India and ULA complete first launches in 2018

The competition heats up: In what looks like the beginning of what might be the most active launch year in almost three decades, India and ULA today each successfully completed their first launches of 2018.

ULA’s Delta 4 rocket launched a U.S. reconnaissance satellite, while India’s PSLV rocket placed in orbit 31 satellites, 30 of which were smallsats. For India, this was their first launch since an August PSLV launch failed when the rocket fairing did not release.

Update: I just discovered that China launched its second rocket yesterday, placing it in a tie with U.S. for most launches and ahead of everyone else.

2 China
1 SpaceX
1 India


Exposed mid-latitude ice deposits found on Mars

Scientists have discovered eight locations on Mars where underground ice appears to be exposed on cliff faces

The scarps directly expose bright glimpses into vast underground ice previously detected with spectrometers on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, with ground-penetrating radar instruments on MRO and on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, and with observations of fresh impact craters that uncover subsurface ice. NASA sent the Phoenix lander to Mars in response to the Odyssey findings; in 2008, the Phoenix mission confirmed and analyzed the buried water ice at 68 degrees north latitude, about one-third of the way to the pole from the northernmost of the eight scarp sites.

The important thing about this discovery is that, though we have known for several years that water ice exists underground in the Martian mid-latitudes, this is the first time we have identified specific places there it is exposed and accessible.

Unfortunately, the press release does not provide the specific eight locations, except for the one image, which is located in the southern hemisphere in a region called Promethei Terra, far from areas that have been studied much more extensively. I will do some digging to see if I can identify the other seven locations.


An illicit visit to two abandoned Soviet space shuttles

An evening pause: Hat tip John Harman. This video has been around for awhile, but I hadn’t ever actually watched it until now. What it shows is very cool, but sad in so many ways. As a government project the whole Soviet space shuttle program was generally a dead end waste of resources (as was our own shuttle). Yet, it was possibly one of Soviet Russia’s greatest technological achievements — which they have allowed to rot away in these abandoned hangers, rather than opening them up for their citizens to see and admire and learn from.


NASA funds a cubesat-sized ultra-violet telescope

NASA has funded a cubesat-based ultra-violet telescope to launch in 2021.

SPARCS is a CubeSat built of six cubical units, each about four inches on a side. These are joined to make a spacecraft two units wide by three long in what is termed a 6U spacecraft. Solar power panels extend like wings from one end. “In size and shape, SPARCS most resembles a family-size box of Cheerios,” Shkolnik said.

The spacecraft will contain three major systems — the telescope, the camera, and the operational and science software. Along with Shkolnik, SESE astronomers Paul Scowen, Daniel Jacobs, and Judd Bowman will oversee the development of the telescope and camera, plus the software and the systems engineering to pull it all together. The telescope uses a mirror system with coatings optimized for ultraviolet light. Together with the camera, the system can measure very small changes in the brightness of M dwarf stars to carry out the primary science of the mission.

As I have noted numerous times recently, the space industry is splitting between large manned projects and tiny unmanned ones. While certain unmanned probes will always have to be larger, the ability to build and launch the same capabilities at a smaller size is lowering cost and allowing more probes to be launched.


A lava tube entrance near the Moon’s north pole?

Philolaus Crater near lunar north pole

In reviewing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data scientists think they have discovered several skylight entrances into a lava tube that is located near the Moon’s north pole.

The new pits were identified on the northeastern floor of Philolaus Crater, a large, 43 mile (70 km)-diameter impact crater located at 72.1oN, 32.4oW, about 340 miles (550 km) from the North Pole of the Moon, on the lunar near side. The pits appear as small rimless depressions, typically 50 to 100 feet across (15 to 30 meters), with completely shadowed interiors. The pits are located along sections of winding channels, known on the Moon as “sinuous rilles,” that crisscross the floor of Philolaus Crater. Lunar sinuous rilles are generally thought to be collapsed, or partially collapsed, lava tubes, underground tunnels that were once streams of flowing lava.

“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty, but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting” says Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute who made the new finding at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

…Prior to this discovery, over 200 pits had been found on the Moon by other researchers, with many identified as likely skylights leading to underground lava tubes associated with similar sinuous rilles. However, today’s announcement represents the first published report of possible lava tube skylights in the Moon’s polar regions.

The floor of the crater as a lot of rilles, and a close look at that crater floor reveals to me a lot of possible sky light entrances, more than indicated by the images at the llink. (Go here, click on projections and pick “Orthographic (North Pole).” Then zoom in on the crater indicated by the yellow X in my image on the right above.)

The key here is that caves or lava tubes provide a good place to cheaply and quickly establish a lunar colony. While it is suspected that water might survive in permanently shadowed regions near the poles, up until now no one had found any good underground locations there. If this suspected skylight entrances prove true, this crater then becomes prime real estate on the Moon.


SpaceX pushes back its manned flights

The first launch dates for SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule have apparently been rescheduled, with the new dates August 2018 for the first unmanned demo flight and December 2018 for the first manned flight.

This is a four month delay from the previous announced dates of April and August.

Hat tip to reader Kirk Hilliard.


Russia to launch a dozen cubesats for Planet

Capitalism in space: Planet has signed a deal with the Russian government entity that bundles smallsat secondary payloads to launch a dozen cubesats on a Soyuz rocket presently scheduled to launch later this year.

This agreement provides further evidence that the cubesat commercial industry is here to stay. There are a lot of these contracts right now (India is scheduled to launch 30 tomorrow). The need for more small rockets to launch such satellites appears almost overwhelming, and thus a good financial choice.


Another China space chief appointed to political post

The new colonial movement: The head of China’s space agency has now been promoted to a political post as acting governor of the Fujian province in China.

The significance here is that this is not the first time a space agency manager in China has moved into an important political role. Three previous space administrators have already become governors of different Chinese provinces (the equivalent of states here in the U.S.) As was noted in an article I linked to in May, the managers of China’s space agency now dominate its entire government. This not only bodes well for its space program (giving it great political clout), but it also bodes well for China’s political system, as they appear to be appointing their political people based not just on power, but on administrative skills and talent.

This process is also interesting historically. For almost two thousand years China’s government was managed under the bureaucratic philosophies of Confucius, whereby administrators had to pass a difficult intellectual test to become certified. They then moved up the ranks.

It seems that these cultural roots are deep and on-going. China appears now to be replacing that test (which with time became hidebound and disconnected with the changing times, especially when the European powers arrived in the 1800s) with actual management experience in major industries. If you want to get promoted into higher positions of power in China, you need to demonstrate that you can manage a company or a space program effectively.


Falcon Heavy static fire test scrubbed for today

Capitalism in space: SpaceX decided to scrub its Falcon Heavy static fire test today soon after they had loaded propellants into the rocket during countdown.

No details, but it appears to me that they are taking this test very seriously, and approaching each step with care. This was the first time they had loaded the entire Falcon Heavy, and I am not surprised they saw an issue that made them hesitate about continuing.


Spanish company gets grant to develop smallsat rocket

The competition heats up: A Spanish company has gotten a $2.4 million grant from the European Commission to develop a smallsat rocket.

The EC Horizon 2020 funds bring the Elche, Spain-based startup to more than 9 million euro raised to build the Arion 1 sounding rocket and the Arion 2 orbital rocket. PLD Space co-founder and chief business officer Raúl Verdú said in a Jan. 10 statement that the company anticipates “the closing of an A2 investment round of 8 million Euro very soon.

PLD Space anticipates a first launch of Arion 1 in 2019, followed by the Arion 2 rocket in 2021. Both debut missions have slipped by one year from the company’s previous estimates. Around 70 percent of the technology needed for Arion 1 will overlap with Arion 2, according to PLD Space. The company hopes to make both rockets reusable using a mixture of parachutes and propulsive landing.

I haven’t done a detailed survey, but I think this brings the number of smallsat rockets under development right now to at least six: Rocket Lab, Japan’s SS-520, China’s Kaituozhe-2, Vector, Interorbital and PLD Space. Russia and India have also said they plan to develop a small rocket for this market, though no details yet exist.

I have been repeatedly told by other space experts that it makes no financial sense to launch smallsats on single small rockets. Yet, we now have numerous companies and investment dollars going to develop such rockets. I think that this only illustrates how little trust everyone should place in experts (even me!).


Engineer appointed to head ISRO, India’s space agency

One day before ISRO’s first launch in 2018, India has appointed a well known and respected rocket engineer, K Sivan, to head its space agency.

Sivan was involved in developing both the PSLV and GSLV rockets. What I find more interesting is that he appears to have been entirely trained in India, obtaining degrees at several different universities there. This illustrates once again that India is no longer a third world nation. It has the facilities and educational depth to compete head-to-head with any nation in the world. It merely needs some time to catch up.


NASA renames Swift telescope to honor Neil Gehrels

NASA has renamed the Swift space telescope, designed to quickly detect and observe fast transient events in space like gamma ray bursts, to honor the late Neil Gehrels, the man who led the project from day one.

During a presentation at a NASA town hall meeting at the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that Swift would now be known as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Gehrels, who died in February 2017, had been principal investigator for Swift, a mission launched in 2004. The spacecraft was designed to be able to rapidly respond to transient events, such as gamma-ray bursts, observing them at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to visible light.

“Neil wore many hats in service to the astrophysics community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a later press conference at the meeting. In addition to being the principal investigator for Swift, had served as project scientist on the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Fermi missions. At the time of his death last year he was project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope.

Knowing astronomers, they will now refer to this observatory as the NGSO. Not I. It will be “Gehrels Swift” to me, whenever I need to mention it. Gehrels was one of the most friendly, open, and easy-to-work-with astronomers I ever had to deal with. He is sorely missed.


Scientists demonstrate first space navigation on ISS using pulsars

The stars are ours! Scientists using an x-ray telescope installed on ISS have demonstrated it is possible to pinpoint the location of a spaceship and thus navigate through space using pulsars.

In the SEXTANT demonstration that occurred over the Veteran’s Day holiday in 2017, the SEXTANT team selected four millisecond pulsar targets — J0218+4232, B1821-24, J0030+0451, and J0437-4715 — and directed NICER to orient itself so it could detect X-rays within their sweeping beams of light. The millisecond pulsars used by SEXTANT are so stable that their pulse arrival times can be predicted to accuracies of microseconds for years into the future.

During the two-day experiment, the payload generated 78 measurements to get timing data, which the SEXTANT experiment fed into its specially developed onboard algorithms to autonomously stitch together a navigational solution that revealed the location of NICER in its orbit around Earth as a space station payload. The team compared that solution against location data gathered by NICER’s onboard GPS receiver. “For the onboard measurements to be meaningful, we needed to develop a model that predicted the arrival times using ground-based observations provided by our collaborators at radio telescopes around the world,” said Paul Ray, a SEXTANT co-investigator with the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. “The difference between the measurement and the model prediction is what gives us our navigation information.”

The goal was to demonstrate that the system could locate NICER within a 10-mile radius as the space station sped around Earth at slightly more than 17,500 mph. Within eight hours of starting the experiment on November 9, the system converged on a location within the targeted range of 10 miles and remained well below that threshold for the rest of the experiment, Mitchell said. In fact, “a good portion” of the data showed positions that were accurate to within three miles. “This was much faster than the two weeks we allotted for the experiment,” said SEXTANT System Architect Luke Winternitz, who works at Goddard. “We had indications that our system would work, but the weekend experiment finally demonstrated the system’s ability to work autonomously.”

I think everyone who is interested in interstellar space travel has assumed since the discovery of the first pulsars that they would end up serving as the future north star for interstellar travelers. This experiment shows us how it will be done.

Well read science fiction fans should recognized the literary reference in the tagline.


A spectacular collapse feature at Arsia Mons

Collapse at Arsia Mons

Cool image time! This post could be called an update to my January 8th post, Exploring Arsia Mons. In that post I had compiled together the ten images of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the line of three giant volcanoes on Mars, that JPL had highlighted over several weeks in early January.

Today, I decided to do some of my own exploration of some of the many images taken of Arsia Mons by all of the Martian orbiters. My goal had been to explore the volcano’s western slopes (an area that had not been featured in the JPL releases) because that is the area where research has found evidence of past glacial activity as well as seasonal water clouds. I haven’t finished that survey, but in the process I came across a spectacular image of a collapse that had been visible in image nine of the January 8th post, but did not stand out there because of the lighting. The image on the right is that better image, cropped to focus in on the collapse itself.

The material at the base of the wall resembles piled up mud, which suggests this collapse is a Martian version of a mud slide. If so, it also suggests the presence of liquid. At the same time, the muddy look might not be from liquid but because of the lighter Martian gravity causing avalanches to be appear different there. The light gravity means material is not as dense, so when it collapses it might break apart more easily into a sandy type flow.

I am only an amateur geologist, so my theories here should not be taken very seriously. Nonetheless, I am sure there are planetary geologists who have looked at this closely because of the information about Martian geology that they can glean from it. I’d be curious to hear their thoughts.

Meanwhile, my exploration of the western slopes of Arsia Mons will continue. In Pioneer the science fiction book I wrote in the early 1980s (now available), I placed my Martian colony in Mangala Valles, a meandering canyon to the west of Olympus Mons that feeds out from the higher southern regions into the lower northern flat plains where even then some scientists thought an ocean might have once existed. My thinking then was that this might be a good location to find underground water. It now appears, with our greater knowledge, that the slopes of the volcanoes themselves might be more promising, and I am curious to find the most likely places in this region where a future colony might end up.


Almost 500 science papers in 2017 challenge “global-warming consensus”

The uncertainty of science: A survey of climate papers published in 2017 shows that 485 directly challenged the so-called “consensus” that activists claim exists about global warming.

Author Kenneth Richard found that during the course of the year 2017, at least 485 scientific papers were published that in some way questioned the supposed consensus regarding the perils of human CO2 emissions or the efficacy of climate models to predict the future.

According to Richard’s analysis, the 485 new papers underscore the “significant limitations and uncertainties inherent in our understanding of climate and climate changes,” which in turn suggests that climate science is not nearly as settled as media reports and some policymakers would have people believe.

This really is not a surprise for anyone who spends even a little time reading actual climate research. If you do, you immediately realize that the absurd claims of politicians (mostly Democrats) and activists about the certainty of human-caused global warming are based on their complete ignorance of the science. Some examples:

My point isn’t to say that human-caused global warming isn’t happening. We simply don’t know. The evidence so far is very inconclusive. And for those who advocate this theory, their own models have consistently failed to match the data. Skepticism is called for, which by the way is actually the hallmark of good science.


Arianespace orders last ten Ariane 5 rockets

Capitalism in space: Arianespace yesterday announced that it has purchased the last ten Ariane 5 rockets as part of the company’s transition to its new Ariane 6 rocket in 2020.

These rockets appear to be for launches from 2020 to 2023, during a time period when they will be testing Ariane 6 and initiating its first operational flights.


Is the Google Lunar X-Prize dead?

Doug Messier today has written a sad summary of the status of the Google Lunar X-Prize, and it does appear that no one is going to meet the March 31, 2018 deadline.

The news yesterday that Team Indus failed to raise the cash to pay for its rocket launch appears to have killed both it and the Japanese competitor. Lack of funds also appear to have stopped the Israeli team. Meanwhile, delays in getting the rockets operational for Moon Express and Synergy Moon leave both stranded on the ground.


Strzok/Page FBI texts suggest they were investigating private lives of journalists

The law is such an inconvenient thing: Texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page suggest they were trying to dig up dirt about the private life of at least one journalist, to use against him.

The two agents also spent extensive time shortly before the 2016 election trying to track down information — including an address and a spouse’s job — about The New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, who has reported on numerous developments in the Russia case.

“We got a list of kids with their parents’ names. How many Matt Apuzzo’s (sic) could there be in DC,” Page texted. “Showed J a picture, he said he thinks he has seen a guy who kinda looks like that, but always really schlubby. I said that sounds like every reporter I have ever seen.”

A minute later, Page added another text: “Found what I think might be their address, too.”

Strzok writes back, “He’s TOTALLY schlubby. Don’t you remember?”

Page responded later by saying she found information on the reporter’s wife too. “Found address looking for her. Lawyer.”

Strzok cautions Page against using the work phone to track down information on the reporter. “I wouldn’t search on your work phone, ,,, no idea what that might trigger,” he texted.

“Oops. Too late,” she responded back.

The article above is focused mostly on the texts that suggest these two Democratic Party operatives (who were also having an adulterous love affair at the time) were the source of many illegal news leaks, but I consider the quote above more significant. It clearly shows that they had no respect for the law or the First Amendment and were quite willing to abuse their power at the FBI. If anything proves they were willing to overthrown a legally elected president, this does.


Falcon Heavy prepped for static fire test

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has raised its first Falcon Heavy rocket onto the launchpad in preparation for the static fire test required before the rocket can do its first launch.

SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket has been raised vertical at pad 39A for the second time in advance of a planned hold-down test-firing of its main engines tomorrow during a window that extends from 1-7 pm EST (1800-0000 GMT). Kennedy Space Center employees were told to expect an estimated 15-second firing.


Hotels coming to Boca Chica due to SpaceX spaceport

Capitalism in space: Several large hotel chains are putting up new hotels in the Boca Chica area near SpaceX’s new spaceport, expressly because they are anticipating a tourist demand once launches begin.

None of this is a surprise. It is good news, nonetheless.


ULA settles lawsuit that said it defrauded government of $90 million

ULA has settled a lawsuit with a whistleblower who claimed the company had defrauded the federal government of at least $90 million by overbilling employee work hours.

Unlike the commercial marketplace where prices of goods and services are determined by market forces including competition, sellers in the aerospace industry face little or no competition and contract pricing is based largely on a contractor’s estimated costs, the lawsuit says.

ULA charged the government tens of millions of dollars for work that was never performed and inflated the estimated labor hours including the time required to buy parts and materials from vendors, the lawsuit says.

ULA retaliated against Scott [the whistleblower] by forcing him out of the company after he revealed the alleged illegal activities. ULA officials placed a camera above his desk, monitored and questioned his cell phone and computer use, and suggested he violated the law or engaged in improper bidding practices himself, the lawsuit says.

ULA used a system called the Keith Crohn model that creates a grid using the cost of equipment to reach an employee cost. A labor value was placed on the grid for every item ordered through the company’s purchasing department. For example, any item that cost between $1 and $1,000 would be assigned a labor value of 8 hours. It didn’t matter what part it was, the lawsuit said. The U.S. bans arbitrary cost estimates when actual data is available that establishes the cost.

The first paragraph of the quote above actually describes the bad deal that the Air Force made with ULA back in the early 2000s, giving the company a monopoly on launches while subsidizing it to the tune of $1 billion per year. That deal is now dead, and ULA is instead forced to compete with SpaceX (and soon others I hope) for launch contracts. Not surprisingly, their prices have dropped considerably.

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