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It is that time of year again. I find it once again necessary to beg my readers for donations to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Without your continued support I will find it difficult to continue my independent coverage of science and culture, with a perspective you cannot find elsewhere. Please consider giving what you can, even if only a few dollars.

 

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NASA signs technology development contracts with eight companies

The competition heats up: NASA today announced the award of contracts to eight small companies to develop new technologies for the advancement of smallsat launch capabilities.

The contracts cover a wide range of launch concepts, from testing new imaging technology for spotting asteroids to new rocket engine development to new rocket designs. The key component however of all these contracts is this:

These fixed-priced contracts include milestone payments tied to technical progress and require a minimum 25 percent industry contribution, though all awards are contingent on the availability of appropriated funding. The contracts are worth a combined total of approximately $17 million, and each have an approximate two-year performance period culminating in a small spacecraft orbital demonstration mission or the maturation of small launch vehicle technologies.

In other words, the companies have to provide some of the funding, since the technology being developed will benefit them. They also will only be paid once they meet certain milestones, and any cost overages will be their responsibility. The result? The U.S. has the chance of giving birth to eight new space companies, all with cutting edge technology that can compete in the new launch market. And the country gets this for a measly $17 million.

Aerojet Rocketdyne sets record testing new rocket engine

The competition heats up: In recent static fire tests of its new AR-1 rocket engine Aerojet Rocketdyne set a record for the highest chamber pressure for any American engine using oxygen and kerosene.

They hope to convince ULA to use this engine in its Atlas 5 rocket to replace the Russian engine they presently use. At the moment, though ULA has made no commitment, it appears however that the company is favoring Blue Origin’s engine instead. That Congress favors Aerojet Rocketdyne is their one ace in the hole, since Congress controls the purse strings.

Daniel Boaventura & Carlos Rivera – Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (Quizás, Quizás, Quizás)

An evening pause: As I head out for a week of caving in Belize, how about a little Latin American culture? (I know Belize is actually a former British colony, but it is in the middle of Central America, so that’s close enough.)

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

A solar system of exoEarths!

Astronomers have discovered a nearby solar system of exoplanets, all approximately Earth-sized with at least three in the habitable.

Following these initial findings, the star was systematically monitored to find out whether it contained any other planets. The result of this follow-up exceeded all expectations: TRAPPIST-1 has at least seven planets, all of which are Earth-sized (to within 15%). The six nearest planets (b to g) orbit their star in 1.5 to 12 days (the period of the seventh planet remains to be determined), and are 20 to 90 times closer to their star than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. At such distances, the tidal forces exerted by the star are considerable, locking the planets into synchronous rotation, which means that they rotate about their axis exactly once in one orbit, thus always showing the same face to their star (just as the Moon does relative to the Earth).

The planets of TRAPPIST-1 have insolations, and therefore average temperatures, similar to Earth’s: the insolation of the innermost planet (b) is slightly higher than that of Mercury, while the outermost planets (g and h) have an insolation that is a little lower than that of Mars. The insolations of at least three of the planets (e, f and g) are compatible with the existence of liquid water on their surface for a wide range of atmospheric compositions, as is shown by numerical simulations of their climate. Due to their synchronous rotation, it cannot be excluded that the planets with the highest irradiation (b, c and d) may harbor liquid water in temperate regions with little or no sunlight.

More here. The star, a cool dwarf, is only 40 light years away.

Posted in the Belize City airport, as we wait for our pickup.

Sea Launch deal finalized?

The competition heats up? Two articles today in the Russia press suggest that either their settlement deal with Boeing over bankrupt Sea Launch is either on the verge of signing or the Russians are trying to pressure Boeing to an agreement by use of the press.

The first article says that a final agreement is about to be signed, but provides no date or indication from Boeing that they have agreed to terms. The second announces that the private Russian company that is acquiring Sea Launch from the Russian government to compete in the commercial launch market has been given a launch license by the Russian government, and will launch its first rocket from Baikonur later this year, using the Ukrainian Zenit-M rocket that was designed to fly from the Sea Launch floating platform. .This launch is intended as a test flight prior to restarting launches from the Sea Launch platform itself.

The complexity of this Sea Launch situation boggles my mind. Russia has sold Sea Launch to a private Russian airline company, S7, which will use a Ukrainian rocket to launch satellites from the Sea Launch platform. Before that can happen however Russia has to settle its dispute with Boeing, which won a $300+ million settlement in court over the breakup of their Sea Launch partnership. That settlement reportedly includes free passenger seats on Soyuz flights to ISS, which Boeing is reportedly offering to sell to NASA, which might need them. Meanwhile, Russia does not seem to have a problem with a Russian company using a Ukrainian rocket, even though Russia itself has completely banned the use of Ukrainian equipment on any of its own space rockets or capsules.

The business of commercial space sometimes amazes me.

Posted in the airport terminal in Belize City. We are waiting for everyone to arrive to take a van together to our resort, Maya Mountain Lodge.

Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.

Last Soyuz-U launches Progress to ISS

Russia today successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS using its last Soyuz-U rocket.

The Soyuz-U has been launched hundreds of times since the 1970s, but has been replaced by Russia because it uses equipment made in Ukraine. The newer versions of the Soyuz rockets are completely home-built, but also have been plagued by quality control problems and corruption within Russia.

Posted in the air of the Gulf of Mexico in route to Belize.

Off to Belize

Today, Wednesday, I head to the airport to return to the western regions of Belize for a week of cave exploration and mapping. Last time I was there in May we began a cave survey. I am now the cartographer for this project, and this time I hope we can finish it.

I intend to post while in Belize, though it will likely have to wait until each evening when we get back from the caves. I also intend to do my Batchelor appearances, but this time live from Mayan Mountain Lodge in San Ignacio, where we will be staying. The lodge was gracious enough in May to let me use their office and phone, and I expect they will be agreeable again this time.

Anyway, off for more adventure. The world is much too fascinating a place to see it just from my desk by way of the internet. You have to get out and see it for real whenever you can!

Polar bear populations continue to grow and thrive

The uncertainty of science: Despite numerous doomsday predictions by global warming advocates, new data of polar bear populations in the Canadian Arctic show them to be both growing and healthy in 2016, with the trend lines all rising in the past decade.

The numbers show almost no regions in decline.

Scientists propose new planet definition that reinstates Pluto

Unhappy since 2006 with the definition of “planet” imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that demoted Pluto, planetary scientists, including New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, have now proposed a new definition that they think is more appropriate and would reinstate Pluto.

The scientists suggest planets should constitute as “round objects in space that are smaller than stars,” thus excluding white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes from the planetary status. “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters,” the proposal elaborates, noting that the Earth’s moon would constitute as a planet under the new definition.

Stern and his colleagues note that the IAU’s definition of a planet is too narrow and recognizes planets only as objects that orbit our sun and “requires zone clearing, which no planet in our solar system can satisfy since new small bodies are constantly injected into planet-crossing orbits.”

Make sense to me as well as a lot of people. The definition created in 2006 was never very satisfactory, and I know many planetary scientists who have never accepted it.

Pan Am Boeing 707 – 1965 Emergency Landing

An evening pause: This television news report about a 1965 near disaster where a Pan American passenger jet’s engine and wing fall off and the captain brings everything down safely is fascinating to watch, partly because of the live action footage taken by one passenger, but also at how television news has evolved since then, for the worse. This 1965 report has no shots a newsperson standing in front of the camera telling us what happened, as is typical today. Instead, the filming focuses on the events and the witnesses themselves, and lets them tell the story in as straight-forward a manner as possible.

Hat tip Mike Nelson.

Testing of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne first stage engine

The competition heats up: This week Virgin Galactic’s successfully completed a long duration static fire test of the first stage engine of its LauncherOne smallsat rocket.

I predict that LauncherOne will fly its first commercial flight before Unity, the company’s second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, and it will do it multiple times. In fact, right now I firmly believe that Unity is never going to reach suborbital space, as they have designed it for an engine that simply doesn’t work, and can’t figure out how to redesign it to solve the problem.

LauncherOne meanwhile has at least one launch contract, and is being designed with a workable engine, right from the start.

“This is how socialism always ends.”

The people of Venezuala are literally starving to death under socialist rule.

The South American country of Venezuela, infamously known for its wide reaching socialist policies that have left the country devastated, has reached a point where its citizens are losing almost 20 pounds due to their lack of food.

A 2016 study from La Encuesta Condiciones de Vida (Encovi) – in English, The 2016 Living Conditions Survey — conducted a survey of 6,500 families found that a little over 32 percent of Venezuelan households eat only once or twice everyday. 93.3 percent said their income does not support their costs for food, and thus they have resorted to cheaper foods such as vegetables. Namely potatoes.

Due to this, almost 75 percent of the Venezuelan population has lost an average of 19 pounds.

As the author at the link very correctly notes, this is how things always end with socialist, communist, and collective policies. Always. Without fail.

Senate passes NASA budget that slashes environment spending

While keeping NASA’s overall budget the same, the Senate has passed a NASA budget bill that will slash NASA’s environmental spending and pass the money to other programs within the agency.

The budget zeros out all budget items dedicated to climate research. The budget also outlines a number of important space policy approaches that are now endorsed by Congress:

  • Commercial crew and cargo are fully supported
  • Privatizing ISS is encouraged
  • Congress reaffirms its support of SLS and Orion
  • NASA is asked to prep Orion for ISS flights, using other rockets
  • NASA is tasked to create a roadmap for reaching Mars
  • The Mars roadmap is not restricted to using SLS or Orion
  • An alternative to Obama’s asteroid redirect mission is requested
  • Funding is provided to pay for astronaut health needs
  • NASA science is to focus on astronomy, planets, exoplanets, asteroids, aviation, and space technology

It is expected that the House will also pass the bill, and that Trump will sign it.

I also expect that most of NASA’s climate work will now be shifted to NOAA, under new management. Thus, the climate budgets are adjusted, and the people in charge are changed. A nice way to drain the swamp.

High School band to exclude whites in its music selection

Bigots: The band directors of a Minnesota high school band have decided to only buy music from “composers of color” this year, purposely excluding anyone who happened to be white.

The band directors at Spring Lake, outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, have pledged to include at least one piece by a female composer and one by a composer of color in each concert, for each of the school’s bands. “We made a commitment this year to only buy music from composers of color,” says Brian Lukkasson, one of the directors.

Because we all know that one can’t write good music if your skin color is the wrong shade.

I should add that this NPR report sees nothing wrong with this policy, even though it probably violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (pushed through by Republicans and opposed by southern Democrats) as well as numerous other civil rights laws and regulations passed since. In other words, bigotry is fine as long as the people being oppressed are people you think should be.

UC-Berkeley and Google looking for amateur images of upcoming August eclipse

In the hope of producing a long movie of the August eclipse that will cross the entire continental United States, the University of California-Berkeley and Google have teamed up to put together a project that will gather images taken by amateurs.

The Eclipse Megamovie Project is seeking more than a thousand amateur astronomers and avid photographers to record the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse and upload their photos to be stitched together into a movie documenting the path of totality from landfall in Oregon until the moon’s shadow slips over the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina.

While no one on the ground will see the total eclipse for more than 2 minutes and 40 seconds, depending on how close they are to the center of the path of totality, the images collected by the Megamovie’s volunteer team will be turned into a 90-minute eclipse movie unlike anything seen before. Even an airplane flying along the path of totality can only capture at most a four- to five-minute movie, since the moon’s shadow moves along the ground at up to 1,500 miles per hour. The last time anyone tried to stitch together eclipse images like this may have been in the 1800s via hand-drawn sketches, without the benefit of today’s modern digital technology.

While I think this is a great idea, I must state my reservations about UC-Berkeley. This university is hostile to free speech, and actually encourages violence against conservatives who either attend the university or come to speak there. To work with it on this project would be a kind of endorsement of that behavior.

ULA lets the press see part of SLS

Link here. The upper stage of SLS is undergoing its final testing in Michoud prior to shipment to Florida, and ULA had a press event to show it off.

“This is the first piece of integrated flight hardware for the SLS system to be shipped down to the Cape in preparation for our very first launch,” said Jerry Cook, Deputy SLS Program Manager for NASA. Cook noted that the ICPS test article is currently undergoing stress and load tests at Marshall.

The completion of the ICPS is yet another landmark in SLS’ development, though some contend it’s still a drawing-board vehicle. John Shannon, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of the SLS Program, disagrees. “The SLS has, in various forms, been called a paper rocket […] and, if I think you look to your right, you’ll see that absolutely is not true,” stated Shannon. “If you had the opportunity to go to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where we’re putting the bigger core stage together, you would also see that it is not true because we are putting hardware together as we speak.”

This upper stage engine is a brand new design and has never flown before, and the rocket it is part of has yet to be assembled. Yet NASA is considering flying humans on it during its first test flight, even as it harasses SpaceX and Boeing about using the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5 rockets, both proven repeatedly in operational flights, for their manned ISS missions.

The article also gives an update on the situation at Michoud since it was hit by a tornado on February 8. It appears that the facility is operating again, but not fully.

India’s space agency wants to build a space station

The decline begins: The head of India’s space agency ISRO yesterday advocated that his country build its own space station.

The spacesuit is ready. A survival capsule is on the way. ISRO has everything to send astronauts into space and develop a space station, all that’s left is for the government to give the money and policy clearance, said ISRO chief AS Kiran Kumar here on Monday. “We have the capability to create a space station, but you (government) have to give us the money and time to make this happen,” Kumar told reporters on the sidelines of 34th foundation day celebration of the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT). “If the government and country decides… we are ready. You need to provide us funding, policy clearance,” he said, adding that space mission is low priority for the government “because one doesn’t see any immediate use of this in country’s development and growth”.

Kumar’s comments came in the backdrop of Chinese media reacting to ISRO’s recent record launch of 104 satellites at one go. An editorial in a Chinese newspaper pointed out that “there is no Indian astronaut in space and the country’s plan to establish a space station has not started”. [emphasis mine]

Rather than focus on development that could increase India’s competitiveness in the profitable launch market, such as improving its rockets either by making them reusable or able to launch more frequently, Kumar instead wants to spend his government’s money and build a space station. He doesn’t really outline what he intends to accomplish with this station, other than demonstrate that India can match China. His focus instead is creating an infrastructure for pork and jobs for ISRO. The station will not bring in profits, which would be more useful to the country and its nascent private space industry.

This is what government agencies routinely do. They might start out functioning like an innovative private company trying to attract customers, but the lure of coerced government money always takes precedence in the end, and the agency shifts its focus to building pork-laden empires funded by tax dollars.

Another nationwide wave of bomb theats against Jewish facilities

For the fourth time in 2017 simultaneous bomb threats have been called against numerous Jewish community centers across the United States.

On Feb. 20, 11 Jewish community centers received called-in bomb threats, which were ultimately determined to be hoaxes. Our centers have in place security protocols to ensure the safety of their program participants and facility visitors. All JCCs have now received the all-clear from local law enforcement and resumed regular operations, with a heightened level of security…

The author of the article notes quite correctly,

The press release notes a total of 69 threats have been made against 54 Jewish centers in 27 states since the beginning of the year. I wrote about a previous wave of “telephone terrorism” in January. All of these incidents have turned out to be hoaxes but it’s important to note that many of the centers include schools with young children, leaving parents concerned about the safety of their kids.

Essentially, these bomb threats are hate crimes but because they are being committed against Jews our elite intellectual community has no outrage about them and does not care. In fact, if you speculate that these threats might be an effort of Islamic terrorists only then will that elite intellectual community be outraged, not at the terrorists but at you, for daring to express “Islamophobia.”

China suspends coal purchases from North Korea

Finally! In an apparent response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test China has suspended its coal purchases from North Korea through the end of this year.

China will suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year, the Commerce Ministry announced Saturday, in a surprise move that would cut off a major financial lifeline for Pyongyang and significantly enhance the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions. Coal is North Korea’s largest export item, and also China’s greatest point of leverage over the regime.

The ministry said the ban would come into force Sunday and be effective until Dec. 31. China said the move was designed to implement November’s United Nations Security Council resolution that tightened sanctions against the regime in the wake of its last nuclear test.

While there are doubts this will change policy in North Korea, it does indicate that China is finally losing patience with that rogue state and its threatening behavior. And since China is one of the few countries that does any trade with North Korea, it is probably one of the few countries that can influence it in any way.

SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.

SpaceX launches Dragon and lands first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX today successfully launched from Florida a Dragon capsule into orbit while also landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch initiates use of the company’s new launchpad at Cape Canaveral, as well as their effort over the coming months to hold launches every two weeks or so.

Juno to remain in 53-day orbit

The scientists and engineers running the Juno mission to Jupiter have decided to keep the spacecraft in its 53-day orbit for the rest of its mission rather than fire its engines to lower the orbit to its planned 14 days duration.

The original Juno flight plan envisioned the spacecraft looping around Jupiter twice in 53-day orbits, then reducing its orbital period to 14 days for the remainder of the mission. However, two helium check valves that are part of the plumbing for the spacecraft’s main engine did not operate as expected when the propulsion system was pressurized in October. Telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that it took several minutes for the valves to open, while it took only a few seconds during past main engine firings. “During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

There are both pros and cons for using this longer orbit, detailed at the link, with.the most important being that doing nothing avoids losing the mission entirely.

Tilleson starts State Department purge

Cleaning house: The Trump administration carried out major lay-offs in the staffing at high levels of the State Department on Thursday.

Much of seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, were told today that their services were no longer needed. These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centered. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy.

In addition, it appears that the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also pulling the fangs from many other State Department managers, many of whom have indicated a partisan hostility to the Trump administration.

There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats. Not a single State Department official was included in the White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.

Good. It is important that federal employees of all stripes learn that a new administration has been elected by the American people, and it is there job to do what that administration wants, not what they want.

The consequences of leftwing censorship

Two stories today illustrate the consequences, both good and bad, of the left’s effort to stifle free speech on campuses:

The first story describes how a California law banning any university interaction with four states that have passed anti-transgender bathroom laws (laws that prevent men who are making believe they are women from entering women’s bathrooms) has prevented three California debate teams from attending the nationals.

This week the nation’s top debate coaches released their recognition of the top collegiate policy debate teams. This exceptional group of sixteen teams receives pre-bids to the National Debate Tournament at the end of March and will have strong potential toward winning the national title in debate at the tournament to be held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Two of the nation’s top teams that made this elite selection are from Berkeley, a campus recently racked by violent demands for the suppression of free speech. Incredibly, Berkeley’s teams and one other team from California who made the cut, will not attend the National Debate Tournament. That is because the state of California has banned all university related personnel from traveling to four states around the nation: Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi, on the specious grounds that these states have all passed “anti-LGBT legislation.” All debate teams from California state schools are practically banned from attending the national debate tournaments being held in the state of Kansas in March.

In other words, the intolerance by California to all alternative points of view has succeeded in literally shutting down all debate. As the author notes,
» Read more

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