Bigelow’s ISS module expansion halted

Engineers called a halt today to the expansion of Bigelow’s BEAM module on ISS when the procedure did not go as planned.

Originally, the plan was to use air from tanks located inside BEAM to inflate these bladders, however analysis showed that this could cause expansion to occur too fast and potentially place damagingly high loads on the ISS in the process, so instead the air will be supplied from the station in a more controlled manner. It was not actually known precisely how the inflation dynamics would occur, as it has only ever been done twice before (Genesis I and II), neither of which were viewable from external cameras such as those found on the ISS.

This proved to be a learning curve, as after two hours of adding a few seconds of air into the module, only the width expanded, as opposed to the length. Mission controllers decided it would be best to defer operations for the day to allow them to evaluate the next steps.


More violent protests against Trump

Brownshirts: Waving Mexican flags anti-Trump protesters at a Trump rally in California today threw objects and started fires, with a number getting arrested.

There was a very strong police presence, which appears to have contained the violence. More details here, which describes the protests in more detail, including one story of a Trump protester throwing an egg at Trump supporter.

Protesting Trump is fine. Trying to suppress a Trump rally with violence is not. To me it appears that the only thing that prevented these anti-Trump protesters from getting out of control was the police.

Antares static engine test scheduled

The 30-second static fire engine test of the Antares first stage and new Russian engine has now been scheduled for May 31.

The window for the engine test, or hot fire, is 5 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. EDT. Backup test dates run through June 5. Completion of the test will be noted on the Wallops’ Facebook and Twitter sites. During the test, the upgraded Antares dual RD-181 rocket engines will fire for 30 seconds at maximum 100% power (thrust) while the first stage of the test rocket will be held down on the pad. The hot fire will demonstrate the readiness of the rocket’s first stage and the launch pad fueling systems to support upcoming flights.

If all goes well, they hope to launch Antares with a Cygnus capsule in early July.

Protesters crash stage and threaten conservative speaker

Brownshirts: Protesters (who were admitted Bernie Sanders supporters) crashed the stage, grabbed the mike, and threatened the speakers at a conservative event at DePaul University last night.

The security guards, required by the university and partly paid for by the people running the event, refused to do anything.

After an extended period of time, the crowd started to chant “Do your job” at security, who remained at the back of the venue for the entire event. When security refused to intervene, Yiannopoulos posed for pictures with fans in the audience, and ordered the crowd to follow him to the college president’s office.

More details, including video, at the link.

ESO signs giant telescope contract

The European Southern Observatory today signed the contract to begin building the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

The contract covers the design, manufacture, transport, construction, on-site assembly and verification of the dome and telescope structure. With an approximate value of 400 million euros, it is the largest contract ever awarded by ESO and the largest contract ever in ground-based astronomy. The E-ELT dome and telescope structure will take telescope engineering into new territory. The contract includes not only the enormous 85-metre-diameter rotating dome, with a total mass of around 5000 tonnes, but also the telescope mounting and tube structure, with a total moving mass of more than 3000 tonnes. Both of these structures are by far the largest ever built for an optical/infrared telescope and dwarf all existing ones. The dome is almost 80 metres high and its footprint is comparable in area to a football pitch.

The E-ELT is being built on Cerro Armazones, a 3000-metre peak about 20 kilometres from ESO’s Paranal Observatory. The access road and leveling of the summit have already been completed and work on the dome is expected to start on site in 2017.

E-ELT will have a main mirror 39 meters in width, about 9 meters bigger than the stalled TMT project.

Anti-Trump protesters get violent at Trump rally

Brown-shirts: Protesters at a Trump rally tonight in New Mexico threw rocks, broke windows, and blocked exits.

More here. and here. There were some reports of gunfire, but these appear to not be true. Regardless, it is unconscionable for these protesters to act this way. They might think the Trump is a fascist, but the only ones acting like fascists here are the protesters themselves.

There has been a lot of anger and passion during this presidential campaign, but so far almost all the violence has come from the left.

Orbital ATK introduces a new rocket

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK today revealed plans to build what it calls the Next Generation Launcher designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The first stage would use a variation of the solid rocket boosters that ATK built for the space shuttle. The second stage would be bought from Blue Origin.

Iridium announces its own alternative to GPS

The competition heats up: Iridium has announced the availability of its own location technology comparable to GPS and using the company’s constellation of satellites.

Iridium Communications Inc. has introduced its Satellite Time and Location (STL) service, an alternative or complement to traditional indoor and outdoor location-based technologies, and declared it ready for use. STL’s position, navigation and timing (PNT) technology is deployed through Iridium’s 66 cross-linked, low-earth orbit satellite constellation. Through Iridium satellites and in GNSS receivers, STL technology can work to verify GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and other navigation services, and also can serve as an alternative for those services when GPS signals are degraded or unavailable. STL also can provide an alternative source of time when testing GPS signals.

Essentially, for practically nothing, using satellites and technology already in orbit, they have created their own system that can both compete and complement the expensive government-built GPS systems.

House committee reshapes NASA budget

The House appropriations committee has outlined its recommendations for NASA’s 2017 budget.

Like the Senate the House is pushing more money for SLS and is demanding NASA use it to fly two missions to Europa in the early 2020s (likely delaying SLS’s first manned mission), In addition, the House wants NASA to abandon any plans for an asteroid mission and instead go back to the Moon. They also pumped up the planetary program, and express reservations about the manned commercial program.

Finally, in a wonderful example of congressional micro-managing, the committee ordered NASA to begin work on flying an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri by the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11.

While some of the changes the committee is recommending (increasing planetary research funding for example) make sense, the overall priorities of Congress continue to appear to me to be misplaced. Their continuing emphasis on SLS while questioning commercial space illustrates their focus on pork rather than actual accomplishments. And their continuing effort to micromanage many NASA missions does not bode well for the success of those missions.

There is one takeaway from this House budget recommendation that most news sources are missing: The first manned flight of Orion is almost certainly not flying in 2021. I have seen numerous indicators in the past four months suggesting that NASA is going to delay it, and this budget recommendation’s insistence that NASA use SLS to fly Europa missions in 2022 and 2024 almost guarantees that delay.

More weird Pluto geology

fretted terrain

Cool image time! The New Horizons science team has released an image taken during the spacecraft’s fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 showing what they are calling “fretted terrain”.

The image above is a cropped reduced section of that image. It shows the strange transition zone between the higher elevation bright areas and the lower dark plains. As they note,

New Horizons scientists haven’t seen this type of terrain anywhere else on Pluto; in fact, it’s rare terrain across the solar system – the only other well-known example of such being Noctis Labyrinthus on Mars. The distinct interconnected valley network was likely formed by extensional fracturing of Pluto’s surface. The valleys separating the blocks may then have been widened by movement of nitrogen ice glaciers, or flowing liquids, or possibly by ice sublimation at the block margins.

In other words, they really don’t know what is going on.

United Kingdom cancels spaceport competition

The competition heats up: The United Kingdom has cancelled its spaceport competition to chose one spaceport and instead has announced it will allow any one of the competing locations to operate if they can want and can meet some licensing requirements.

In other words, instead of the government dictating one location as the nation’s spaceport, it will allow different locations to compete for the space launch business.

The link has few details, though a closer look at subject of the British space effort can be found here.

India test flies its first spaceplane prototype

The competition heats up: India this morning successfully completed a test flight of its first spaceplane engineering prototype.

After a 90sec burn, the booster delivered the RLV-TD to the proper altitude before separating from the prototype and destructively fall back to Earth in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, the RLV-TD continued on, falling back into Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic velocity. During this hypersonic test, the RLV-TD pitched its nose up relative to the horizon and direction of travel – just as the Space Shuttles did during atmospheric entry. This allowed engineers to gather valuable in-flight data surrounding the performance of the vehicle’s thermal protection system (600 heat-resistant tiles and a carbon-carbon nose), its aerodynamic characteristics during hypersonic flight, and inform the overall design of the eventual full-scale RLV.

The prototype was designed to test the flight characteristics of the spaceplane, not its landing capabilities. If all went as planned, it would have glided horizontally into the ocean, as if it was landing on a runway, but then sink.

Why I went to Belize

There are many reasons cavers decide to go to faraway places across the globe during their vacations. Some do it because they want to get out of the office. Some go because they like to see exotic sights and strange places well off the beaten path. Some go, like me, because they want the chance to see something new and unexplored. And we all do it because it is fun!

One doesn’t have to go to Belize to get these benefits. I could have traveled to England, Mexico, Hawaii, or any one of several dozen other countries to see the exotic, the new, and the unexplored. In fact, I have already done so in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Czechia (the new official name of the Czech Republic). Belize however was relatively close, the local population spoke English, I had never been there before, and most important, someone else was organizing things! When David and Eleanor Larson invited me to join their Belize project I decided this was a great opportunity to visit a strange and new place with a minimum of aggravation or planning. They had already done it, and I merely had to sign up and agree to do whatever their project needed doing. So, off I went.

Upon arrival, I soon discovered several very important additional reasons why this cave project exists. First there are the caves. They are grand and beautiful things, with very vast chambers filled with delicate and rare formations. The picture below, taken by fellow caver Laura Sangiala, shows one wall of the gigantic entrance room of one cave.
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Mars’s giant tsunamis

New research using data from a variety of Mars orbiters suggests that large tsunamis previously smashed against the shores of the red planet, shaping the geography.

The group zeroed in on a region on Mars where the highlands known as Arabia Terra bump up against the lowlands of Chryse Planitia — a place where the waters of an ancient ocean might have lapped at the shoreline. Using imagery from several Mars-orbiting spacecraft, Rodriguez’s group identified two particular geological formations that they say formed during two different tsunamis. The first, older formation looks as if an enormous wave had rushed up onto the edge of the highlands, dropping boulders as big as 10 metres across. The water then drained back down into the ocean, leaving channels cut through the freshly deposited debris.

Then, millions of years passed. Temperatures dropped and glaciers crept across the landscape, scouring deep valleys. Finally, a second impact-generated tsunami came rushing again towards the shore. “But this time it is different,” Rodriguez says. Because the climate was so much colder, the tsunami moved over the landscape like an icy slurry. It froze before it had a chance to wash back into the ocean, leaving dense lobes of frozen debris on the ground.

They propose the waves were caused by large meteorite impacts. They also admit that there are large uncertainties in their theory and conclusions.

Cruz supporters dominate Washtington state convention

The real Republican election: Though Donald Trump is likely to win the upcoming Washington primary and thus its delegates, at the state’s convention this weekend the party chose a slate of Ted Cruz backers to be those delegates, even if they have to vote for Trump.

This is how we change things, regardless of who wins the election in November. Get conservatives into government at the ground level. Have them dominate policy issues. Have them move up the ranks and dominate the state legislatures. Have those winners move up and dominate Congress.

We do that, and it won’t matter much who is president, because it will be these legislators who will control the agenda. In a sense, this is why Trump’s liberal tendencies are probably less of a threat than Clinton’s committed socialism. Give them both a conservative Congress and Trump, being more malleable, will bend to its will while Clinton, a hardline leftist, will fight it every step of the way. This is another reason I like Cruz. He understands this, which is why he worked so hard to build a grass-roots foundation for his campaign. He might not be the president, but when the next president starts trying to make policy it will be Cruz’s people who will guide him.

It is thus very important that conservatives do not boycott the upcoming elections, even if they choose not to vote for a presidential candidate. It is essential the Congress and the state legislatures remain firmly conservative, and for that to happen conservatives have to vote.

Congress pushes for Europa missions

A new House budget bill stipulates that NASA fly two unmanned missions to Europa, including a lander, and do it soon.

The bill also includes several hundred million per year for the missions, at least at the beginning. Even though planetary scientists have recommended that NASA do at least one mission to Eurpoa relatively soon, it appears that these missions are the particular pet projects of the committee chairman in Congress.

Airbus begins assembly Orion service module

My heart be still! Airbus has announced that it is beginning assembly of the first Orion capsule service module.

Considering the cost to build about three Orion flight capsules, about $25 billion, one would think that would be enough to also build the capsule’s service module, especially since this is not cutting edge technology, having already been done with Apollo.

Not however when you are dealing with pork-laden government operations, where the customer, the taxpayer, is a good mark that you can suck for as much money as possible without any bad consequences. Make it sound cool and they will buy it, hook, line, and sinker!

ULA sets dates for next Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy launches

The competition heats up: ULA has finally scheduled its next Atlas 5 launch for June 24 after completing its investigation of the premature engine shutdown during the previous launch.

The link also provides information on the next Delta 4 Heavy launch, set for June 4.

SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Mars

Two stories this week illustrate the difference between lobbying the government to get anything accomplished, and doing it yourself with the goal of making money from it from private customers.

In the first case SpaceX is planning to fly a Dragon capsule to Mars, using its Falcon Heavy rocket, and do it by 2018. It would not be manned, but would do the initial engineering testing for later manned missions, using larger interplanetary spacecraft. SpaceX is not asking the government to help pay for it. They are only making sure they have dotted all the legal “I”s required. The goal is to build spacecraft that can take anyone to Mars who is willing to pay for the flight.

In the second case Lockheed Martin is proposing a big government program to put six astronauts in orbit around Mars, in 2028. They haven’t really built anything yet to do this, they merely are lobbying the federal government to pay for it.

Which do you think is more likely to happen? Anyone who reads Behind the Black knows that I choose SpaceX. For 40 years I have seen many different variations of Lockheed Martin’s proposal, all of which came to nothing. They are powerpoint proposals, not real engineering, designed to wow Congress and NASA and get funding for the company. Nothing will ever be built, since the actual construction is so far into the future and so untested that it is impossible to predict what will really happen.

SpaceX however is planning a real mission, which is being designed to lay the groundwork for later more complex attempts. Rather than propose something big for far in the future, they are building something reasonable and doable now. Moreover, they aren’t lobbying the government, they are advertising their skills to the entire world, with the goal of convincing everyone to buy their very real product.

UPDATE: I should add a link here to Orbital ATK’s proposal in Congressional hearings on Monday to use their Cygnus capsule to build a cislunar space station by 2020. Like Lockheed Martin, they are lobbying Congress to build a mostly powerpoint concept. Why don’t they instead make an investment of their own money, like SpaceX, to send some Cygnus capsules to lunar space and demonstrate the concept, while also learning what needs to be done? I would have greater faith in the reality of their concept if they did that.

Leaving Belize tomorrow

After a week of intense and amazing caving, I will be leaving Belize tomorrow. I will not get home until Saturday, however, as my flight ends in El Paso at about 11 pm. I will drive home on Saturday.

I intend to post several essays about my trip, one describing the caving and why it is happening, one describing the ruins and my impressions (with photos), and maybe a third with my overall thoughts about the experience. Since I have a lot of other work that needs to be done, some with deadlines, it might take a few days to pump all this out. Stay tuned.

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