Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

China launches smallsat on new rocket

The competition heats up: China yesterday launched a small experimental satellite on new rocket, Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2).

The Xinhua news agency is identifying the new launch vehicle simply as ‘KT-2’. Other sources identify the new launcher as the Kaituo-2. Previously rumors expected that the new launch vehicle was the Kaituozhe-2A. The Kaituozhe-2/Kaituo-2 launch vehicle is a three-stage solid propellant launch vehicle developed by the “CASIC Forth Bureau”. The new launcher is capable of orbiting a 350 kg cargo to LEO or a 250 kg cargo to a 700 km high SSO.

KT-2 has similar capabilities to the Kuaizhou-1A launch vehicle, that was used for the first time on January 9, 2017. The KZ-1A is capable of orbiting a 300 kg satellite to LEO or a 200 kg payload to a 700km SSO. The other Chinese solid fuel launcher, the Long March 11 (Chang Zheng-11) rocket, is capable of orbiting a 750 kg to LEO or 350kg to a 700 km SSO.

With this fleet of small rockets, Chinese is now well positioned to grab market share in the emerging smallsat launch market. Their biggest problem remains the legal restrictions that prevent any American space technology from launching on Chinese rockets.

SpaceX loses 89 smallsats due to delays

Spaceflight, a company that specializing in scheduling secondary payload launches for smallsat companies, this week pulled 89 satellites from SpaceX because of that company’s launch delays.

For more than a year, Seattle-based Spaceflight has been waiting to launch an array of 89 miniaturized satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy them in orbit from its innovative SHERPA carrier.

Now the launch logistics company isn’t waiting any longer. All 89 satellites have been rebooked due to schedule concerns, Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, reported today in a blog posting. “We found each of our customers an alternative launch that was within the same time frame,” Blake wrote. “It took a huge effort, but within two weeks, the team hustled to have all customers who wanted to be rebooked confirmed on other launches!”

The SHERPA carrier had been slated as a secondary payload on the launch of Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite. It was put on SpaceX’s manifest since 2015, but the launch has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to the Falcon 9 rocket mishaps that occurred in mid-2015 and last September.

What is good about this is that the competition in the launch industry is now robust enough that these smallsats can find alternatives, and do it quickly. As good as SpaceX might be at some things, if the company doesn’s start fulfilling its promised launch schedule it will start to bleed customers more and more.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say which launch companies have now gotten this business. If I had to guess, I would bet that India got the contracts, based on their recent PSLV launch that put 103 smallsats into orbit. In arranging that launch ISRO had been very mobile, adding new smallsats to it quickly and very late in the launch schedule.

China completes construction of space station core module

The competition heats up: China has completed the construction of the core module of its full size space station, now set to launch in 2018.

Tianhe-1, the first of three 20-tonne space station modules, was completed by the end of 2016 and has entered a testing phase, according to Bao Weimin of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Tianhe-1 will launch from Wenchang on a new Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket sometime in 2018, which was developed specifically to allow China to put large space station modules into low Earth orbit.

The image of the module at the link is remarkable in its resemblance to the core module of Russia’s Mir station, launched in 1986.

Asteroid breaks in two, each piece develops a tail

Astronomers have discovered a main belt asteroid that six years ago broke in two, after which both pieces developed tails resembling comets.

“The results derived from the evolution of the orbit show that the asteroid fragmented approximately six years ago, which makes it the youngest known asteroid pair in the Solar System to date,” says Fernando Moreno, researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC), in charge of the project.

P/2016 J1 presents another important peculiarity, which makes it very unusual. “Both fragments are activated, i.e., they display dust structures similar to comets. This is the first time we observe an asteroid pair with simultaneous activity,” says Fernando Moreno (IAA-CSIC).

Analyses revealed that the asteroids were activated near their perihelion – the point on the orbit nearest to de Sun – between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, and that they remained for a period of between six and nine months. The span of time between the moment of fragmentation and their bout of activity implies that the two events are not related. In fact, the data suggests that the fragmentation also happened near the perihelion but during the previous orbit (it takes P/2016 J1 5.65 years to spin around the Sun). “In all likelihood, the dust emission is due to the sublimation of ice that was left exposed after the fragmentation,” says Moreno (IAA-CSIC).

I suspect that the more we learn about asteroids and comets the more we will blur the line that separates them.

The tampering of climate data at NOAA and NASA

data tampering at NASA

Last week there was the another Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. One presentation there by several important climate skeptics outlined in detail the data tampering that has been going on at an increasingly outrageous manner at both NOAA and NASA in recent years. The slides presented by Tony Heller (available here [pdf]), many of which I have highlighted previously here at Behind the Black, are especially educational and damning.

To the right is just one of Heller’s slides, the one that I find the most damning of all. It shows how the surface data issued by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), the two green lines, does not match the satellite data at all. While the satellite data shows no warming this entire century, the GISS data shows steady rising in the surface data. Other slides by Heller show that this rise comes solely from data adjustments and the extrapolation of imagined temperature data in places where no data exists, neither of which has been explained in any manner by the scientists at GISS.

What is most damning however is the change Heller documents between GISS’s November 2016 and December 2016 data sets. For reasons that are simply unjustified by any scientific measure, GISS somehow found it necessary to adjust its entire data set upward in one month about 0.03 of a degree. The only reason I can find for such a change in such a short period of time is a desire by the scientists at GISS to create the illusion that the climate is warming, and warming fast. They don’t have any real data to show this, so they make it up.

Make sure you look at all of Heller’s slides [pdf]. It is also definitely worthwhile to spend the time to watch the entire CPAC presentation, available at the first link above.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

The winds of Mars

New data from Curiosity has confirmed that the winds of Mars have been the primary force shaping the red planet’s landscape for billions of years.

The new data suggests that Mount Sharp once filled Gale Crater, and it was the winds that eroded it away to create the impression that it is the crater’s central peak. Instead it appears that it is the crater’s original floor!

Below the fold is the video from the link showing a number of dust devils imaged by Curiosity.

This link provides a gif animation showing the surprisingly significant changes to the ripples in the sand dunes directly below Curiosity that take place in only one day. The changes are astonishing, and show that even though Mars’ atmosphere is far thinner than Earth’s, it is capable of moving things quickly across the Martian surface.
» Read more

The oldest fossils ever?

Scientists think they have found the oldest fossils ever in Canada.

Scientists say they have found the world’s oldest fossils, thought to have formed between 3.77bn and 4.28bn years ago. Comprised of tiny tubes and filaments made of an iron oxide known as haematite, the microfossils are believed to be the remains of bacteria that once thrived underwater around hydrothermal vents, relying on chemical reactions involving iron for their energy.

If correct, these fossils offer the oldest direct evidence for life on the planet. And that, the study’s authors say, offers insights into the origins of life on Earth. “If these rocks do indeed turn out to be 4.28 [bn years old] then we are talking about the origins of life developing very soon after the oceans formed 4.4bn years ago,” said Matthew Dodd, the first author of the research from University College, London.

This discovery reminds me of the Mars fossils discovered in the late 1990s. There were enormous uncertainties with that discovery, all of which eventually caused most scientists in the field to reject the result. The same thing could be the case here.

Still in Dallas. I hope to get caught up tomorrow.

China considering multi-asteroid mission

The competition heats up: China is considering an unmanned probe to visit three different asteroids, including Apophis.

According to details that have previously emerged, one proposal is for a launch via Long March 3B rocket to take place in early 2022, with rendezvous with Apophis a year later and spend 220 days in orbit.

Then the probe would depart Apophis for a flyby of 2002 EX11 in 2025, and finally landing on 1996 FG3 in 2027, where it would, in Ji’s words, “conduct in-situ sampling analysis on the surface”.

The proposal is only in the design stage, but it should definitely be taken seriously. China is committing more and more of its resources to its space program, as that program is giving that government a big payoff in international recognition.

Posted in the airport in Dallas, where I have to wait an extra three hours because American Airlines practically shut the door to my connecting flight in my face. Their flight from Belize was late, and then Customs and the TSA conspired to create giant lines for no reason. Even though I had a friend at the gate with whom we were in contact by text who could tell them I was only a minute away, they shut the door anyway.

I have avoided American for more than a decade because they did something as obnoxious to me before. I think it might be a decade before I fly them again.

NASA buys Soyuz seats from Boeing

NASA has purchased two additional seats from Boeing on a Russian Soyuz capsule and rocket to get astronauts to ISS beyond 2019.

The reason Boeing was able to sell Russian Soyuz seats is because they have obtained them from the Russians in a deal to settle Boeing’s $320 million lawsuit over ending the Russian/Boeing Sea Launch partnership.

Heading Home

Today we completed our last caving trip in Belize. I and many of the expedition’s participants head home tomorrow.

Because our cave trips take so much time, I have not had time to post anything these last few days. I will try to post tomorrow during my return home, but expect full posting to resume on Thursday.

Also, though I will comment then in greater length about SpaceX’s announcement on Monday that they plan on sending two tourists around the Moon by 2018, I want to note here that this announcement is clearly Elon Musk’s response to the effort by NASA to delay the launch of commercial crew because of so-called safety issues so that SLS/Orion might fly first. Musk is telling the world that NASA’s safety concerns are crap (to which I generally agree) and he intends to prove this with his own lunar manned mission.

Unity completes third glide test

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, successfully completed its third glide test on February 24.

I must admit that I cannot get excited by this event. Until Virgin Galactic flies this ship with its engines and puts it through a full suborbital flight, I remain completely skeptical about its capabilities.

New auto-destruct system to increase launch rate

The competition heats up: A new auto-destruct system operating by computer, using GPS, and installed on each rocket should allow the launch rate in Florida to ramp up significantly.

Up until now it took several days to reconfigure the ground-based radar facilities. This system, first used on the most recent Falcon 9 launch, does not require this. It also involves fewer people to operate it. They expect that they will soon be able to launch up to 48 missions per year, some on the same day.

The life of Robert Mitchum

An evening pause: While a little long for an evening pause, this half-hour documentary does a nice job of telling the surprisingly normal story of actor Robert Mitchum. What struck me most about it was how ordinary Mitchum’s life was. I’ve also seen the same thing with almost every Apollo astronaut that I have interviewed. Like most very famous people from the mid-twentieth century, they do not see themselves as particularly special. In fact, they led life with a certain humbleness, something that is hard to find today, especially among modern actors.

Hat tip Willi Kusche.

India’s government a barrier to private space

Even as India and its space agency show themselves to increasingly be a major player in the worldwide aerospace market, it appears that India’s governmental policy on private satellite communications is acting as a barrier that blocks the growth of a commercial space industry.

India’s current satcom policy, first rolled out in 1997 and then updated in 2000, is clearly outdated. A senior ISRO official who attended the ORF event (but declined to be identified) pointed out that all the existing satcom policy says is Indian satellite companies will be given preference over foreign multinational companies. “How does this preference play out? If the department of space is worried about national security concerns, they should lay down clear guidelines for security compliance by foreign satellites. The existing policy doesn’t talk about this, which inevitably leaves it to ISRO, DoS and Antrix’s discretion,” the official told The Wire.

And this discretion has held up multiple applications for satellite manufacturing and foreign direct investment over the last decade. Hughes’ Krishna is particularly frustrated over this. “If a company submits an application for satellite broadband services in India, irrespective of where the satellites will be made, it needs a specific timeline on when it will hear back from ISRO or the DoS. Will it be two years, three years or five years? It is difficult to line up future investments if speedy clearance is not given,” Krishna said.

Essentially, India’s Department of Space (DoS) and its space agency ISRO control all licensing, and have been using that power to delay or deny the issuing of any private satellite licenses, since such efforts are in competition with these government agencies.

The situation here is very similar to what existed in the U.S. with NASA for most of the last half of the 20th century. The agency did not want private launch companies competing with its own manned programs, and diligently worked to block their efforts. If you wanted to be part of manned space, you did what NASA told you to do and you built what they told you to build. It wasn’t until the rise of the commercial space programs to launch cargo to ISS that NASA’s grip on manned space was finally broken.

India now faces the same problem. ISRO has done an excellent job, as NASA did in its early years, in getting India’s space industry started. It now needs to back off, stop running things and simply be a customer of these competing private companies, letting freedom do the job instead of government dictate. The question now is whether the Indian government will allow this to happen. There are many vested interests there that will resist.

Dragon safely berths at ISS one day late

As expected, SpaceX’s Dragon freighter safely berthed at ISS today, one day late.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet steered a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the unmanned Dragon at 5:44 a.m. EST, as the two spacecraft flew 250 miles above northwestern Australia. “Looks like we got a great capture,” radioed Shane Kimbrough, commander of the six-person Expedition 50 crew, to flight controllers in Houston.

The freighter will remain docked at ISS for a month while they off load it and load it with experiments being sent home.

NASA signs technology development contracts with eight companies

The competition heats up: NASA today announced the award of contracts to eight small companies to develop new technologies for the advancement of smallsat launch capabilities.

The contracts cover a wide range of launch concepts, from testing new imaging technology for spotting asteroids to new rocket engine development to new rocket designs. The key component however of all these contracts is this:

These fixed-priced contracts include milestone payments tied to technical progress and require a minimum 25 percent industry contribution, though all awards are contingent on the availability of appropriated funding. The contracts are worth a combined total of approximately $17 million, and each have an approximate two-year performance period culminating in a small spacecraft orbital demonstration mission or the maturation of small launch vehicle technologies.

In other words, the companies have to provide some of the funding, since the technology being developed will benefit them. They also will only be paid once they meet certain milestones, and any cost overages will be their responsibility. The result? The U.S. has the chance of giving birth to eight new space companies, all with cutting edge technology that can compete in the new launch market. And the country gets this for a measly $17 million.

Aerojet Rocketdyne sets record testing new rocket engine

The competition heats up: In recent static fire tests of its new AR-1 rocket engine Aerojet Rocketdyne set a record for the highest chamber pressure for any American engine using oxygen and kerosene.

They hope to convince ULA to use this engine in its Atlas 5 rocket to replace the Russian engine they presently use. At the moment, though ULA has made no commitment, it appears however that the company is favoring Blue Origin’s engine instead. That Congress favors Aerojet Rocketdyne is their one ace in the hole, since Congress controls the purse strings.

Daniel Boaventura & Carlos Rivera – Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (Quizás, Quizás, Quizás)

An evening pause: As I head out for a week of caving in Belize, how about a little Latin American culture? (I know Belize is actually a former British colony, but it is in the middle of Central America, so that’s close enough.)

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

A solar system of exoEarths!

Astronomers have discovered a nearby solar system of exoplanets, all approximately Earth-sized with at least three in the habitable.

Following these initial findings, the star was systematically monitored to find out whether it contained any other planets. The result of this follow-up exceeded all expectations: TRAPPIST-1 has at least seven planets, all of which are Earth-sized (to within 15%). The six nearest planets (b to g) orbit their star in 1.5 to 12 days (the period of the seventh planet remains to be determined), and are 20 to 90 times closer to their star than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. At such distances, the tidal forces exerted by the star are considerable, locking the planets into synchronous rotation, which means that they rotate about their axis exactly once in one orbit, thus always showing the same face to their star (just as the Moon does relative to the Earth).

The planets of TRAPPIST-1 have insolations, and therefore average temperatures, similar to Earth’s: the insolation of the innermost planet (b) is slightly higher than that of Mercury, while the outermost planets (g and h) have an insolation that is a little lower than that of Mars. The insolations of at least three of the planets (e, f and g) are compatible with the existence of liquid water on their surface for a wide range of atmospheric compositions, as is shown by numerical simulations of their climate. Due to their synchronous rotation, it cannot be excluded that the planets with the highest irradiation (b, c and d) may harbor liquid water in temperate regions with little or no sunlight.

More here. The star, a cool dwarf, is only 40 light years away.

Posted in the Belize City airport, as we wait for our pickup.

Sea Launch deal finalized?

The competition heats up? Two articles today in the Russia press suggest that either their settlement deal with Boeing over bankrupt Sea Launch is either on the verge of signing or the Russians are trying to pressure Boeing to an agreement by use of the press.

The first article says that a final agreement is about to be signed, but provides no date or indication from Boeing that they have agreed to terms. The second announces that the private Russian company that is acquiring Sea Launch from the Russian government to compete in the commercial launch market has been given a launch license by the Russian government, and will launch its first rocket from Baikonur later this year, using the Ukrainian Zenit-M rocket that was designed to fly from the Sea Launch floating platform. .This launch is intended as a test flight prior to restarting launches from the Sea Launch platform itself.

The complexity of this Sea Launch situation boggles my mind. Russia has sold Sea Launch to a private Russian airline company, S7, which will use a Ukrainian rocket to launch satellites from the Sea Launch platform. Before that can happen however Russia has to settle its dispute with Boeing, which won a $300+ million settlement in court over the breakup of their Sea Launch partnership. That settlement reportedly includes free passenger seats on Soyuz flights to ISS, which Boeing is reportedly offering to sell to NASA, which might need them. Meanwhile, Russia does not seem to have a problem with a Russian company using a Ukrainian rocket, even though Russia itself has completely banned the use of Ukrainian equipment on any of its own space rockets or capsules.

The business of commercial space sometimes amazes me.

Posted in the airport terminal in Belize City. We are waiting for everyone to arrive to take a van together to our resort, Maya Mountain Lodge.

Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.

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