Monthly Archives: May 2014

A photographic tour of the new Dragon capsule.

A photographic tour of the new Dragon capsule.

Lots of nice touches, but I have concerns about the touch screens. It is difficult enough to hit the right touchscreen buttons when you sitting in your chair at home. How much harder will it be for an astronaut to do so during a launch, when the capsule is shaking and rocking as it accelerates to orbit. Hard buttons and switches in this situation, giving the astronaut something solid to hold onto, might actually make a lot more sense.

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Virgin Galactic and the FAA on Friday reached agreement allowing the company to fly its suborbital flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic and the FAA on Friday reached agreement allowing the company to fly its suborbital flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

I suspect that Virgin Galactic wants to hurry its debut in New Mexico in order to help quell the doubts that have been building about the company’s future.

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On Friday SpaceX unveiled its manned version of its Dragon capsule.

The competition heats up: On Friday SpaceX unveiled its manned version of its Dragon capsule.

I am on the road this weekend so I won’t be able to comment about this until I get home.

One thing I can say. A quick scan of the news reveals a lot of stories about this particular event, showing once again that there is a lot of interest in the possibility of private development in space. This general interest is further fueled by SpaceX’s track record, which suggests that they will accomplish what they promise to do.

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The proposed SpaceX spaceport in Brownsville, Texas, has passed its final federal environmental review.

The proposed SpaceX spaceport in Brownsville, Texas, has passed its final federal environmental review.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had raised concerns about possible impact on habitat for some endangered species, ultimately concluded that “the project is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed or proposed to be listed species nor adversely modify piping plover critical habitat.”

But wildlife officials don’t expect the project to be harmless: Two individual cats, either from the endangered ocelot or jaguarondi species, could be lost as a result of the project in spite of efforts to avoid just that with measures such as posting warning signs along the road leading to the launch site. And federal wildlife officials also anticipate that more than 7 miles of beachfront used by nesting sea turtles could be disturbed by security patrols, though driving is already permitted on the beach.

I think every American should read these two paragraphs to gain an understanding of how ridiculous these environmental regulations sometimes are. This report appears to be junk and an enormous waste of effort and time.

The bottom line is to consider what has happened in Florida. The government established a wildlife preserve surrounding the Kennedy Space Center and the wildlife has been flourishing there for more than a half century. Because a launchpad is used so infrequently (12 times a year is what SpaceX proposes for Brownsville), it inflicts very little harm on the environment.

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Want to be an editor at Sky & Telescope? They have two positions open.

Want to be an editor at Sky & Telescope? They have two positions open.

Below the fold is the text of the message sent out today by the magazine and instructions for applying. They are not looking for science writers (like myself) but experienced amateur astronomers who are interested in writing about the field.
» Read more

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The private effort to reactivate the 1970s ISEE-3 space probe has successfully re-established two way communications with the spacecraft.

The private effort to reactivate the 1970s ISEE-3 space probe has successfully re-established two way communications with the spacecraft.

They will spend the next few days assessing ISEE-3’s overall health in order to plan the engine burns necessary to get it back to its original location orbiting the Sun near Earth.

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The blackballing of conservative commencement speakers.

The blackballing of conservative commencement speakers.

For the 2013 and 2014 commencement seasons, I looked up the guest commencement speaker at the top 30 universities and the top 30 liberal arts colleges as rated by U.S. News and World Report. In cases where there was no guest commencement speaker, I took the guest baccalaureate, class day or senior day speaker. In all cases, I noted if the speakers were American political figures, and if so their party affiliations. I counted people like the news anchor Chris Matthews, who worked for Democratic politicians, as a political figure. I didn’t count people like the author Toni Morrison, who is a Democrat but has never worked in a political office. I also only counted lead speakers, not recipients of honorary degrees.

As it turns out, I couldn’t find a single clearly aligned Republican political figure who spoke at any of these schools in the past two years. … Twenty-five Democrats spoke. Eleven Democrats gave the main commencement address among the top 30 universities, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Mississippi governor and current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. At the top 30 liberal arts schools, it was 14 Democrats.

The article describes this disparity as the “disappearance” of conservative speakers, but I think it is a much more conscience effort to squelch and silence the opinions of conservatives. Conservatives are literally being blackballed out of the intellectual marketplace, and are expected to accept this silencing quietly and without protest.

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A frame-by-frame repair of the video taken during the April soft splashdown of the Falcon 9 first stage now shows the deployment of the landing legs.

A frame-by-frame repair of the video taken during the April soft splashdown of the Falcon 9 first stage now shows the deployment of the landing legs.

Video below the fold.

In a related note, SpaceX will unveil its manned version of the Dragon capsule tomorrow at 7 pm (Pacific) and will live stream the event here.

Update: The links are fixed. Thanks Edward!
» Read more

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The Russian investigation into the most recent Proton launch failure has not yet ruled out sabotage as the cause.

The Russian investigation into the most recent Proton launch failure has not yet ruled out sabotage as the cause.

I think sabotage is highly unlikely, and their hint at it is mostly an effort to include all possibilities in their investigation.

Update: This report confirms my analysis. It appears the news story above was a bit overheated for the powers-that-be in Russia, and thus Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin felt strongly compelled to correct the record immediately.

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Website software expert needed

I am in need of someone willing to manage the backroom software aspects of Behind the Black. My first software designer found he no longer had the time to do it, and the person I found to replace him decided suddenly that he didn’t like my political opinions and unless I wrote my opinions the way he liked he couldn’t do it.

The work wouldn’t be difficult nor very time consuming, but there are several areas of the website software that need cleaning up. If you are familiar with WordPress and website design and would like to help me keep this website up and running, please comment here. I will email you immediately.

This post will remain at the top of the site for the rest of today.

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The suborbital tourist company XCOR has raised $14.2 million of private investment capital.

The competition heats up: The suborbital tourist company XCOR has raised $14.2 million of private investment capital.

It looks increasingly like this tortoise is going to catch up with the Virgin Galactic hare in the race to launch the first suborbital private space tourists.

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China claimed today that its lunar rover Yutu is still alive on the Moon.

China claimed today that its lunar rover Yutu is still alive on the Moon.

The rover is still able to send data back to Earth using the Chang’e 3 probe that delivered it, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing Li Bengzheng, deputy commander-in-chief of China’s lunar program. But the buggy’s wheels and the solar panel designed for thermal insulation during the frozen lunar nights no longer work, Li said. The craft’s functionality is progressively deteriorating “with each lunar night,” Li said.

What is significant here is that though the rover’s ability to rove failed much sooner than planned, its longevity now means that much of their engineering for future missions will work.

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SpaceX has completed qualification tests of the SuperDraco engines that will be used by Dragon for launch aborts as well as soft landings on land.

The competiton heats up: SpaceX has completed qualification tests of the SuperDraco thrusters that will be used by Dragon for launch aborts as well as soft landings on land.

Next comes the capsule’s first launch abort test sometime later this year.

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Google introduces its first prototype of a completely driverless vehicle.

Google introduces its first prototype of a completely driverless vehicle.

The prototype accommodates for two passengers and is missing quite a few of the features you’d expect to see in a standard car. With no need for a steering wheel, mirrors or braking and accelerating pedals, the car comes fully equipped with special software and sensors that feed information into an onboard computer, which then drives the car.

The story and video are very vague about a lot of important details, such as how much programing was necessary for the vehicle to do the specific test drives shown as well as how the passengers tell the vehicle where to go. Nonetheless, as a prototype this vehicle is quite intriguing.

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Orbital Sciences has delayed its next Cygnus flight to ISS by at least one week in order to complete its investigation of the failure of a Russian-built rocket engine used by the Antares rocket.

Orbital Sciences has delayed its next Cygnus flight to ISS by at least one week in order to complete its investigation of the failure of a Russian-built rocket engine used by the Antares rocket.

Without doubt, this engine failure highlights the urgent need for American rocket companies to develop their own rocket engines.

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A place on Mars that was possibly habitable only 200 million years ago.

A place on Mars that was possibly habitable only 200 million years ago.

This article discusses the possibility of liquid water from the melting of the glaciers that scientists think once covered the western slopes of the giant volcano Arsia Mons. I have also written about this area in an article I wrote for Sky & Telescope last year on exploring caves in space. It is thought that there might be caves here in which some of that water from those glaciers might still be found.

As one scientist is quoted as saying in this article, “Arsia Mons would be the next place I would want to go.” Like the south pole of the Moon, it likely has all the ingredients for establishing a habitable colony.

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The FAA is inching closer to approving a license to allow SpaceX to conduct tests in Texas of its rocket-powered prototype of its Dragon capsule.

The competition heats up: The FAA is inching closer to approving a license to allow SpaceX to conduct tests in Texas of its rocket-powered prototype of its Dragon capsule.

Simply, DragonFly is a propulsive system designed to allow the SpaceX Dragon capsule to perform propulsive landings (both with and without parachute assistance). Overall, DragonFly will use eight SuperDraco hypergolic engines capable of producing up to 16,400 lbf of thrust each. …

In all, SpaceX has proposed, and submitted to the FAA for commercial experimental license, a total of 30 DragonFly tests at its McGregor test facility. Four of the test flights involve DragonFly being dropped from a helicopter at an altitude of 10,000 ft with two propulsive assist landings parachutesand engines) and two propulsive landings (engines only). The remaining 26 of the proposed test flights will launch from a specially-built pad that will take between 1-2 weeks to construct (according to the FAA draft environmental report). These 26 flights will consist of eight parachute-assist landings and 18 full propulsive hops (rocket engines only).

We should all be relieved: The 76-page draft environmental impact statement noted that these tests will not destroy the Earth, and that their effect on global warming will be tiny. If the license is finally approved, testing should begin before the end of 2014.

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An summary of the past week’s private effort at Aceibo to reactivate ISEE-3.

A summary of the past week’s private effort at Aceibo to reactivate ISEE-3.

They have discovered that the spacecraft is approximately 150,000 miles away from its expected position. This complicates the rescue effort significantly, as all their course corrections have to be recalculated based on this new position and they don’t yet have it refined enough to do those recalculations.

This has become extremely important as there is a solid statistical chance that the spacecraft could impact the moon or even be off course enough to threaten other spacecraft in Earth orbit. We are working with Mike Loucks of Space Exploration Engineering (SEE) our trajectory guy on this issue. An east coast company, Applied Defense (ADS) has also offered their help and engineering support to derive a new ephemeris from our new position reports. ADS and SEE did the trajectories for NASA’s just completed LADEE mission.

Hopefully by the end of this weekend they will have more to report.

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Elon Musk and another watchdog group suggested on Friday that there was a quid pro quo in the awarding ULA its bulk buy military launch contract.

Elon Musk and another watchdog group suggested on Friday that there was a quid pro quo in the awarding ULA its bulk buy military launch contract.

Musk, citing an article by the Washington-based National Legal and Policy Center, suggested Thursday night on Twitter that the Pentagon inspector general should investigate the actions of former Air Force civilian Roger “Scott” Correll. Earlier this year, Correll retired from his post as the Air Force’s program executive officer for space launch, where he wielded enormous influence in awarding a multibillion-dollar contract for 36 rocket launches over the next several years, shooting sensitive national security equipment into space.

The contract went to a company called United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of the nation’s two biggest weapons contractors — Chicago-based Boeing and Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. Earlier this month, Correll took a job as vice president of government acquisition and policy with Aerojet Rocketdyne, the company that supplies the rocket engines used by United Launch Alliance.

Correll’s hiring certainly illustrates the “old boys” network in operation here. Whether there was direct corruption is not clear. Nonetheless, the bulk buy contract is not in the interests of the taxpayer or the Air Force, at least not at the prices announced.

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Virgin Galactic finally admitted to its engine troubles on Friday.

Virgin Galactic finally admitted to its engine troubles on Friday.

They have dumped the original engine, switching to a different engine design that the rumors have said they have been testing for the past year.

The company press release is here, with commentary here.

Though it is a good thing that the company has finally come clean and made the switch, they probably waited far too long to do it, as the problems with the old engine likely caused several years delay in their schedule, allowing other companies to catch up with them and thus losing the significant technological advantage that they once held.

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The predicted new meteor shower last night was less than hoped but intriguing nonetheless.

The predicted new meteor shower last night was less than hoped but intriguing nonetheless.

Based on a few reports via e-mail and my own vigil of two and a half hours centered on the predicted maximum of 2 a.m. CDT (7 UT) Saturday morning the Camelopardalid meteor shower did not bring down the house. BUT it did produce some unusually slow meteors and (from my site) one exceptional fireball with a train that lasted more than 20 minutes.

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Short of money for astrophysics because of the overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope as well as federal budget woes, NASA has decided to shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Short of money for astrophysics because of the overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope as well as federal budget woes, NASA has decided to shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Other missions, such as Kepler, Chandra, Hubble, NuStar, and Swift got extensions, however.

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