Emailing a wrench to ISS

Having overheard an ISS astronaut mention the need for a particular type of wrench, the company that made the 3D printer on the station immediately worked up a design and emailed that to him, allowing him to print it up.

No word on whether the astronaut actually printed it, but it seems to me that he should do so immediately, then test its use.


CO2 satellite overcomes design flaw

Despite a decade of development, including the production of two satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 was launched in July with a basic design flaw that was never spotted.

Scientists and engineers on the project have ridden an emotional roller coaster. In 2009, a rocket failure doomed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, their first attempt at a carbon-mapping probe. Its replacement, OCO-2, launched successfully. But after the JPL turned on the main instrument — a trio of spectrometers that measure sunlight light reflecting off Earth’s surface — the team discovered a problem in OCO-2’s data. They eventually determined that it was caused by a design flaw that reduced the amount of light entering the instrument during one mode of operation. The problem dated to 2004 and had never been caught in testing, says JPL’s David Crisp, the science team leader of the OCO-2 mission. “It was a stupid mistake. Embarrassing to the instrument designer and to me,” he says.

This flaw was apparently in both OCO satellites and was never noticed.

Fortunately, they have improvised a work-around that is allowing the spacecraft to get its data, which interesting shows the highest concentrations of CO2 are coming not from the U.S. and the First World but from poorer parts of Africa and South America (caused by “burning savannas and forests,” not SUVs) and from China.

The liberal hatefest

Feel the love: A liberal professor (and department chair) at the University of Michigan has published an article where she advocates it is “okay to hate Republicans.”

Republicans now, she writes, are focused on the “determined vilification” of others, and have “crafted a political identity that rests on a complete repudiation of the idea that the opposing party and its followers have any legitimacy at all.”

She doesn’t seem to notice her own obvious intolerance apparently. Note also that, being a liberal, she probably considers herself the embodiment of tolerance and love.

More here, including this line: “If you are paying for the tuition of a child attending the University of Michigan, pull them out.”

Kepler reborn

Kepler detects its first exoplanet after its mission was reshaped because of the failure of two of its four gyros.

The newfound planet, HIP 116454b, has a diameter of 20,000 miles, two and a half times the size of Earth. HARPS-N showed that it weighs almost 12 times as much as Earth. This makes HIP 116454b a super-Earth, a class of planets that doesn’t exist in our solar system. The average density suggests that this planet is either a water world (composed of about three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a mini-Neptune with an extended, gaseous atmosphere.

This close-in planet circles its star once every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles. Its host star is a type K orange dwarf slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. The system is 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.

Even more cool, the detection took place during Kepler’s first test run in its new configuration. This bodes well for the space telescope’s ability to make future discoveries.

Falcon 9/Dragon launch rescheduled

SpaceX has rescheduled the launch of Dragon from Friday to no earlier than January 6.

The link notes that though SpaceX doubled its launch rate from 3 in 2013 to 6 in 2014, this was still half of what the company had planned. I suspect however that the launch rate will grow once again in 2015, and SpaceX continues to ramp up its operations.

India’s rocket and manned capsule test flight a success

The competition heats up: India has successfully completed both a test launch of the first stage of its upgraded GSLV rocket as well as the suborbital deployment and splashdown of a test manned capsule.

More details are sure to follow, but at the moment it appears that everything went exactly as planned.

Friday’s Falcon 9 launch delayed

Because of a scrubbed static fire test on Tuesday, it is now likely that Friday’s Falcon 9/Dragon launch will be delayed until January.

Attempts during the four hour test window on Tuesday did not result in a successfully conducted Static Fire. Several requests for further information, sent to SpaceX during and after the test window, resulted in the company saying they had no information to provide. SpaceX normally provide confirmation after a successful conclusion to the test.

Source information noted at least one full countdown towards the firing was attempted, which was classed as aborted at the very end of the count. At least one NASA-based outlet claimed the Static Fire had taken place, potentially pointing to ignition of the Merlin 1D engines, before an abort – due to an issue – was likely called. No confirmed information on the issue has been forthcoming from SpaceX. However, the company has promised to provide more information to this site when “they have something to share.”

It was, however, understood that the next Static Fire attempt is likely to take place no sooner than Thursday. That too appears to have been cancelled following review.

If tomorrow’s static fire test has been canceled then Friday’s launch will definitely be canceled as well. None of this has been confirmed yet, however, so it is possible that all is well and the launch will go forward as planned.

Update: The launch delay has now been confirmed. A new launch has not yet been announced however.

Conservatives can remove John Boehner as House speaker

Makes sense to me. Erik Erickson suggests that 30 conservative Republicans can force the House Republican caucus to replace John Boehner as Speaker.

Some will argue that a vote against Boehner is a mere protest vote. It is not. There are 30 House conservatives whose vote against Boehner, along with the united front of Democrats voting for Pelosi, could deny him reelection. These 30 would be exercising a veto. There would be no chance of a Democrat becoming Speaker (an obvious point but an argument sure to be advanced by some Republican), because a actual majority of the whole House of Representatives is required. Republicans would simply go back and re-nominate someone else who would not be subsequently vetoed.

In other words, if about 30 Republicans made it clear to the caucus that they will not vote for Boehner, the caucus will be forced to find a more acceptable candidate for speaker.

As my readers are aware, I have not been as outraged by the budget deal as many conservatives. That does not mean, however, that I am pleased with Boehner’s wimpy leadership. Having conservatives flex some muscle and dump him would I think be an excellent start to this next Congress. It would signal to everyone that they mean business.

Countdown begins for the suborbital test flight of India’s new rocket

Link here. The launch is scheduled for 11 pm Eastern tonight.

Thursday’s test launch will check the performance of the GSLV Mk. 3’s first stage and strap-on boosters, which will carry the rocket out of the atmosphere beyond the boundary of space. The launcher’s cryogenic upper stage, which will be active and fueled by liquid hydrogen on future missions, will be dormant on Thursday’s flight.

…After the rocket’s propulsion shuts down, a gumdrop-shaped capsule will separate from the GSLV Mk. 3’s dummy upper segment about five-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, according to the Times of India, another English-language paper in India. The capsule weighs about 8,000 pounds — about 3.6 metric tons. Indian engineers from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. fabricated the car-sized module, and ISRO added sensors, strain gauges, a guidance and control system and a heat shield for the suborbital flight, which is called the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment, or CARE.

Google Lunar X-Prize news

Google has extended the deadline for its Lunar X-Prize, giving the 18 contestants until the end of 2016 to launch a rover to the Moon. One company immediately delayed its planned launch.

Meanwhile, the Kickstarter campaign of one of the contestants has reached its fund-raising goal of $1 million, well ahead of its deadline.

The seas of Titan

Thar’s black gold up thar! Data from Cassini has confirmed the presence of ocean waves on Titan’s seas, while also providing suggesting that they are made mostly of liquid methane, not ethane as had been predicted.

The maximum depth of Kraken Mare appears to be 160 meters, and Ligeia Mare could be as much as 200 meters deep, reported Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. The fact that the radar signals could bounce off the sea bottom suggests that the seas were more transparent than expected and thus must contain mostly methane, not ethane. Hayes says his best estimate is about 90% methane. Essam Marouf, a planetary scientist at San José State University in California, reported on the first results from a separate radar experiment that sent radar reflections to Earth instead of back to the spacecraft. Those tests provide independent evidence that the seas are dominated by methane, Marouf says, and it implies that the lakes are kept filled by precipitating methane.

As the article also notes, this methane is “55 times Earth’s oil reserves.”

The reasons behind Russia’s proposed new space station

Link here.

At the heart of the latest plan is the botched construction of the Multi-purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, the Russia’s next big piece of the International Space Station, ISS. After many years of delays, the price tag for the MLM project ballooned to one billion rubles, however the all-but-completed module had to be grounded until at least 2017 due to severe quality control problems during its manufacturing at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow. Repairs of the module were estimated at another billion rubles and GKNPTs Khrunichev was expected to cover this cost from its own reserves. However, the nearly bankrupt company came back with an announcement that it already owed around a billion Euro and would not be able to pay for the future work. Even if repaired and successfully launched, the MLM module, which would have taken more than two decades to build, could arrive at the ISS on the eve of its retirement.

As an alternative, Russian space officials came up with a new scheme to build a whole new station around the MLM, instead of launching it to the ISS. The project with an estimated price tag from four to five billion rubles would cover a five-year delay in the construction of the ISS. The new Russian station would also utilize all future Russian modules, which were expected to follow MLM to the ISS, such as the Node Module, UM; the Science and Power Module, NEM; an Inflatable Habitat, and the OKA-T laboratory.

There’s more. Read it all.

The Falcon 9 first stage landing barge about to set sail

The competition heats up: The barge that SpaceX has modified to provide an ocean platform for the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to land on is ready to leave port for Friday’s Dragon launch.

I think this Friday’s launch should be far more interesting and exciting that the Orion test flight a little over a week ago. Unlike the Orion flight, SpaceX will be attempting something that has never been done before. And should they succeed, they will rock the aerospace industry as much as Sputnik did in 1957.

Update: SpaceX put out a press release late on Tuesday detailing precisely what they hope to do, with videos from previous atttempts.

Orbital Sciences picks another Russian engine for Antares

The heat of competition: In its effort to replace the old Cold War Soviet-era refurbished Russian engines for the first stage of its Antares rocket, Orbital Sciences today announced that it will instead buy a different modern-built Russian engine.

Designated the RD-181, the new engine will be used on Antares in shipsets of two to accommodate as closely as possible the two-engine configuration built around the AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital Sciences managers said Dec. 16. A descendant of the RD-171 that powers the Ukrainian-built Zenit launch vehicle, the RD-181 will be manufactured in the same Khimki factory that builds the RD-180 used on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It closely resembles the RD-191 on Russia’s new Angara launcher and the RD-151 that powers South Korea’s Naro-1 launch vehicle.

It appears that this is the only engine presently available that can do the job. In the long run however it puts Antares and Orbital Sciences at a competitive disadvantage. Even though the sanctions against using Russian engines, passed by Congress, only apply to military launches, Orbital’s continuing reliance on Russian engines will limit their customer base.

Venus Express mission ends

After eight years, the European Space Agency has officially ended the Venus Express mission.

After this month of ‘surfing’ in and out of the atmosphere at low altitudes, the lowest point of the orbit was raised again through a series of 15 small thruster burns, such that by 26 July it was back up to about 460 km, yielding an orbital period of just over 22 hours. The mission then continued in a reduced science phase, as the closest approach of the spacecraft to Venus steadily decreased again naturally under gravity.

Under the assumption that there was some propellant still remaining, a decision was taken to correct this natural decay with a new series of raising manoeuvres during 23–30 November, in an attempt to prolong the mission into 2015. However, full contact with Venus Express was lost on 28 November. Since then the telemetry and telecommand links had been partially re-established, but they were very unstable and only limited information could be retrieved.

The agency has decided that further attempts to contact the spacecraft would essentially be a wasted effort, and has closed the books on this very successful mission. The spacecraft itself will soon burn up in Venus’s atmosphere when its orbit decays.

Boeing to bid CST-100 for ISS cargo contract

The competition heats up: Boeing has submitted a bid for the next round of ISS cargo missions, proposing to use its CST-100 manned craft as an unmanned freighter.

The cargo version of Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft will be based on the crewed version the company is developing for NASA, said John Mulholland, Boeing commercial crew program manager. Boeing will remove spacecraft components not needed for crew missions, like its launch abort system and environmental controls, to free up room in the spacecraft for cargo. The cargo version of CST-100 would, like the crewed version, launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The cargo version will also be able to return cargo to Earth, landing in the western U.S. like the crewed version.

This makes sense to me.

Curiosity finds organic materials on Mars, including fluctuating levels of methane

Data from Curiosity has found both organic chemicals in the surface of Mars as well as quickly changing levels of methane in the nearby atmosphere.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill. “This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

The organic material does not prove there is or was ever life on Mars. What it shows is that conditions on Mars could have once supported life. The methane detection, however, is a more significant finding, as it suggests that something very nearby to Curiosity is causing the spike. It could be life, or it could be chemical activity, but in either case, it means there is activity.

The one caveat is that the spike still did not amount to much, 7 parts per billion. Whatever is causing it is not really doing very much.

Evaporating dry ice chunks create gouges on Mars

Scientists think they have solved the mystery of the gouges that appear seasonally on some hillsides on Mars: Chunks of dry ice that slide down the slope and then evaporate, leaving no trace.

During the martian winter, carbon dioxide ice freezes over parts of the planet’s surface and sublimates back into a gas during the spring thaw. But according to the model presented here today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, chunks of warming dry ice may also break off from the crests of dunes and skid down slopes. This is no ordinary tumble—according to the model, the bases of the chunks are continually sublimating, resulting in a hovercraftlike motion that gouges the dune while propelling the ice down slopes. Solid ice that survives to the bottom settles into a pit before dissipating back into the atmosphere.

The approved 2015 NASA budget

Link here. The article gives a good overview not only of the NASA budget in the just passed continuing resolution but of the budgetary history of the commercial space effort, which is increasingly getting what it needs from Congress.

NASA builds a $349 million test stand it knows it will never need

SLS marches on! Though Obama cancelled the Constellation rocket program in 2010, NASA continued to build a $349 million engine test stand for that rocket, finishing the tower in June 2014.

The test stand was also significantly over budget. It now sits useless, since the SLS rocket will use a different untested engine in its upper stage during its first manned flight.

It is every important to underline the chronology here. The rocket was cancelled in 2010. Construction on the test stand continued however for four more years, partly because of decisions by NASA management and partly because of mandates forced on them by Congress.

Stories like this illustrate why I think the political clout of SLS is weak. The program is too expensive, is riddled with waste, and it can’t accomplish anything anyway, making it a perfect target for both muckraking journalists and elected officials who want to make a name for themselves saving the taxpayer’s money. And both have a perfect inexpensive and successful alternative to turn to: private space.

Voyager 1 on the edge of the solar system

Scientists using instruments on Voyager 1 have detected three shock waves pass over the spacecraft as it moves steadily away and outside of the solar system.

The waves were sent outward when the Sun emitted a coronal mass ejection. The spacecraft has been inside the third wave now for months, something that scientists at the moment cannot explain.

Simon & Garfunkel – American Tune

An evening pause: Performed live in New York, 1981.

I’ve posted a different Paul Simon performance of this song previously, but considering what SpaceX is about to try to do with its first stage, I think it appropriate to post it again. As Simon wrote,

We came on a ship they called the Mayflower
We came on a ship that sailed the moon
We came in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.

More problems for Webb Telescope

The final scheduled testing of the cryogenic cooler required to cool one instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope has been repeatedly delayed, from its original date of January 2014 to anywhere between April to November 2015.

The cost for this particular instrument has also ballooned since the contract was first awarded, more than doubling.

What Gazans really think about Hamas

A real journalist went to Gaza and the West Bank and rather than retype the crap that Hamas was feeding him, he interviewed the Palestinians there and found out what they really think of Hamas and its attacks on Israel. And it ain’t good.

This one quote sums it up nicely:

“Don’t get fooled. Gazans are not in love with Israel yet, but they do not want to fight Israel anymore. We do not want to embrace Israel; we just want to live normally without wars. We want to live and work in Israel like we used to. We are under Hamas occupation, and if you ask most of us, we would rather be under Israeli occupation, instead. I would welcome Netanyahu to rule Gaza so long as Hamas leaves, and I think most Gazans feel the same way. We miss the days when we were able to work inside Israel and make good money, we miss the security and calm Israel provided when it was here, but politically speaking, we just think of it as the better of two evils: Israel and Hamas.”

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