Loose fibers significantly cuts Gaia’s output

Europe’s Gaia telescope, designed to precisely measure the motions of a billion stars in the Milky Way, will have its accuracy cut in half because of the presence of loose fibers on the telescope’s sun shield that are allowing too much stray light in.

These fibres were spotted on Gaia before launch, but cutting them off was considered too risky, because that could allow small particles to enter the spacecraft. Another option, taping them down, was also ruled out because the increased stiffness could prevent the sunshield from unfolding.

The stray light shouldn’t affect measurements of the galaxy’s brightest stars, says Gaia science team member Anthony Brown at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, but it will double the expected errors on most of the stars in the Milky Way, which are much fainter.

For astronomers this is a great tragedy. Gaia will still teach us much, just not as much as they had hoped.

Nicaragua and China break ground on new canal

In a largely symbolic act, Nicaragua broke ground on Monday on the Chinese-backed construction of a new canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The project is being pushed by Nicaraguan President (and former Marxist guerrilla leader) Daniel Ortega and financed by Wang Jing, “a little-known Chinese telecom mogul well connected to China’s political elite.” And as much as normally support any ambitious effort to create business opportunities for people in poor countries, this quote from the article raised some red flags about the project I hadn’t thought of previously:

The proposed canal is set to intersect Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lake Cocibolca, sending cargo ships and tankers straight through the largest source of freshwater in Central America. Further, the canal is expected to displace tens of thousands of mostly rural and indigenous landholders and would likely devastate over 400,000 acres of rainforests and wetlands, which scientists say are critical to local and regional biodiversity conservation efforts.

I am usually very skeptical of environmental protests since their motives are almost always to promote socialism or communism and not to protect the environment. Here however the protests are against a project being promoted by a Marxist ruler and the communist Chinese. Moreover, it does seem a reasonable question to worry about the possible introduction of ocean saltwater into “the largest source of freshwater in Central America.”

Delta employee caught repeatedly smuggling guns on flights

Does this make you feel safer? A Delta employee was arrested today for smuggling guns on several commercial flights.

Henry allegedly brought the firearms in his carry-on luggage on at least five flights from Atlanta to New York between May 1 and December 10. During that time frame, Henry supplied a total of 129 handguns and two assault rifles to co-conspirators in New York, the affidavit states. One of those co-conspirators ended up selling the firearms to an undercover New York police officer.

Henry was arrested in New York on December 10 after landing at JFK airport with 18 handguns in his bag — seven of which were loaded, the affidavit says.

He apparently used his security clearance to bypass the TSA, thus avoiding getting sexually abused while also bringing loads of weapons on board numerous flights.

But the TSA works! The government tells us so!

After a year Obamacare still stinks

Link here. The quote below illustrates nicely the madness of asking the government to run healthcare, or any other complicated aspect of life:

With the state-run exchanges coming down the pike I realized that, at least in the first year, I would be able to purchase health insurance at a reasonable price. So I left my employer in July 2013 and launched my consulting firm. In November 2013, I duly filled out my application to purchase insurance on the D.C. health exchange. After that, nothing happened: The only further communication I received from the exchange was a flurry of letters and emails informing me I had the right to have my communications from the D.C. exchange sent to me in any of 20 different languages, including Irish and Navajo.

After a number of ignored emails and phone calls, I contacted a health insurance “facilitator” to see if she could help me. No dice. She did manage to make the D.C. government verify that the information I had sent them—copies of passports, utility bills, and tax statements—showed that my family did exist and resided in the District, but we still weren’t able to buy insurance going into 2014.

The D.C. exchange assured me that they would straighten things out by mid-January and allow me to buy insurance retroactive to January 1. But it wasn’t until mid-March that we managed to buy insurance. And actually paying for insurance did not end our travails: The exchange mistakenly applied my payments for March and April to January and February instead, which led to our insurance being canceled on April 1, necessitating another flurry of calls and letters. A few months later we received a letter again threatening us with immediate cancellation unless I delivered copies of our passports. Resolving this one was trickier because, upon calling the exchange, the people there denied such a notice was sent until I forwarded a copy to them.

One statistic from my enrollment efforts: In four consecutive months, I spent over 500 minutes on the phone with either the D.C. health exchange or the health insurance company we selected.

Recently, with premium increases for 2015 presumably about to be announced, I thought it might make sense to go on the exchange’s website and see if they had updated prices for competing plans. After 20 minutes of trying to log in without success, I gave up, vowing never to get on the site again.

Even if he could have logged on, he would have had problems finding out the prices for the 2015 plans. Obama did not want those prices revealed prior to the election. While a private business’s only concern would be providing service to its customers so they were willing to buy its product, a government-run operation always has to deal with the political concerns of politicians, which warps its ability to serve its customers.

Angara A5 rocket launches successfully

The competition heats up: Russia successfully completed the first test launch of the heavy-lift version of its Angara rocket today.

More background here.

At this moment the dummy payload is in a preliminary orbit and requires additional engine burns by the Briz-M upper stage to reach its planned geosynchronous orbit. Briz-M however is well tested and has been in use for years already on the Proton rocket. Therefore, for Angara this flight has now been a complete success, even if the Briz-M stage fails.

IRS leadership planned harassment of conservatives

Working for the IRS: A House report, to be released on Tuesday, carefully documents how the IRS specifically targeted conservative groups for harassment back in 2010.

Top IRS officials specifically targeted tea party groups and misled the public about its secret political targeting program led by ex-official Lois Lerner, according to a bombshell new congressional report.

The Daily Caller has obtained an advance copy of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report set to be released Tuesday morning that definitively proves malicious intent by the IRS to improperly block conservative groups that an IRS adviser deemed “icky.” (That’s right. “Icky.”) “The Committee has identified eight senior leaders who were in a position to prevent or to stop the IRS’s targeting of conservative applicants,” the Oversight report states. “Each of these leaders could have and should have done more to prevent the IRS’s targeting of conservative tax-exempt applicants.”

Instead, these IRS officials worked to do whatever they could to deny conservatives the same tax benefits they routinely gave to liberal groups.

Successful Falcon 9 static fire

After unspecified issues on a static fire test last week caused the postponement of the Falcon 9/Dragon launch until January 6, SpaceX followed up with a successful full static fire test of the rocket on Friday.

SpaceX fueled up a Falcon 9 rocket, ran through a mock countdown and fired the booster’s nine Merlin main engines Friday in a successful preflight static fire test officials hope will clear the way for liftoff Jan. 6 on a space station resupply mission. The exercise occurred at approximately 2:55 p.m. EST (1955 GMT) Friday while the Falcon 9 rocket and a Dragon supply ship were kept grounded at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad.

New data says volcanoes, not asteroids, killed dinosaurs

The uncertainty of science: A careful updating of the geological timeline has strengthened the link between the dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago and a major volcanic event at that time.

A primeval volcanic range in western India known as the Deccan Traps, which were once three times larger than France, began its main phase of eruptions roughly 250,000 years before the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, extinction event, the researchers report in the journal Science. For the next 750,000 years, the volcanoes unleashed more than 1.1 million cubic kilometers (264,000 cubic miles) of lava. The main phase of eruptions comprised about 80-90 percent of the total volume of the Deccan Traps’ lava flow and followed a substantially weaker first phase that began about 1 million years earlier.

The results support the idea that the Deccan Traps played a role in the K-Pg extinction, and challenge the dominant theory that a meteorite impact near present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, was the sole cause of the extinction. The researchers suggest that the Deccan Traps eruptions and the Chicxulub impact need to be considered together when studying and modeling the K-Pg extinction event.

The general public might not know it, but the only ones in the field of dinosaur research that have said the asteroid was the sole cause of the extinction have been planetary scientists.

The cowards in the Sony/North Korea kerfuffle

From Presidents to movie executives, everyone involved in the Sony software hack by North Korea has shown themselves to be a weak-kneed coward, willing to fold to the demands of a meglo-maniac dictator rather than to stand for freedom.

I want to underline one fact about almost all these cowards: They are almost all liberals. Except for Clooney and a handful of other liberals, the only people willing to stand up to North Korea here have been conservatives.

Meanwhile, Sony is now giving tax cheat, bigot, race-baiter, and anti-Semite Al Sharpton veto-power over the movies it makes.

CO2 satellite overcomes design flaw

Despite a decade of development, including the production of two satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 was launched in July with a basic design flaw that was never spotted.

Scientists and engineers on the project have ridden an emotional roller coaster. In 2009, a rocket failure doomed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, their first attempt at a carbon-mapping probe. Its replacement, OCO-2, launched successfully. But after the JPL turned on the main instrument — a trio of spectrometers that measure sunlight light reflecting off Earth’s surface — the team discovered a problem in OCO-2’s data. They eventually determined that it was caused by a design flaw that reduced the amount of light entering the instrument during one mode of operation. The problem dated to 2004 and had never been caught in testing, says JPL’s David Crisp, the science team leader of the OCO-2 mission. “It was a stupid mistake. Embarrassing to the instrument designer and to me,” he says.

This flaw was apparently in both OCO satellites and was never noticed.

Fortunately, they have improvised a work-around that is allowing the spacecraft to get its data, which interestingly shows the highest concentrations of CO2 are coming not from the U.S. and the First World but from poorer parts of Africa and South America (caused by “burning savannas and forests,” not SUVs) and from China.

The liberal hatefest

Feel the love: A liberal professor (and department chair) at the University of Michigan has published an article where she advocates it is “okay to hate Republicans.”

Republicans now, she writes, are focused on the “determined vilification” of others, and have “crafted a political identity that rests on a complete repudiation of the idea that the opposing party and its followers have any legitimacy at all.”

She doesn’t seem to notice her own obvious intolerance apparently. Note also that, being a liberal, she probably considers herself the embodiment of tolerance and love.

More here, including this line: “If you are paying for the tuition of a child attending the University of Michigan, pull them out.”

Kepler reborn

Kepler detects its first exoplanet after its mission was reshaped because of the failure of two of its four gyros.

The newfound planet, HIP 116454b, has a diameter of 20,000 miles, two and a half times the size of Earth. HARPS-N showed that it weighs almost 12 times as much as Earth. This makes HIP 116454b a super-Earth, a class of planets that doesn’t exist in our solar system. The average density suggests that this planet is either a water world (composed of about three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a mini-Neptune with an extended, gaseous atmosphere.

This close-in planet circles its star once every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles. Its host star is a type K orange dwarf slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. The system is 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.

Even more cool, the detection took place during Kepler’s first test run in its new configuration. This bodes well for the space telescope’s ability to make future discoveries.

Friday’s Falcon 9 launch delayed

Because of a scrubbed static fire test on Tuesday, it is now likely that Friday’s Falcon 9/Dragon launch will be delayed until January.

Attempts during the four hour test window on Tuesday did not result in a successfully conducted Static Fire. Several requests for further information, sent to SpaceX during and after the test window, resulted in the company saying they had no information to provide. SpaceX normally provide confirmation after a successful conclusion to the test.

Source information noted at least one full countdown towards the firing was attempted, which was classed as aborted at the very end of the count. At least one NASA-based outlet claimed the Static Fire had taken place, potentially pointing to ignition of the Merlin 1D engines, before an abort – due to an issue – was likely called. No confirmed information on the issue has been forthcoming from SpaceX. However, the company has promised to provide more information to this site when “they have something to share.”

It was, however, understood that the next Static Fire attempt is likely to take place no sooner than Thursday. That too appears to have been cancelled following review.

If tomorrow’s static fire test has been canceled then Friday’s launch will definitely be canceled as well. None of this has been confirmed yet, however, so it is possible that all is well and the launch will go forward as planned.

Update: The launch delay has now been confirmed. A new launch has not yet been announced however.

Conservatives can remove John Boehner as House speaker

Makes sense to me. Erik Erickson suggests that 30 conservative Republicans can force the House Republican caucus to replace John Boehner as Speaker.

Some will argue that a vote against Boehner is a mere protest vote. It is not. There are 30 House conservatives whose vote against Boehner, along with the united front of Democrats voting for Pelosi, could deny him reelection. These 30 would be exercising a veto. There would be no chance of a Democrat becoming Speaker (an obvious point but an argument sure to be advanced by some Republican), because a actual majority of the whole House of Representatives is required. Republicans would simply go back and re-nominate someone else who would not be subsequently vetoed.

In other words, if about 30 Republicans made it clear to the caucus that they will not vote for Boehner, the caucus will be forced to find a more acceptable candidate for speaker.

As my readers are aware, I have not been as outraged by the budget deal as many conservatives. That does not mean, however, that I am pleased with Boehner’s wimpy leadership. Having conservatives flex some muscle and dump him would I think be an excellent start to this next Congress. It would signal to everyone that they mean business.

Countdown begins for the suborbital test flight of India’s new rocket

Link here. The launch is scheduled for 11 pm Eastern tonight.

Thursday’s test launch will check the performance of the GSLV Mk. 3’s first stage and strap-on boosters, which will carry the rocket out of the atmosphere beyond the boundary of space. The launcher’s cryogenic upper stage, which will be active and fueled by liquid hydrogen on future missions, will be dormant on Thursday’s flight.

…After the rocket’s propulsion shuts down, a gumdrop-shaped capsule will separate from the GSLV Mk. 3’s dummy upper segment about five-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, according to the Times of India, another English-language paper in India. The capsule weighs about 8,000 pounds — about 3.6 metric tons. Indian engineers from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. fabricated the car-sized module, and ISRO added sensors, strain gauges, a guidance and control system and a heat shield for the suborbital flight, which is called the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment, or CARE.

The seas of Titan

Thar’s black gold up thar! Data from Cassini has confirmed the presence of ocean waves on Titan’s seas, while also providing suggesting that they are made mostly of liquid methane, not ethane as had been predicted.

The maximum depth of Kraken Mare appears to be 160 meters, and Ligeia Mare could be as much as 200 meters deep, reported Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. The fact that the radar signals could bounce off the sea bottom suggests that the seas were more transparent than expected and thus must contain mostly methane, not ethane. Hayes says his best estimate is about 90% methane. Essam Marouf, a planetary scientist at San José State University in California, reported on the first results from a separate radar experiment that sent radar reflections to Earth instead of back to the spacecraft. Those tests provide independent evidence that the seas are dominated by methane, Marouf says, and it implies that the lakes are kept filled by precipitating methane.

As the article also notes, this methane is “55 times Earth’s oil reserves.”

The reasons behind Russia’s proposed new space station

Link here.

At the heart of the latest plan is the botched construction of the Multi-purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, the Russia’s next big piece of the International Space Station, ISS. After many years of delays, the price tag for the MLM project ballooned to one billion rubles, however the all-but-completed module had to be grounded until at least 2017 due to severe quality control problems during its manufacturing at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow. Repairs of the module were estimated at another billion rubles and GKNPTs Khrunichev was expected to cover this cost from its own reserves. However, the nearly bankrupt company came back with an announcement that it already owed around a billion Euro and would not be able to pay for the future work. Even if repaired and successfully launched, the MLM module, which would have taken more than two decades to build, could arrive at the ISS on the eve of its retirement.

As an alternative, Russian space officials came up with a new scheme to build a whole new station around the MLM, instead of launching it to the ISS. The project with an estimated price tag from four to five billion rubles would cover a five-year delay in the construction of the ISS. The new Russian station would also utilize all future Russian modules, which were expected to follow MLM to the ISS, such as the Node Module, UM; the Science and Power Module, NEM; an Inflatable Habitat, and the OKA-T laboratory.

There’s more. Read it all.

The Falcon 9 first stage landing barge about to set sail

The competition heats up: The barge that SpaceX has modified to provide an ocean platform for the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to land on is ready to leave port for Friday’s Dragon launch.

I think this Friday’s launch should be far more interesting and exciting that the Orion test flight a little over a week ago. Unlike the Orion flight, SpaceX will be attempting something that has never been done before. And should they succeed, they will rock the aerospace industry as much as Sputnik did in 1957.

Update: SpaceX put out a press release late on Tuesday detailing precisely what they hope to do, with videos from previous atttempts.

Orbital Sciences picks another Russian engine for Antares

The heat of competition: In its effort to replace the old Cold War Soviet-era refurbished Russian engines for the first stage of its Antares rocket, Orbital Sciences today announced that it will instead buy a different modern-built Russian engine.

Designated the RD-181, the new engine will be used on Antares in shipsets of two to accommodate as closely as possible the two-engine configuration built around the AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital Sciences managers said Dec. 16. A descendant of the RD-171 that powers the Ukrainian-built Zenit launch vehicle, the RD-181 will be manufactured in the same Khimki factory that builds the RD-180 used on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It closely resembles the RD-191 on Russia’s new Angara launcher and the RD-151 that powers South Korea’s Naro-1 launch vehicle.

It appears that this is the only engine presently available that can do the job. In the long run however it puts Antares and Orbital Sciences at a competitive disadvantage. Even though the sanctions against using Russian engines, passed by Congress, only apply to military launches, Orbital’s continuing reliance on Russian engines will limit their customer base.

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