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SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.

SpaceX launches Dragon and lands first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX today successfully launched from Florida a Dragon capsule into orbit while also landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch initiates use of the company’s new launchpad at Cape Canaveral, as well as their effort over the coming months to hold launches every two weeks or so.

Juno to remain in 53-day orbit

The scientists and engineers running the Juno mission to Jupiter have decided to keep the spacecraft in its 53-day orbit for the rest of its mission rather than fire its engines to lower the orbit to its planned 14 days duration.

The original Juno flight plan envisioned the spacecraft looping around Jupiter twice in 53-day orbits, then reducing its orbital period to 14 days for the remainder of the mission. However, two helium check valves that are part of the plumbing for the spacecraft’s main engine did not operate as expected when the propulsion system was pressurized in October. Telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that it took several minutes for the valves to open, while it took only a few seconds during past main engine firings. “During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

There are both pros and cons for using this longer orbit, detailed at the link, with.the most important being that doing nothing avoids losing the mission entirely.

Tilleson starts State Department purge

Cleaning house: The Trump administration carried out major lay-offs in the staffing at high levels of the State Department on Thursday.

Much of seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, were told today that their services were no longer needed. These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centered. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy.

In addition, it appears that the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also pulling the fangs from many other State Department managers, many of whom have indicated a partisan hostility to the Trump administration.

There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats. Not a single State Department official was included in the White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.

Good. It is important that federal employees of all stripes learn that a new administration has been elected by the American people, and it is there job to do what that administration wants, not what they want.

The consequences of leftwing censorship

Two stories today illustrate the consequences, both good and bad, of the left’s effort to stifle free speech on campuses:

The first story describes how a California law banning any university interaction with four states that have passed anti-transgender bathroom laws (laws that prevent men who are making believe they are women from entering women’s bathrooms) has prevented three California debate teams from attending the nationals.

This week the nation’s top debate coaches released their recognition of the top collegiate policy debate teams. This exceptional group of sixteen teams receives pre-bids to the National Debate Tournament at the end of March and will have strong potential toward winning the national title in debate at the tournament to be held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Two of the nation’s top teams that made this elite selection are from Berkeley, a campus recently racked by violent demands for the suppression of free speech. Incredibly, Berkeley’s teams and one other team from California who made the cut, will not attend the National Debate Tournament. That is because the state of California has banned all university related personnel from traveling to four states around the nation: Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi, on the specious grounds that these states have all passed “anti-LGBT legislation.” All debate teams from California state schools are practically banned from attending the national debate tournaments being held in the state of Kansas in March.

In other words, the intolerance by California to all alternative points of view has succeeded in literally shutting down all debate. As the author notes,
» Read more

Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

Dawn finds organics on Ceres

The spacecraft Dawn has detected evidence of organic molecules in Ceres’ northern hemisphere.

The organic materials on Ceres are mainly located in an area covering approximately 400 square miles (about 1,000 square kilometers). The signature of organics is very clear on the floor of Ernutet Crater, on its southern rim and in an area just outside the crater to the southwest. Another large area with well-defined signatures is found across the northwest part of the crater rim and ejecta. There are other smaller organic-rich areas several miles (kilometers) west and east of the crater. Organics also were found in a very small area in Inamahari Crater, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from Ernutet.

This detection does not mean that Dawn has found life on Ceres. It means that the spacecraft has detected molecules that contain carbon, which is the chemical definition of organics. Nor is it unusual for asteroids to have carbon molecules. In fact, there is an entire asteroid class dubbed carbonaceous chondrites that are rich in carbon. In addition, the press release overplays this narrative by making it seem as if the discovery of organics in the solar system is rare and unusual. It is not. Molecules containing carbon have been found in many places, on Mars, on Venus, in asteroids, and elsewhere. All that is happened here is that the scientists have gained more information about the make-up Ceres itself. This is good, but it isn’t what is being sold by the press release.

UAE proposes building Martian city within a century

The competition heats up? The United Arab Emirates announced on Tuesday its plan to construct a city on Mars and have it completed by 2117, a hundred years from now.

On Tuesday, at the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai, the UAE announced that it was planning to build the first city on Mars by 2117. According to CNBC, UAE engineers presented a concept city at the event about the size of Chicago for guests to explore.

In a statement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, sounded confident about the project. “Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream,” Maktoum said.

And despite the grandiose nature of the idea, the 100-year-plan does emphasize some practical steps. “The Mars 2117 Project is a long-term project,” Maktoum explained in the statement, adding that the first order of business would be making space travel appeal to young Emiratis, with special programs in space sciences being set up at universities in the UAE.

Maktoum is the guy that pushed to create the UAE’s space agency, and is leading its effort to fly an unmanned mission to Mars by 2020. It is very clear that his goal is to inspire his country and its youth so that they will aim high in future years. I wish him well, as this is a far better goal for an Islamic nation than sending out suicide bombers to kill innocent people.

I must add that I remain very skeptical about this particular plan. I fully expect us to finally get to Mars in the next century, but whether we will have the ability to build cities there in that time frame remains questionable.

Republican leaders propose Obamacare revisions

Cowards: The House Republican leadership today put forth a series of proposals for revisingnot repealing — Obamacare.

A packet distributed to lawmakers at the meeting and obtained by The Hill says the GOP bill will include tax credits, an expansion of health savings accounts, money for high risk pools to care for the sick and a major restructuring of Medicaid to cap federal payments.

No dollar figures for any of the Republican proposals have been presented yet. Lawmakers said that is because the Congressional Budget Office is still analyzing the plan.

Nowhere do these proposals deal with repealing Obamacare’s ban on low-cost catastrophic health insurance plans. In fact, these proposal do little to repeal any of Obamacare’s worst regulations, which make the entire concept of health insurance unsustainable. Instead, these proposals nibble at the edges of the law, and will only serve to make things worse. For example, the proposals will repeal all the taxes that pay for Obamacare’s costs, will eliminate the mandates that force people to buy insurance, but will do nothing to relieve insurance companies from the law’s requirements, such as forcing them to accept every applicant, no matter how sick. Such a crazy arrangement will guarantee that no one will buy health insurance until they need it, making it entirely unprofitable.

The whole mess is simply too complicated. The time has come to do what Alexander the Great did: rather than try to untie the Gordian knot, he simply took a sword and cut it. Congress should do the same to Obamacare. Only then will the health insurance industry have a chance of recovery.

Two congressmen propose naming SLS for astronaut Gene Cernan

Two congressman yesterday introduced legislation that would rename SLS after Eugene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon.

I don’t think anyone would argue with this. First, SLS is a terrible name for the rocket. Second, Cernan deserves the recognition.

At the same time, I suspect this is happening as part of an overall push within the Washington community to sell SLS to Trump and his administration. This proposal, as well as the recent news stories proposing SLS/Orion Moon missions and putting astronauts on SLS’s first flight, all point to a lobbying effort inside NASA, Congress, and the big space community to save SLS, which when compared to the successes and achievements of commercial space since 2010 appears an abject failure.

That comparison is at the heart of my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, which will hit the newstands next week. It makes it very clear how much a failure SLS/Orion has been, and how embarrassing that failure stands when compared to commercial space.

Rocket Lab delivers first test rocket to launch site

The competition heats up: Rocket Lab has delivered its first test rocket to its New Zealand launch complex in preparation for testing.

Over the coming weeks, a series of tests and checkouts will be conducted at the site before the rocket, named “It’s a Test,” is signed-off to fly. “We put it out to our team to name the vehicle,” said Beck. “We wanted to acknowledge the intensive research and development Electron has undergone and that continues with these test flights.”

The launch, which will be the first orbital launch attempt from New Zealand, is the first of three planned tests before Rocket Lab begins providing customers commercial satellite launches.

They hope to launch their first commercial payload on an operational Electron rocket before the end of this year.

India preparing rover for 2018 Moon landing

The competition heats up: India preparing rover for 2018 Moon landing.

Isro’s Satellite Applications Centre Director, M. Annadurai, revealed the tentative launch schedule while speaking to the press at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Shar, Sriharikota on Wednesday. He said a Lander and a six-wheeled Rover were being prepped to go with the Chandrayaan-II mission. The chief scientist added that a launch is likely to take place in the first quarter of 2018. According to Dr P.V. Venkita Krishnan, the director of the Isro Propulsion Complex at Mahendragiri, engineers were currently testing soft-landing engines.

India’s launch of a record 104 satellites on a single rocket has pumped up the Indian press, as there were almost 20 stories on space and that launch in their press today, almost all favorable.

This article however is from the U.S., and takes a look at the ineffective American space policy that supposedly forbids American companies from launching on Indian rockets.

The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Agreement of 2005 prohibits the launch of commercial satellites on the Indian vehicle. The reasoning is that struggling U.S. commercial launch providers needed time to establish themselves in the market and would be wiped out by India’s PSLV, which is developed by the Indian Space Organization.

Since 2015, commercial satellite owners have successfully obtained waivers to the policy.

The article notes India’s competitive prices, as well as the overall state of the smallsat industry and its dependence on bigger rockets as secondary payloads to get into space. India’s rockets, funded and subsidized by the government but also built to be inexpensive so as to attract customers, is clearly positioned to effectively compete with SpaceX, who until now charged the least.

What will our Congress do? My preference would be for them to repeal this part of the 2005 law so that American satellite companies can fly on whoever they wish. That would increase competition but it would also likely invigorate the overall launch industry because it would increase the satellite customer base for those rockets and thus create more business for everyone.

Sadly, I suspect that Congress will instead demand that the waivers to the law cease, and will thus block the use if Indian satellites by American companies. The short-sightedness of our politicians never ceases to surprise me.

NASA considers putting astronauts on first SLS/Orion flight

Faced with indications that Trump wants a manned lunar mission during his first term, NASA’s acting administrator has asked his engineers and management to look into the possibility of putting humans on the first SLS/Orion launch, now set for late in 2018.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

This is incredibly stupid. That first flight will be the very first time SLS will fly. It will also be flying with an upper stage engine that has also never flown before. It will take the Orion capsule to the Moon, when the capsule itself has not yet even done one orbit around the Earth. To put people on it makes no engineering sense at all.

Capitalism in Space to be released early next week

After several months of delay for a variety of reasons that I do not need to go into, my policy paper for the Center of New American Security has gone to the printers will be released to the public early next week. The title: Capitalism in Space: Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry.

I will have the pdf of this paper available here on Behind the Black the instant it is available. To give everyone a taste, here are my concluding words:

A close look at these recommendations will reveal one common thread. Each is focused on shifting power and regulatory authority away from the federal government and increasing the freedom of American companies to act as they see fit to meet the demands of the market. The key word that defines this common thread is freedom, a fundamental principle that has been aspired to since the nation’s founding. Political leaders from both parties have made the concept a central core tenet of American policy. Democrat John Kennedy stated that his commitment to go to the Moon was a “stand for freedom” in the Cold War. Republican Ronald Reagan proposed “Freedom” as the name for the new space station, and viewed it as a platform for promoting private enterprise in space.

Freedom is actually a very simple idea. Give people and companies the freedom to act, in a competitive environment that encourages intelligent and wise action, and they will respond intelligently and wisely.

The United States’ history proves that freedom can work. It is time that it prove it again, in space.

India launches record 104 satellites at one go

The competition heats up: India today successfully used its PSLV rocket to launch a record 104 satellites.

I can’t quote the description of the 104 satellites as it is too long. The bottom line however is that India has demonstrated that it is now a major player in the space launch industry.

Freedom Caucus to push for swift Obamacare repeal

In a direct clash with the Republican leadership that increasingly wants to slow down a repeal of Obamacare, the conservative House tea party group dubbed the Freedom Caucus announced today that they will push for an immediate repeal of the law.

The House Republican leadership is made up of a bunch of cowards. They fear the polls. They fear the press. They fear the astroturf demonstrations paid for by the left. They fear everything. And they believe in nothing, because if they did believe in freedom and restricting the power of government they would move quickly to repeal Obamacare and let the chips of freedom fall where they may.

Maybe the Earth’s magnetic field is not weakening

The uncertainty of science: New data using date-stamped jars covering the period from the 8th to the 2nd century BC suggest that the 8th century BC was a period when the Earth’s magnetic field was particularly strong, leading the scientists doing the research to conclude that the Earth’s magnetic field might not be weakening and that the recent field strength decline detected in the past two hundred years might simply be part of the field’s normal fluctuations.

This new data is certainly worthwhile, but the press release surely doesn’t reveal how the scientists were able to extrapolate future magnetic field strength from 8th century BC fluctuations. At a minimum, I would need to see a graph showing the measured field strength from the 8th century BC to the present time to see how today’s field strength compares with the past. Unfortunately, the press release does not provide this.

Mars rover update: February 14, 2017

Curiosity

Ireson Hill, Sol 1604

Dune fields

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Taking a close look at rock

Since my last update in January, Curiosity done more or less what I predicted. It headed southwest through the dune area and then made a side trip to the small mesa there, dubbed Ireson Hill by the Curiosity science team and shown on the right. They then made an additional side trip past the hill to get a close look a the large sandy dune field beyond, also shown on the right. After getting some nice closeups as well as scooping up some sand for observation, they have now gone back to Ireson Hill to get another close look at the dark rocks that have rolled off the top of the hill and are now in reach at its base. The image on the left shows the arm positioned above one of those rocks.

The drill remains out of commission, with no word when they will try using it again. In addition, there had been a problem with the ChemCam laser that does spectroscopic analysis, but as of this week it is back in action, and is being used to analysis the small rock above.

Below is an overview of their route so far as well as my annotations on where I think they will be heading in the future.
» Read more

The international government effort to come up with a cis-lunar ISS

The competition heats up: In the past five years the various international partners and their space agencies have been conducting studies for developing a new international space station, this time based not in Earth orbit but located near the Moon.

Following initial approval in the fall of 2014, the five space agencies formed the ISS Exploration Capabilities Study Team, IECST, which was tasked with reviewing how the ISS experience could be used to build the cis-lunar infrastructure, with determining its possible architecture and with drafting its flight plan and possible mission. Specialists also had the task of looking at all the necessary technologies, logistics and maintenance which would be required for building and operating a small habitat near the Moon. This man-tended outpost could serve as a way station to the lunar surface and as a springboard for the exploration of the Solar System, including asteroids, Mars and its moons. In fact, the outpost itself could eventually embark on a journey toward a deep-space destination. Representatives of the various space agencies also tried to see what contributions each country could make, based on their technical capabilities and realistic budgets.

All the work was conducted within the ISS program and covered by its budget.

Initially, the IECST group included representatives from space agencies only, for the exception of Russia, with Roskosmos officials needed help from the nation’s prime contractor in human space flight — RKK Energia. For the final few meetings in 2016, ESA also brought representatives from the European space industry. However NASA did not directly involve its key human space flight contractors into the IECST activities. (Instead, the US aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin continued parallel studies in cooperation with RKK Energia in Russia, EADS Astrium in Europe and Mitsubishi in Japan.) [emphasis mine]

Read the whole article. Lots of interesting details.

In a sense, this international effort is a political lobbying effort by these space agencies to come up with a single project to follow ISS that will continue the funneling of government money to them all. It is also an effort by them to structure future space exploration so all efforts will be contained within this single program, rather than allowing for many different competing efforts, both private and public. In addition, it is an attempt by NASA to come up with some long-term mission for SLS/Orion, which at present has no operational purpose and no funding beyond its first manned flight in 2021.

Finally, note the highlighted sentence above. This effort — which will benefit not just NASA but the space agencies of Russia, Europe, and Japan as well as the old big space companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Mitsubishi — is been paid entirely by American tax dollars. Something about this to me seems wrong. Shouldn’t the cost here be shared? And doesn’t it seem inappropriate for NASA to be picking the companies it wants to work with, without open bidding?

Short circuit caused launch failure of Japanese mini-rocket

Japanese engineers now believe that the cause of the failure of that country’s test launch of a mini-rocket on January 15 was because of the failure of wiring insulation.

The agency said it believes the cladding of electric cables was damaged by the vibration and heat of nearby metal parts, leading the cables to directly touch the metal parts. As a result, a short circuit occurred and a data transmission device lost power, it said.

It is remarkable how much the language of this story reminds me of Soviet era press releases. Everything about it is designed to obscure the problem so that it will be difficult for outsiders to understand what happened.

From what I gather, the cables were not properly secured so that during launch they rubbed violently against some nearby sharp metal parts, which then cut the insulation and caused the short circuit. That they were not properly secured, a basic engineering requirement for any rocket, and that this announcement is written to obscure this fact, suggests once again that Japan’s space agency has some serious quality control problems that it is still not facing.

Countdown begins on India’s record-setting launch of 104 satellites

The competition heats up: ISRO has begun the countdown for Wednesday’s launch of India’s PSLV rocket, carrying a record-setting 104 satellites.

he Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle would be carrying a 714 kilogram main satellite for earth observation and 103 smaller “nano satellites” which would weigh a combined 664 kilograms. Nearly all of the nano satellites are from other countries, including Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and 96 from United States, said the state-run ISRO.

If successful, India will set a world record as the first country to launch the most satellites in one go, surpassing Russia which launched 39 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.

Obviously, all these different satellites got a cut-rate launch deal by sharing the launch, which helps make their launch affordable. The disadvantage here is that they do not have much flexibility in choosing their orbits, which is why there is also a market now for small rockets aimed at launching single smallsats, such as Rocket Lab’s Electron.

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