Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

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.

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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.

Rosetta arrives

Rosetta has successfully achieved orbit around Comet 67P/C-G and has transmitted its first close up images. More information here and here about the rendezvous and what science the mission scientists plan to do as they orbit the comet.

The image below is looking down and past the comet’s smaller component as it casts a shadow on the neck and the larger component beyond. As with the earlier images, the comet’s pitted and corroded surface, lacking any obvious craters, is reminiscent to me of a pile of dirty snow that has been dissolving away. In fact, when I lived in New York I would see this kind of look every winter. When the city would get a big snowfall snowplows would push it into large mounds on the side of the road. As time passed these piles would get dirty from the city’s soot and grime, and also slowly melt away. After several weeks it would look almost exactly like the surface of Comet 67P/C-G.

The images and data that will come down from Rosetta over the next year and half as it orbits the comet in its journey around the Sun will be most fascinating. Stay tuned!

67P/C-G up close

The lingering weak solar maximum

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

For the first time in four months the decline in sunspots ceased, though the sunspot count hardly rose either. Instead the numbers stayed almost the same in July as they were in June. This was during a month that began with lots of sunspots, and yet saw the first blank sun in almost three years. In fact, the Sun’s activity in July was a roller coaster, as noted by the Solar Influences Data Analysis Center (SIDC) of the Royal Observatory of Belgium.
» Read more

Video of the Falcon 9 first stage doing a soft splashdown

Video taken from a chase plane during the July 14 Falcon 9 launch shows the first stage appearing from out of the low clouds, engines firing, vertical and ready for landing. The video, below the fold, also shows the stage slowing just before it hits the water, much like the test vehicles Grasshopper and Falcon 9R do.

Though SpaceX has already claimed their first stage had done this during the July 14 launch, this video proves it. All they need to do now to recover their first stage is to direct it to a land-based landing site.

Hat tip to Doug Messier and Parabolic Arc for this story.
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Getting closer

Comet 67P on July 31

This image of Comet 67P from Rosetta was taken yesterday. Though it has not been processed like the image I posted yesterday, more details continue to come out as the spacecraft each day gets closer to the comet. This image was taken from a distance of 825 miles, 375 miles closer than the previous day.

Very soon these close-up images will become too large to show the entire nucleus in one image. Rosetta will instead begin to snap images of specific features.

Meanwhile, the Rosetta science team released its first temperature readings of the comet.
» Read more

The loss of skepticism in science

In April I taped a half hour television interview with George Noory for his subscription-based video show, Beyond Belief. Below is a clip from that interview, where I describe the terrible state of climate research, and how politics is destroying the very heart of what science stands for. Too many people are no longer open-minded. Rather than relay on the data they push their theories instead.

Robert Zimmerman discusses the truth about climate change with George Noory!

Going back to the Canyon

Grand Canyon
The black dot in the upper left is a condor.

As we did last year Diane and I are heading back to the Grand Canyon today. We will hike down to Phantom Ranch on Tuesday and return on Thursday, with one day at the bottom to do additional hiking. We then head to Grand Canyon Caverns to participate in a dig project there trying to find additional virgin passage. (When we were there last year we broke into approximately 250 feet of previously unknown passage.)

Obviously, posting will be impossible while we are in the Canyon. I should be able to post on the other days, though not as frequently as normal.

The Evening Pause, however, will appear each night this week, with thanks to my readers for helping me find some really interesting videos.

Looking Forward

In the past week there must have been a hundred stories written celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. Here’s just a small sampling:

These articles try to cover the topic from all angles. Some looked at the wonders of the achievement. Others extolled the newspaper’s local community and their contribution. Some used the event to demand the U.S. do it again.

None of this interests me much. Though I passionately want humans, preferable Americans, back on the Moon exploring and settling it, this fetish with celebrating Apollo is to me becoming quite tiresome.
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The next Proton and Angara launches

The competition heats up: Russia has set September 28 as the next launch date for its troubled Proton rocket.

The most interesting detail gleaned from this article however is this:

The Proton-M carrier rocket previously launched on May 16 from Baikonur space center collided with communications satellite Express АМ4R and burned up in the atmosphere above China, leaving Russia without its most powerful telecommunications satellite.

Previous reports had not been very clear about the causes of the May launch failure. All they would say is that “a failed bearing in the steering engine’s turbo pump” had caused the failure about nine minutes into the flight. This report suggests that this failure occurred after separation of the payload and that it then caused the upper stage to collide with the satellite.

Russia is also about to ship its new Angara 5 rocket to the launch site for a planned December launch. This will be the first launch of the Angara configuration that is expected to replace the Proton rocket, and is expected to place a dummy payload into geosynchronous orbit.
» Read more

Website upgrade

Update: The upgrade is mostly finished. There are still a few tweaks that either I or Shane will do over the weekend but essentially the site is up and running.
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This evening Behind the Black will be undergoing a significant upgrade. For this reason posting will cease beginning with this post at 3 pm (Pacific) until the upgrade is completed later tonight. When completed the site will be slightly different. Most of the changes will be irrelevant to readers, as I have tried in this upgrade to keep the website how I like it, clean, thoughtful, and not cluttered with unnecessary internet stuff.

Two issues will affect my readers.

  • The spam filter for comments will once again be working. In addition, comments will not be accepted until the commenter completes a Captcha screen. Once this is done, however, the comment will then be instantly approved. I will no longer have to manually approve each comment. This will speed the dialogue. It will also mean that comment threads will remain open forever. Since the spam filter failed in January I have had to close comments on posts after three weeks.
  • The look of the website will change somewhat. These changes are mostly designed to increase traffic, which will not only increase my readership but will help pay for this site. For example, it will be easier to share a post from Behind the Black in many other venues, such as Facebook and Twitter.

To complete the upgrade my software guy, Shane Rolin of Amixa, and I will have to do a number of tweaks and changes after the new site goes live. Thus, be prepared for a short period on Friday where things might not work as they should. By the end of the evening, however, all should be fixed and working properly. If you see a problem after that please feel free to comment here, describing what you see and what you think could be done to fix it. Also feel free to comment here with any additional suggestions for making Behind the Black a better experience. I am always open to new ideas.

The sun continues its ramp down

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

The decline in sunspots continued for the fourth month in a row, increasing the likelihood that the peak of solar maximum has finally come and gone and that we now seeing the beginning of the ramp down to solar minimum. This resulting solar maximum comes close to matching the science community’s final prediction (indicated by the red line), though that prediction was not detailed enough to include the distinct and unusual double peak for this maximum.
» Read more

More fraud in peer-reviewed science

The science journal Nature today announced the retraction of two controversial stem cell papers.

The two papers reporting the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) phenomenon appeared online on 29 January. Questions about the papers arose almost immediately, leading to an investigation by RIKEN, the headquarters of the network of the nationally funded laboratories that is based in Wako near Tokyo. Investigators documented several instances of fabrication and falsification in the papers and concluded that some of these constituted research misconduct on the part of [Haruko] Obokata [the lead author].

Japanese media recently reported that authors had agreed to retract the papers but were discussing the wording of the notice. In the note that appeared today, the authors point to errors previously identified by RIKEN investigations in supplementary documents. They also identify additional errors in both papers, including mix-ups in images, mislabeling, faulty descriptions, and “inexplicable discrepancies in genetic background and transgene insertion sites between the donor mice and the reported” STAP cells. [emphasis mine]

The list of errors now documented sound astonishing. In fact, I can’t see how any serious review by any competent specialist in this field could have missed them all, which suggests that for this research at least the peer-review process is mostly a sham. In fact, in the article Nature admits that its
» Read more

China heads for the Moon and Mars.

The competition heats up: In several different news stories today China touted its future plans in space.

The landing test described in the first story above will also be the first test flight of China’s new heavy lift rocket, Long March 5.

That China is both politically and culturally serious about this effort can be seen by the nationalistic enthusiasm for this space effort that permeates these stories. They also can’t help comparing their plans to U.S. efforts.
» Read more

The late arrival of Russia’s first private satellite

The competition heats up? The Dnepr rocket launch of 37 satellites yesterday also included the launch of the first private Russian satellite.

TabletSat-Aurura owned by the company SPUTNIX weighs 26.2 kg and is made to operate for one year. It is intended for remote Earth sensing in the interests of a private company. The satellite was made using Russian technologies and a minimum of foreign components. Its cost is about one million US dollars.

Igor Komarov, the head of the United Rocket and Space Corporation, said “the launch of Aurora, the first Russian private satellite, is a successful example of public-private partnership in the field of space exploration as private companies clearly cannot fulfill their strategic tasks without the state. ,,, I am confident that cooperation between the state and private aerospace agencies in designing and manufacturing high-tech craft will become an important stimulus for further development of Russian competitive technologies.”

SPUTNIX Director-General Andrei Potapov said his company’s plans included “creating a cluster of small spacecraft and craft for super high-definition aerial video surveying and imaging with a resolution of down to one meter per pixel”. [emphasis mine]

Why do I have doubts about this Russian achievement? The reasons are twofold.
» Read more

Is the Sun’s strange double-peaked solar maximum finally ending?

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

May 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.

For the third month in a row the Sun continued its drop in sunspots, with the total finally slipping below the 2009 prediction for this moment in the solar cycle. If this decline continues through to solar minimum, the shape of the solar maximum will essentially have been established, double-peaked with the second peak stronger than the first, something that solar scientists have never seen before.

At the moment I await word from the scientists that the Sun has completed the flip of its magnetic field polarity in the southern hemisphere. This flip has already occurred in the northern hemisphere, and when the south follows, the maximum will be officially over and we will officiallybegin the ramp down to solar minimum.

Website software expert needed

I am in need of someone willing to manage the backroom software aspects of Behind the Black. My first software designer found he no longer had the time to do it, and the person I found to replace him decided suddenly that he didn’t like my political opinions and unless I wrote my opinions the way he liked he couldn’t do it.

The work wouldn’t be difficult nor very time consuming, but there are several areas of the website software that need cleaning up. If you are familiar with WordPress and website design and would like to help me keep this website up and running, please comment here. I will email you immediately.

This post will remain at the top of the site for the rest of today.

The Sun settling down?

Two weeks ago NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in April. I have been remiss about doing my monthly post about this, so here it is now, posted below with annotations.

April Solar Cycle graph

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

The Sun continued the drop in sunspots seen the previous month, though the total number remains above the 2009 prediction for this moment in the solar cycle. As already noted, that the second peak of this double peaked solar maximum has been much stronger than the first remains unprecedented.

Overall, the maximum continues to be the weakest seen in a hundred years. Whether this is an indicator of future events or an anomaly can only be discovered after the Sun completes this solar solar cycle and begins the ramp up to its next solar maximum, at least five years away.

The next update is only a few weeks away. Stay tuned.

Russia fights back

Much has been made about the sanctions the Obama administration has imposed on any cooperation with Russia due to the situation in Ukraine and how those sanctions might damage the commercial and manned space efforts of the United States.

So far, all evidence has suggested that the sanctions have little teeth. The Obama administration exempted ISS from the sanctions. It also appears to be allowing the shipment of all commercial satellites to Russia for launch. Even a court injunction against using Russia rocket engines in U.S. military launches was lifted when the Obama administration asked the judge to do so.

The Russians now have responded. Why do I take their response more seriously?
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The porksters arrive!

A draft bill in Congress is proposing the Pentagon develop an engine for the Atlas 5 engine to replace the Russian engine now used.

The legislation passed by a House subcommittee Wednesday calls for up the U.S. military to spend up to $220 million next year to kick off full-scale development of the engine, which could be ready for flights no later than 2019. The bill states the Defense Department “should develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine that is made in the United States, meets the requirements of the national security space community, is developed by not later than 2019, is developed using full and open competition, and is available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”

There is no reason for this funding gift to the aerospace industry. For one thing, there are two rockets that already exist that use all U.S. parts, the Delta family of rockets and the Falcon 9. For another, if Congress stays out, the private sector will take care of this need and do it for a lot less and far quicker, while costing the taxpayers relatively little. By making this a government project we guarantee it will be expensive and take forever, thus keeping the pork flowing to Congressional districts without solving the problem.

And speaking of keeping pork flowing to Congressional districts, pork king Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) today ripped into NASA for trying to trim a little from the budget of SLS (which sends a lot of cash to Alabama). He also condemned NASA’s manned commercial effort.
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Richard Branson manipulates the press again

Two stories today from Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic:

The quote from the first story is especially entertaining:
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The Sun continues to hiccup

It’s sunspot time again! On Monday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in February. I am once again posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

Like it did in January, the Sun’s second peak of the solar maximum continued to beat its first peak, an unprecedented event. Though activity dropped slightly, it still remained above prediction and was only slightly below the first peak’s maximum. Overall, the second peak has been much stronger than the first, something that scientists have never seen before. In the past, when the Sun had a double peaked solar maximum, the second peak was always weaker. Not this time!
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The road to hell

Back on December 31, 2013, I put up a post about a New York Times article in which it was reported that Americorps volunteers were losing their health insurance plans because of Obamacare, much to their chagrin.

In reading the article, the quote that stood out to me was this one from one volunteer named Sarah Sklaw.

Sarah L. Sklaw, a 22-year-old Vista member from New York City, said: “I really support the Affordable Care Act, and I don’t want to be a naysayer. But it was surprising and frustrating to be told that our health coverage would not meet the law’s standards, especially because the Corporation for National and Community Service told us at orientation in August that we did not need to worry about the issue.”

My reaction? “In other words, she supported Obamacare, partly because she was told “if she liked her health plan, she could keep her health plan. Period.” She has now discovered that this was a lie and is angry. Who wudda thunk it?”

Last week Sarah Sklaw emailed me. She was very unhappy about my post because in her mind I misrepresented her feelings about the situation. This is her email:
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The Sun goes boom again!

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

January was the most active month for sunspots this entire solar cycle, exceeding the predictions of the solar scientists, an event that has been quite rare during this generally weak solar maximum. In fact, the Sun was so active that for the first time, the second peak in a double-peaked solar maximum exceeded the first peak in sunspot activity.
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