TMT construction postponed again

The builders of the Thirty Meter Telescope have temporarily extended the suspension of construction originally demanded by Hawaii’s governor.

The tone of the article, especially the comments by the governor, suggests that the state is accepting the reality that they have no legal right to stop construction, and are making that fact very public. Instead, the govenor is now beginning the public relations campaign to make construction possible despite the protests, including negotiating some other givebacks to the protesters to shut them up. Sadly, those giveback appear to be the decommissioning of some other working telescopes as well as some increased restrictions on access to the mountain by the public.

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Incorrectly built SLS welding machine to be rebuilt

You can’t make this stuff up. A giant welding machine, built for NASA’s multi-billion dollar Space Launch System (SLS), has to be taken apart and rebuilt because the contractor failed to reinforce the floor, as required, prior to construction.

Sweden’s ESAB Welding & Cutting, which has its North American headquarters in Florence, South Carolina, built the the roughly 50-meter tall Vertical Assembly Center as a subcontractor to SLS contractor Boeing at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

ESAB was supposed to reinforce Michoud’s floor before installing the welding tool, but did not, NASA SLS Program Manager Todd May told SpaceNews after an April 15 panel session during the 31st Space Symposium here. As a result, the enormous machine leaned ever so slightly, cocking the rails that guide massive rings used to lift parts of the 8.4-meter-diameter SLS stages The rings wound up 0.06 degrees out of alignment, which may not sound like much, “but when you’re talking about something that’s 217 feet [66.14 meters] tall, that adds up,” May said.

Asked why ESAB did not reinforce the foundation as it was supposed to, May said only it was a result of “a miscommunication between two [Boeing] subcontractors and ESAB.”

How everyone at NASA, Boeing, and ESAB could have forgotten to do the reinforcing, even though it was specified in the contract, baffles me. It also suggests that the quality control in the SLS rocket program has some serious problems.

Sierra Nevada and Germany sign agreement

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has signed a new development agreement with Germany in connection with its Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle.

The agreement does not appear to involve any money and thus is largely symbolic. Nonetheless, it shows again that Germany is interested in having Dream Chaser built, and is throwing its support behind the manned spacecraft.

Russia delays first manned launch from Vostochny

The Russian government has decided to delay from 2018 to 2020 the first manned launch from its new spaceport at Vostochny because an earlier launch would require them to use equipment they expect to retire anyway.

While the construction problems at Vostochny might be a factory in this decision, I also believe there is truth to the claim above. If they launch in 2018, they will probably have to use the Soyuz rocket to launch crews into space. By 2020 they plan to have Angara completely operational, and will be ready to retire Soyuz. Why build the infrastructure for Soyuz when you plan to retire it in only a couple of years anyway?

The delay however indicates a more fundamental problem with the Russian top-down authoritarian culture. It shouldn’t take them this long to get Angara operational. The rocket was conceived shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They’ve had almost a quarter century to build it. Even though they’ve only just done the first two test flights, there is no justification for it to take another five years to get all the configurations of the rocket flying.

If they want to compete on the world market, they are going to have to work faster than this. A competitive private company, rather than delaying the launch, would have pushed Angara to be ready sooner so that the the launch could happen on time, with Angara. That the Russians seem unable to do this indicates that they will not be very competitive in the coming decades.

“If life were only like this.”

An evening pause: A classic comedy scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). What especially makes the scene work is how realistic he portrays what it was like to stand in a movie line in New York in the 1970s.

Another hat tip to Phil Berardelli, author of Phil’s Favorite 500: Loves of a Moviegoing Lifetime.

New images of Ceres

Ceres by Dawn

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released its first new images as the spacecraft begins its slow journey from Ceres’ night to day sides.

The images are looking down on the giant asteroid’s north pole. They have also released a short animation where they stitch together the images, allow us to see Ceres rotate under the spacecraft.

SpaceX is considering a ground landing for its next first stage return attempt

The competition heats up: After its second attempt this week to land its first stage on a barge in the Atlantic, SpaceX is now considering landing their next attempt on the ground.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The reason they have been landing over the ocean in these initial tests was for safety. The last two landings however had demonstrated that they can reliably bring that first stage back accurately and precisely. Since they have the ability to destroy the stage should it go off course, it seems reasonable to shift to land now and simplify their challenge.

Stratolaunch considers multiple rockets for its giant airplane

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch is now considering widening its options for the upper stage that can be attached to its giant airplane.

[Chuck Beames, president of Seattle-based Vulcan Aerospace, the parent company of Stratolaunch Systems] said the interest in alternative launch options is driven by the growing interest in small satellites, for which the current Stratolaunch system is oversized. A smaller vehicle, he said, could be developed more quickly and less expensively. “It takes a more near-term focus on revenue generation,” he said.

Stratolaunch could eventually support several launch vehicles, he said, with varying payload capabilities to serve different customers. “We’ll likely have multiple launch vehicle options,” he said. “Some will be available earlier than others.”

It appears they are revising their launch system airplane into a modular design with a variety of upper stages, depending on customer. Note also the focus on the growing small satellite industry.

An engineering analysis of the Falcon 9 first stage landing failure

Link here.

SpaceX founder and chief technology officer Elon Musk tweeted that “excess lateral velocity caused it [the booster] to tip over post landing.” In a later tweet that was subsequently withdrawn, Musk then indicated that “the issue was stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag.” In this statement, Musk was referring to “stiction” — or static friction — in the valve controlling the throttling of the engine. The friction appears to have momentarily slowed the response of the engine, causing the control system to command more of an extreme reaction from the propulsion system than was required. As a result, the control system entered a form of hysteresis, a condition in which the control response lags behind changes in the effect causing it.

Despite the failure of the latest attempt, SpaceX will be encouraged by the landing accuracy of the Falcon 9 and the bigger-picture success of its guidance, navigation and control (GNC) system in bringing the booster back to the drone ship. The GNC also worked as designed during the prior landing attempt in January, which ended in the destruction of the vehicle following a hard touchdown on the edge of the platform.

No obvious evidence of advanced civilizations in 100,000 galaxies

A search for evidence of advanced civilizations in the WISE orbiting telescope database has come up mostly empty.

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson proposed in the 1960s that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. It was not until space-based telescopes like the WISE satellite that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation emitted by objects in space.

Roger Griffith, a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, scoured almost the entire catalog of the WISE satellite’s detections — nearly 100 million entries — for objects consistent with galaxies emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He then individually examined and categorized around 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images. Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

Though the spin of the article is that no clear evidence of alien civilizations was found, I am most intrigued by those 50 candidate galaxies.

A real report of Hillary’s first campaign stop

Forget the press. Forget the spin. Read this report by an ordinary college student of her attempt to participate, as an “Everyday Iowan”, in Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign event. With great pictures.

My point here is not to lambast Clinton (of which this event is the least of her problems). My point is to lambast the press. This campaign stop was not much different than the campaign stops and photo events of all politicians, staged and managed and completely divorced from reality. Sadly the press goes along and reports the staging. This report, created by an amateur, instead gives us the reality of the event, something that the press should be doing.

Instead, our mainstream press plays along with the politicians. They should be ashamed.

Why SpaceX’s first stage failure is really a magnificent success

Yesterday SpaceX attempted for the second time to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned barge in the Atlantic. They failed, spectacularly.

I however consider this attempt to be a magnificent success. I also think they could fail at achieving this vertical landing for the next twenty launches and still those failures would each be a magnificent success.

Why? How can an engineering failure like this really be considered an achievement? It is very simple. Even if SpaceX continues to fail in its effort to recover its Falcon 9 first stage and reuse it, the possibility that they might succeed — demonstrated time after time by the company with each launch — has struck terror in the hearts of every other aerospace launch company. Each landing attempt shows SpaceX’s commitment to lowering launch costs while developing cutting edge engineering capabilities. Each attempt shows the world that they are the world’s leading launch company.

The result? Every other launch company in the world, both old and new, are scrambling desperately to lower their own costs as well as improve their own engineering.
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Ground-breaking for LSST takes place in Chile

The official launch of construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) took place today in Chile.

Today, collaborators from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Technológica (CONICYT) and several other international public-private partners will gather outside La Serena, Chile, for a traditional Chilean stone-laying ceremony to celebrate the construction launch of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

They did the same kind of ceremony in Hawaii for the ground-breaking of the Thirty Meter Telescope, but things have gone very sour since. In Chile, however, I expect no problems. I wonder which local community has more sense.

New Horizons takes another picture of Pluto

Pluto and Charon, April 9, 2015

Getting closer: The New Horizons science team has released the spacecraft’s first color image of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken on April 9.

The image is to the right. Right now Pluto is really not much more than a blob a few pixels across. However, images like this, taken in conjunction with later images, are useful to help refine the spacecraft’s course.

Another successful Dragon/Falcon 9 launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully launched another Dragon freighter to ISS.

We await word on whether the first stage was able to successfully land vertically on a barge in the Atlantic.

Update: Musk reports that the first stage landed on the barge but “too hard for survival.” Expect some interesting video to follow. I have posted SpaceX’s video of the launch below the fold. Beginning at about 22:45, after first stage separation, you can see it maintain a vertical orientation as it begins its descent.
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A detailed look at ULA’s proposed Vulcan rocket

Link here. Not only do they intend to recover and reuse the first stage engines, the rocket’s upper stage will be designed with the ability to be refueled and function as a space tug once it has reached orbit.

Ah, the joy of competition. It accomplishes so much, so quickly. I hope we never return to the feel-good era of “international cooperation.”

Stratolaunch update

This article about Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch company notes that the payload the system will put in orbit is likely to be less than originally hoped.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said. Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said. “I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Allen’s company, Vulcan Aerospace, is also demanding that ULA change the name of its new Vulcan rocket, just revealed yesterday.

More evidence found for liquid water on Mars

A new study suggests that a liquid but very salty water does appear on Mars, during the night in the winter and spring months.

The team used Curiosity’s weather-monitoring equipment to look for those conditions and found that they occur every day in months throughout winter and spring. They suggest that overnight and before sunrise, some of the frost that forms on the planet’s surface interacts with the strong salts and turns liquid, seeping into the soil. This lines up with previous studies, which have detected geographic features that suggest flowing water.

The results come from the Gale Crater, which is itself too cold to support microbial life — even with liquid water present. But the study authors believe this phenomenon could occur anywhere on the planet, and may actually be more common in areas closer to the polar regions. Still, Mars is a pretty desolate place, and the amount of water we’re talking about is minimal at best. “There’s so little water that you can’t even see it visibly,” Morten Bo Madsen said.

ULA has dubbed its next generation rocket Vulcan

ULA has announced its plans for replacing the Delta and Atlas 5 rockets, dubbing its new rocket Vulcan.

They plan to develop Vulcan’s first stage first and use it initially on Atlas 5 rockets so they can replace the Atlas 5 Russian engines as soon as possible. Also, they plan to recover the Vulcan rocket’s engines by having them separate from the booster after use and then get captured in a mid-air before hitting the ground. (See the graphic at the link to see a launch profile.)

In watching the press conference, ULA officials made it very clear that they are focusing a lot of their effort on lowering the cost of the rocket.

The distortion of the global surface temperature datasets

Link here. Goddard does a good job of illustrating the differences between the measured and reported climate temperature datasets, and how the reported numbers are consistently shifted to make the past cooler than measured and the present hotter than measured.

He often attributes this bias to dishonest tampering with the data to support the theory of global warming. He might be right, but it is important to remember that you shouldn’t necessarily assign malice to things that are just as easily explained by human error or stupidity. In this case he also notes that almost all the weather stations that have been decommissioned in the past few decades have been located in rural areas. To replace their data, global warming scientists average the data from nearby stations, most of which are in urban areas that exhibit warmer temperatures because city constructs tend to cause local warming. The result? The recent datasets tend to show a strong trend upward.

What is causing a cooling in the datasets from prior to 1970 however is not explained by mere error. The data hasn’t changed. Someone must be deciding to adjust it downward, for reasons that are simply not justifiable.

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