Tag Archives: engineering

SpaceX wins another Air Force launch contract

The competition heats up: SpaceX has been awarded a $96.5 million contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite.

This price is about $14 million more than the last SpaceX Air Force launch contract. That’s probably because SpaceX was trying to undercut ULA’s price by as little as possible so that they could increase their profit. Until there are others in the business who can compete with SpaceX’s prices, the company is sitting pretty in any competitive bidding situation. Their costs are less, so they can always beat everyone else’s prices, while maximizing their profits.

Engineer invents teabag dunking machine

Rube Goldberg lives! I don’t know why, but an engineer has invented a machine that can dunk his teabag automatically.

The teabag is hooked onto a crank and kept in position with a piston-like mechanism so that it’s moved up and down over a strategically-placed mug of hot water. The crank is mounted to copper tubing and chained to a five sprocket cassette that in turn is chained to the shaded-pole motor. Dunking starts when a switch is flicked.

Be sure to watch the video at the link.

Microsoft inserts ads in Windows 10

Why I use Linux, part 5,234,657: Microsoft is now inserting advertisements for its software throughout its Windows 10 operating system.

Microsoft has taken the next step in pushing advertising on customers of its Windows 10 operating system, with users reporting an advertisement for Microsoft OneDrive now appearing in their File Explorer.

Windows 10 has been repeatedly reprimanded by technology journalists over the past year for the increasing amounts of advertising that are baked into the system. Advertisements in various forms have appeared in the Start menu, the lock screen, the taskbar, in the Windows Store, and various other areas. This seems to be the first time that users are noticing them in the File Explorer, the application that allows users to look through their documents and applications on their computer.

As I have been saying for years, dump Windows. It invades your privacy, provides you bad service while crashing at the worst possible moments. There are alternatives. I have been using Linux now for more than a decade, and it hasn’t held me back. Here again are the links to James Stephens’ series on Behind the Black for Getting and Installing Linux:

Parachute tests for Boeing Starliner

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has successfully completed a parachute test at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Uniquely, this test wasn’t conducted via the use of a helicopter of an aircraft – as seen with other vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft. Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft, so they instead used a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.

The test went well, with Starliner released from the balloon, deploying two drogue parachutes at 28,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft, then its pilot parachutes at 12,000 feet. The main parachutes followed at 8,000 feet above the ground prior to the jettison of the spacecraft’s base heat shield at 4,500 feet. Finally, the spacecraft successfully touched down.

The article once again makes note of NASA’s fake concern over the Atlas 5 rocket. The concern isn’t that the rocket isn’t reliable. The concern is that Boeing hasn’t yet gotten NASA’s certification that it is reliable. In other words, because NASA hasn’t signed a piece of paper stating the obvious fact that the Atlas 5 is safe, Boeing’s Starliner cannot be considered safe.

Decision on new Orbital ATK rocket expected in 2018

The competition heats up? Orbital ATK says it will decide whether it will introduce a new commercial rocket sometime in early 2018.

Orbital ATK has released few details about what is known only as its “Next-Generation Launcher.” The vehicle would use solid-fuel lower stages based on space shuttle solid rocket motor segments developed by the company, as well as solid strap-on boosters. A liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen upper stage would use a version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine that company is currently flying on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The rocket’s design has at least superficial similarities to a vehicle concept called Liberty that ATK proposed prior to its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation. Liberty, with a five-segment shuttle solid rocket booster first stage and a second stage derived from the Ariane 5 core stage provided by Astrium, was itself a commercial spinoff of the cancelled Ares 1 rocket from NASA’s Constellation program. ATK proposed Liberty for NASA’s commercial crew program but failed to win funding.

The decision itself will be based on whether the Air Force remains interested. At the present time the Air Force is investing about half the capital required to develop the rocket. If the Air Force backs out, Orbital ATK will decide against the rocket. If the Air Force support remains firm, they will go ahead with development. Essentially, this story is Orbital ATK lobbying to keep the Air Force support going.

Lockheed Martin abandons Athena rocket

Lockheed Martin has decided to shutdown its Athena rocket, and instead focus on flying its Atlas 5 rocket, even after ULA’s transitions to the new Vulcan rocket.

They say they will not retire Atlas until 2023, when the final version of Vulcan is expected to fly.

Saturn’s weird moon Pan

Pan

New images from Cassini have provided scientists their first sharp images of Saturn’s moon Pan, and what those images show is something really weird. The image on the right is only one sample, with the link providing more.

Pan orbits in a gap between two rings, and the ridge might have accumulated from material from those rings. Then again, maybe not. It will take more data to I think completely unravel how this moon got to look like it does.

Congress micromanages rocket development at ULA

Corrupt Congress: Even though ULA favors Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its Vulcan rocket, various elected officials in Alabama are pushing the company to use Aeroject Rocketdyne’s AR-4 engine instead.

At the end of February, two US representatives, Mike Rogers of Alabama [Republican] and Mac Thornberry of Texas [Republican], decided to push a little harder. On February 28, they sent a letter to Lisa Disbrow, the acting secretary of the US Air Force, and James MacStravic, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. In addition to reiterating a desire that ULA continue to fly a second rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, the letter urges the Pentagon officials to be skeptical about the BE-4 engine.

“The United States Government (USG) must have a hands-on, decision-making role… in any decision made by United Launch Alliance to down-select engines on its proposed Vulcan space launch system, especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power,” the letter states. “If ULA plans on requesting hundreds of millions of dollars from the USG for development of its launch vehicle and associated infrastructure, then it is not only appropriate but required that the USG have a significant role in the decision-making concerning the vehicle.” The letter then goes on to say the Air Force should not give any additional funding to ULA, other than for current launch vehicles, until the company provides “full access, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making” in its choice of contractors for the engines on Vulcan.

The article also mentions porkmaster Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who also favors Aerojet Rocketdyne because they say they will build it in Alabama. Note also that these elected officials are not only trying to pick the winner in the private competition between these two rocket engines, they also want to force ULA to keep using the Delta rocket, even though it is very expensive and not competitive with the newer rockets being developed by other companies. And their only reason for doing so is because they provide jobs for their districts.

This one story illustrates perfectly the corruption that permeates both parties in Congress. While it is more likely that Democrats will play this pork game, there are plenty of corrupt Republicans who play it as well. These petty dictators all think they have the right to interfere in the private efforts of Americans, whether it involves building a new rocket or buying health insurance. And all we get from this is a poorer nation and a bankrupt federal government.

Stratolaunch to fly in 2017?

The competition heats up: In an interview Paul Allen has revealed that he hopes to begin flight tests of his gigantic Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever built, later this year.

No word on the rocket that this air-launched system would launch, however. In fact, it appears that no one seems interested in providing one. This could change once the plane is flying.

Blue Origin signs second contract for New Glenn

The competition heats up: One day after announcing its first launch contract, Blue Origin announced today a second contract for its New Glenn rocket.

In a tweet this morning, Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos said OneWeb has reserved five launches using the rocket, bringing to six the number of missions in the New Glenn manifest.

So far I can find no information about the prices being charged by Blue Origin for these launches. I suspect they are giving their customers discounts for being the first, but this is not confirmed yet.

At the crest

Looking north at the crest

Cool images time! The image above, cropped and reduced to show here, is a panorama that I have created from the most recent images sent down from Opportunity yesterday. The rover sits on the crest of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama looks north at that crest, back in the direction where the rover has come. The rovers tracks can be seen fading away into the distance slightly to the left of the crestline..If you click on the picture you can see the full resolution image.

The crater floor is to the right, the plains that surround the crater are to the left.

Below is another panorama, created by me from the same images sent down today, this time looking south at the crest in the direction Opportunity is heading. Once again, if you click on the picture you can see the full resolution version.

The full set of today’s images from Opportunity suggest that the science team took them to assemble a full 360 degree panorama before they begin the journey south to the gully that is just now becoming visible at the southernmost edge of the most recent overhead traverse image. To get to that gully they will now have to descend off the crest and down outside the rim of Endeavour Crater, moving to the right in the panorama below. This is therefore their last opportunity for awhile to get a good view from a high overlook.

Looking south at the crest

A Kuwaiti space agency?

The competition heats up: At least one scientist in Kuwait, after attending a conference where the UAE’s space effort was highlighted, thinks her country should form its own space agency also.

Establishing a space agency/program is not a fantasy, it is the way of the future, which will bring numerous economic and scientific benefits, Assistant Professor at the Physics Department of Kuwait University (KU) Dr. Hala Al-Jassar said during an interview with Kuwait News Agency (KUNA).

While attending the recently held Abu Dhabi Space Congress, Dr. Al-Jassar said that she was amazed and intrigued by one of the participants’ contributions to the event. The participant laid out that the ingredients of a successful space program, which must include strong leadership, a sizable budget, available talents, and thorough training programs, said the academic.

“We have the budget, the talents, the expertize, and outstanding graduates from the best universities,” said Dr. Al-Jassar who pointed out that the lack of clear leadership was one of the main challenges for the establishment of a space agency.

Isn’t competition wonderful? One Arab country in the Middle East puts together a space program, and now others wish to follow. It is almost like night follows day. It has to happen.

Blue Origin gets its first orbital customer

The competition heats up: Blue Origin today announced its first orbital contract for its New Glenn rocket, planned for a 2021 launch at the earliest.

The contract is with Eutelsat, which probably gets a bargain basement price for being New Glenn’s first paying customer. The rocket will also land its first stage vertically, on a barge, for reuse, just as SpaceX does with its Falcon 9.

New Glenn will be a big and very powerful rocket, capable of putting 45 tons into low Earth orbit, only slightly less than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

Blue Origin unveils first completed BE-4 rocket engine

The competition heats up: Blue Origin today unveiled to the public its first completed BE-4 rocket engine, being built for its New Glenn orbital rocket as well as ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

More important however was that the company expects the second and third engines to come off the assembly line very soon.

Automated factory to build smallsats

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

New commercial proposals for launching almost 15,000 satellites

The competition heats up: New applications filed by SpaceX and OneWeb with the FCC propose augmenting both companies’ previously proposed satellite constellations and raising the number of total satellites to be launched to almost 15,000 total.

SpaceX has filed a new application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites to provide communications in the little used V band. The system is in addition to another constellations of 4,425 satellites (plus orbital spares) SpaceX proposed in November that would operate in the Ku and Ka bands. In total, the two constellations would have 11,943 spacecraft plus spares. “When combined into a single, coordinated system, these ‘LEO’ and ‘VLEO’ constellations will enable SpaceX to provide robust broadband services on a full and continuous global basis,” SpaceX said in its application.

Competitor OneWeb has submitted a new application that would add an additional 2,000 satellites capable of operating in the V-band to its planned constellation of 720 satellites.

These are all smallsats, which means they can be launched in bunches. Still, even if they are launched in groups of 100, it will still take 150 launches to get them all into orbit. That is a lot of business for the launch industry.

A propeller in Saturn’s A ring

A propeller in Saturn's A ring

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to show here, captures the same propeller feature in Saturn’s A ring, with the top image showing the sunlight side and the bottom image the side away from the Sun.

Cassini scientists have been tracking the orbit of this object for the past decade, tracing the effect that the ring has upon it. Now, as Cassini has moved in close to the ring as part of its ring-grazing orbits, it was able to obtain this extreme close-up view of the propeller, enabling researchers to examine its effects on the ring. These views, and others like them, will inform models and studies in new ways going forward.

…The propeller’s central moonlet would only be a couple of pixels across in these images, and may not actually be resolved here. The lit-side image shows that a bright, narrow band of material connects the moonlet directly to the larger ring, in agreement with dynamical models. That same thin band of material may also be obscuring the moonlet from view.

Lengthwise along the propeller is a gap in the ring that the moonlet has pried open. The gap appears dark on both the lit and unlit sides. Flanking the gap near the moonlet are regions of enhanced density, which appear bright on the lit side and more mottled on the unlit side.

The scale of the two images is slightly different, 0.33 and 0.44 miles, as they were taken as Cassini was zipping past during one of its ring-grazing orbits on February 21.

To my eye, the effect here faintly resembles a wake produced by a boat in water, except that the wake moves in opposite directions on opposite sides of the tiny moonlet as it plows through the A ring.

Two of five cameras on Japan’s Venus orbiter Akatsuki shut down

Japan has been forced to shut down operation on two of the five cameras on its Venus orbiter Akatsuki.

They think the problem has been caused by the additional five years required to get into Venus orbit when its main engine failed to fire during the first orbital attempt in 2010. During those five years the spacecraft was exposed to more radiation that expected, possibly damaging its equipment.

Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.

Virgin Galactic spins off LauncherOne into its own division

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic this week spun off its LauncherOne smallsat orbital rocket to form a new company called Virgin Orbit.

This split highlights the competition that actually existed within Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo remains a very questionable design. Rather than have its problems suck the profits from LauncherOne, which has contracts and I firmly believe will fly first, the Virgin corporation has pulled it from Virgin Galactic so that the two rockets can succeed or fail on their own. In the end, I suspect now that Virgin Galactic will die and Virgin Orbit will succeed.

China launches smallsat on new rocket

The competition heats up: China yesterday launched a small experimental satellite on new rocket, Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2).

The Xinhua news agency is identifying the new launch vehicle simply as ‘KT-2’. Other sources identify the new launcher as the Kaituo-2. Previously rumors expected that the new launch vehicle was the Kaituozhe-2A. The Kaituozhe-2/Kaituo-2 launch vehicle is a three-stage solid propellant launch vehicle developed by the “CASIC Forth Bureau”. The new launcher is capable of orbiting a 350 kg cargo to LEO or a 250 kg cargo to a 700 km high SSO.

KT-2 has similar capabilities to the Kuaizhou-1A launch vehicle, that was used for the first time on January 9, 2017. The KZ-1A is capable of orbiting a 300 kg satellite to LEO or a 200 kg payload to a 700km SSO. The other Chinese solid fuel launcher, the Long March 11 (Chang Zheng-11) rocket, is capable of orbiting a 750 kg to LEO or 350kg to a 700 km SSO.

With this fleet of small rockets, Chinese is now well positioned to grab market share in the emerging smallsat launch market. Their biggest problem remains the legal restrictions that prevent any American space technology from launching on Chinese rockets.

SpaceX loses 89 smallsats due to delays

Spaceflight, a company that specializing in scheduling secondary payload launches for smallsat companies, this week pulled 89 satellites from SpaceX because of that company’s launch delays.

For more than a year, Seattle-based Spaceflight has been waiting to launch an array of 89 miniaturized satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy them in orbit from its innovative SHERPA carrier.

Now the launch logistics company isn’t waiting any longer. All 89 satellites have been rebooked due to schedule concerns, Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, reported today in a blog posting. “We found each of our customers an alternative launch that was within the same time frame,” Blake wrote. “It took a huge effort, but within two weeks, the team hustled to have all customers who wanted to be rebooked confirmed on other launches!”

The SHERPA carrier had been slated as a secondary payload on the launch of Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite. It was put on SpaceX’s manifest since 2015, but the launch has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to the Falcon 9 rocket mishaps that occurred in mid-2015 and last September.

What is good about this is that the competition in the launch industry is now robust enough that these smallsats can find alternatives, and do it quickly. As good as SpaceX might be at some things, if the company doesn’s start fulfilling its promised launch schedule it will start to bleed customers more and more.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say which launch companies have now gotten this business. If I had to guess, I would bet that India got the contracts, based on their recent PSLV launch that put 103 smallsats into orbit. In arranging that launch ISRO had been very mobile, adding new smallsats to it quickly and very late in the launch schedule.

China completes construction of space station core module

The competition heats up: China has completed the construction of the core module of its full size space station, now set to launch in 2018.

Tianhe-1, the first of three 20-tonne space station modules, was completed by the end of 2016 and has entered a testing phase, according to Bao Weimin of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Tianhe-1 will launch from Wenchang on a new Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket sometime in 2018, which was developed specifically to allow China to put large space station modules into low Earth orbit.

The image of the module at the link is remarkable in its resemblance to the core module of Russia’s Mir station, launched in 1986.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

The winds of Mars

New data from Curiosity has confirmed that the winds of Mars have been the primary force shaping the red planet’s landscape for billions of years.

The new data suggests that Mount Sharp once filled Gale Crater, and it was the winds that eroded it away to create the impression that it is the crater’s central peak. Instead it appears that it is the crater’s original floor!

Below the fold is the video from the link showing a number of dust devils imaged by Curiosity.

This link provides a gif animation showing the surprisingly significant changes to the ripples in the sand dunes directly below Curiosity that take place in only one day. The changes are astonishing, and show that even though Mars’ atmosphere is far thinner than Earth’s, it is capable of moving things quickly across the Martian surface.
» Read more

Heading Home

Today we completed our last caving trip in Belize. I and many of the expedition’s participants head home tomorrow.

Because our cave trips take so much time, I have not had time to post anything these last few days. I will try to post tomorrow during my return home, but expect full posting to resume on Thursday.

Also, though I will comment then in greater length about SpaceX’s announcement on Monday that they plan on sending two tourists around the Moon by 2018, I want to note here that this announcement is clearly Elon Musk’s response to the effort by NASA to delay the launch of commercial crew because of so-called safety issues so that SLS/Orion might fly first. Musk is telling the world that NASA’s safety concerns are crap (to which I generally agree) and he intends to prove this with his own lunar manned mission.

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