management Instrumentation (
  7. ^ officially deprecated (
  8. ^ Common Information Model (
  9. ^ Idera Uptime Infrastructure Monitor (
  10. ^ ManageEngine OpManager (
  11. ^ Stackify Retrace (
  12. ^ Management Information Base (