Monthly Archives: September 2010

The state of the Sun, September 30, 2010

Time to update the state of the Sun, as seen by satellite data (the last update was in July). The graph below, posted today by Physikalisch- Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos (PMOD), shows the variation in the Sun’s Total Solar Irradiance since 1978. I have added a blue horizontal line to show that even now, two years after the Sun reached the lowest point in its most recent solar minimum, it has still not brightened enough to equal the lowest point in the two previous minimums. (Note that if we included the minimum from 1976, the Sun would still be below that as well.)

solar cycle as of Sept 30, 2010

Once again, the evidence is building that the Sun might be heading towards the weakest maximum seen to two centuries. And when that happened, things got very cold on Earth.

the sunspot cycle


This NASA bill is nothing more than pork

A sampling of headlines today, describing the passage last night in the House of the NASA authorization bill:

Unfortunately, none of these headlines are correct. All of them are examples of what I call “press release journalism”, where the press writes its stories based on what elected officials and public relations people tell them, rather than what’s in the bill itself.

Though the bill that passed last night does authorize significant additional funds for the subsidized development of new private rockets, it unfortunately does not send NASA on a “new path” or “new policy.”

First and foremost, the plan very specifically requires NASA to build a spacecraft and launch capability very similar to what was being built under Constellation. To quote:

It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.

This system is to have a launch capability of no less than 130 tons, which would exceed the Saturn V and is about what was planned for Ares V.


The Administrator shall continue the development of a multi-purpose crew vehicle to be available as soon as practicable, and no later than for use with the Space Launch System. The vehicle shall continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion project.

This essentially means that Orion, as designed under Constellation, will go on.

Thus, the only real changes to Constellation the bill provides are less money, a faster timetable (finished by the end of 2016) and the freedom to pick a new name for the system, so as to not embarass the current administration with a Bush space rocket.

Of course, NASA has the freedom to redesign Constellation, but given the short time schedule and limited budgets, I wonder if that will be possible. (There are those who think this is a victory for the Direct approach, whereby the new launch system is almost entirely based on the shuttle system, but even that concept is probably not doable, given the money and time frame.)

Thus, has anything at NASA actually changed? I don’t think so. In the end, what we are going to get from this new plan is the same failures we’ve gotten from NASA in its repeated efforts over the last twenty-five years to build a shuttle follow-on. To quote a column I wrote for USAToday back in 2004:

  • The National Aerospace Plane was proposed by President Reagan in 1986 during his State of the Union address. This cutting-edge technology, Reagan proclaimed, would “by the end of the decade take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-Earth orbit, or fly to Tokyo within two hours.” After spending $1.7 billion, and building nothing, the program was canceled in 1992.
  • The X-33 was announced with much fanfare by Vice President Al Gore on July 4, 1996. The program was going to produce a single-stage-to-orbit reusable spacecraft. “This is the craft that can carry America’s dreams aloft and launch our nation into a sparkling new century,” Gore enthused. After five years and $1.2 billion, the X-33 was canceled when cracks were found in the spacecraft’s experimental fuel tanks.
  • During the same years as the X-33, NASA pursued the X-34, a smaller two-stage reusable rocket launched from a belly of a L-1011 jet, and the X-38, a reusable lifeboat for the International Space Station. After four years, more than $1 billion but little hardware production, both were scrubbed. [Note that the X-37 did come back to life under the auspices of the Air Force, who saw its value if NASA did not.]
  • In 2000, even as the previous projects were being put to the torch, NASA came up with another program, the Space Launch Initiative. For two years, the agency spent $800 million drawing blueprints for a plethora of proposed shuttle replacements. Nothing was built. In 2002, the Space Launch Initiative was scrapped like the rest.

In every case, NASA came up with plans that could not be built for the money available. Now, Congress has ordered NASA to build an updated Saturn V rocket, practically overnight and without sufficient funds. And it has asked this to be done by an administration that is uninterested in doing it, and has even shown a willingness to sabotage this project, when it can.

The result? I do expect NASA to spend all the money that Congress is giving them, passing it out to various aerospace companies, as it has done for the last few decades. Whether anything will get accomplished with all that spending, however, is very doubtful.

In other words, the bill passed last night is nothing more than the worst form of pork. At least with most pork projects, a new school or a better road system is built. Here, the taxpayer will spend a lot of money, and get very little for it.

The one glimmer of hope is the money authorized to subsidize the development of new private space rockets. Unfortunately, the bill requires NASA to strictly supervise the construction of these new rockets, to make sure they meet NASA’s safety standards and government rules. Such supervision cannot encourage the kind of innovation and creativity necessary to produce new rockets cheaply and efficiently.

Fortunately, the increasing demand for new and inexpensive launch services is going to counter this governmental interference. SpaceX’s amazing success with its Falcon rockets is evidence of this increased demand. So is the fact that Boeing has decided to dive into this market with its own manned spaceship. With increased demand comes increased profit, which — far more than government subsidizes — will pay for the new rockets.

Still, on the government side I suspect the end result of NASA’s new commercial development program will once again be a lot of money wasted. The new rockets will get built, but the American taxpayer is going to get screwed in the process.

Personally, if I had my druthers I would get the U.S. government entirely out of the civilian rocket building business. Let the private companies finance and build their rockets themselves (as SpaceX did with the Falcon 1), and when completed, let NASA then buy the services. The less say the government has in the design and construction of these rockets, the better.

Unfortunately, this fantasy is not going to happen. Instead, I expect the American space program to limp along for the next decade or so, dependent on the Russians (and eventually the Chinese) to get its astronauts to its own space station.

How sad.


First planet discovered that might harbor life!

Big news! Scientists have discovered the first rocky terrestrial planet orbiting its sun at a distance where life as we know it could form. The planet itself has a mass three to four times Earth, so no matter what, conditions on its surface would be very different than here. Nonetheless, this is a major discovery, and is only the first of many. Key quote:

The discovery suggests habitable planets must be common, with 10 to 20 per cent of red dwarfs and sun-like stars boasting them, the team says. That’s because Gliese 581 is one of just nine stars out to its distance that have been searched with high enough precision to reveal a planet in the habitable zone.


Iranian blogger sentenced to 20 years

So, how does this prove that Islam is the religion of peace? In Iran today a blogger was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Key quote:

Hossein Derakhshan was “convicted of cooperating with enemy states, making propaganda against the Islamic system of government, promoting small anti-revolutionary groups, managing obscene web sites and insulting Islamic sanctities,”

It appears that Derakhshan’s worst crime might have been to visit Israel, though speaking freely in an Islamic state might also have been considered blasphemous.


Results from Hayabusa delayed till next year

We won’t know if the Japanese probe Hayabusa actually brought asteroid materials back to Earth until spring 2011. Key quote from the project scientist:

Kawaguchi said his science team found “tens of particles” in Chamber A of the canister. The tiny particles are being removed one-by-one in an extraction process that is stretching longer than anticipated.

Note that they still have not opened Chamber B, which is thought to have had a better chance of capturing asteroid material because it was the chamber in contact with the asteroid Itokawa.


Hoyer says Americans are “conflicted”

At a press briefing today my congressman, Steny Hoyer, said that he thinks Americans are “conflicted”, have “a lot of angst and anxiousness”, and are “not sure” which party will move the country forward. Steny is partly right about the first two points, but quite wrong about the third, considering his party’s dismal poll numbers.

I also suspect that Steny has a lot of his own angst and anxiousness, considering the momentum his opponent, Charles Lollar, is building.


Only one step short of tyranny

Obama is asking the court for the right to assassinate American citizens, without due process, and in total secret. Key quote:

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality. [emphasis in original]

The Bush administration was wrong when it tried to imprison an American citizen without trial. The Obama administration is even more wrong now to claim it has the right to kill an American citizen without trial. Such behavior is unconscionable.


One third of so-called extinct species have turned up alive

Back from the dead! A new study has found that scientists are significantly over-estimating the number of animal extinctions, with approximately one third of the so-called “extinct” species turning up alive. This quote makes one wonder if politics have been a factor:

The mistakes cannot be blamed on primitive technology or old fashioned scientific methods. “Mammals missing in the 20th century were nearly three times as likely to be rediscovered as those that disappeared in the 19th century.”


Violence by Democrat Party activists

Two violent incidents against innocent citizens, exercising their first amendment rights, have occurred in the past week. The first video shows a man being attacked because he is filming the Democratic candidate for governor at a public event.

Details about this incident can also be read here.

In the second incident, a Republican staffer and Iraqi war veteran was filming at a rally for Ted Strickland, Democrat candidate for Ohio governor, when a Strickland supporter came up behind him and poured a cup of hot coffee down his back.

Details can be found here.

Note that in both cases, it is the Democrat that is committing the violence. This has been the pattern since the Tea Party protests started in April 2009. In almost every case, it has been a liberal/Democrat/union employee who has attacked a conservative protester.

To put it mildly, such stormtrooper behavior by Democratic operatives is not the smartest way to win votes.

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