Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Vector teams up with private company for low-cost launch tracking capability

The competition heats up: The new smallsat rocket company Vector Space Systems has signed a deal with Atlas Space Operations, a private company focused on providing low-cost launch and satellite tracking capabilities.

As early as 2018, Vector Space Systems will be able to provide a space-to-ground communication network from the Galactic Sky division to its customers through ATLAS LINKS™ – the world’s first mobile, rapidly deployable, and electronically steered array RF ground system that is revolutionizing the space industry. Designed for communications with both low-earth orbit and deep space missions, and capable of rapid deployment anywhere on the globe – ATLAS LINKS™ arrays will enable Vector Space Systems to simultaneously track signals over multiple frequencies, effectively eliminating high civil engineering costs associated with the installation of other systems that require expensive antennae and pedestals. Satellite ground architecture and data services will support Vector Space Systems’ launch operations from the ground and in-orbit, transforming satellite telemetry tracking and command systems (TT&C) and ground operations for space startups.

In other words, Atlas is in direct competition with the antenna network of NASA’s Deep Space Network, and is designed to be cheaper and more flexible.

Luxembourg invests $28 million into asteroid mining company

The competition heats up: In its continuing effort to make money from space, the government of Luxembourg has invested $28 million in the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

As part of the deal, Planetary Resources is establishing a European headquarters in Luxembourg that will conduct research and development activities. Georges Schmit, a member of the Space Resources advisory board to the Government of Luxembourg, wil join Planetary’s board. “We plan to launch the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020 and look forward to collaborating with our European partner in this pivotal new industry,” said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources chief executive.

As with Luxembourg’s other deals, the investment has required the company to shift many of its operations from the U.S. to Luxembourg.

Midland spaceport approved as Dream Chaser landing site

The spaceport in Midland, Texas has been approved as a potential landing site for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle.

Midland is pushing to have Sierra Nevada make it the company’s main landing site for the spacecraft. So far, that decision however has not been made.

Atlas 5 to launch Cygnus in March

NASA has ordered Orbital ATK to use ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo run to ISS in order to maximize the cargo that the capsule can deliver.

A Cygnus reached the station last month with over 5,000 pounds of supplies after launching atop Orbital ATK’s own Antares rocket. It was the first such flight for the booster in two years, a lull instigated by the 2014 explosion of an Antares and Orbital ATK’s decision to replace the main engines with a different design. But the more-powerful Atlas 5 rocket can launch over 7,700 pounds of provisions inside a Cygnus, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday night that NASA has pushed Orbital ATK to buy another Atlas 5 for its greater lift capacity and reliability record.

Sources told Spaceflight Now that the Atlas 5 would launch the OA-7 mission in March and that Orbital ATK was working with Kennedy Space Center to book facility time to process the Cygnus.
It was not immediately clear if NASA or Orbital ATK would pay for the extra costs associated with the Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision by NASA to favor Atlas 5 here over Antares illustrates some of the commercial weaknesses of Antares. Orbital ATK’s decision to launch the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia had some political advantages, putting their launch facilities in the state and congressional district of legislators whose approval they were soliciting. The decision, however, limited the cargo capacity of the rocket because of the site’s higher latitude. This might also help explain why Orbital ATK has as yet failed to find any other customers for Antares, besides NASA.

I also wonder whether some political pressure from other legislators who favor ULA also helped influence this decision. The political game is brutal these days in Washington and almost nothing connected to the federal government is done anymore without some crony and corrupt political maneuvers in the background.

The Origins of Slavery in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century

During the thread of comments on Behind the Black in response to the recent story about how modern college students ignorantly think that slavery was invented in America, the subject of the origins of slavery in America came up.

This subject happened to be the entire focus of the thesis for my master of arts degree at New York University in 1995. The research I did produced a 338 page thesis, far larger than what professors usually see, and containing a gigantic amount of original research about the specific individuals who ran the Virginia colony during its first seventy years. The abstract sums up my conclusions somewhat succinctly:

Throughout Virginia’s first hundred years, moral issues and the establishment of community always took a subordinate place to the acquisition of wealth and profit. Unlike the religious colonies in New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, Virginia had been founded for purely financial reasons. In the pursuit of that financial gain, the leadership of the colony, formed from British Royalist refugees from the English Civil War as well as an uneducated Virginia-bred elite, took advantage of their position of power to create a system of institutionalized racism.

British political ideas, specifically the Royalist positions from the English Civil War, directly influenced the institutionalization of this race-based slave system. These ideas included a strong belief in birthright and caste combined with deference to leaders and an expectation that all social customs, including religious belief, should be dictated by the aristocracy wielding power. According to Royalist doctrine, the common folk of society should have no say in how society should be ruled.

These ideas became corrupted into outright racism by the unnatural and incomplete nature of Virginian society. Family life was generally disrupted by disease, with at least one in nine immigrants dying within a year of arrival. This disruption was magnified by the colony’s unbalanced sex ratio due to immigrant patterns that had three men arriving for every woman. And because the colony’s economy was so completely centered on the growth of a single money crop (tobacco), settlement patterns were widely dispersed. Virginia’s settlers lived isolated on scattered large farms, lacking towns or villages of any kind.

Furthermore, Royalist ideas of rule from above and birthright became distorted because Virginia lacked religious institutions as well as schools for providing moral instruction to the colony’s children. The focus on profit meant that the establishment of functioning churches or schools never took priority within the colony. And when dissenting religious practitioners attempted to preach within the colony, Virginia’s leadership outlawed such dissent under the Royalist doctrine of church government and rule from above.

The colony’s leaders, more and more of whom had been raised in this unhealthy and incomplete society, increasingly perverted Royalist doctrines for their own personal benefit. By the 1660s, these leaders had no reluctance about passing laws to enslave the few blacks in the colony, especially if such laws directly increased their wealth, power, and status.

Essentially, Virginia’s isolated culture of broken homes and poor education, based initially on Royalist concepts of caste and rule-from-above, were slowly corrupted as the colony’s population evolved through several generations from its founding in 1608 to the 1670s. This, combined with the corruption of the practice of indentured servitude (which in England was generally used as a tool to educate the young but in Virginia became a tool by which wealthy landowners could get seven years of free labor from poor immigrants) resulted in an acceptance by the culture of the idea that some humans had the right to own other humans. From this, it was an easy step to enslaving blacks, so that by the Revolutionary War, half the population of Virginia were black slaves.

Meanwhile, the northern colonies, mostly founded by the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers, followed a very different path, focused on family, education, religion, and a rule-from-below approach to government. This different path remained much more closely connected to its British roots, which abhorred slavery. Thus, though some tried to introduce slavery into the northern colonies, the practice never took hold, and by the 1700s had just about completely disappeared. In fact, slavery was not only rejected in the north, it was here, in the Quaker communities in Pennsylvania, that the abolitionist movement was first born, an idea that was entirely new to human history.

In digging out my thesis to upload this post, I rediscovered it, and have decided that it needs to be published. Right now it is only gathering dust in the thesis archives of New York University, where no one can read it. I am going to put it together as an ebook, and have it out for purchase, hopefully by the end of the year.

MRO color images of Schiaparelli crash site

Schiaparelli crash site

The image above, cropped from a wider image released today by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team, shows the Schiaparelli impact sites in color and in very high resolution. There are also high resolution images of the heat shield and parachute/back shell. As they note in describing the above image,

Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as “ejecta,” or material thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module’s impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta.

In other words, the lander crashed hard when it hit the ground, throwing pieces and ground material everywhere.

SpaceX may lose a customer payload

Because of the launch delays at SpaceX, Inmarsat is considering finding another rocket company to launch its fourth Global Xpress satellite.

Inmarsat is worried that even after SpaceX resumes launches with the Falcon booster, it may not be able to make up lost time to assure its satellite is placed on orbit as scheduled. Alternatives the London-based company is considering include flying the spacecraft on the European Ariane 5 rocket, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Atlas V, or the Russian Proton booster. Mr. Pearce said Inmarsat could stick with SpaceX if it can get an earlier launch slot.

This is all part of the competitive game. Inmarsat needs to get its satellite in orbit in order to better compete in the communications market, and the delays at SpaceX because of the September 1 launchpad explosion are not helping. This announcement puts pressure on SpaceX to move them to the front of the line or else lose the launch. It also increases their chances of finding an alternative should SpaceX not be able to do that.

Virgin Galactic releases Unity test flight program

In a change from the company’s past policy, which made many promises but never revealed their upcoming schedule in any detail, Virgin Galactic today released their planned test schedule for their new Unity spacecraft.

This test will be the first of a sequence of glide test flights. These flights will cumulatively allow us to test and prove the performance of the vehicle in a variety of conditions: both heavy (e.g. simulating the full weight of a load of fuel, oxidizer, and people) and light (with empty tanks) and in between, at a variety of flight path angles and airspeeds, and so forth. This testing of the “corners of the box” is designed to demonstrate how VSS Unity will perform as it returns from space, after the feather system is retracted and the vehicle becomes a glider and lands on the runway like an airplane. In addition, this phase of flight will also demonstrate and test our abort modes – which culminate in a safe glide back to the runway.

Our team of flight test experts has developed a set of requirements for each planned test flight as well as detailing exactly what we need to test in order to be ready to proceed to the next phase of rocket powered flights. We will fly as many flights as we need to in order to achieve all these objectives.

The schedule, quite properly, does not include any dates. In the past the company and Richard Branson, would make many grand promises about when their test program would be completed without providing any details of what they planned to do during that test program. This time, Branson is quiet, they have announced no schedule dates, but have provided good information about the test program itself. This is a very good change.

Atlas 5 Vandenberg launch delayed again

The ULA Atlas 5 launch of a commercial satellite at Vandenberg that has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons, some (wildfires) completely unrelated to the rocket, has been delayed again for five days because of “booster issues”.

The news reports do not say what these issues are.

China’s smallsat rocket scheduled for first launch in December

The competition heats up: Even as they prepare for the first launch of their largest rocket tomorrow, China today also announced that the first test launch of its low cost smallsat rocket, Kuaizhou-1, as now been scheduled for December.

Kuaizhou (speedy vessel) is a low-cost solid-fuelled carrier rocket with high reliability and short preparation period. It was designed to launch low-orbit satellites weighing under 300 kg. The rocket is launched via a mobile launch vehicle and will primarily launch satellites to monitor natural disasters and provide disaster-relief information.

Though this is obviously being touted as a competitor in the new smallsat launch industry, the military advantages of this kind of ballistic missile cannot be ignored. Essentially what China has here is an ICBM that can be launched from a moving vehicle, which means tracking it will be very difficult.

China’s new big rocket set for launch Thursday

The competition heats up: The first launch of China’s new big rocket, Long March 5, is now scheduled for Thursday morning at 10 universal time, 5:30 am Eastern.

The Long March 5 is comparable to the most powerful active rockets in the world such as the Delta-IV Heavy, Atlas V and Ariane 5, and will launch the technology experiment satellite Shijian-17 high into to geosynchronous. At more than 800 tonnes, 53 metres in height and with a 5 metre diameter core, the Long March 5 has been designed to launch the 20-tonne modules of China’s planned space station into low Earth orbit, starting with the core module in 2018.

The countdown and fueling have begun.

Curiosity finds a meteorite

The Curiosity science team have identified and now analyzed a nickel-iron meteorite that Curiosity spotted on October 27.

Scientists of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, which operates the rover, first noticed the odd-looking rock in images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) at at a site the rover reached by an Oct. 27 drive. “The dark, smooth and lustrous aspect of this target, and its sort of spherical shape attracted the attention of some MSL scientists when we received the Mastcam images at the new location,” said ChemCam team member Pierre-Yves Meslin, at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), of France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse, France.

ChemCam found iron, nickel and phosphorus, plus lesser ingredients, in concentrations still being determined through analysis of the spectrum of light produced from dozens of laser pulses at nine spots on the object. The enrichment in both nickel and phosphorus at some of the same points suggests the presence of an iron-nickel-phosphide mineral that is rare except in iron-nickel meteorites, Meslin said.

The find is not unprecedented but it is interesting nonetheless.

George Carlin on language of politics

An evening pause: With the election less than a week away, I think this comedy speech by George Carlin sums up the fundamental dishonesty of the modern Washington establishment politician, from both parties. And though he is quite funny, I couldn’t help thinking of what Robert Heinlein said: “We laugh because it hurts.”

Let me also add that when we vote next week I think it most important to consider which politicians most remind you of the dishonest corrupt liars Carlin so ably describes. That should help you realize who you shouldn’t vote for.

Hat tip Frank Kelly.

Mars rover update: November 3, 2016

Curiosity

Post updated: See last paragraph in Curiosity section.

Curiosity location 1507

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

After spending almost a month on the flats south of Murray Buttes, during which the rover drilled another hole, in the past week Curiosity has finally resumed its journey south toward the slopes of Mount Sharp and the sand dune area that it must cross to get there.

Unfortunately, NASA has decided to change how it shows the rover’s progress, and these changes seem to me to be a clever and careful effort to make it more difficult for the public to make educated guesses about where the rover might be heading in the very near future. The image to the right is the cropped inset showing the rover’s recent travels that is part of a new a larger image that puts this inset in the context of the rover’s entire journey. This has replaced the wider orbital mosaic that they used to provide (see for example my September 27, 2016 rover update) that gave a very good view of the entire terrain surrounding the rover from which a reasonable estimate of its future path could be guessed.
» Read more

China company to launch suborbital tourists by 2020

The competition heats up: A Chinese company has announced that it is building a reusable suborbital spaceship to fly suborbital tourists by 2020.

Han Qingping, president of ChinaRocket Co Ltd in Beijing, said the company first will develop a 10-metric-ton reusable spacecraft and use it to ferry three to five travelers to a height of 80 km for a new perspective on the mother planet and experience weightlessness. That is the upper part of the mesosphere, higher than jets and balloons can travel, but just below the height where satellites fly.

No prices were given. “By 2025, a 100-ton reusable spacecraft will be produced to send up to 20 passengers to an orbit as high as 140 km above the ground,” he said. That’s into the thermosphere, and is high enough to be considered space. “Furthermore, we will begin to use the 100-ton vehicle to perform intercontinental scheduled flight and long commercial spaceflight around 2030.”

The proposal is audacious, especially its promised launch date of the suborbital craft in 2020 and an orbital craft in 2025. Nonetheless, the announcement illustrates the direction that rocketry appears to be heading, reusable vehicles capable of frequent reuse at less cost.

TMT consortium picks Canary Islands as alternative site to Hawaii

Faced with delays from protesters and an Hawaiian government slow-walking its permit process, the consortium building the Thirty Meter Telescope has announced that it will build the telescope on the Canary Islands if it continues to be blocked in Hawaii.

The article does not say when they will make this decision, but based on previous reports, they have to make their decision soon in order to begin construction no later than April 2018.

I fully expect them to abandon Hawaii, since I see no desire by the Hawaiian government to play fair during the new permit hearings. Instead, it seems to me that they are rigging this process so that it will never end.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where Diane and I plan a nice day hike tomorrow down the Hermit Trail.

Modern college students think America invented slavery

The coming dark age: Modern college students not only think America invented slavery, they know even less about American history.

Before even distributing the syllabus for his courses, Pesta administered his short quizzes with basic questions about American history, economics and Western culture. For instance, the questions asked students to circle which of three historical figures was a president of the United States, or to name three slave-holding countries over the last 2,000 years, or define “capitalism” and “socialism” in one sentence each.

Often, more students connected Thomas Jefferson to slavery then could identify him as president, according to Pesta. On one quiz, 29 out of 32 students responding knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but only three out of the 32 correctly identified him as president. Interestingly, more students— six of 32—actually believed Ben Franklin had been president.

The biggest irony of all is that it was in the United States that the abolition movement was born. Until that happened, the idea of slavery had been considered morally acceptable by all nations in all previous human history.

Saturn from above

Saturn from above.

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution to show here, shows Saturn from above as Cassini began re-positioning itself into a higher inclination orbit for its last year of orbit dives near and inside the planet’s rings.

The view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 41 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on July 16, 2016 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 68 miles (110 kilometers) per pixel.

“Academic freedom: It’s great, as long as you don’t use it.”

Academic fascism: An New York University professor who created an anonymous Twitter account so that he could express conservative opinions without risking his teaching career has been forced to take paid leave for the rest of the semester.

A 12-person committee calling itself the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group, including two deans, published a letter to the editor in the same paper. “As long as he airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas,” they wrote. “We seek to create a dynamic community that values full participation. Such efforts are not the ‘destruction of academic integrity’ Professor Rectenwald suggests, but rather what make possible our program’s approach to global studies,” they argued.

Rectenwald likened the attack to “a Salem witch trial. They took my views personally. I never even mentioned them and I never even said NYU liberal studies program. I was talking about academia at large.”

The same day that letter was published, Rectenwald was summoned to a meeting with his department dean and an HR representative, he says. “They claimed they were worried about me and a couple people had expressed concern about my mental health,” Rectenwald told The Post. The leave has “absolutely zero to do with his Twitter account or his opinions on issues of the day,” said NYU spokesman Matt Nagel, refusing to elaborate on the reason.

Rectenwald’s real crime? He had criticized the intolerance that is poisoning the academic community.

Virgin Galactic to begin glide tests of Unity

Virgin Galactic will begin the first glide tests of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, this week.

Virgin Galactic test pilot CJ Sturckow, speaking at a “Space Stories” event at The Explorers Club here Oct. 29, said the company has scheduled the first glide flight of the vehicle, named VSS Unity, on Nov. 1. That flight would come after a single “captive carry” test flight of the vehicle in September, when the vehicle remained attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft for its entire flight. “It’s ready to fly, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that,” he said of SpaceShipTwo’s upcoming glide flight.

That glide flight will be the first time VSS Unity has flown on its own, and will be the first in a series of glide flights before Virgin Galactic installs a hybrid rocket motor for powered flight tests.

According to the article, the new rocket motor has successfully completed several long duration test firings.

Virgin Galactic is running out of time. Their competition, Blue Origin, appears much closer to flying passengers.

Kim Jong-un orders investigation into missile failures

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered an investigation into his country’s string of missile failures recently.

“Kim has instructed the special investigation team to implement a probe into the national defense sector starting on Nov. 1 to make the causes for the launch failures clear,” said Kim Heung-kwang, a North Korean defector and executive director of Seoul-based dissidents’ group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, in a press conference. Kim attributed the investigation to the North Korean leader’s belief that spies from the United States and South Korea had been implicated in a series of Musudan missile failures.

I wouldn’t want to be an engineer who worked on this missile, as Kim has a bad habit of routinely executing people at the slightest whim, and the failures here have been routinely spectacular.

Commercial space industry meets to set its own safety standards

Because of legal restrictions that prevent the FAA from imposing its own safety regulations on the commercial space industry, the industry itself is forming its own committee to work out its own standards.

At a meeting here Oct. 24, ASTM International, an organization founded in 1898 that develops voluntary consensus standards for a wide range of industries, agreed to move ahead with the creation of a committee that will work on creating such standards for commercial launch vehicles, spacecraft and spaceports. “It will allow industry to use a 110-year-old process to produce consensus standards,” said Oscar Garcia, chairman of the standards working group of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), during a meeting of that working group here Oct. 25. The new committee, he said, “will develop standards and related roadmaps to address activities such as human spaceflight occupant safety standards, spaceports and space traffic management.”

A total of 53 people representing 29 companies and organizations attended that kickoff meeting, said Christine DeJong, director of business development for ASTM International, at the COMSTAC working group meeting. The committee won’t be formally created until after the completion an internal ASTM review process.

This is excellent news. It is far better that the industry voluntarily puts together and imposes its own safety standards than if the federal government imposes those rules. The government can’t possibly know the situation as well as the industry. This will guarantee that those rules will be not only work, but they will be cost effective and will not act to squelch innovation and experimentation.

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