Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

A new Russian heavy lift rocket amid Russian budget woes

The competition heats up: Even as Russia today successfully placed a commercial satellite in orbit on the 400th successful Proton rocket launch, Russian sources indicate that — despite budget woes fueled by the drop in oil prices — Russia is moving ahead with the design and construction of a heavy-lift rocket capable of competing with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

From the last link above:

By 2013, Roskosmos drafted a very preliminary roadmap toward the development of heavy and super-heavy launch vehicles. Not surprisingly, it matched closely the strategy that NASA had followed since 2011 within the Space Launch System, SLS, project.

…As the American SLS project, Russian super-heavy launcher plans envisioned building a rocket with a payload of 80-85 tons in the first phase of the program. A pair of such rockets would be enough to mount a lunar expedition. In the second phase of development, the rocket would be upgraded to carry unprecedented 130-180 tons of payload in order to support, permanent lunar bases, missions to asteroids and expeditions to Mars.

As much as I remain a skeptic of SLS, it has apparently struck so much competitive fear in the Russian leadership that they are now willing to try to copy it. Much like the 1980s, when the Soviet rulers bankrupted their nation trying to duplicate American projects like the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Space Shuttle, Putin is now repeating that error all over again. His country has experienced almost a quarter-century of strong economic growth since the fall of communism because, during that time, they focused on capitalism, private enterprise, freedom, and a bottom-up economic structure. Now, they are beginning to abandon that approach and return to the top-down, centralized system of government planning.

As it did in previous century, it will bankrupt them again in this century. Though the Russian government is denying the reports that they are going to trim their space budget, their government’s budget is going to suffer from the drop in the price of oil. Something will have to give.

Update: This review of a book about modern Russia is definitely pertinent: The Land of Magical Thinking: Inside Putin’s Russia

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Solar maximum ramp down continues

The monthly update by NOAA of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in November, was released on December 8, just before NOAA completely revamped its website. As I have been doing every month for the past four years, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

As noted in previous months, the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community is looking better and better with time. Though there was an increase in sunspot activity in November, the overall trend continues downward very close to that prediction, though at levels that have generally been less than predicted.

November 2014 Solar Cycle graph

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

Future updates will depend on whether NOAA continues to track sunspots using these same standards. After much searching I was finally able to locate the graph above at this link, suggesting that at least for now, they are holding to these standards. I note however that the links to the 2007 and the 2009 solar cycle predictions have vanished down the memory hole. Fortunately, I still have this data, and can continue to annotate the graphs to compare prediction with actual data.

That they might have removed these predictions from their webpage however is a shame. I have emailed them to ask them about this and will let you know what I learn.

Book news!

Two book items which I think my readers will be interested in:

First, my publisher of the ebook edition of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 has asked me to ask my readers to please post book reviews of the book on amazon.com. Presently the book has 47 reviews. If it gets three more, we will be eligible for a number of additional Kindle promotions.

So, whether you liked the book or not, please go to its webpage on amazon and give it a review. Your support will be very much appreciated.

Note also that the sale on amazon continues until the end of December. Until then, you can get the ebook edition of Genesis the Story of Apollo 8 for only $2.99!

Second, I have just published a new book, though on a topic that has nothing to do with space. Circuit Hikes of Southern Arizona was written during my spare time during the past two years while Diane and I explored the many beautiful trails out here in Tucson. Though there are many good Arizona hiking guidebooks, I noticed a lack of guidebooks describing loop trails. Since that is what we were doing anyway, I figured why not assemble my knowledge into a new guidebook and use the opportunity to learn about the modern world of both ebook and print self-publishing.

The print edition of Circuit Hikes is available directly from me here for $15, including shipping. The ebook can be purchased here (directly from me) or from amazon, barnes & noble, and all your normal ebook venders for $10.

This post will remain at the top of the webpage for the next twenty-four hours.

Orion launch on Thursday given go-ahead

The Thursday test launch of an Orion capsule has been given the go-ahead.

Many of the news reports this week about this test flight have referred to Orion as “the spacecraft that will take humans to Mars.” I must note again that this is hogwash. No humans will ever go to Mars using Orion. It is too small and does not have the capacity to keep humans healthy and alive for the year-plus-long flight time necessary to get to and from Mars.

The most Orion can ever be is the ascent and descent module for a much larger interplanetary space vessel, used just for getting humans up and down from the surface of the Earth. The spacecraft that will really take people to Mars will have to be something more akin to Mir or ISS, a large assembly of modules put together in low Earth orbit.

One other tidbit everyone should know about tomorrow’s test flight: Though it is being touted as a test of Orion’s heat shield, the company that makes this heat shield has already abandoned this design, so the test itself is for a heat shield that will never be launched again on another Orion capsule. In addition, the flight won’t test the rocket to be used, as the SLS rocket isn’t ready. Nor will it test the capsule’s life support systems, which are not on board.

Which immediately raises the question: Why in hell is NASA even bothering with this test flight?

Sadly, I can answer that question. This is all public relations, an effort to lobby for funding. That’s it.

Cygnus on Falcon 9?

The heat of competition: Industry rumors now suggest that Orbital Sciences’s first choice for launching its next ISS freighter Cygnus is SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The articles offers this explanation for why Orbital is favoring its chief competitor:

While flying on a competitor’s launch vehicle might be viewed as awkward, the decision could boil down to one simple determining factor – cost. It has been estimated that a flight on a F9 would set a customer back $62 million. By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA ) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle, a booster with similar capabilities to the F9, costs an estimated $100 million per mission. Moreover, SpaceX has a proven track record with the Falcon 9.

All true, but I can think of two more reasons SpaceX is the top choice.
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What the Middle East conflict looks like from inside Israel

As I am in Israel this week visiting family, I have had an opportunity to get a feel for the political and cultural atmosphere of the Middle East. Granted, this “feel” is very superficial and subjective, but it is nonetheless instructive, as I am viewing the situation not as a resident but as an outsider who always favors freedom and justice in any political conflict.

Anyway, my sense of the situation here comes from two immediate sources, one cultural and the second personal. First the cultural.
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Heading to Israel

This morning I will be boarding a plane to begin the long tedious airplane flight from Tucson to Jerusalem, Israel, arriving there Thursday afternoon. I might post along the way, but there are no guarantees.

For the next week I will once again be staying with my brother and sister-in-law in their apartment in the west bank settlement of Alon Shvut. It was here at the bus stop just outside the settlement, where Palestinians and Israelis routinely gather to either catch the bus or hitchhike a ride to Jerusalem, that three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives, sparking the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip. Then, just a few weeks ago an Arab terrorist when on a killing spree at this bus stop, killing one young woman before the guard at the settlement gate ran down the hill to shoot him.

I might post my impressions of the situation while I am there, or it might have to wait until I return. It depends on my schedule and my desire to work while visiting family. Yesterday’s attack in a Jewish synagogue, once again by Hamas operatives, killing five people whose only crime was that they were praying peacefully, might also touch my family directly, as I think that one of the rabbis killed was a friend of my brother, his wife, and their children. I will find out more when I get there.

Meanwhile, there were Arab celebrations in various locations in Gaza, the West Bank, and even in Jerusalem, congratulating these killers for their barbarous acts.

Close-up image of Philae’s landing site


Agilkia landing site for Philae

Inset of landing site

In the preparation to Wednesday’s landing of Philae on Comet 67P/C-G, Rosetta’s science team has released a great image of the landing site, shown above. To the right is a higher resolution inset of the site itself, with the smallest object visible about 8.5 feet across.

Looking at this inset, there are some obvious worries that we all should be aware of prior to the landing attempt. Though the Agilkia landing site is generally more smooth than most of the comet’s surface, it still has significant hazards. The lower part is strewn with boulders and rocks, many of which are quite large. Any one of these could do serious harm to Philae should it land on them.

Even more interesting is the upper part of the landing site. Though very smooth, the image suggests to me that this is a very thick pile of softly packed material. Philae might land there and quickly sink below the surface, where its cameras will be able to see nothing.

Nonetheless, the science team has also released this outline of Philae’s science timeline after landing. The lander will also be taking images of both Rosetta and the comet during its descent, so even if the landing is a failure we will still get some worthwhile data.

Focusing on strategy instead of substance

This article, about the back room maneuvers by both political parties leading up to last week’s election, has been making the rounds on all the political websites. Called a “must-read, vivid piece”, it reveals all the strategies, mistakes, and childish in-fighting that took place during the campaign, the kind of stuff that makes many people consider politicians such a lower form of life.

I am normally not interested in these smoke-filled backroom stories as I care a lot more about what politicians do when they are in office. This is why I didn’t read the article until today, two days after it was published and after I had seen it quoted in maybe a dozen other political articles about the election.

Having read it I have to agree it is worthwhile reading, but my main take-away is that its focus on the campaign strategies and maneuvers by politicians of both parties epitomizes all that is wrong with modern political journalism as well as the interests too many of its readers. Only once did the article hint at the actual issues crucial to the election, when it summed up the Republican strategy near the beginning of the article:

From the outset of the campaign, Republicans had a simple plan: Don’t make mistakes, and make it all about Obama, Obama, Obama. Every new White House crisis would bring a new Republican ad. And every Democratic incumbent would be attacked relentlessly for voting with the president 97 or 98 or 99 percent of the time.

That’s it. That’s the only hint at real substance in this whole very long and detailed article.

For you see, the election was about Obama and his fumbling incompetence. It was about the policies he and his Democratic supporters in Congress had foisted on the nation. And it was about how those policies have been a disaster for ordinary people all across the nation.

All the games that these politicians play against each other during campaigns really isn’t that important. It might tell you something about their character, but what really matters is what these guys do, when they are in office. Keep that in mind when the next election rolls around, because I guarantee that the politicians and the journalists who write about them are not going to be interested in talking about that. It would be far too embarrassing.

Taking a broad look at Tuesday’s Republican sweep

I don’t have much to add to the numerous reports about yesterday’s election by political pundits far more qualified than I. The Republicans won a big landslide victory yesterday, not only gaining control of the Senate, but winning more seats than expected. They also won more seats in the House than expected, widening their majority there to numbers not seen since the 1920s. In addition, they made it a grand slam by winning a plethora of governorships — many in Democratic stronghold states such as Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland — as well as taking control of more state legislatures than ever before.

What matters to me, however, is not the election but what this new Republican majority does with its majority. In the past, 1994 and 2000, they more or less squandered the opportunity to rein in government. In 1994, they allowed the government to grow but at a rate below the rate of inflation so that in a few years this resulted in a balanced budget and surpluses. But the government still grew in power and size. In 2000 they did not even do this, allowing government spending and yearly deficits to balloon, even though they had a Republican president who would have supported them if they had wanted to cut the size of government.

Thus, while I am hopeful, I also remain very skeptical about what will happen in the next few years. In order to prove to me and the conservative base that elected them that these Republicans mean what they say when they say they want to shrink the size of government, they are going to have to prove it with real action. They are going to have show us that they really do want to repeal Obamacare. They are going to have to show us that they really do want to gain some control over the border. And they are going to have to show us that they really do want to cut the budget and get it balanced.

I understand that the Democrats in the Senate and Obama can still block many of these initiatives, but too often Republicans have used this fact as an excuse to not try at all. This must stop! They must apply strong pressure on these left wing ideologues, make them reveal their politics for all to see by forcing them to veto or block these initiatives. Only by demonstrating a resolve to rein in government will anyone believe the Republicans when they claim that’s what they want to do. And by doing so they will also simultaneously expose the Democrats as the left wing ideologues that they are.

Making these points can only be for the good, politically.

Two more points, often unstated but fundamental to what elections in the United States represent.
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Signs of a sunspot ramp down

The monthly update by NOAA of the solar cycle is out, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in October, As I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

Despite the appearance last month of the largest sunspot in almost a quarter century, the number of sunspots in October dropped significantly, bringing overall activity back to levels seen in 2012, prior to the second peak in the solar maximum. If things go as expected (not something I would bet much money on), the overall ramp down of sunspot activity should now continue over the next few years. There will obviously be jumps periodically, but the general output of sunspots should steadily decline.

I also want to reiterate what I noted last month, that the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community is looking better and better with time. Other than over-estimating the total activity somewhat while missing the dip between the two peaks, their overall curve, indicated by the red line, is reasonably close to what has actually happened.

October 2014 Solar Cycle graph

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

Antares launch failure

Immediately after lifting off from the launchpad this evening, Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded, falling back onto the launchpad.

We will have to wait for more details, but regardless this is bad news for Orbital Sciences. The bidding for the second round of cargo contracts to ISS is about to begin, and they will have competition from Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. This accident will hurt them.

I’ve embedded footage of the launch failure below. The damage to the launchpad itself could be the worst aspect of this, as it will cost Orbital Sciences a great deal of money and time to get the pad rebuilt.

NASA treats Congress like a doormat, again

Stupid: More than a month after publicly awarding commercial crew contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, NASA has yet to brief Congress on the reasons for its decision.

“To date, the Committee has not been briefed on the source selection, nor has it received the source selection statement, despite the fact that the offerors have been briefed, details were released to the press, the [Government Accountability Office] is now involved; and NASA has decided to proceed with the contracts,” Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) wrote in a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden dated Oct. 21. Smith and Palazzo chair the House Science Committee and House Science space subcommittee, respectively.

“We hope that NASA will not expect taxpayers to blindly fund billion-dollar programs absent any information related to the procurement or contract,” wrote Smith and Palazzo, who are ardent supporters of the Space Launch System, major contractual details of which were only finalized this year and have not yet been made public.

These elected officials are not NASA’s allies when it comes to commercial space, so giving them too much information is probably dangerous. At the same time, the choice of Boeing was certainly done to ease their concerns, and keeping them out of the loop is only going to turn them against the commercial space contracts. It serves no purpose. NASA should instead be trying to show them why picking SpaceX and Boeing made sense, and how these two multi-billion dollar contracts will bring many jobs to their districts.

If NASA doesn’t do this basic political massaging, these guys are simply going to try to cut commercial space out when it comes time to negotiate the budget, as they have already tried to do several times in the past.

But then, when it comes to politics this behavior by the Obama administration is par for the course. They might have the right idea, farming out space exploration to the private sector, but their political implementation has often left much to be desired.

Orion ready for launchpad!

Be still my heart! NASA has completed the assembly of the Orion capsule stack, prior to installing it on its rocket on the launchpad.

I remain decidedly unexcited by this upcoming test flight, which will send Orion up to 3,600 miles and then bring it back to Earth at about 20,000 miles per hour to test the spacecraft’s heat shield.

For example, the exaggerations and overstatements in this one short article tell you a great deal about how oversold the SLS/Orion program is.
» Read more

The X-37B goes to Mars

After 675 days in space, the Air Force’s reusable X-37B mini-shuttle successfully returned to Earth today, completing its second flight in space.

There has been a lot of speculation about the secret payloads that the two X-37B’s have carried into space. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about this, though they have said this:

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” they added.

The obvious advantage of the X-37B is that it allows the Air Force to test these new technologies in space, then bring them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

However, I think the most important engineering knowledge gained from this flight will not be from the payload, but from the X-37B itself.
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A reviving solar maximum

Last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in September. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

As much as I am always willing to point out the errors and foibles of scientists when they get something wrong or overstate their conclusions, I also believe it right to give credit when credit is due. I have been saying for several years now that the prediction of the solar scientist community, indicated by the red curve in the graph below the fold, had seriously overstated the Sun’s sunspot production during this solar maximum.

Well, it now appears that, as the solar cycle continues to run its course, that their May 2009 prediction is becoming increasingly correct.
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“We’re not gonna move.”

Watch the video below the fold as a string of university officials from Southern Oregon University harass several students whose only action is standing on the sidewalk and handing out Constitutions.

It made me very proud to watch these college students defy authority to defend their very clear constitutional rights. The school wanted them to move to the very small restricted “Free Speech Zone”. The students refused, noting that the Constitution and Bill of Rights essentially designates the entire U.S. a free speech zone. The students also refused to give their names to one official, noting that they were uncomfortable doing that. Since the official had no authority to take their names, the official had to back down.

In the end, the school did nothing to them, and they remained on the sidewalk, handing Constitutions out of fellow Americans. Kudos to them all! We need more Americans willing to stand up like this and not be cowed.
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Giant boulders on Comet 67P/C-G

Giant boulders on Comet 67P/C-G

As Rosetta has moved in on Comet 67P/C-G, engineers have focused in on its most interesting surface features, such as the nucleus’s neck as well as a collection of very large boulders on a relatively smooth area on the nucleus’s larger lobe. The biggest boulder, seen as the middlemost rock in the photo above, they have named Cheops. It is estimated to be 150 feet across with a height of about 80 feet.

It should be emphasized that calling these features boulders might actually be premature at this time.
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The Great Space Race

Yesterday the private commercial launch company SpaceX broke ground on its own private spaceport near Brownsville, Texas.

“This feels great. It feels like the future,” [SpaceX founder Elon] Musk said at the ground-breaking. … He intends to have the first launch in late 2016, with an initial 12 launches a year. Ultimately, “thousands of launches,” he projected. Furthermore, “when we start doing commercial crew activities, I would expect us to launch a crew from here,” he said.

The significance of this construction is not trivial. This will be the first spaceport built by a private company that will be used to launch its privately-built commercial rockets, and will do it for profit. Other spaceports have been established in the last decade for the purpose of private space tourism, but none have seen anything fly, and all those spaceports were some form of quasi-government operation.

SpaceX’s Brownsville spaceport, rumored to be dubbed Mars Crossing, is not a government-run operation, however. It will be wholly owned and operated by the company, and is being built to allow them to launch commercial satellites unconstrained by the rules that make launches from the government controlled spaceports at the Kennedy Space Center as well as Vandenberg Air Force Base in California difficult and complicated.

This ground-breaking also comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that SpaceX and Boeing have been chosen by NASA to build spacecraft to ferry human astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

It also comes at the same time the Russian government has reorganized its entire aerospace industry to place it under government control, committed billions for the accelerated construction of a new spaceport on Russian territory, and launched the first test flight of its own new rocket, Angara, designed to compete for commercial market share while also reenergizing the entire Russian space effort.

Nor is that all.
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The planet debate continues

In a public debate about the scientific definition of a planet, the IAU’s definition, imposed about eight years ago to expressly prevent Pluto from being called one, was soundly defeated when the votes were counted.

Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU’s viewpoint [which is the definition that is presently considered official by scientific bureaucrats]. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist’s viewpoint.

Gingerich argued that “a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time,” and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants,” which means Pluto is a planet.

After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn’t and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight.

According to the audience, Sasselov’s definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.

Notice that two of the three debaters considered Pluto a planet even before the vote was taken. Notice also that the first debater, Gingerich, was on the very committee that the IAU had created to come up with a definition and then ignored completely when its definition decided that Pluto was a planet.

In the end, it will be the people who speak the language that will decide, not IAU bureaucrats. This little public relations event and vote tells me that the bureaucrats will lose.

The next week in space

For the next week there are going to be a number of important events that will determine the success or failure of a number of important space missions. I thought I’d lay out the schedule in a quick post, just to make it clear.

  • Falcon 9 launch: SpaceX is hoping to launch its Dragon capsule to ISS tonight at 2:14 am (eastern). If they are successful, it will be the fourth Falcon 9 launch since July 14. That is a very fast-paced launch schedule, as good as any other launch company’s, and more evidence that SpaceX is an effective competitor in the resurgent launch market.
  • Mavin orbital insertion: NASA hopes to place this Mars mission into orbit on Sunday at around 9:50 pm (eastern).
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan: There are two important events this week for this mission. First, on Monday, September 22, engineers will do a test firing of the spacecraft’s engine, which has been inactive for the last several months during its cruise to Mars. If that firing is successful, they will do the orbital insertion burn on Wednesday, September 24.

So, stay tuned this week for some fun stuff. And as I’ve been saying, this is only the beginning.

NASA has chosen Boeing and SpaceX to build manned spacecraft to ferry crews to ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has made a decision and has chosen two companies to ferry astronauts to and from ISS, and those companies are Boeing and SpaceX.

I am watching the press conference on NASA television. Some quick details from NASA here.

This is a reasonable political and economic decision. It confirms that SpaceX is ready to go and gives the company the opportunity to finish the job, while also giving Boeing the chance to show that it can compete while also giving that pork to congressional districts.

Some details: After NASA has certified that each company has successfully built its spacecraft they will have then fly anywhere from four to six missions. The certification process will be step-by-step, similar to the methods used in the cargo contracts, and will involve five milestones. They will be paid incrementally as they meet these milestones.

One milestone will be a manned flight to ISS, with one NASA astronaut on board.

One more detail. Boeing will receive $4.2 billion while SpaceX will get $2.6 billion. These awards were based on what the companies proposed and requested.

I will have more to say about this tonight on Coast to Coast, as well as on the John Batchelor show.

The competition in space continues to heat up

Two news stories today indicate that things are going to get increasingly interesting in the exploration of space in the coming years.

First there is this story from Joe Abbott of the Waco Tribune, who routinely reports on SpaceX news because their McGregor test facility is nearby. In it Abbott reports that SpaceX has scheduled its next Dragon supply mission to ISS for no early than September 20.

This news item however is not Abbott’s most interesting news. He also notes several twitter reports coming out a commercial satellite conference in Paris that indicate that SpaceX has closed 9 deals, including several more for its as yet unflown Falcon Heavy.

But even that is not the most interesting news. Abbott also reports that a replacement for the destroyed Falcon 9R test vehicle will be shipped to McGregor for testing in less than two months. Considering how long it takes governments to build and fly test vehicles, getting this replacement in shape for flight mere months after the failure a few weeks ago is quite impressive.

But even that was not Abbott’s most interesting SpaceX news item. » Read more

Playing with today’s Rosetta image of Comet 67P/C-G

Adjusted comet image

In releasing Wednesday’s image of Comet 67P/C-G, the Rosetta science team suggested that readers download it and play with the brightness and contrast settings to bring out some interesting details.

[I]f you adjust the contrast of the image you will see that there is a lot of ‘noise’ in the background. Some of this is simply detector noise and cosmic rays, but there seem to be a few bright objects that may be dust/ice particles between Rosetta and the comet.

In previous NAVCAM and OSIRIS images, we’ve already seen jets of gas laced with dust streaming away from the comet, and the instruments COSIMA and GIADA have started detecting dust, so it would be no surprise if these objects were also found to originate from the comet. In any case, it is a phenomenon that will clearly be studied in great detail at 67P/C-G over the coming weeks and months.

Another nice observation you might like to make while playing around with the contrast settings is that faint details can be brought out in the ‘neck’ region of 67P/C-G, which on first look is seemingly obscured by shadows. It appears as though the neck is being illuminated by the reflection of sunlight off the main body of the comet below.

The image on the left above is the image as released. The image on the right I have brightened considerably to bring out additional details. As they noted, you can see topographical details in the shadowed neck area. Also, the entire nucleus seems to be surrounded by faint dust streaming away in all directions.

It is going to be a great deal of fun to watch this comet change over the next year as it makes its journey around the Sun.

The solar maximum lingers on

On Monday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in August. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

The sunspot activity of the Sun in August hovered at the same levels seen in July. Though the month had seen periods of little activity, these were interspersed with many violent flaring sunspots, including one that only yesterday unleashed a powerful X-class flare that is expected to send a coronal mass ejection directly at the Earth and should impact the Earth’s magnetic field on September 12. Expect spectacular auroras!
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Vladimir Putin, space cadet

Two news stories today demonstrate without question that Russia’s newly reorganized aerospace industry and its project to build a new spaceport are not merely the efforts of mid-level bureaucrats in that aerospace industry.

No, these efforts have been instituted and are being pushed at the very top of the Russian government, by Vladmir Putin himself. It appears that he has decided, or has always believed, that Russia deserves a strong and vibrant space program, run from Moscow, and is doing everything he can to make it happen, as part of his personal vision for Russia.

The first story described a visit on Tuesday that Putin made to Russia’s new space port, Vostochny, in the far eastern end of Russia. While there he noted that construction is several months behind schedule and that this slack must be made up. He then endorsed the proposal put to him by space agency officials that the number of people working on construction should be doubled.

The second story described Putin’s endorsement of the construction of a new Russian heavy lift rocket, capable of putting 150 tons into orbit. Such a rocket would be comparable in power to the largest version of the U.S.’s SLS rocket, not due to be launched, if ever, until the 2020s.
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The decision on manned spaceflight

The rumors are swirling. Today alone the news included three different articles about NASA’s upcoming decision to down-select to either one or two in its manned commercial crew program.

The third article above speculates that the decision will be made shortly after this weekend, maybe as soon as next week. It also outlines in nice detail the companies who are competing for the contract.

I strongly expect NASA to pick two companies, not one, as the agency has repeatedly said it wants to have redundancy and competition in manned space flight. To this I agree whole-heartedly. Right now, if I was a betting man (which I am not), I would pick SpaceX and Sierra Nevada as the two companies to get the nod.

If NASA only picks one company that I don’t think there is much doubt that it will be SpaceX.

And then again, government agencies, because of politics, have sometimes made some incredibly stupid decisions. For example, back in the 1970s the company that proposed the space shuttle was rejected for another big space company that had more political clout, which then turned around and essentially stole the first company’s designs to build the space shuttle from them. It just took longer and cost more.

Surprise! TSA lied!

Does this make you feel safer? The TSA has now admitted that it had allowed illegal immigrants to fly without valid identification, something it had strongly denied when news sources revealed it last month.

[A newly discovered TSA] letter confirms that illegal aliens are being allowed to board planes using a Notice to Appear form (also known as I-862), as [union border patrol official] Darby revealed in July. Hector Garza, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) told Darby that Notice to Appear forms can “easily be reproduced or manipulated on any home computer. The Notice to Appear form has no photo, anyone can make one and manipulate one. They do not have any security features, no watermark, nothing. They are simply printed on standard copy paper based on the information the illegal alien says is the truth.”

So, while the TSA routinely sexually abuses American citizens while demanding they provide photo id, the agency has had policies that would allow an illegal immigrant, with unknown background and who has come from outside the country, to board planes using a simple form that anyone can photocopy.

Does anyone but me see something significantly wrong with this picture? Didn’t Congress originally create the TSA to prevent foreign nationals from boarding planes to hijack them?

Actually, my questions above are merely snark. The TSA is a joke imposed on us by our elected officials and approved of by too many Americans because it allows them to make believe we are doing something about terrorism. Other elected officials and TSA managers and employees than use the agency as a weapon to obtain power and crush the freedom of Americans. In that context, these actions by the TSA, including lying about their policies, make complete sense.

Rosetta detects its first dust grains

67P/C-G on August 12, 2014

The Rosetta science team announced today that the spacecraft’s Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator (GIADA) has captured its first dust grains from Comet 67P/C-G.

Earlier this month, GIADA detected the first four dust grains in its Impact Sensor. The first detection was made on 1 August, when Rosetta was 814 km from 67P/C-G, and about 543 million kilometres from the Sun. Further impacts from three more dust grains were detected on 2, 4, and 5 August, at distances of 603, 286, and 179 km from the comet, respectively.

There is still too little data to come to any firm conclusions about the density and make-up of the coma, but this announcement confirms that the instrument is working as designed. When the comet zips past the Sun at its closest point on August 13, 2015, this instrument will then be able to give us a very good assessment of this particular comet’s behavior as it slowly evaporates.

Meanwhile, the images keep coming. The picture at the top of the post was taken on August 12 from about 64 miles.

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