Monthly Archives: March 2017

Russia responds to SpaceX reused booster success

A bunch of stories from Russia today appear to express that country’s political response to SpaceX’s success yesterday in launching a commercial satellite using a previously flown first stage.

It appears that these stories are quoting a variety of Russian officials who apparently did not get their stories straight. Also, it appears that much of what they are saying here is pure bluster. For example, in the third link the official makes the silly claim that the ability of their rocket engines to be started and then restarted repeatedly proves they are dedicated to re-usability. And the first two links don’t provide much back-up for the claims that they can complete with SpaceX, especially since SpaceX presently charges a third less than they do per launch, and that is using new boosters. With reused boosters SpaceX’s launch fees will be less than half what Russia has been charging for a Proton launch ($90 million vs $40 million).

Similarly, the claim that they will complete 30 launches this years is absurd. They won’t be able to launch Proton until May, at the soonest, because of the need to remove defective parts from all of their in-stock engines. Soyuz launches are similarly delayed while they check its engines also. To complete 30 launches in only seven months seems very unrealistic to me, especially since the best they have done in a full year this century is 34 launches, with an average slightly less than 30 per year.

Nonetheless, this spate of stories and statements by Russian officials shows that they are feeling the heat of competition, and also feel a need to respond. The first story has this significant statement:

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is responding to the challenges with available possibilities, he added. “It has announced a considerable reduction in the cost of Proton rocket launches. The commercial price of this rocket’s launch is considerably higher than its prime cost and we have the potential for the price cut. But customers are giving up our services because the number of payloads [satellites] remains unchanged and does not grow. Correspondingly, a new player on the market snatches away a part of orders,” the expert noted.

Because of Russia’s low labor costs they have always had a large profit margin on their Proton launches. The $90 million they charged was set just below what Arianespace charged for its launches. It appears they are now planning to lower their prices further to match SpaceX.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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First Falcon Heavy demo launch to include two used boosters

The competition heats up: SpaceX plans to use two already flown first stage boosters when it does its first demo flight of Falcon Heavy later this year.

Musk said the rocket cores for Falcon Heavy’s first flight are two to three months away from completion. He emphasized that the first launch will carry a lot of risk, and as such, SpaceX doesn’t plan to carry a valuable payload or payloads with it. “We will probably fly something really silly on Falcon Heavy because it is quite a high risk mission,” he said.

SpaceX will seek to recover all the boosters from the first Falcon Heavy flight, assuming all goes according to plan. Musk said the two side boosters would land back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, followed by the center core returning to a drone ship in the Atlantic.

They will also try to recover the upper stage, but are not hopeful this will succeed. The article also notes that they hope to fly an additional four used boosters in 2017. SES is eager to use them on its three scheduled flights this year.

The company has also said that the booster that was successfully reused this week will not fly again, but will instead be put on display in Florida.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Bad solder joints cause of Russian Proton engine defects

The problem that has forced the Russians to recall all Proton second and third stage engines has been identified as the use of the wrong materials in solder joints.

According to specifications, the structural walls and the nozzle chamber of the gas generator had to be fused together with the help of the solder designated G70NKh, which employs nickel, chromium and manganese alloy (Ni-Cr-Mn). However the investigation revealed that due to mismanagement of the raw material usage at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, the required alloy had been replaced with the PZhK-1000 solder comprised of palladium, nickel, chromium and silicon (Pd-Ni-Cr-Si). Because the replaced solder did not meet specifications, it could lead to structural disintegration of the nozzle head during the firing of the gas generator.

The discovery of the problem with the solder triggered inspection of other engines and revealed that all RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines from the second and third stages that had been manufactured during 2015 and 2016 had been equipped with defective gas generators. In order to re-certify these engines for flight, each of them would have to be disassembled, the gas generator would have to be removed and replaced, followed by the re-assembly and re-testing of each engine!

The article also notes that the next Angara rocket is also “unfit for flight” due to unspecified defects. It also notes widespread corruption and mismanagement throughout the Russian aerospace industry.

Sadly, the decision by the Putin administration to consolidate their industry into one huge corporation run by the government, and thus eliminate any competition, is only going to make solving this problem more difficult. What Russia needs is competition, with many different companies free to challenge each other for business. It also needs to allow companies to fail and go out of business.

Instead, everything is controlled from above, and thus no competition can happen. Rather than finding a new company to build these engines, the government is going to provide the company “economic aid” in order to modernize it. This is like putting a band-aid on a broken bone.

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SpaceX recovers fairing of upper stage of Falcon 9

The competition heats up: Even as SpaceX made history yesterday in its successful use and recovery of a used first stage, it also recovered for the first time the fairing that protected the satellite.

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch. The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence — in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch — and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.

Musk also indicated that they are now going to begin an effort to recover the second stage. “What’s the worst that could happen? It blows up? It would anyway.”

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SLS faces more delays

Delays by ESA in the construction of the service module for Orion, plus the tornado damage at the Michoud facility in Louisiana, could force NASA to delay the first unmanned test launch of the SLS rocket, presently planned for late in 2018.

NASA is also considering delaying the flight further should the agency decide to make this first unmanned test flight a manned one. They also say they will need more money if they have to put people on the first flight. I guess $43 billion and almost 15 years wasn’t enough.

By the way, it took less than four years to win World War II. From Kennedy’s speech to the Apollo 11 landing was only eight years. One wonders when we, as a nation, will finally wake up and realize that SLS is not a rocket to the Moon, but an never-ending jobs program unable to accomplish anything in space.

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Practically every Russian Proton rocket engine defective

The investigation of the Russian supply of rocket engines for its Proton rocket has discovered that practically every engine, numbering over seventy, had defects that needed repair.

71 engines, mostly used to power the second and third stages of the Proton rocket, require complete overhauls to remove defects. Arbuzov did not specify what was wrong with the engines. In January, Interfax reported on an investigation into high-quality metals swapped by a plant manager for cheaper alternatives. “Most of the work will be done in 2017, but we understand that some portion will inevitably slip into 2018,” Arbuzov said. “Our main goal is to avoid disrupting the government space program’s launch schedule, or the schedules of the Defense Ministry and commercial customers.”

There is also the possibility that these defects will be found in Soyuz rocket engines as well. Stay tuned.

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A tour of Vector Space Systems

Jim Cantrell and cars

[UPDATE: I have been informed by Vector’s PR department that they have recently changed the company’s name, dropping “Space Systems” from the title. I can’t really change the title here, but I thought I note this fact for my readers.]

Today I got a quick tour of Vector Space System’s very blue collar but active rocket factory in Tucson, Arizona. My tour guide was Jim Cantrell, the CEO of the company.

Cantrell, shown on the right in front of one of his side businesses fixing and refurbishing race cars and rare luxury sports cars (also located in this factory), started out with a love of race cars, which he still builds and races. As he said to me, “Long endurance car racing is still my thing.”

However, he has also spent his life in the space business. He has worked for government agencies and numerous private businesses, including SpaceX at its very beginning. Vector Space Systems is an effort put together by him and several other people to capture the smallsat market, a market he truly believes is going to explode with activity in the coming years. If things go as he wishes, they hope to launch at least one hundred times a year, from multiple launch sites. Their goal is simplicity and quick turnaround at an inexpensive cost.

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County. The image below is the first stage of that first test rocket.

Vector test first stage

Vector first stage engine

second test rocket

For this flight their main goal is to test the engine, which Cantrell is showing me in the picture to the right. I was astonished at how small and simple the engine was. In fact, the rocket itself was amazingly small. It looked like it could almost fit inside a typical moving truck.

Below and to the right is the first stage for their second test flight, presently being assembled. They hope it will be ready for flight in only a few weeks after the first flight. They plan five suborbital test flights, with the last capable of getting about 90% to orbit. Along the way they will test their avionics, the rocket’s balancing systems, and its computer and tanks. Once these tests are complete they will then move to testing the orbital version in 2018.

Obviously, all this depends on every test flight being successful. But then, even if something goes wrong they will learn something and move on. For example, they recently transported an engineering version of the rocket to the visitor center at Kennedy. As Cantrell explained, “We learned things new just making that move.”

bumper sticker

In the end, I think the bumper sticker to the right, attached to the window of Vector Space System’s office, sums everything up. The people at Vector want to make money in space, but they — like everyone in the space business — also love making rockets and engines and going fast. What better combination from life could you ask for?

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New theory eliminates need for dark energy

The uncertainty of science: A new theory now shows that dark energy, the apparent acceleration of the universe’s expansion rate on large scales, does not need to exist in order to explain the data that astronomers have obtained.

In the new work, the researchers, led by Phd student Gábor Rácz of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, question the existence of dark energy and suggest an alternative explanation. They argue that conventional models of cosmology (the study of the origin and evolution of the universe), rely on approximations that ignore its structure, and where matter is assumed to have a uniform density. “Einstein’s equations of general relativity that describe the expansion of the universe are so complex mathematically, that for a hundred years no solutions accounting for the effect of cosmic structures have been found. We know from very precise supernova observations that the universe is accelerating, but at the same time we rely on coarse approximations to Einstein’s equations which may introduce serious side-effects, such as the need for dark energy, in the models designed to fit the observational data.” explains Dr László Dobos, co-author of the paper, also at Eötvös Loránd University.

In practice, normal and dark matter appear to fill the universe with a foam-like structure, where galaxies are located on the thin walls between bubbles, and are grouped into superclusters. The insides of the bubbles are in contrast almost empty of both kinds of matter. Using a computer simulation to model the effect of gravity on the distribution of millions of particles of dark matter, the scientists reconstructed the evolution of the universe, including the early clumping of matter, and the formation of large scale structure.

Unlike conventional simulations with a smoothly expanding universe, taking the structure into account led to a model where different regions of the cosmos expand at different rate. The average expansion rate though is consistent with present observations, which suggest an overall acceleration.

In other words, the uneven structure of the universe has never been considered in previous models, and once included in the equations the need for dark energy disappears.

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Less than 1% of all science papers follow scientific method

The uncertainty of science: A survey of the research done for papers published in scientific peer-reviewed journals has found that less than 1% properly follow the scientific method.

Armstrong defined eight criteria for compliance with the scientific method, including full disclosure of methods, data, and other reliable information, conclusions that are consistent with the evidence, valid and simple methods, and valid and reliable data.

According to Armstrong, very little of the forecasting in climate change debate adheres to these criteria. “For example, for disclosure, we were working on polar bear [population] forecasts, and we were asked to review the government’s polar bear forecast. We asked, ‘could you send us the data’ and they said ‘No’… So we had to do it without knowing what the data were.”

According to Armstrong, forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) violate all eight criteria.

“Why is this all happening? Nobody asks them!” said Armstrong, who says that people who submit papers to journals are not required to follow the scientific method. “You send something to a journal and they don’t tell you what you have to do. They don’t say ‘here’s what science is, here’s how to do it.’”

Worse, the research found that many results came not from data but to confirm something that was politically advantageous or helpful in winning grants.

Digging deeper into their motivations, Armstrong pointed to the wealth of incentives for publishing papers with politically convenient rather than scientific conclusions. “They’re rewarded for doing non-scientific research. One of my favourite examples is testing statistical significance – that’s invalid. It’s been over 100 years we’ve been fighting the fight against that. Even its inventor thought it wasn’t going to amount to anything. You can be rewarded then, for following an invalid [method].”

“They cheat. If you don’t get statistically significant results, then you throw out variables, add variables, [and] eventually you get what you want.” [emphasis mine]

The scientific community and especially the climate field has got to get a handle on this and demand better. Otherwise, we lose the greatest gift science has given to civilization, an unwavering dedication to the truth.

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Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed until mid-April

ULA has delayed its next Atlas 5 launch to send a Cygnus cargo capsule to ISS until mid-April.

Gatens said NASA was now expecting the Cygnus to launch to the station no earlier than the middle of April. “The Orbital launch, the next launch, has slipped due to an investigation of a hydraulic leak in the booster engine compartment that’s in work,” she said. “There are some components being replaced. The investigation is going on and we’re currently targeting no earlier than, probably, a mid-April launch.”

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said March 28 that a new launch date has not been set yet for the mission. “Additional information will be provided once testing to resolve the booster hydraulic issue is complete,” she said.

The launch was initially planned for mid-March. This delay has forced NASA to delay a spacewalk because it involves installing equipment that the Cygnus capsule is bringing to ISS.

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Washington Bubble fights back against Capitalism in Space

The response to my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, has been not surprisingly mixed. Eric Berger at Ars Technica wrote a reasonable analysis that focused on the absurdly high overhead costs of SLS/Orion. There have also been a number of critical reviews, one in Forbes and a second today in the print edition of Space News.

Both have tried to discredit the facts I have put forth about the ungodly cost of SLS/Orion, when compared to commercial space, without actually citing any incorrect facts in my paper. The truth is that everything I have written is true. This graph from my paper remains fundamental:

Table 5 from Capitalism in Space

SLS/Orion is costing four times as much, is taking more than twice as long to build, and is producing one tenth the operational flights. It is essentially a pork-laden jobs program that has no ability to get the United States anywhere in space. It might be an engineering marvel, but the cost is so high and its operational abilities so slow (one flight per year, at best) that it will never be a reliable and effective tool for exploring the solar system.

Meanwhile, private enterprise is getting innovative new rockets off the ground, for far less money, and repeatedly. If we want to settle the solar system, they are providing us the only viable way to do it.

People must recognize that these attacks are essentially the bubble of Washington working to protect its financial and intellectual interests. A lot of people in DC depend on keeping the faucet of government spending flowing to SLS/Orion, even if those projects accomplish nothing. In the case of the attacks from academics, they don’t like the fact that I am an outsider and not beholden to them. Moreover, they are instinctively appalled by the idea of allowing capitalism and freedom to operate freely, without their guiding hands controlling things. Such thoughts must be attacked and squelched (if possible), in order to protect their interests.

That they don’t seem to care that much about the interests of the American people and the country is quite revealing however. As some have said repeatedly, this is how you got Trump.

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Genocidal professor wants protesters to silence speaker’s free speech rights

Fascist: The Drexel University professor who joked encouragingly for “white genocide” is now calling for protests to silence a lecturer at Villanova University.

George Ciccariello-Maher had claimed that he had only been joking when he had tweeted “all I want for Christmas is white genocide”. No one laughed then. Now he is demanding that protesters act to prevent Charles Murray from giving a speech at Villanova University. I don’t think anyone is laughing now either. You see, fascists aren’t really funny. They are vicious hateful people who want to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The idea of freedom and free speech is alien to their thoughts.

They do like genocide, however. How interesting.

Note too that Drexel University did not consider Ciccariello-Maher’s genocide comment to be cause for censure. Is that a university you wish to send your kids to?

Update: Ciccariello-Maher also had this to say recently when he saw someone give up their first class seat to a soldier: “I’m trying not to vomit or yell about Mosul.”

I ask again: Who wants to send their kids to a university that considers this man qualified to teach?

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Vector signs deal with Georgia spaceport

Vector Space Systems has signed a deal with a Georgia spaceport to conduct one suborbital test flight there of its Vector-R rocket.

The agreement covers only one flight, but considering that Vector is also planning to launch from Kennedy, I think they are doing this to test their rocket’s ability to easily launch from multiple launch sites. It is a small mobile rocket, and they are probably designing its launch systems to be very mobile as well.

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A look at Blue Origin’s upcoming plans

Two stories today give us a peek at Blue Origin’s future plans.

The first outlines how the company plans to launch its orbital rocket, New Glenn, from Florida. The second provides a photo tour of the company’s suborbital New Shepard capsule, as designed for tourist flights.

I must mention that I have been disappointed at the lack of test flights for New Shepard in recent months. Their last flight was in October, almost six months ago, when their test of the capsule’s launch abort system was supposedly a success. No tests since, even though they have said they planned the first manned test flights this year. I am beginning to wonder if they have decided to shift resources to the orbital system and thus slow the suborbital program down.

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California to prosecute pro-life activists

Fascist state: California has charged two anti-abortion activists with 15 felonies for making undercover videos that proved Planned Parenthood sold baby parts for profit.

Prosecutors say Daleiden, of Davis, California, and Merritt, of San Jose, filmed 14 people without permission between October 2013 and July 2015 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and El Dorado counties. One felony count was filed for each person. The 15th was for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy.

Daleiden said in an email to The Associated Press that the “bogus” charges are coming from “Planned Parenthood’s political cronies. … The public knows the real criminals are Planned Parenthood and their business partners,” Daleiden said.

The conversations included officials from Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a California company that provides blood, tissue and other biological material for medical research and had received fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood. In one of the pair’s videos, Daleiden poses as “Robert Sarkis” of the phony Biomax Procurement Services and is shown discussing liver tissue with the chief executive of StemExpress at a Northern California restaurant.

The article tries to imply that the videos were edited deceptively, but anyone who has watched the full tapes can see that Planned Parenthood does exactly what filmmakers say, harvest baby parts for profit. For the Democratic officials that run California, revealing such facts is unacceptable, and must be punished.

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A NASA Image and Video library, available to all

NASA has unveiled a new image and video library website that allows anyone to search through more than 140,000 NASA images, videos, and audio files.

I just tested it, putting “Apollo 8” as much search words. The site immediately made available a pretty nice collection of just under 300 images from that mission. The collection was far from complete (And I speak from experience, since when I wrote Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 I looked at every one of the images taken during the mission as well as most of the images taken by NASA’s press office as well as numerous others by every news source, including Life magazine.) but it was a start. It appears NASA intends to keep adding images with time.

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ESA narrows landing site choice for ExoMars 2020 to two

The European Space Agency has narrowed its choice of landing sites for its ExoMars 2020 rover mission.

Two ancient sites on Mars that hosted an abundance of water in the planet’s early history have been recommended as the final candidates for the landing site of the 2020 ExoMars rover and surface science platform: Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis.

A primary technical constraint is that the landing site be at a suitably low level, so that there is sufficient atmosphere to help slow the landing module’s parachute descent. Then, the 120 x 19 km landing ellipse should not contain features that could endanger the landing, the deployment of the surface platform ramps for the rover to exit, and driving of the rover. This means scrutinising the region for steep slopes, loose material and large rocks.

Oxia Planum was selected in 2015 for further detailed evaluation. Although not yet complete, the investigation so far indicates that the region would meet the various constraints.

They will spend the next year evaluating both sites, though based on the press release it sounds as if Oxia Planum is the favorite.

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French Guiana strikes continue

The strikes in French Guiana that canceled last week’s Ariane 5 launch have now escalated, practically paralyzing the country.

It also looks like this situation will not be settled quickly. Many of the local mayors have refused to meet with the representatives sent over by the French government.

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Science discovers that cats prefer human companionship over food

News you can use: A new study has found that cats will choose human companionship over food if given a choice.

The researchers took 50 cats from shelters and peoples homes and deprived them of food, human contact, scent and toys for a few hours. They then introduced them to stimuli within these four categories to see what they chose.

Most cats chose human socialisation over any of the other categories.

From my perspective, what is even more important is that cats don’t choose those humans nonchalantly. Every cat lover knows that, unlike dogs, cats pick carefully whom they will love. But if they love you they show it.

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