Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Software issue caused self-driving car accident that killed pedestrian

Sources in the investigation of an accident where a self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March now say that the car’s programming was at fault.

According to two anonymous sources who talked to Efrati, Uber’s sensors did, in fact, detect Herzberg as she crossed the street with her bicycle. Unfortunately, the software classified her as a “false positive” and decided it didn’t need to stop for her.

Distinguishing between real objects and illusory ones is one of the most basic challenges of developing self-driving car software. Software needs to detect objects like cars, pedestrians, and large rocks in its path and stop or swerve to avoid them. However, there may be other objects—like a plastic bag in the road or a trash can on the sidewalk—that a car can safely ignore. Sensor anomalies may also cause software to detect apparent objects where no objects actually exist.

Software designers face a basic tradeoff here. If the software is programmed to be too cautious, the ride will be slow and jerky, as the car constantly slows down for objects that pose no threat to the car or aren’t there at all. Tuning the software in the opposite direction will produce a smooth ride most of the time—but at the risk that the software will occasionally ignore a real object. According to Efrati, that’s what happened in Tempe in March—and unfortunately the “real object” was a human being.

I honestly do not understand the need for self-driving cars. In the end, I simply cannot see the software ever being capable of handling all the variables created by the presence of the unpredictable life that will surround it. And should it get that good, I wonder if we will then regret it.

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Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal

As he promised during the campaign as well as several times since he became President, Trump today announced that the U.S. is leaving the Iran nuclear treaty that had been negotiated by the Obama administration.

Laying out his case, Trump contended, “If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

The administration said it would re-impose sanctions on Iran immediately but allow grace periods for businesses to wind down activity. Companies and banks doing business with Iran will have to scramble to extricate themselves or run afoul of the U.S. government.

…Trump, who repeatedly criticized the accord during his presidential campaign, said Tuesday that documents recently released by Netanyahu showed Iran had attempted to develop a nuclear bomb in the previous decade, especially before 2003. Although Trump gave no explicit evidence that Iran violated the deal, he said Iran had clearly lied in the past and could not be trusted.

The AP article at the link is a decidedly anti-Trump partisan hit job, less interested in reporting this news story than telling us how terrible Trump’s actions are. Nor should we be surprised, as two of the AP writers who contributed to the story are based in Tehran.

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Craters, cones, pits, amid endless plains

Pits, cones, and craters

Cool image time! Buried in the catalog of recent high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are places on Mars that are inexplicable and fascinating, while also indicative of its vastness. The image on the right, reduced in resolution and cropped to post here, shows us one such place. If you click on the image you can see the full image at high resolution.

The archive posting of this image is titled “Cones near Pits.” As you can see, to the north and east of the pits are some mesas (why they call them cones I do not know).

The pits are unusual, and appear to be some form of collapse. In the larger image several additional mesas can be seen at farther distances, but most of the overall terrain is remarkably flat and featureless, except for numerous small craters that appear either partly buried by dust or significantly eroded.

I am not going to guess at the geology that caused the pits and mesas. What I do want to focus on is the vastness of Mars. This location is on the southern edge of Utopia Basin, the second deepest basin on Mars. It is part of the planet’s endless northern plains, an immense region covering almost half the planet that tends to be at a lower elevation, is relatively smooth, and is thought by some scientists to be evidence of what was once an intermittent ocean. The global map of Mars below indicates the location of the above image with a black cross.
» Read more

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School lets everyone qualify for cheerleader squad

The coming dark age: Because the parent of one student who did not make the team complained, a New Jersey school has decided that everyone who wants to be part of the cheerleader team will be included, regardless of their talent or skill or training.

Not surprisingly, the students who had trained and worked hard to qualify were not happy.

“All my hard work has been thrown out the window,” seethed cheerleader Stephanie Krueger about the ruling during a Board of Education meeting last week in East Hanover.

…Krueger and several other cheerleaders voiced their anger last Wednesday during a board meeting, according to News 12 New Jersey. “I came up here to state that I did not put in 18 months of work to lead up to this moment, just to be told it didn’t matter anymore,” said sophomore Jada Alcontara.

No matter. Being “inclusive” and catering to those who are lazy or untalented is far more important that encouraging quality and hard work. That’s the modern way, and the future.
» Read more

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Another company enters the smallsat rocket competition

Capitalism in space: Another new smallsat company, Rocket Crafters, has entered the competition, focusing on the development of 3D-printed rocket engines using hybrid fuels.

The company’s Cidco Road facility is notable for what is not there, Gutierrez said. Unlike a more typical rocket engine site, there are no signs warning of explosive materials, no use of super-cold or toxic propellants, and no engines equipped with turbo pumps.

Instead, the rocket fuel consisted of plastic tubes made from the same base materials as Legos, measuring two feet long and weighing about five pounds, that were stacked on shelves and safe to touch. Combined with nitrous oxide — commonly known as “laughing gas” — the small-scale test engine on Monday generated about 200 pounds of thrust firing at half-power. It was one of more than 20 such firings over the past year at the facility Cocoa officials rezoned to allow the tests, which were deemed safe to the surrounding people and environment.

“We’re not the noisiest neighbor in the area,” joked Robert Fabian, senior vice president of the propulsion division.

Most rockets rely on super-cold or “cryogenic” propellants such as liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen, or solid fuel like the space shuttle’s twin solid rocket boosters used.

Hybrid motors have suffered from uneven burns producing bumpy rides, Fabian said. But Rocket Crafters believes it has found a low-cost solution providing a smooth, consistent burn: 3-D printed cylinders of fuel formed in ridged and beaded layers.

We shall see. They hope to fly by 2020, at the earliest. They will be joining an increasingly crowded field. If their design works, however, they will certainly carve out a significant market share, as hybrid fuels are so much safer and easier to handle than traditional propellants.

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Pluto is a planet

In an op-ed today, the principal investigator for the New Horizons’ mission as well as his co-author for the history of that mission explained in detail why the definition for planet as imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is flawed and unworkable.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced an attempted redefinition of the word “planet” that excluded many objects, including Pluto. We think that decision was flawed, and that a logical and useful definition of planet will include many more worlds.

We find ourselves using the word planet to describe the largest “moons” in the solar system. Moon refers to the fact that they orbit around other worlds which themselves orbit our star, but when we discuss a world like Saturn’s Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury, and has mountains, dunes and canyons, rivers, lakes and clouds, you will find us — in the literature and at our conferences — calling it a planet. This usage is not a mistake or a throwback. It is increasingly common in our profession and it is accurate.

Most essentially, planetary worlds (including planetary moons) are those large enough to have pulled themselves into a ball by the strength of their own gravity. Below a certain size, the strength of ice and rock is enough to resist rounding by gravity, and so the smallest worlds are lumpy. This is how, even before New Horizons arrives, we know that Ultima Thule is not a planet. Among the few facts we’ve been able to ascertain about this body is that it is tiny (just 17 miles across) and distinctly nonspherical. This gives us a natural, physical criterion to separate planets from all the small bodies orbiting in space — boulders, icy comets or rocky and metallic asteroids, all of which are small and lumpy because their gravity is too weak for self-rounding.

They go on to explain the flawed history of the IAU definition, and how it has simply not been accepted by astronomers and planetary scientists alike. The definition makes no sense, and excludes the thousands of exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars. They also point to a proposed new definition that is simple and admits to reality.

A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.

Whether or not the stuffed shirts at IAU ever officially endorse this definition, it is the one that human beings are using now, and it will be the one they use into the never-ending future.

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The aging data relay spacecraft orbiting Mars

By the 2020s, NASA and other space agencies sending landers and rovers to Mars will be faced with a data-relay crisis, as the orbiters they presently use to provide communications with the Martian surface are aging, and no replacements are presently planned.

The venerable Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft were the first to employ data relay capabilities in the modern era of Mars exploration. They operated as relays for the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions until the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006.

MGS entered into a safe mode in November 2006 and NASA later declared the mission over in January 2007 after the space agency failed to reestablish contact with the aging orbiter. The 12-year-old MRO and 17-year-old Odyssey have served as the primary data relays for Mars surface missions since.

More important, funding for a dedicated communications satellite called NEMO, planned for launch in 2022, has disappeared.

However, funding for NeMO has been largely phased out in favor of directing limited funds towards the development of the Mars Sample Return mission. Mars Sample Return has the primary objective of fetching samples that scientists plan to collect and cache using the Mars 2020 rover currently under development. The current Planetary Science Decadal Survey has listed the flagship sample return mission as the primary objective for NASA’s Mars program in the 2020s, along with requisite funding. The existing fleet of orbiting spacecraft at Mars, while aging, are in generally good health meaning the postponement of a new orbiter will require careful management of existing orbital assets into the next decade.

One of the reasons there is no funding for NEMO is that NASA has had to steal money from its planetary program to fund the cost overruns on the James Webb Telescope. Though this was never admitted publicly, the cuts that the Obama administration imposed on the planetary program were partly to pay for Webb. Thus, not only has that telescope killed almost all of NASA’s entire astrophysics program, it has damaged the planetary program as well.

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The two Mars cubesats flying in formation with InSight

Even as the InSight lander heads to Mars, it is being accompanied by two test cubesats, the first such smallsats to ever fly an interplanetary mission.

The MARCO mission objective is a challenging one. The team will provide a dedicated relay during Mars InSight’s descent to the surface of the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Rather than entering orbit, the CubeSats will pass 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Mars during the larger mission’s crucial landing phase. Mars will be 97.5 million miles (157 million kilometers) away at the time, making for an 8.7-light-minute communications lag from Mars to the Earth. The lag means that NASA engineers will need to wait 8.7 minutes to see whether the landing was successful, equivalent to Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror;” meanwhile, if all goes well, MARCO will have a front-row seat to the show. While the success of the InSight mission isn’t dependent on MARCO, the CubeSats will provide a black box data recorder of all aspects of the mission’s descent.

If these cubesats succeed in accomplishing their engineering test missions, their true innovation will not be engineering but cost reduction. If they prove that cubesats can be designed as interplanetary probes, the costs to build and launch such missions will be drastically reduced. Not only do cubesats routinely use cheaper off-the-shelf components, they are far lighter than standard satellites, which means a smaller, cheaper rocket can launch them.

The data-relay test of these cubesats however is quite important, nonetheless. See my post above.

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SpaceX sets May 10 for next launch, the first for Falcon 9’s final design

Capitalism in space: After analyzing the data from Friday’s static fire dress rehearsal, SpaceX has now scheduled the launch of Bangabandhu-1, Bangladesh’s first communications satellite, for May 10.

The significance of this launch is that it will be the first of what SpaceX calls the Block 5 version of this Falcon 9 first stage, a final design intended for many reuses and quick turnaround.

The star of the show is the new, unflown first stage core 1046, which is the first “Block 5” Falcon 9 first stage. Block 5 is the final major upgrade to the Falcon 9, the culmination of over 10 years of development and evolution of SpaceX’s workhorse rocket.

Block 5 has numerous advantages over past versions of the Falcon 9, notably including higher thrust engines, improved and more resilient recovery hardware, and the ability to be reflown within 48 hours of landing after a previous mission. Block 5 was also designed to meet – and in some cases exceed – NASA’s strict Commercial Crew Program requirements, which SpaceX must follow in order to be able to fly NASA astronauts, expected to begin in early 2019.

Block 5 cores are also expected to be reused 10 times before undergoing any major refurbishment, and SpaceX hopes to fly each booster up to 100 times before it is retired.

NASA has demanded that SpaceX fly at least seven different launches with the Block 5 stages before it will permit its astronauts on board (unlike SLS, where NASA has even considered flying astronauts on board with no previous test flights). Thus, getting this rocket flying is crucial to getting Americans back in space, on an American-made rocket.

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FBI/DOJ redactions hid their misbehavior, not protect national security

The recent release of mostly unredacted FBI documents has revealed that the earlier redactions had nothing to do with protecting national security, but were done to hide misbehavior and corrupt actions by FBI and Department of Justice officials.

Now that we can see what they wanted to conceal, it is clear, yet again, that the Justice Department and the FBI cannot be trusted to decide what the public gets to learn about their decision-making.

They tell us that their lack of transparency is necessary for the protection of national security, vital intelligence, and investigative operations. But what we find out is that they were concealing their own questionable judgments and conflicting explanations for their actions; their use of foreign-intelligence and criminal-investigative authorities to investigate Michael Flynn, Trump’s top campaign supporter and former national-security adviser; and their explicitly stated belief that Flynn did not lie in the FBI interview for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller has since prosecuted him on false-statements charges. [emphasis mine]

The article is detailed and well researched. It compares the redacted documents with what we now know those documents actually said. Repeatedly, the redactions either concealed bad behavior by the FBI, or were done to conceal information that discredited their prosecution of Michael Flynn.

The author, while condemning the FBI and the Justice Department, is even more condemning of Donald Trump.

It is simply ridiculous for President Trump to continue bloviating about this situation on Twitter and in friendly media interviews, and for congressional Republicans to continue pretending that the problem is Justice Department and FBI leadership — as if Trump were not responsible for his own administration’s actions. The president has not only the authority but the duty to ensure that his subordinates honor lawful disclosure requests from Congress.

What happened with these redactions is inexcusable.

While the author is right, politically it might have been a very wise decision for Trump to have done nothing. Mueller and the FBI have no case. Their effort to pin Russian collusion on Trump has always been laughable on its face. Letting them blow in the wind with this fake investigation allows the public to slowly recognize this fact, and thus discredit them in the public’s eye. If Trump were to shut the investigation down, however, he would lay himself open to accusations of obstructing justice.

This way, he lets them hang themselves, as the story above illustrates.

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Sunspot update for April 2018: Heading into solar minimum

On Sunday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for April 2018. Below is my annotated version of that graph.

While there was an uptick in sunspots in April, compared to the almost complete inactivity in March (the least active month for sunspots in a decade), the uptick did little to change the general trend. Sunspot activity is now comparable to what we saw in early 2008 (as indicated by the yellow line). This was just before the arrival of the previous solar minimum, which happened to also be one of the longest and deepest on record.

» Read more

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Dragon returns successfully from ISS

Capitalism in space: A reused Dragon capsule successfully splashed down on Saturday, returning after a month-long cargo mission to ISS.

The successful splashdown Saturday marked the conclusion of SpaceX’s 14th resupply mission to the space station under the space transport company’s more than $3 billion, 20-launch cargo contract with NASA. It was the third round-trip cargo flight with a reused Dragon capsule.

I await the first time one of these capsules completes its third flight into space. That will be significant.

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ULA workers go on strike

ULA’s workers went on strike today, their union rejecting the company’s final contract offer.

A major point of contention, the union said, were changes made to the contracts that offered employees less general flexibility, most notably when it comes to travel. Teams often travel between Vandenberg and the Cape to support missions, such as Saturday’s successful Atlas V launch of NASA’s InSight spacecraft now bound for Mars.

“A big part of it is how they have people travel from different locations to launch,” said Jody Bennett, chief of staff and aerospace negotiator for the union. “It doesn’t give them a lot of family time. They can force you to pack up, leave and go someplace for 30 days.”

“A month away from home is a long time, especially if it’s forced on you,” Bennett said, noting that travel beyond 30 days is voluntary.

This travel clause might relate to ULA’s effort to compete with SpaceX. They have trimmed their workforce, which means they might need to bring workers in from other locations when they do a launch, rather than hire more at each launch location and have them on standby all the time.

Either way, the timing of the strike is interesting, as it arrives just after a launch with the next ULA launch not scheduled until the end of July. It seems everyone, both company and union, have timed this to do as little harm to the company as possible.

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Atlas 5 successfully launches Mars lander InSight

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning successfully launched NASA’s newest Mars lander InSight.

InSight will drill a seismic probe into the Martian surface and monitor earthquake activity. This will be the first time such monitoring will occur, and the probe is planned to do it for at least two years.

The launch puts the U.S. back in a tie with China for the lead in launches this year. The standings:

13 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

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Issue with comments…

To all my readers, there appears to be a new issue with the comments filter that is tossing some perfectly legitimate comments into the spam folder. If you post and you see your comment disappear, please do not post it again. I will eventually check the spam folder and get it restored.

My web guy tells me this is an ongoing problem, and there isn’t much that can be done but to go to the Akismet site and complain. I will do this, but I expect that this problem will linger for the next few weeks. It appears that if I approve comments as “not spam,” eventually Akismet will begin to recognize this and will adjust.

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Judge challenges the scope of the Mueller investigation

In a blunt and brutal rebuke, a federal judge today challenged the direction of the Mueller investigation, suggesting that it had gone beyond its legal reach.

A federal judge on Friday harshly rebuked Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team during a hearing for ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort – suggesting they lied about the scope of the investigation, are seeking “unfettered power” and are more interested in bringing down the president.

“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort,” U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III told Mueller’s team. “You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you to lead you to Mr. Trump and an impeachment, or whatever.”

Further, Ellis demanded to see the unredacted “scope memo,” a document outlining the scope of the special counsel’s Russia probe that congressional Republicans have also sought.

Ellis wants to see the scope memo to see if Mueller’s investigation has gone beyond its authority. When Mueller’s team tried to justify its indictment of Paul Manafort, an indictment that had nothing to do with Russian collusion and involved events that had occurred as far back as 2005, the judge’s summary of their argument was equally blunt and contemptuous.

Ellis seemed amused and not persuaded. He summed up the argument of the Special Counsel’s Office as, “We said this was what [the] investigation was about, but we are not bound by it and we were lying.” [emphasis mine]

This is very bad news for Mueller. It appears that the legal profession is becoming increasingly disturbed by its star chamber witchhunt nature, allowing them to do anything and investigate everything in an effort to find some crime they can pin on Trump and his allies.

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Volcano or Impact?

Elliptical crater with flow features

Cool image time! Yesterday the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) team released its monthly image dump of more than 500 new photographs, taken by the spacecraft’s high resolution camera. As I have started to do in the past few months, I am reviewing this collection and plan to post a few of the more interesting images over the next month. On the right is the first of this series. I have cropped and reduced the resolution to show here, but you can see the full resolution version if you click on the image.

The MRO team labels this image an “elliptical crater with flow features.” The first impression one gets from the image is that the impact that caused the crater came from the side and hit the ground obliquely, creating the crater’s oval shape and the lava-type flow features in the crater’s floor.

As is almost always the case with Martian geology, beware of first impressions. You need to give any feature both a more detailed look as well as a broader view to have any chance at understanding its context and geology.
» Read more

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Russian to fly on Orion?

In negotiations between NASA and Roscosmos on their hoped-for partnership to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), it has been proposed that when SLS carries Orion and the platform’s Russian airlock to lunar orbit a Russian will go as well.

“Within the framework of talks, draft plans of future manned missions to the lunar stations have been made. Among other issues, the possibility to send one Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew of the Orion spacecraft that will drag the Russian airlock module to the moon is on the agenda. The Russian cosmonaut will have to ensure the integration of the module with the station,” the source said.

A source in Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) that would produce the module confirmed this information to Sputnik, saying that four manned missions were expected to be sent to the station and the Russian cosmonaut should accompany the Russian-made module during its transportation to the Earth satellite.

This all sounds so wonderful. Too bad it is so unconnected with reality. Congress has yet to provide any funds for LOP-G. At the moment, SLS/Orion is only funded through its first manned mission.

At the same time, I am getting the feeling that both NASA and Congress expect SLS/Orion’s $4 billion-plus annual budget that it has gotten since the program started in the late 2000s will simply continue, giving them the money to build this Potemkin Village in orbit around the Moon while funding the Russian contributions.

That’s what happened with ISS. The U.S. footed most of the bills for the Russian portion of ISS, and the Russians are now hoping we will do the same for LOP-G. Sadly, I also expect our corrupt Congress will go along, focused as they are in only distributing pork to local districts while encouraging a global international village having nothing to do with American interests. They see LOP-G not as exploring space, but as a jobs program, both here in the U.S. and in Russia.

And a jobs program is exactly what it is. Just like it will take SLS/Orion almost two decades to complete its first manned launch, LOP-G will likely not get anything built in orbit around the Moon for more than a decade. Don’t expect anything substantial assembled in lunar orbit before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.

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Serious fire at ISRO facility

An extensive fire at one of India’s main satellite testing facilities caused extension damage yesterday.

Top sources at SAC said the fire has caused serious damage to the “antenna test facility” as some specialised equipment have been damaged. The hi-tech “antenna test facility” of Isro is of paramount importance as antennas are the most crucial communication component in satellites. Moreover, the testing is also critical to space operations and requires very expensive and hi-tech equipment.

A top official said, “Space programmes are expensive but the silver line is that no satellite payload was damaged in the fire inside the antenna test facility.”

While an inquest will be held to probe what caused the fire, the fire service department said that it could be due to a short circuit. However, the SAC sources say, “The police will probe the cause of the fire. The facility has a strong protocol to battle fire caused due to short circuits. That is why the probe will cover the possibility of foul play and even sabotage.”

This is a serious. Space facilities and their operations have to be far strongly protected against fire than ordinary facilities due to the presence of volatile fuels. For a space facility to experience such an extensive fire suggests either someone was getting very sloppy, or (as suggested above) there was sabotage.

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More problems uncovered during testing of the James Webb Space Telescope

During ground tests of the James Webb Space Telescope engineers have discovered an additional quite astonishing problem that will certainly delay the project again.

In a presentation at a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here May 3, Greg Robinson, the JWST program director at NASA Headquarters, said some “screws and washers” appear to have come off the spacecraft during recent environmental testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California.

Technicians found the items after the spacecraft element of JWST, which includes the bus and sunshield but not its optics and instruments, was moved last weekend from one chamber for acoustics tests to another to prepare for vibration testing.

“Right now we believe that all of this hardware — we’re talking screws and washers here — come from the sunshield cover,” he said. “We’re looking at what this really means and what is the recovery plan.” The problem, he said, was only a couple of days old, and he had few additional details about the problem. “It’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The absurd spin expressed by the program director above is garbage. This is unbelievable and entirely unacceptable. On spacecraft, especially those that are not planned for in-space maintenance like Webb, screws are routinely sealed with some form of glue so that they will not unscrew themselves during the vibrations of launch. This is standard space engineering and has been for more than a half century.

That some screws came off Webb during testing suggests a quality control problem at Northrop Grumman that is beyond comprehension.

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China’s Long March 3B rocket puts communications satellite in orbit

China successfully placed a communications satellite into orbit yesterday using its Long March 3B rocket, that country’s second most powerful rocket.

The article says that the Long March 3B is China’s most powerful rocket, but I think this is based on the assumption that the Long March 5 is not yet operational. Since the 5 has had one successful launch, I am counting it as the most powerful, with the 3B second.

The updated leader list for the 2018 launch standings:

13 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 ULA.

China now leads the U.S. 13 to 12 in the national rankings. I expect these numbers to change a lot in May.

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Democrat demands prison for those who don’t cooperate with proposed gun buyback

And people wonder why I call them fascists: A California Democratic Congressman has proposed a new federal gun buyback program that would also prosecute anyone who decides they don’t want to participate.

[Congressman Eric Swalwell]suggests the government should institute a buy-back program, which would take existing assault weapons out of possession. The congressman also advocates the prosecution of any individual who decides to keep their firearm. “Reinstating the federal assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004 would prohibit manufacture and sales, but it would not affect weapons already possessed,” Swalwell writes. “This would leave millions of assault weapons in our communities for decades to come.”

“Instead,” he continues, “we should ban possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, we should buy back such weapons from all who choose to abide by the law, and we should criminally prosecute any who choose to defy it by keeping their weapons.” Swalwell notes that law enforcement officials and shooting clubs would be exempt.

Throughout his op-ed, Swalwell never defines what he considers a “military-style semiautomatic assault weapon.” Instead, he classifies an assault weapon as a firearm that is capable of “spraying a crowd” with “lethal fire in seconds.”

I am also not surprised this guy is from fascist California, where increasingly it is becoming downright dangerous to dissent from the leftist Democratic Party agenda.

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GAO predicts more delays and cost increases in NASA’s big projects

The Government Accountability Office is predicting more delays and cost increases for most of NASA’s big projects in its tenth annual report.

The cost and schedule performance” of NASA’s major projects “has deteriorated, but the extent of cost deterioration is unknown” because NASA does not have a cost estimate for Orion. Orion is “one of the largest projects in the portfolio” and NASA “expects cost growth.”

As for schedule, “the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years” of making these assessments. GAO said the 12-month average delay is up from 7 months in last year’s assessment.

Further, NASA faces the risk of more cost and schedule growth because of “new, large, complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining the portfolio longer than expected.” Europa Clipper, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Europa Lander are cited as examples of those future large, complex projects. GAO did give NASA credit for putting processes in place to control the costs of Europa Clipper and WFIRST.

GAO identified nine existing projects as the biggest contributors to the poor cost and schedule performance: SLS, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) cited in the 2017 report, Mars 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ICESat-2, NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO (GRACE-Follow On).

Orion has cost already cost the taxpayer about $15 billion, all of which will only buy the taxpayer three capsules (two unmanned test flights and a single manned flight). And yet they don’t have enough money yet, and NASA can’t provide a total cost estimate? To me, this appears to be outright theft. Building three capsules simply shouldn’t cost that much. (Note: the report claims Orion has cost about $6.6 billion. My number above comes from actual appropriations by Congress specifically for Orion. I think my number is a far more accurate reflection of the project’s true cost.)

Though the report expresses concerns about schedule delays in the commercial crew program, it is with the NASA-run projects that the report finds the worst cost overruns and delays. All of the usual suspects above come in for criticism: Webb, WFIRST, SLS (and its associated ground facilities), Orion, LOP-G.

I will make a prediction: All these NASA projects will be cited for further cost overruns and further delays in next year’s GAO report. By that time, we shall have also seen the first test flights of the commercial crew capsules by Boeing and SpaceX.

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Musk releases image of Falcon 9 fairing floating back to Earth

On Tuesday Elon Musk released an image of a Falcon 9 fairing as its parafoil opened to slow and guide the fairing back to Earth.

The image is pretty, but doesn’t really provide any information about SpaceX’s effort to recover its rocket fairings. The next attempt should come during their next Vandenberg launch in mid-May.

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NASA tests new small fission power plant for future space missions

NASA has successfully completed a full test of a new small fission power plant that it hopes to use in future space missions.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.

According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, the purpose of the recent experiment in Nevada was two-fold: to demonstrate that the system can create electricity with fission power, and to show the system is stable and safe no matter what environment it encounters. “We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colors,” said Poston.

The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases. The first two phases, conducted without power, confirmed that each component of the system behaved as expected. During the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core incrementally before moving on to the final phase. The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.

This power plant appears similar in concept to the fission RTG nuclear fuel systems that have been used routinely for decades on unmanned planetary probes such as the two Voyager spacecraft, New Horizons, and on Curiosity. This new system however provides significantly more power, as much as ten kilowatts compared to the approximate two hundred watts provided by RTGs.

Such a system will be essential for future bases on both Mars and the Moon, where solar power is not the best option. I should also add that such a system might possibly have applications here on Earth. Developed properly, it could provide a practical power source for out-of-the-way locations not on the grid. If made cheap enough, it might also provide electrical customers a cheaper and competitive alternative that will allow them to remove themselves from the grid entirely.

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