Category Archives: Points of Information

Venus Express gone?

Engineers have been struggling to maintain contact with Venus Express, and have only been able to establish contact for intermittent periods.

Europe’s Venus Express was launched in November 2005 and got to the second planet from the Sun in April 2006, on what was originally a two-year mission. Since then it has sent data streaming back from its polar orbit.

But the probe’s days are numbered, and last month the flight control team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) at Darmstadt, Germany, reported loss of contact with it. According to ESA’s Venus Express blog, it is possible that the remaining fuel on board the spacecraft was exhausted during recent manoeuvres and that the spacecraft is no longer in a stable attitude (the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna must be kept pointed toward Earth to ensure reliable radio contact).

They have been able to get bits of telemetry from the craft, but since its fuel supply is almost gone the possibility of keeping it operating much longer is limited.

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New Horizons awakes

After almost nine years of travel the American New Horizons probe has been successfully awakened in preparation for its July fly-by of Pluto.

Since launching on January 19, 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days — about two-thirds of its flight time — in hibernation. Its 18 separate hibernation periods, from mid-2007 to late 2014, ranged from 36 days to 202 days in length. The team used hibernation to save wear and tear on spacecraft components and reduce the risk of system failures. “Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at APL. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

By mid-May we will begin to see images of Pluto and its moons that are better than any images ever before taken.

Wallops launchpad repairs to take a year

According to spaceport officials, it will take a year to repair the damage sustained by the launchpad at Wallops Island from the Antares launch failure last month.

The damage didn’t look that serious in the initial assessments. I wonder if this long repair schedule isn’t a negotiating ploy for funding.

NSF accused of misuse of funds in giant ecological project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a contractor have been accused by both an audit and by Congress of a significant misuse of funds in a major ecological monitoring project costing almost a half a billion dollars.

With a construction budget of $433.7 million, NEON is planned to consist of 106 sites across the United States. Arrays of sensors at each site will monitor climate change and human impacts for 30 years, building an unprecedented continental-scale data set. Although some initially doubted its merits, the allure of big-data ecology eventually won over most scientists.

But a 2011 audit of the project’s proposed construction budget stalled three times when, according to the independent Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), NEON’s accounting proved so poor that the review could not be completed. Eventually, DCAA issued an adverse ruling, concluding that nearly 36% of NEON’s budget proposal was questionable or undocumented.

When the NSF green-lit the project, the agency’s inspector-general ordered the audit released on 24 November, which found unallowable expenses including a $25,000 winter holiday party, $11,000 to provide coffee for employees, $3,000 for board-of-directors dinners that included alcohol, $3,000 for t-shirts and other clothes, $83,000 for “business development” and $112,000 for lobbying.

Republican members of Congress have since been attacking NSF for this lax management. And though the amount of funds apparently misused does not seem very large compared to the size of the entire contract, I am willing to bet that this audit only uncovered a tiny portion of the misuse. Based on the recent behavior of federal agencies, I would expect this to only be an indicator of much worst abuse that is still buried behind stone-walling.

A side note: Remember how only a few weeks ago the NSF head was claiming that a shortage of funds was the reason they were unable to cure ebola. What really happened was that they were too busy spending money having parties to do their job.

New joint venture to build Ariane 6

Faced with stiff competition from SpaceX, Europe has handed the construction its next generation rocket, Ariane 6, from Arianespace to a joint venture between the European companies Airbus and Safran.

The new venture will be dubbed Airbus Safran Launchers, and will take over as Europe’s launch company.

I had known that Airbus and Safran had proposed this venture to build Ariane 6, but until I read this press release I hadn’t realized that the agreed-to deal to build Ariane 6 means that Arianespace has essentially been fired by Europe as the company running Europe’s rocket operations. Arianespace, a partnership of the European Space Agency’s many partners, was never able to make a profit, while its Ariane 5 rocket costs a fortune to launch. They have now given the job to two private companies who have promised to rein in the costs. We shall see what happens.

Busy year for Russian Proton rocket?

The heat of competition: Russia hopes to compete 11 Proton launches in 2015.

That sounds nice, but they haven’t yet officially rescheduled the scrubbed November 28 Proton launch of a commercial satellite because of a faulty gyro in the upper stage. Considering the problems they have had with Proton in the past three years it will be a major accomplishment if this schedule gets completed as planned.

Europe approves construction of giant telescope

Europe has approved the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which when completed will be the largest ground-based telescope.

The E-ELT will have a mirror 39 meters across, almost four times bigger than the world’s largest telescope today.

A word to the wise: This very month Sky & Telescope’s cover article, written by yours truly, describes the many difficulties the world’s present generation of giant telescopes have faced. Four out of five have not produced the science promised. Two of the four were dogged by so many technical problems that they required complete reconstruction. The builders of E-ELT will face even greater engineering challenges. Do not be surprised if this telescope does not get completed by 2025 as promised, and even if it does, do not be surprised if it takes another half decade or more before the engineers work out all the kinks.

Increasing hostility to religion in America

A yearly survey of incidents of religious discrimination in the U.S. has found a steady rise in the past three years.

For the last three years the Liberty Institute and the Family Research Council has published Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America. The legal group says they’re seeing cases of discrimination against those of faith rising rapidly. “The first time we did it, we collected about 600 cases,” Jeff Mateer, general counsel of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, told CBN News. “We went from 600 to 1,200. And this year we’re up to about 1,600. So, the threats are continuing to increase at a dramatic pace.”

The article outlines some specific stories that are quite horrifying. The worst was the case of a man fired from his job because of the sermons he gave during his free time. Sadly, that is only a sample.

Obama administration defies IRS court order

The Obama administration announced this week that it is withholding all of the more than 2,000 documents demanded by the court in connection with the IRS scandal and the possibility that the IRS divulged confidential taxpayer information to the White House.

Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, took the documents that were set to be released and now refuses to ever turn them over. His rationale? Lew cannot release information about improper disclosures of confidential taxpayer information because that would be an improper disclosure of confidential taxpayer information.

Does anyone with any brains actually believe Lew and the Obama administration in this? I certainly don’t. The real reason they are are withholding the documents is because those documents will prove that the Obama administration used confidential taxpayer information for political purposes, and they must prevent that fact from being proven at all costs.

Human etchings half a million years old?

The uncertainty of science: Did an ancestor of humanity etch zig-zags on a shell half a million years ago?

This story is a fascinating illustration of the difficulties of pinning down facts in the field of science. The researchers do an impeccable job of checking all possibilities, and finish by cheerfully admitting that their conclusions could be wrong. If right, however, the discovery is significant, as it tells us that 500,000 years ago an ancestor of the human race was capable of drawing an abstract design on the surface of a shell.

Organic material from Mars?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists theorize that the carbon material found in a 2011 meteorite could be Martian biological material.

Ejected from Mars after an asteroid crashed on its surface, the meteorite, named Tissint, fell on the Moroccan desert on July 18, 2011, in view of several eyewitnesses. Upon examination, the alien rock was found to have small fissures that were filled with carbon-containing matter. Several research teams have already shown that this component is organic in nature. But they are still debating where the carbon came from.

Chemical, microscopic and isotope analysis of the carbon material led the researchers to several possible explanations of its origin. They established characteristics that unequivocally excluded a terrestrial origin, and showed that the carbon content were deposited in the Tissint’s fissures before it left Mars.

Postgraduate plug-n-play cubesat manufacturers ship their first product

The company for cheaply mass-producing cubesats and their components — formed by two brothers while attending college last year — has shipped its first product.

RadioBro, the company founded by Mark and Eric Becnel, reached its first product milestone with a mini-satellite communications transceiver. “We prototyped it in June and did a production run,” says Mark Becnel, company president, who is also finishing up his aerospace engineering master’s degree at UAH. His brother, Eric, who is RadioBro vice president and chief engineer, graduated in 2013. “We accomplished some pre-sales and then did a full run of 100 units,” Becnel says. The MiniSatCom is offered in a variety of kits.

They now are developing a cubesat core that

will save cubesat developers the six months to two years of development time that’s normally required to make a disparate stack of various products work together to serve the same function, Becnel says. If the cubesat is built to generally accepted standards, the core will be plug and play, he says.

These guys have the right idea for space development. Instead of looking for jobs with other companies or NASA, they found a need in the aerospace industry and are filling it, cheaply and efficiently and thus saving everybody time and money. The result: They make money themselves selling their product.

The failure of single payer government health plans

Link here. Read it and be warned. Many Democrats, faced with the complete disaster of Obamacare, like to claim that none of those problems would have happened if they had instead imposed a single payer plan (a euphemism for nationalizing healthcare under a government run system).

Well, read the article at the link. It will give you an idea what to expect under nationalized healthcare, and it ain’t good.

An aside: I despise the term “single payer,” as it attempts to hide the fact that the proposal is nothing more than the nationalization of healthcare, which puts the government in control. No journalist should use it, and if they do, they should either make it clear what it means, or they reveal themselves to be leftwing hacks.

Europe agrees to build Ariane 6

The heat of competition: Faced with a stiff challenge from SpaceX, the European partners in Arianespace have worked out a deal to replace the Ariane 5 rocket with Ariane 6.

The official announcement will be made in next few days, but with Germany agreeing to the French proposal, the partnership can now proceed.

The result will be a government rocket which will likely only launch government payloads, since it will likely also cost too much to compete with SpaceX and the other new lower cost commercial companies like Stratolaunch, now developing in the U.S.

Chinese spacecraft reaches L2

The service module for China’s test lunar probe, that circled the Moon before returning to Earth, has reached L2 as planned.

As of Friday, the service module had been flying for 28 days, and was 421,000 kilometers away from Earth and 63,000 km from the moon. All experiments are going well. The service module was separated from the return capsule of China’s test lunar orbiter, which returned to Earth on Nov. 1 after circling the moon in its eight-day mission launched on Oct. 24.

…After two orbital transfers, the service module re-entered the elliptical orbit with an apogee of 540,000 km and a perigee of 600 km. During the flight, the service module again performed orbital transfer actions twice, and flew along the pre-set Earth-moon transfer orbit. On Nov. 23, it reached the perilune and with the lunar gravity it was able to undertake the orbit maneuver to fly to the L2 point.

This is brilliant management. They not only test return-to-Earth capability, they practice flying a robot ship in deep space, doing complex orbital maneuvers. In addition, depending on the equipment on the service module, they get a cheap unmanned probe for observing the near lunar environment.

Hayabusa-2 scheduled for launch

Delayed due to weather twice, the launch of Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid probe has now been scheduled for Wednesday.

This probe comes with four mini-rovers and an impactor!

Hayabusa 2’s target is a 1km-wide asteroid labelled 1999 JU3, after the year when it was discovered. It is a C-type asteroid, thought to contain more organic material than other asteroids, and so might again help scientists understand how the Solar System evolved.

The Japanese space agency JAXA intend for Hayabusa 2 to catch up with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018. It will land a small cube-shaped probe called MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) developed by the German Space Agency (DLR) together with French space partners the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). The lander is able to move its centre of gravity so that it can tip itself over in order to move across the asteroid’s surface. The three small rovers, called Minerva-II, will also roam the asteroid, gathering data. Hayabusa 2 also carries an impactor that will blast a 2-metre-wide crater in the asteroid’s surface, which will allow the spacecraft to collect fragments and bring them home for study in the laboratory. The spacecraft itself is designed to touch down briefly three times to gather samples.

A scrambled SLS/Orion flight schedule

It ain’t gonna happen: In trying to figure out what to do with SLS/Orion, NASA has admitted that the earliest any crew mission to an asteroid can occur is now 2024.

I could quote from the article, but then I’d have to quote the entire article and comment on the absurdity of practically every sentence. NASA hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with SLS, it isn’t designed to do much of anything, and it doesn’t have the funding to anything even if they knew what they wanted to do with it. Hence, the constant scheduling rearrangements, all designed to push the actual manned flights farther and farther into the future.

The article does point out how NASA is now planning to fly its first crewed mission on SLS/Orion using an untested upper stage, since the rocket costs so much to launch they can’t afford to spend the money on an unmanned test flight beforehand. Meanwhile, they are demanding that SpaceX and Boeing do all kinds of unmanned test flights with their manned capsules at great cost to these companies, before allowing any astronauts on board.

As I’ve said repeatedly, this rocket is never going to fly anyone anywhere. By 2020 several private companies will be sending humans into space regularly at far less cost and with far greater capabilities. Congress will finally realize that they can spread their pork around more effectively by funding these companies instead, and they will cancel this bloated and wasteful program.

Philae’s bouncing, tumbling landing sequence

Scientists and engineers have pieced together the bouncing and tumbling land sequence that Philae went through before it came to rest on Comet 67P/C-G, including the possibility that the second touch down was actually the spacecraft grazing a crater rim.

After the first touchdown, the spin rate started increasing. As the lander bounced off the surface, the control electronics of the flywheel were turned off and during the following 40 minutes of flight, the flywheel transferred its angular momentum to Philae. After this time, the lander was now spinning at a rate of about 1 rotation per 13 seconds;

At 16:20 GMT spacecraft time the lander is thought to have collided with a surface feature, a crater rim, for example. “It was not a touchdown like the first one, because there was no signature of a vertical deceleration due to a slight dipping of our magnetometer boom as measured during the first and also the final touchdown,” says Hans-Ulrich. “We think that Philae probably touched a surface with one leg only – perhaps grazing a crater rim – and after that the lander was tumbling. We did not see a simple rotation about the lander’s z-axis anymore, it was a much more complex motion with a strong signal in the magnetic field measurement.”

Following this event, the main rotation period had decreased slightly to 1 rotation per 24 seconds. At 17:25:26 GMT Philae touched the surface again, initially with just one foot but then all three, giving the characteristic touchdown signal. At 17:31:17 GMT, after travelling probably a few more metres, Philae found its final parking position on three feet.

The search for the spacecraft itself, sitting on the surface, continues.

Safely landing the Falcon 9 first stage on the next launch

The competition heats up: The website SpaceFlightNow takes a close look at SpaceX’s effort on the next Falcon 9 launch on December 16 to recover the rocket’s first stage.

Musk estimates a 50% chance of success on this launch. Though I think his estimate is reasonable, I also think that this number is a testament to the skill and success of his company. Imagine: in less than three years, since Musk first proposed the idea of landing the first stage vertically, they have come so close to doing it! NASA certainly couldn’t have moved that fast. Neither could most of the experienced launch companies like Arianespace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Russia.

Instead, it takes a new company, a fresh outlook, and freedom to change the world. Who would have guessed?

Proton launch postponed

The heat of competition: Russian engineers have scrubbed Friday’s commercial Proton launch due to a gyro issue with the rocket’s Briz upper stage.

They have begun to destack the rocket to get at the upper stage in order to repair the problem, with the new launch date expected to be no earlier than mid-December.

The problem once again raises questions about the quality control generally within the Russian aerospace industry and specifically in the companies that build Proton and its upper stage. At the same time, it is a good thing they spotted the problem before launch, allowing them to correct it. That is what a company with good quality control does.

FAA moves to regulate and thus destroy drone use

We’re here to help you: The FAA is considering a new rule to require a pilot’s license in order to operate a private drone, even drones more akin to model airplanes.

The proposed rules would require that a drone owner would have to get certified as a pilot, “certification that can cost $10,000 and demand many hours flying aircraft that control nothing like a little drone.”

“Knowing the proper flap setting on a short runway approach for a Cessna 172 doesn’t do any good for a DJI Phantom [an inexpensive and popular commercial drone],” said Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. “A lot of people out there already running businesses in conflict with FAA policy, who don’t have pilot licenses, are probably looking at this like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.'”

Gee, here we have a new industry that is growing and prosperous, with many people coming up with creative ideas for using drones that none of its inventors ever dreamed of, and the government wants to step in and control it, regulating it to a point where it can’t even exist legally. Isn’t that nice of them?

Court demands documents linked to IRS scandal

Working for the Democratic Party: After years of stonewalling, the Treasury Department has now been ordered by a federal court to release about 2,500 documents connected to the IRS’s illegal release to the Obama administration of the personal tax information of its opponents.

Some time in the next month these documents will become public knowledge. Considering the effort the Obama administration has made to keep them secret, I expect we shall then discover that the IRS was routinely and illegally feeding the Democrats the private tax records of their Republican opponents. Since the documents will also likely name names, we will also find out who among the Democrats demanded this illegal information, who in the IRS gave it to them, and who took that information and used it illegally.

Obamacare and amnesty: working together to screw Americans

Finding out what’s in it: Because of the way Obamacare is written, it provides employees an incentive to hire illegal immigrants — temporarily and illegally given amnesty by Obama — instead of legal Americans.

Under the president’s new amnesty, businesses will have a $3,000-per-employee incentive to hire illegal immigrants over native-born workers because of a quirk of Obamacare. President Obama’s temporary amnesty, which lasts three years, declares up to 5 million illegal immigrants to be lawfully in the country and eligible for work permits, but it still deems them ineligible for public benefits such as buying insurance on Obamacare’s health exchanges. Under the Affordable Care Act, that means businesses who hire them won’t have to pay a penalty for not providing them health coverage — making them $3,000 more attractive than a similar native-born worker, whom the business by law would have to cover.

Just remember: Obama and the Democrats care! Though what they care about is maybe something more Americans should ask themselves.

Billion-dollar-plus NASA medical research contract under dispute

A bidding dispute has forced NASA to again put up for bid a $1.5 billion contract for space medicine.

The dispute has to do with two dueling contractors, Wyle and SAIC, both of whom want the big bucks.

After Wyle won the Human Health and Performance contract in March 2013, SAIC filed a protest with the GAO, ultimately prompting NASA to reopen the competition.

When NASA reawarded the contract in August 2013, it chose SAIC. The following month, the McLean, Virginia-based firm — which had announced plans the previous summer to split into two companies — rebranded itself as Leidos and spun off its $4 billion government information technology and technical services unit as a publicly traded firm that kept the name SAIC and was slated to get the Human Health and Performance contract.

But Wyle filed its own protest with GAO in September 2013, arguing that NASA should discount SAIC’s lower bid — at $975 million, nearly 10 percent lower than Wyle’s — because it was submitted when the unit was still part of a much larger company with deeper pockets. This time, the GAO sided with Wyle.

The article says practically nothing about what all this money buys me, the taxpayer. And it is an awful lot of money. Is it for medical research on ISS? Is it for monitoring the health of the astronauts? Is it for biological research? What is it for exactly? I honestly can’t imagine how this kind of research or medical monitoring on ISS can cost this much. My skeptical nature has me wondering if this contract might instead be a bit inflated, much like SLS and Orion, in order to funnel pork to congressional districts to employ as many voters as possible.

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