Update on SpaceShipTwo investigation

Additional details about the investigation into the crash of SpaceShipTwo have now been released.

The investigators are focusing on the telemetry that the pilots were receiving, as well as the system for activating the ship’s braking feathering system.

As I have noted in the comments, we must try not to speculate on this subject, especially because this issue could do harm to innocent people. For example, some reports have incorrectly attributed the crash to pilot error. To say this now is false. All the investigation has noted is that the co-pilot took the first step to activating the feathering system, as he was supposed to do, though slightly early. The feathering system then deployed on its own, without the second command being given.

We do not yet know the finer details that make his action significant, or not. This is why the investigation is checking into the telemetry the pilots were getting, which might have affected when they did what they did.

We need to wait for more data.

Some Virgin Galactic customers demand money back

News reports suggest that — following last week’s SpaceShipTwo crash — more than thirty of the seven hundred people who placed deposits with Virgin Galactic to fly on SpaceshipTwo have pulled out, demanding their money back.

In response to the claim that more than 30 customers are considering their position in the aftermath of the crash, a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic admitted a number of people have asked for their money back. “We can confirm that less than three per cent of people have requested refunds,” the spokesman said.

This is not a surprise, nor should it be. A company can only survive a crisis like this by responding honestly, quickly, and directly. If Virgin Galactic does this, finding the cause of the crash and fixing it, they will likely hold onto most of their customers. If they don’t, those remaining customers will leave. This week’s cancellations are the first immediate response to the crash. The future of the company, however, will be determined by what happens in the next six months.

How a big impact gave Vesta its grooves

New data suggests that when a large impact hit Vesta’s Rheasilvia basin sometime in the past, the entire asteroid was shaken up, producing ripples that eventually surfaced as the giant grooves that circle the asteroid’s equator.

“Vesta got hammered,” said Peter Schultz, professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown and the paper’s senior author. “The whole interior was reverberating, and what we see on the surface is the manifestation of what happened in the interior.”

The research suggests that the Rheasilvia basin on Vesta’s south pole was created by an impactor that came in at an angle, rather than straight on. But that glancing blow still did an almost unimaginable amount of damage. The study shows that just seconds after the collision, rocks deep inside the asteroid began to crack and crumble under the stress. Within two minutes major faults reached near the surface, forming deep the canyons seen today near Vesta’s equator, far from the impact point.

Essentially, for a very very short period of time, immediately after the impact, the solid material of the asteroid acted more like a liquid, producing ripples that immediately settled down as the solid deep equatorial grooves we see today.

G2 survives Milky Way center fly by

The uncertainty of science: The gas cloud, dubbed G2, that was going to be eaten by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way as it did a close fly-by this summer has instead turned out to be a massive star formed when the star’s of its binary system merged.

G2 survived the fly-by, produced no big fireworks which were what was predicted if it has been a gas cloud. The data now suggests that the object is instead a very big star formed when two stars merged.

Massive stars in our galaxy, [astronomer Andrea Ghez] noted, primarily come in pairs. When the two stars merge into one, the star expands for more than one million years “before it settles back down,” Ghez said. “This may be happening more than we thought; the stars at the center of the galaxy are massive and mostly binaries. It’s possible that many of the stars we’ve been watching and not understanding may be the end product of a merger that are calm now.”

Be warned that this new hypothesis about G2 has its own uncertainties. Better data might eventually find it to be something else again.

SpaceShipTwo’s engine did not cause failure

The investigation into the failure of SpaceShipTwo last week during a powered flight test has determined that the accident was not caused by the spaceship’s engine and that the spaceship’s feathering system for return to Earth began deploying early during powered flight.

The ship’s fuel tanks and its engine were recovered intact, indicating there was no explosion. “They showed no signs of burn-through, no signs of being breached,” Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation and Safety Board, told reporters at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif

Instead, data and video relayed from the ship show its hallmark safety feature — a foldable tail section designed for easy re-entry into the atmosphere from space — was deployed early.

More here. Deployment required two commands, activation and then deployment. Data shows that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury activated the system slightly early. The second command, however, was not given, but the feathering system began to deploy nonetheless, during powered flight when the ship was accelerating upward. That is when the ship broke up.

SpaceShipTwo accident pilots identified

As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) begins its investigation into the SpaceShipTwo test flight failure, the identities of the two pilots have finally been released.

The Kern County Coroner’s Office announced Nov. 1 that Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old test pilot employed by Scaled Composites, was the person killed in the crash of the vehicle north of Mojave, California. Scaled Composites confirmed that identification in a press release issued late Nov. 1, which also stated that the pilot injured in the crash was the company’s director of flight operations, Peter Siebold. Alsbury was the co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo on its first powered flight, in April 2013. According to public flight logs maintained by Scaled Composites, he most recently flew SpaceShipTwo as co-pilot on an unpowered test flight on Aug. 28, a “cold flow” test where nitrous oxide was vented through the engine but not ignited.

Siebold was the pilot or co-pilot of SpaceShipTwo on its previous four flights, including the Aug. 28 flight with Alsbury. Siebold was also a pilot on several test flights of SpaceShipOne, an earlier suborbital spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites that won the $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004. In the statement, Scaled Composites said that Siebold was “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” but provided no other details about his condition.

Alsbury should receive the same honor given to all other astronauts and pilots who have sacrificed their lives so that humans will someday leave the surface of the Earth.

New rocket coming from ULA?

The competition heats up: The head of ULA hints that the company is developing a new rocket.

“Today, we have Atlas and Delta,” Bruno said of ULA’s product line. The company is completing studies leading to an announcement early next year of “what we will have next.” He confirmed, “It could be a new rocket.”

It could be that they have seen the writing on the wall and realize that Atlas and Delta are simply too expensive to compete with SpaceX and have decided they need to come up with something better. I hope so.

Rosetta gets in position to release Phalae

Rosetta has successfully maneuvered into position prior to releasing Philae on November 12 for landing on Comet 67P/C-G.

The thruster burn took place starting at 02:09:55 UTC (03:09:55 CET), ran for 90 seconds and, based on an initial analysis of spacecraft radiometric data, delivered a delta-v – change in speed – of 9.3 cm/sec, as confirmed by the Rosetta Flight Dynamics team. It was the second and final of two ‘deterministic’ (i.e. direction and thrust are prepared in advance) manoeuvres that moved Rosetta onto the planned lander delivery orbit, now at a height of about 30 km, which will be maintained right up until the pre-delivery manoeuvre at two hours before separation at 08:35 UTC (09:35 CET) on the morning of 12 November.

…[T]he next planned orbit-changing manoeuvres will occur on the 12th at (a) 2 hours before separation and (b) about 40 minutes after, in between which Philae will be released. The pre-delivery manoeuvre will shift Rosetta’s trajectory so that the orbiter would be on a path so as to pass over the comet at a distance of 5 km, while the separation will occur at 08:35 UTC on board the spacecraft about 22 km (the confirmation signal will arrive on Earth at 09:03 UTC).

Since Philae is a passive lander, firing no thrusters but simply being thrown gently at the comet by Rosetta, the last two burns are crucial. The first literally puts Rosetta on the same collision course as Philae so that when the lander is released it is on a course to hit the comet. The second takes Rosetta out of that collision course, since no one wants it to hit the comet also.

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