Readers!

It is birthday time again! As I do every February, my birthday month, I shamelessly (though reluctantly) beg my readers to consider giving Behind the Black a donation or a subscription (as outlined in the tip jar to the right). Your generous support over the last few years has allowed me to remain independent, free to report and comment on science and politics as I see fit, uninfluenced by any outside pressure.

 

For this I thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

 

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Another 5 month slip of first Falcon Heavy launch

In the heat of competition: Amid a slew of SpaceX launch delays in the past month due to the introduction of an upgraded Falcon 9, Elon Musk noted at a student event in Texas on Sunday that the first demo launch of the Falcon Heavy is likely to happen in September, not April as previously announced.

The article is mostly focused on the launch delays of the Falcon 9, which for some of SpaceX’s customers are becoming a financial problem. The company is obviously trying to make sure that further Falcon 9 launches are a success, but the unreliability of its schedule is clearly a reason satellite companies like Eutelsat have signed new contracts with Russia’s ILS or Arianespace. Even with the problems Russia has had with its Proton they have managed a more reliable launch schedule.

Then again, the Proton and Ariane 5 have been around for decades. Their companies aren’t trying to improve them in any way. The delays in SpaceX’s schedule are somewhat understandable in this context. Better to launch slowly with new designs then to have a failure that entirely stops things for months.

Nonetheless, it might be wise for SpaceX to settle on the present Falcon 9 design for awhile, so that they can catch up and make their customers happy. Moreover, the further delay of the Falcon Heavy launch is definitely disappointing.

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An issue with Curiosity’s scoop

The unit at the end of Curiosity’s robot arm that scoops up sand and processes it through sieves experienced “an anomaly” on January 25, causing a halt in arm operations.

The instrument has been scooping up sand from the sand dune that the rover has been studying recently. So far there has been no details at all about the “anomaly”, so it is unclear how serious the problem is. In the meantime the rover has been using its cameras and other instruments to do other observations.

Russian Proton rocket successfully launches commercial satellite

The competition heats up: The Russians successfully put a European commercial communications satellite into orbit today their Proton rocket.

It was the sixth successful Proton launch since their May failure. The key quote from the article however was this:

ILS owner Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow has said it would give ILS leeway to reduce prices to work its way back into the regular commercial-launch rotation alongside SpaceX and Europe’s Arianespace. The decline of the Russian ruble against the U.S. dollar has made that task easier as most commercial launch contracts are priced in dollars.

In other words they are going to cut prices to compete, and the falling ruble has given them more leeway to do it.

Water ice on Pluto’s surface

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from New Horizons suggests that water ice is more widespread on Pluto’s surface than previously believed.

The new map shows exposed water ice to be considerably more widespread across Pluto’s surface than was previously known — an important discovery. But despite its much greater sensitivity, the map still shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio (far north on the encounter hemisphere). This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s icy bedrock is well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

As the press release notes, water ice is actually “Pluto’s crustal ‘bedrock'”, so there really is plenty there. It is just buried below a surface of methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide “topsoil”.

300 climate scientists demand NOAA explain its global warming climate data

No settled science here: Three hundred climate scientists have signed a letter demanding that NOAA stop stonewalling the Congressioinal investigation of the agency’s repeated adjustments to raw climate data so that the record shows increased warming, when there is none.

Of the 300 letter signers, 150 had doctorates in a related field. Signers also included: 25 climate or atmospheric scientists, 23 geologists, 18 meteorologists, 51 engineers, 74 physicists, 20 chemists and 12 economists. Additionally, one signer was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and two were astronauts.

Seems to me that this letter and the number of climate scientists willing to sign it alone demonstrates that the “97 percent consensus” on global warming is bogus. As for NOAA, the agency is legally in violation of the law by refusing to provide information requested by Congress. Moreover, what are they afraid of? If they haven’t been tampering with the data improperly, they should have no reason to resist the congressional investigation. That they are stonewalling it suggests that they are hiding something. It also suggests that they haven’t the faintest idea what the scientific method is, which requires total transparency so that others can check the results and make sure they are correct.

Average Obamacare premiums are unaffordable

Finding out what’s in it: Independent studies have found that the average cost for health insurance under Obamacare in 2016 will be about $300 a month for the program’s silver plan.

That’s not the biggest problem, according to analysts. For many, their health insurance has dramatically changed under Obamacare. Deductibles and out of pocket expenses are higher, so many of their medical expenses are no longer covered. Some consumers who say they had good, affordable plans prior to the Affordable Care Act say they can no longer afford the new plans, which are substandard in terms of what they cover.

Obviously, this means the voters should throw their support to the Democratic Party and any one of their presidential candidates, all of whom have promised to fix this disaster of a law with even more government-imposed rules.

Flying over Ceres

The Dawn science team has released a new animation using the images taken by the spacecraft. The colors have been enhanced to emphasize the geological differences on the surface. I have embedded it below the fold.

The movie was produced by members of Dawn’s framing camera team at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, using images from Dawn’s high-altitude mapping orbit. During that phase of the mission, which lasted from August to October 2015, the spacecraft circled Ceres at an altitude of about 900 miles (1,450 kilometers).

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Europe settles on Ariane 6 design

The competition heats up? Airbus Safran and the European Space Agency have settled on the design of their next generation rocket, Ariane 6.

It will not be re-usable, and though they say it will be 40-50% cheaper to produce than Ariane 5, it is very clear from the quotes in the article that they are instead depending on trade restrictions to maintain their European customers, even if it costs them a lot more to put satellites in orbit.

For its part, Airbus Safran does not envisage making Ariane 6 recoverable, not in the short term. Mr Charmeau [the company’s CEO] believes that different market conditions apply in Europe and the US, which means there will not be a single, winner-takes-all approach. He cites, for example, the restricted procurement that exists in all major political blocs, which essentially bars foreign rockets from launching home institutional and government satellites. Nowhere is this more true than in the US, but in Europe too there is an “unwritten rule” that European states should use European rockets.

From an American perspective this lazy attitude is fine with me. Let American companies compete aggressively. They will then leave the Europeans and everyone else in the dust.

Using Roman tactics to quell riots

An evening pause: The following was a drill by South Korean police to practice the techniques they use to control demonstrations and riots. Anyone who knows anything about Roman military tactics will instantly recognize what they are doing.

While this is not a real world situation, in an actual riot these techniques are certainly going to be effective. They also illustrate who is the civilized side in these disturbances.

Hat tip Rocco.

New York oppresses opposition to gay marriage

Fascists: A New York state court has decided that the state has the right to punish a couple who refused to allow a homosexual wedding on their private property.

The court also sanctioned the state’s requirement that the couple submit to “re-education training” to learn the error of their ways.

“After the agency ruled that the Giffords were guilty of ‘sexual orientation discrimination,’ it fined them $10,000, plus $3,000 in damages and ordered them to implement re-education training classes designed to contradict the couple’s religious beliefs about marriage,” a press release issued following the court decision stated. In order to comply with the order, the couple will have to attend those “re-training” classes or have a “trainer” come to them, according to ADF.

The tyrants in the Soviet Union would be proud. New York is doing this kind of oppressive stuff as well as the communists did!

Antarctic fungi survive Martian conditions on ISS

A European experiment on ISS has found that fungi from Antarctica can survive in a Mars-like environment.

For 18 months half of the Antarctic fungi were exposed to Mars-like conditions. More specifically, this is an atmosphere with 95% CO2, 1.6% argon, 0.15% oxygen, 2.7% nitrogen and 370 parts per million of H2O; and a pressure of 1,000 pascals. Through optical filters, samples were subjected to ultra-violet radiation as if on Mars (higher than 200 nanometres) and others to lower radiation, including separate control samples. “The most relevant outcome was that more than 60% of the cells of the endolithic communities studied remained intact after ‘exposure to Mars’, or rather, the stability of their cellular DNA was still high,” highlights Rosa de la Torre Noetzel from Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), co-researcher on the project.

Does this prove that life exists on Mars? Not at all (though I wouldn’t be surprised if we see news articles in the mainstream press over the next week suggesting exactly that). It does show us once again that life is resilient and could develop in many very extreme environments.

Private company proposes commercial airlock for ISS

The competion heats up: The private company NanoRacks has proposed building a large airlock for ISS which could be used to launch private cubesates while also allowing NASA to eliminate spacewalks by bringing faulty equipment inside for repairs.

For commercial opportunities, NanoRacks has a small satellite launcher, and it is also designing a “haybale” system to launch as many as 192 cubesats at a time. After the airlock is configured, it would be depressurized and sealed. Then a station robotic arm could grab it, move it away from the vehicle, and deploy its payloads.

NASA is also interested in the opportunity to potentially fix large, external components of the space station. Before the space shuttle’s retirement, NASA used the sizable delivery vehicle to stash dozens of replacement pumps, storage tanks, controller boxes, batteries, and other equipment on the station, known as ORUs. When one of these components broke, astronauts would conduct a spacewalk to install a replacement unit.

However sometimes the problem with a broken unit is relatively minor, such as a problematic circuit card. With a larger airlock, damaged components could be brought inside the station, assessed, and possibly fixed, saving NASA the expense of building and delivering a new unit to the station—or losing a valuable spare. Finally, the space agency could use the airlock to dispose of trash that accumulates on station and can be difficult to get rid of.

It is exactly this kind of technology, spurred by the lure of profits, that interplanetary spaceships need if they are going to be maintainable far from home.

McCain and Air Force question ULA military arrangement

On Wednesday, the military arrangement between the Air Force and ULA came under strong attack.

First, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) introduced a bill in Congress that would re-instate the ban on ULA’s use of Russian engines in the Atlas 5 rocket. The ban had been lifted when Senators Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) snuck language doing so into the giant omnibus budget bill in December.

Second, at a hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, Air Force, under attack by Senator McCain for its sweetheart deal which gives ULA $800 million annually whether or not it launches anything regardless, admitted that it is thinking of terminating that deal early.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Wednesday hearing the service is considering early termination of the current EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract, a unique arrangement set up in 2006 to fund the cost of maintaining ULA launch infrastructure. At the time, the arrangement made sense because ULA was the Pentagon’s sole source for military space launch. “I was very surprised and disappointed when ULA did not bid on a recent GPS competitive launch opportunity,” James said. “And given the fact that there are taxpayer dollars involved with this ELC arrangement I just described to you, I’ve asked my legal team to review what could be done about this.”

The McCain bill is not likely to pass. However, the pressure he is putting on the Air Force, combined with the renewed and cheaper competition being offered by SpaceX, could very well lead to the ending of ULA’s EELV deal.

I expect to see a similar scenario play out in connection with Orion/SLS sometime in the next two years. When SpaceX and others begin to fly manned capsules and big rockets for relatively little money, our elected officials are eventually going to notice how much more expensive that bloated government program is, even as it doesn’t accomplish much. Some of them will suddenly realize the political advantage in attacking SLS, and begin to do so.

Computer program learns and then wins at Go

A computer program, dubbed AlphaGo, has successfully beaten a professional player of Go for the first time.

What is significant however is the method used by that computer program to win:

The IBM chess computer Deep Blue, which famously beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, was explicitly programmed to win at the game. But AlphaGo was not preprogrammed to play Go: rather, it learned using a general-purpose algorithm that allowed it to interpret the game’s patterns, in a similar way to how a DeepMind program learned to play 49 different arcade games2.

This means that similar techniques could be applied to other AI domains that require recognition of complex patterns, long-term planning and decision-making, says Hassabis. “A lot of the things we’re trying to do in the world come under that rubric.” Examples are using medical images to make diagnoses or treatment plans, and improving climate-change models.

If computer programs are now successfully able to learn and adapt it means that it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between those programs and actual humans.

SpaceX successfully tests parachutes for manned Dragon

The competition heats up: SpaceX and NASA on Wednesday released footage of a test of the parachutes for the company’s manned Dragon capsule.

The footage and accompanying story revealed very little about the test, including when it actually happened, so it isn’t that much of a story.

Two thoughtful endorsements of Ted Cruz

While cable television and the general media goes nuts of the childish feud between Donald Trump and Fox News, Ted Cruz today got two different endorsements that not only supported his nomination for president, but also outlined in detail two completely different reasons for supporting him.

The first, at the website Legal Insurrection, outlined Ted Cruz’s consistent and long term history as a trustworthy constitutional conservative. Not only does the article review Cruz’s history in the Senate, where he did whatever he could to fulfill his campaign promises (often prevented from doing so by his own Republican caucus), the article also looks at his background before becoming a senator. Its conclusion?

In short, Cruz has a long (dating back to his early teens) record of being a conservative in both principle and action.  He didn’t bound out of bed one day, put his finger to the wind, and decide to become a conservative (as was charged against Mitt Romney, among others); he’s always been a conservative. [emphasis in original]

Conservatives have been complaining for decades that they can’t get a reliable conservative nominated to run for president. With Cruz, we actually have that chance, and he will be running against the weakest Democratic candidate since George McGovern.

The second article outlines Cruz’s particular advantages for cleaning out the bureaucratic corruption in the Justice Department and elsewhere in the federal government.
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Hawaii’s governor expresses empty support for TMT

The coming dark age: In his state of the state address on Monday the Democratic governor of Hawaii, David Ige, expressed weak support for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea.

“In its recent ruling, the Supreme Court did not say don’t do this project,” Governor Ige said. “What it did say was that the state didn’t do the right things in the approval process.  It told us we needed to do a better job of listening to people and giving them a real opportunity to be heard.

“I am committed to pursuing this project and I hope its sponsors will stay with us.  And this time, we will listen carefully to all, reflect seriously on what we have heard and, whatever we do in the end, we will do it the right way.”

These are empty words. Listening to the protesters means the telescope doesn’t get built at all. The protesters made it very clear during their protesters this past year that their’ objective is to stop the telescope, to return to the illiterate native culture that existed before the arrival of the white man and his western civilization. They also made it clear that they are bigots, who want all not-native Hawaiians removed from the island. By saying he wants to “do a better job of listening” to them means that Ige is willing to go along with some of their ideas.

Right now, I am very doubtful TMT will ever get built on Mauna Kea.

Trump: “I can be the most politically correct person you’ve ever seen.”

For those who support Trump because they think he is an outsider who will change Washington and the leftwing politics that dominate it, I think the quote above demonstrates that these hopes are false ones. He will do nothing significantly different once he is in power. Or as the writer at the link notes:

He’s aggressive and anti-PC on the trail, in a knife fight with 15 other candidates, because that’s what it takes to win, but if winning at the job of the presidency requires a different tone, then that’s the tone he’ll take. This must be the first time in American history where it’s impossible to predict not only what a major-party frontrunner would do as president — given Trump’s volatile political history, all we can count on is that there’ll be “deals”.

Be warned. Picking Trump as the Republican candidate for president might be the worse decision conservative voters ever made. He might be better than Clinton, but he certainly will not be what conservatives want.

Posted from Tucson International Airport. I am on the way to very cold Michigan to give a lecture for the AIAA, and will be back Wednesday night..

Air Force certifies Falcon 9 upgrade for military launches

The competition heats up: The Air Force has approved use of SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 rocket for use in military launches.

What this means is that SpaceX is increasingly considered an acceptable bidder for future military launch contracts. Moreover, it means that SpaceX will be able to use the Falcon 9 first stage that they are landing vertically, giving them more recoverable first stages for future flights.

Blue Origin to increase New Shepard launch rate

The competition heats up: Blue Origin expects to increase the rate of test flights for its New Shepard reusable rocket in 2016.

“We expect to shorten that turnaround time over time this year, and fly this vehicle again and again,” [Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson] said. Those upcoming tests will use the same New Shepard vehicle that flew the previous two flights, with hardware and software modifications as needed between flights. Meyerson said the company still plans to perform “dozens” of test flights of New Shepard over the next couple of years before the company is ready to carry people on the vehicle. “It really depends on how the flight test program goes,” he said. “It could be a little faster than that, or it could be a little longer than that, depending on what we learn.”

I expect that by the end of 2016, the U.S. will have two proven reusable first stage rockets and two operational orbital cargo spacecraft. And that doesn’t count the likely first demo flight of Falcon Heavy.

Comet 67P/C-G’s active surface

Comet 67P/C-G's active surface

Cool image time! The Rosetta science team today released a spectacular image, taken by Rosetta’s high resolution camera, of the surface of Comet 67P/C-G. A cropped version is above and below the fold. A cropped version of the full image, focusing in on the smooth and active area dubbed Imhotep, is above.

This smooth dusty terrain, which covers about 0.8 sq km, is etched with curvilinear features stretching hundreds of metres and which have been found to change in appearance over time. Many large boulders are also seen scattered within the smooth terrain, including the boulder Cheops in the foreground. Smaller but more numerous boulders are associated with exposed cliff faces and are most likely the product of erosion. In some debris falls, detailed analysis has revealed the presence of water ice.

I have also included, below the fold, a second close-up crop from this same image, showing the layered cliffs to the left of Imhotep as well as several mysterious as-yet not understood round features at the cliff’s base.
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Thirty Meter Telescope’s future in Hawaii in state’s hands

The coming dark age: The executive director of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Friday made it clear that the future of the project in Hawaii is waiting on the state government.

Ed Stone, the project’s executive director, said telescope officials don’t have enough information to decide. “We’re waiting now for the instructions from the courts through the Department of Land and Natural Resources … which they can convey to us what this new process needs to be, what the schedule is and then we can take it into account in deciding what we do next,” he said. “So we can’t really do anything until we have an idea what it is the state’s requiring to see if that’s going to be consistent with what we can do.”

State officials are not holding up the process, state Attorney General Doug Chin said in a statement. “On Dec. 29, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court to further remand to the Board of Land and Natural Resources so that a contested case hearing can be conducted,” he said. “As of today, the circuit court has not remanded the case. BLNR cannot take action or provide instructions to anyone until this happens.”

The excuse of Hawaii’s attorney general above is garbage. If the governor pushed, he could get the court to move. They are instead allowing the case to languish, which once again tells us that the sympathies of this liberal Democratic Party government lie entirely on the side of the protesters.

Blue Origin reflies and lands New Shepard again

The competition heats up: Blue Origin yesterday successfully re-flew its New Shepard booster, vertically landing it for the second time.

Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.

They are not clear whether the capsule was re-flown as well. They do say they intend to re-fly New Shepard many times in 2016, probably at an increasing rate. If so, I would say that the race to be the first to sell suborbital tickets to tourists is won by Blue Origin, and that Virgin Galactic and XCOR have been left in the dust.

I have embedded the company’s video below the fold of yesterday’s flight.
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