Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Blue Origin signs second contract for New Glenn

The competition heats up: One day after announcing its first launch contract, Blue Origin announced today a second contract for its New Glenn rocket.

In a tweet this morning, Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos said OneWeb has reserved five launches using the rocket, bringing to six the number of missions in the New Glenn manifest.

So far I can find no information about the prices being charged by Blue Origin for these launches. I suspect they are giving their customers discounts for being the first, but this is not confirmed yet.

At the crest

Looking north at the crest

Cool images time! The image above, cropped and reduced to show here, is a panorama that I have created from the most recent images sent down from Opportunity yesterday. The rover sits on the crest of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama looks north at that crest, back in the direction where the rover has come. The rovers tracks can be seen fading away into the distance slightly to the left of the crestline..If you click on the picture you can see the full resolution image.

The crater floor is to the right, the plains that surround the crater are to the left.

Below is another panorama, created by me from the same images sent down today, this time looking south at the crest in the direction Opportunity is heading. Once again, if you click on the picture you can see the full resolution version.

The full set of today’s images from Opportunity suggest that the science team took them to assemble a full 360 degree panorama before they begin the journey south to the gully that is just now becoming visible at the southernmost edge of the most recent overhead traverse image. To get to that gully they will now have to descend off the crest and down outside the rim of Endeavour Crater, moving to the right in the panorama below. This is therefore their last opportunity for awhile to get a good view from a high overlook.

Looking south at the crest

Local Vermont voters dump mayor who pushed accepting refugees

What a surprise! A town mayor in Vermont who had advocated accepting a hundred unvetted Middle East refugees has lost his re-election bid.

It appears this guy, who had been mayor for about a decade and had twice defeated his opponent in earlier elections, had pushed his plan without consulting anyone else in the government. In this election he got trounced.

A Ted Cruz telecon

Last night I did a long radio appearance with Robert Pratt in Texas. While I was on the air with him he received a notice from Senator Ted Cruz’s office, announcing a press telecon today on the just-passed NASA authorization bill. Pratt asked me if I would be willing to attend that telecon as his press correspondence. I agreed.

The telecon has just ended. Cruz’s statements about that NASA authorization were very uncommitted and vague, though he clearly wants to encourage private space. He also was careful not to say bad things about SLS/Orion, since it sends a lot of money to Texas.

I asked him about the lack of any mention of Earth science research in the authorization bill. He noted that during the Obama administration NASA’S climate research had become politicized, and it is his hope that this will now end, that NASA will continue to do this research but that “it will no longer be used for political purposes.” Like his comments about SLS/Orion, this was a careful answer that avoided setting off a firestorm of controversy.

Cruz did say two things of note however during the press teleconference.

  • Cruz and family is having dinner with Trump tonight
  • Cruz has reservations about the Republican proposal on Obamacare

It appears that Cruz is putting aside the ugly events of the campaign in order to try to exert influence on Trump now. It also appears that he intends to discuss the bad Obamacare replacement bill with Trump, pushing for changes to it.

Anti-Trump protesters who threatened violence during inauguration get off scott free

The three protesters who were filmed planning violence during the Trump inauguration by undercover agents of Project Veritas have all pleaded guilty and gotten off with no jail time.

An anti-Trump protester pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy for his role in plotting to shut down an inaugural ball by setting off stink bombs and sprinklers. Scott Ryan Charney, 34, was sentenced to community service after agreeing to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit assault after he was caught on videotape discussing the scheme by Project Veritas.

Charney was the third of three members of the D.C. Anti-Fascist Coalition charged with conspiracy after being captured on hidden-camera video at the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. Paul “Luke” Kuhn and Colin B. Dunn were sentenced Thursday to community service but no jail time after entering guilty pleas in D.C. Superior Court on unlawful conspiracy to commit an offense.

This is par for the course. Leftwing and Democratic protesters can do whatever they want, including planning and even committing life-threatening violence, and receive no punishment. Rightwing and Republican protesters can sneeze in the wrong direction and end up spending years and their life savings trying to avoid heavy prison sentences or the destruction of their lives.

A Kuwaiti space agency?

The competition heats up: At least one scientist in Kuwait, after attending a conference where the UAE’s space effort was highlighted, thinks her country should form its own space agency also.

Establishing a space agency/program is not a fantasy, it is the way of the future, which will bring numerous economic and scientific benefits, Assistant Professor at the Physics Department of Kuwait University (KU) Dr. Hala Al-Jassar said during an interview with Kuwait News Agency (KUNA).

While attending the recently held Abu Dhabi Space Congress, Dr. Al-Jassar said that she was amazed and intrigued by one of the participants’ contributions to the event. The participant laid out that the ingredients of a successful space program, which must include strong leadership, a sizable budget, available talents, and thorough training programs, said the academic.

“We have the budget, the talents, the expertize, and outstanding graduates from the best universities,” said Dr. Al-Jassar who pointed out that the lack of clear leadership was one of the main challenges for the establishment of a space agency.

Isn’t competition wonderful? One Arab country in the Middle East puts together a space program, and now others wish to follow. It is almost like night follows day. It has to happen.

Blue Origin gets its first orbital customer

The competition heats up: Blue Origin today announced its first orbital contract for its New Glenn rocket, planned for a 2021 launch at the earliest.

The contract is with Eutelsat, which probably gets a bargain basement price for being New Glenn’s first paying customer. The rocket will also land its first stage vertically, on a barge, for reuse, just as SpaceX does with its Falcon 9.

New Glenn will be a big and very powerful rocket, capable of putting 45 tons into low Earth orbit, only slightly less than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

House approves NASA authorization

The NASA authorization act that the Senate passed on February 21 was approved by the House today.

As I discussed in reviewing the act on February 21, the bill’s overall focus is to shift NASA from running “a space program” to facilitating the success of competing private enterprise. It also eliminates all of NASA’s climate budget so that the money can be spent instead on space exploration.

Trump is expected to sign it. Then will come the hard work, actually writing the budget for NASA.

Republican leadership endorses Obamacare

Yesterday the Republican leadership in Congress unveiled their proposed replacement for Obamacare.

This is not a repeal. It proudly keeps many of the Obamacare provisions that have made health insurance unprofitable, which is why Obamacare and the entire health insurance industry is going bankrupt. First, the Republican proposal keeps the Obamacare requirement that forces insurance companies to accept applicants with pre-existing conditions at no extra charge. Insurance cannot work under this condition. Second, the plan forces insurance companies to cover the children of customers until they are 26.

Several articles today outline the stupidity of this new plan:

From the first article above:

The first thing to understand about the GOP healthcare bill is that it is not merely Obamacare-lite or a bad “replacement” bill. It doesn’t repeal the core of Obamacare in the first place. In fact, the few parts that it repeals or tweaks within a few years will actually intensify the death spiral of Obamacare when mixed with the core regulatory structure, exacerbated by the subsidies that they do keep. And this time, the GOP will own it politically. All of it.

As I say, this is downright stupid. By trying to “fix” this horrible law, all the Republican leadership accomplishes is to poison themselves with it, something Republicans have so far been able to avoid.

The Republicans shouldn’t be passing a different version of Obamacare, they should be trying to repeal it entirely. If the Democrats continue to obstruct, they will then have to face the voters in 2018 in an election that does not favor them to begin with.

Blue Origin unveils first completed BE-4 rocket engine

The competition heats up: Blue Origin today unveiled to the public its first completed BE-4 rocket engine, being built for its New Glenn orbital rocket as well as ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

More important however was that the company expects the second and third engines to come off the assembly line very soon.

Dream Chaser flight tests upcoming

The competition heats up: According to Sierra Nevada officials, drop tests and glide tests of the engineering test ship of its Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft will begin this spring.

The partially-assembled test craft arrived at the California test site, located on Edwards Air Force Base, on Jan. 25. Technicians are adding the ship’s V-shaped tail fins and other equipment before kicking off ground and flight tests in the coming months, according to Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division. “We’ll do a series of ground tests,” Sirangelo said in a recent interview. “That will include towing the vehicle down the runway, and that allows us to see how it stops and how it moves, but it also allows us to test all the sensors on the vehicle because we can get it up to a high enough speed where that will happen.”

…After the ground tests, Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser test article will perform “captive carry” tests suspended under a helicopter, using the exercises to verify the movements of the craft’s aerosurfaces and navigation instrumentation. “When that’s done, we’ll move into a series of flight tests, where it will be dropped for approach and landing like the shuttle Enterprise,” Sirangelo said, referring to the vehicle NASA used for landing demonstrations in the 1970s before the first full-up space shuttle mission.

This all sounds great, but Sierra Nevada has been promising these test flights now for more than a year. It is time they got started already.

Sunspot update for February 2017

On Sunday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for February. As I have been doing every month since 2010, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

February 2017 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

The decline in sunspots continues. Though the increase in activity from January held in February, the overall activity remains significantly below the predictions, and continues to point to a much earlier arrival of the solar minimum, sometime in 2019.

Russia puts four engineers on trial for Proton launch failure

Russia has begun the criminal trial of four engineers for their part in the launch failure of a Proton rocket six years ago, in December 2010.

According to the office of Russia’s federal Prosecutor General, employees at RKK Energia used a wrong formula during the fueling of the company’s Block DM-03 upper stage, which received 1,582 kilograms of extra liquid oxygen above the maximum allowable limit. The prosecutors allege that the department head at RKK Energia Stanislav Balakin, the unit head Aleksandr Martynov and his deputy Sergei Lomtev, while being responsible for the development of operational documentation for Block DM-03, failed to ensure that their subordinate engineer Yuri Bolshigin had completed the on-time adjustment of the computation formula controlling the operation of the fueling system.

This is not the right way to encourage good work in Russian aerospace factories. Sure, these guys screwed up, but you don’t put them on trial, you fire them and hire better people. Making them scapegoats in this way is only going to scare away the best people, who won’t want to join a high-risk industry where, if they make a mistake, they might find themselves in prison.

Japan passes its own commercial space law

The competition heats up: Just as the U.S., Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and others have recently passed laws of clarify and encourage the private commercial development of space, Japan now done so as well, enacting its own commercial space law.

Now that Japan has adopted its Space Activities Act, start-ups are not left wondering what agency they should contact but can go in advance to discuss their plans with officials at a specially designated counter in the Cabinet Office. The new Japanese law also provides government support in the provision of financial guarantees required by commercial space launch operators, such as by arranging third-party liability insurance coverage. The required coverage is calculated on the basis of the maximum probable loss estimated in line with the rocket type and the payload content; in the case of damages in excess of this coverage, the law provides that the government is to pay for the residual damages up to a certain limit. This is similar to arrangements that have been adopted in the United States and France, although the French government sets no limit on payments.

In addition, Japan’s Space Activities Act provides that the launch operator bears liability for accident damages even if they are due to problems in the payload. This channeling of liability would seem to be disadvantageous to launch operators, but it can be expected to enhance the competitive position of the Japanese companies providing this service, because it reassures customers around the world who are seeking to have their satellites put into orbit. France is the only other country that has adopted a similar provision.

The article is worth reading in that it provides a good overview of the history of space law since the 1960s, as well as the political background that helps explain why Japan has lagged behind in the commercialization of its space industry.

Automated factory to build smallsats

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

Scientists estimate age of bright spots in Occator Crater on Ceres

Using crater counts and a careful analysis of features in Occator Crater on Ceres, scientists have estimated that the last major eruption occurred about 4 million years ago.

Nathues and his team interpret the central pit with its rocky, jagged ridge as a remnant of a former central mountain. It formed as a result of the impact that created Occator Crater some 34 million years ago and collapsed later. The dome of bright material is much younger: only approximately four million years. The key to determining these ages was the accurate counting and measuring of smaller craters torn by later impacts. This method’s basic assumption is that surfaces showing many craters are older than those that are less strongly “perforated”. Since even very small craters are visible in highly resolved images, the new study contains the most accurate dating so far.

“The age and appearance of the material surrounding the bright dome indicate that Cerealia Facula was formed by a recurring, eruptive process, which also hurled material into more outward regions of the central pit”, says Nathues. “A single eruptive event is rather unlikely,” he adds. A look into the Jupiter system supports this theory. The moons Callisto and Ganymede show similar domes. Researchers interpret them as volcanic deposits and thus as signs of cryovolcanism.

The volcano itself has slumped away, leaving behind the bright depression. Whether any cryovolcanism is still occurring underground remains unknown.

North Korea test fires four ballistic missiles

Does this make you feel safe? North Korea today test fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

North Korea on Monday launched four ballistic missiles, three of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese government said. There were no immediate reports of damage to ships or aircraft in the area, Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said at a news conference in Tokyo, calling the latest missile launch a “grave threat to national security.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe separately told reporters that the missiles traveled around 1,000 km. He later said at a Diet session that the remaining missile also fell near the EEZ.

It is very unclear whether these missile tests were a success, since we really don’t know what kind of missiles they were. If short or medium range, they went the right distance. If longer range, the distance traveled (600 miles or 1000 kilometers) suggests the missiles did not travel as far as they should.

Democrats make no gains in special elections

Despite their screaming and protesting since the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party’s effort to win elections continues to falter.

The Democrat resistance may be generating a lot of noise in Washington, D.C., but so far in 2017, it has shown little impact on elections in the states. Even with hefty financial investments and high profile Democrats lending star power to state-level candidates, Republicans won control of every district they previously held across multiple states that Democrats have won in the last three or more presidential elections, including as recently as yesterday in Connecticut.

Read the whole thing. Essentially, the protests and wild mindless opposition to Trump by Democrats nationwide has failed to persuade anyone who voted for Trump or the Republicans to switch their votes. In fact, the failed Democratic election effort, which included significant campaign spending in some very small local elections, suggests that the voters have been turned off by their almost hateful opposition. Not only did vulnerable Republicans win their special elections, they appear to have generally done so comfortably.

TSA to make pat-downs more “intimate”

Does this make you feel safer? TSA has decided to make the pat-downs they give to travelers more thorough and invasive.

Bloomberg reported that airport employees have already been notified at some locations that they need to employ a “more rigorous” and “thorough” screening. The screenings will reportedly include “more intimate contact” than before. The new measure also applies to airline pilots and flight attendants. [emphasis mine]

In other words, they are ordering their thugs at the airports to commit sexual assault each time they do a pat-down. Not only is this unconstitutional, it is downright criminal. Be prepared to hear about a a sex scandal when TSA employees abuse this power.

New commercial proposals for launching almost 15,000 satellites

The competition heats up: New applications filed by SpaceX and OneWeb with the FCC propose augmenting both companies’ previously proposed satellite constellations and raising the number of total satellites to be launched to almost 15,000 total.

SpaceX has filed a new application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites to provide communications in the little used V band. The system is in addition to another constellations of 4,425 satellites (plus orbital spares) SpaceX proposed in November that would operate in the Ku and Ka bands. In total, the two constellations would have 11,943 spacecraft plus spares. “When combined into a single, coordinated system, these ‘LEO’ and ‘VLEO’ constellations will enable SpaceX to provide robust broadband services on a full and continuous global basis,” SpaceX said in its application.

Competitor OneWeb has submitted a new application that would add an additional 2,000 satellites capable of operating in the V-band to its planned constellation of 720 satellites.

These are all smallsats, which means they can be launched in bunches. Still, even if they are launched in groups of 100, it will still take 150 launches to get them all into orbit. That is a lot of business for the launch industry.

Cuts to NOAA, EPA, and the environmental bureaucracy

Two articles today outline some of the proposed cuts the Trump administration is considering for the EPA and NOAA and their generally bloated and politicized administrative bureaucracies.

The first article focuses on the proposed cuts to the EPA, which would reduce the overall budget to that agency by about 25%.

The Trump administration wants to cut spending by EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) by more than 40% from roughly $510 million to $290 million, according to sources that have seen preliminary directives from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The cuts target scientific work in fields including climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. EPA’s $50 million external grant program for environmental scientists at universities would disappear altogether. Such erasures represent just part of a larger plan to shrink EPA’s budget by 25% to $6.1 billion, and cut its workforce by 20% to 12,400 employees, in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October.

The second article focuses on proposed cuts aimed at NOAA and within the Commerce Department, with cuts in specific departments ranging from 5% to 26%, with an overall cut to NOAA of 17%.
» Read more

44 days for first round of hearings on TMT

Stonewalling: Hawaiian officials have just completed the first round of hearings for deciding whether to issue a new construction permit for building the Thirty Meter Telescope, and those hearings stretched out for 44 days and cost nearly $225K.

Will that allow for a new permit? Don’t bet on it.

The hearings officer will recommend whether the state land board should grant a construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope. If there are exceptions filed to the hearings officer’s recommendations, the land board will hear arguments before issuing a written decision.

In other words, the state will allow the telescope’s opponents to force another set of hearings that could likely last as long.

As I’ve said before, it is time to tell Hawaii to go to hell. The state, run by Democrats, is obviously taking sides in opposition to the telescope, though they are trying to hide that fact. If the consortium wants to build this telescope on time, they need to find a place interested in having them. Let Hawaii keep its barren and empty mountain, even if it means the state will be poorer and less connected with the cutting edge of science.

A propeller in Saturn’s A ring

A propeller in Saturn's A ring

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to show here, captures the same propeller feature in Saturn’s A ring, with the top image showing the sunlight side and the bottom image the side away from the Sun.

Cassini scientists have been tracking the orbit of this object for the past decade, tracing the effect that the ring has upon it. Now, as Cassini has moved in close to the ring as part of its ring-grazing orbits, it was able to obtain this extreme close-up view of the propeller, enabling researchers to examine its effects on the ring. These views, and others like them, will inform models and studies in new ways going forward.

…The propeller’s central moonlet would only be a couple of pixels across in these images, and may not actually be resolved here. The lit-side image shows that a bright, narrow band of material connects the moonlet directly to the larger ring, in agreement with dynamical models. That same thin band of material may also be obscuring the moonlet from view.

Lengthwise along the propeller is a gap in the ring that the moonlet has pried open. The gap appears dark on both the lit and unlit sides. Flanking the gap near the moonlet are regions of enhanced density, which appear bright on the lit side and more mottled on the unlit side.

The scale of the two images is slightly different, 0.33 and 0.44 miles, as they were taken as Cassini was zipping past during one of its ring-grazing orbits on February 21.

To my eye, the effect here faintly resembles a wake produced by a boat in water, except that the wake moves in opposite directions on opposite sides of the tiny moonlet as it plows through the A ring.

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