Lockheed Martin ready to build Orion?

O joy! After more than a decade of design work, costing billions, Lockheed Martin now says it is ready to begin building the first Orion capsule for eventual launch only 8 years from now!

“The vast majority of Orion’s design is over, and now we will only change things when new requirements come into play,” said Michael Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager. “Considering the incredible complexity of this spacecraft, the team is very proud to have successfully completed the design review and is looking forward to seeing it fly.”

For those who don’t detect my sarcasm, I find this project more than absurd. Bush proposed Orion in 2004. Lockheed has been spending billions for years just designing it. In about six to eight years from now they might finally get one capsule completed for launch in 2023, almost two decades after it was first proposed.

Two decades to build one capsule! With a cost in the billions. Let these facts sink in for a bit and then ask yourself: Why are we spending money on this pork project that will never fly?

Worldview tests subscale prototype of its balloon and capsule

The competition heats up: Worldview, the company planning to sell tickets for high-altitude tourist flights to the edge of space, successfully completed this weekend a test flight of a 10-percent scale prototype of its capsule and balloon.

The balloon reached an altitude just over 100,000 feet, just under 19 miles. The capsule then separated and landed safely using a parafoil. This success keeps them on schedule for their first commercial flights in 2017.

Congressional leaders negotiating 2-year spending deal

The fix is in: The White House and Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders hope to complete a two year budget deal by tonight that will allow an increase in the debt limit.

White House budget director Shaun Donovan and legislative affairs director Katie Beirne Fallon are hammering out the package with staff representing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to be elected Speaker on Thursday, but he has not taken part in these budget negotiations, aides said. In recent weeks, Boehner has said he wants to “clean the barn up a little bit” before he leaves Congress at the end of the week.

Legislation to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government is central to the deal, but the talks are also said to include measures that would fund highway and infrastructure construction and renew the Export-Import Bank for one year.  

If you read the article with a clear mind, you will see that all the dealmaking is designed to increase spending. Moreover, it notes how Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) does not want to have the renewal of the Export-Import Bank on a stand-alone bill. Unstated is why, as he knows that on its own the Republican majorities in both Houses would shoot it down in a second.

When Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) refers to these guys as the “Washington cartel” he is exactly right. They have no interest in cutting the size of the federal government, and are doing whatever they can to maintain their steadily weakening grip on power. The good news is that their grip is weakening.

Billions of Obamacare funds pocketed by Democrats

Finding out what’s in it (for Democrats): Billions of dollars of Obamacare funds have vanished, having been given to sixteen states — mostly Democratically-run — to build Obamacare marketplaces but never used as intended.

The controls on federal spending right now are nil. The money almost goes out randomly, without any scrutiny, funding the friends of the Washington politicians both in Washington and throughout the country. The Democrats might have benefited royally from Obamacare, but the Republican leadership gets its own payoffs with these funds, which is why they haven’t done much to cut spending, even though that was the promise they ran under.

Pluto’s meandering canyons

canyons of Pluto

Cool image time! In scrolling through the new raw images downloaded from New Horizons today I came across an image, one of several, that showed what clearly appeared to be meandering canyons carved by flowing liquid.

To show it here, I have cropped it and reduced its size somewhat, highlighting the most interesting features. As you can see, the largest canyon not only appears to have a dark floor, it cuts right through an older crater. Smaller canyons do the same thing. In addition, many of the craters seem to be ponded with the same dark material that floors the canyons, while some of the smaller canyons show tributaries that come together, just like rivers. Are these flows of liquid nitrogen?

I eagerly await the conclusions of the scientists, who are probably only slightly less baffled by these features as I am.

Be sure and check out the full image, as well as the other raw images. The data continue to come in from New Horizons, but the science team is no longer under the same kind of public pressure to make announcements or hold press conferences. There are gems hidden there that are worth looking at, even if they are not as yet accompanied by any scientific analysis.

NASA to decide on 2nd cargo contracts Nov 5

The competition heats up: NASA will announce the two contract winners for its second round of ISS cargo contracts on November 5.

If it was up to me to pick the two winners from the four companies bidding, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada, I would go with Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada. SpaceX and Boeing already have contracts to ferry crews to ISS with their Dragon and Starliner capsules. By picking Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, NASA would then have four different ways to get payloads to ISS.

Sadly, the decision is not up to me. It is more likely NASA will pick SpaceX and Boeing. Boeing especially is likely to get picked because they are an established big player with lots of capital and influence.

A detailed update on the Falcon 9 return-to-flight

Link here. It appears that SpaceX hopes to complete the following launches in quick order::

1. November 24: First Falcon 9 upgrade launch: 11 Orbcomm low-orbit satellites
2. December 15: Last old Falcon 9 launch: Jason 3
3. December 27: Second Falcon 9 upgrade launch: SES-9 geosynchronous communications satellite
4. Early January: Third Falcon 9 upgrade launch: Dragon and the Bigelow BEAM inflatable module to ISS

All these dates are of course subject to delays. Launches 1 and 3 will definitely attempt vertical landings of the first stage on a barge.

The main point of the article above was to note that the SpaceX is now ready to do a full thrust test firing of the first stage that will be used in the November 24 launch, doing that test at its McGregor, Texas, test facility. As noted, “All Falcon stages pass through the Texas site, allowing them to be fired up and tested for any issues prior to continuing their journey to the launch site.” The article then described one case where the testing successfully spotted an issue that was fixed prior to launch.

I think this speaks volumes about the robustness of SpaceX’s manufacturing process. Their rockets are built in one place, shipped to another for testing, and then shipped to a third for launch. And all within mere weeks. This robustness also suggests that the rocket’s first stage will be able to withstand its vertical landing and be able to be reused, as planned.

The article also provides some further insights in why the company switched the SES-9 and Orbcomm launches.

Pluto in 3D

The New Horizons science team has released its first 3D image of the surface of Pluto.

You need red/blue stereo glasses to view it.

The image shows an ancient, heavily cratered region of Pluto, dotted with low hills and cut by deep fractures, which indicate extension of Pluto’s crust. Analysis of these stereo images shows that the steep fracture in the upper left of the image is about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) deep, and the craters in the lower right part of the image are up to 1.3 miles (2.1 km) deep. Smallest visible details are about 0.4 miles (0.6 kilometers) across.

My impression of the image, using the glasses, makes me wonder if they have exaggerated the vertical depth so that it would stand out. The craters look more like pits than craters. And if they didn’t exaggerate the vertical depth, then that means that impacts on Pluto produce craters that are very different than those seen in the inner solar system.

Mysterious piece of space junk to hit Earth

A piece of unidentified space junk, discovered in a long elliptical orbit going out far beyond the Moon, has been calculated to hit the Earth over the Indian Ocean on November 13.

WT1190F was detected by the Catalina Sky Survey, a program aimed at discovering asteroids and comets that swing close to Earth. At first scientists didn’t know what to make of this weird body. But they quickly computed its trajectory, after collecting more observations and unearthing 2012 and 2013 sightings from telescope archives, says independent astronomy software developer Bill Gray, who has been working to track the debris with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

WT1190F travels a highly elliptical orbit, swinging out twice as far as the Earth-Moon distance, Gray says. Gray’s calculations show that it will hit the Earth at 6:20 UTC, falling about 65 kilometres off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Much if not all of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but “I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it,” Gray says.

What makes the object interesting is that they don’t know when it was launched or how it got in the orbit it is in. It could even be something from the Apollo lunar missions.

The coming dark ages

I decided today, after one of my readers, John Harman, sent me a link to a very blunt but accurate piece describing the sad state of modern American culture, that it was necessary to explain why I had posted nothing here on Behind the Black on Thursday, even though I was home all day doing what I usually do, scanning the web for interesting stuff.

To begin, you might want to read the essay that John sent me, entitled Wimp Nation: Poised to Fall. It sums up the cultural situation quite nicely.

The United States has become a nation of weak, pampered, easily frightened, helpless milquetoasts who have never caught a fish, fired a gun, chopped a log, hitchhiked across the country, or been in a schoolyard fight. If their cat dies, they call a grief therapist. Everything frightens Americans.

Read it all.

You then might want to read this story about Hillary Clinton’s testimony and questioning on Thursday in front of the House Benghazi committee. Here too the author captures the sick intellectually dishonest nature of America’s political culture.

What we discovered is this: The White House and Clinton apparently knew that the Benghazi attack was the premeditated work of Islamic terrorists before the bodies were cold. She and the administration nevertheless proceeded to propagate a falsehood that advanced the president’s preferred political narrative just six weeks before a tightly-contested national election.

As I noted to John, Hillary Clinton’s testimony wasn’t news, it was a joke. What did we learn? She is a liar? That’s news? What was worse, as the author of the article noted, were the reporters willing to make believe this wasn’t so.

Then there are these two stories:
» Read more

Justice Dept ends IRS investigation with no charges

Working for the Democratic Party: The Obama Justice Department has decided to file no criminal charges against anyone, including Lois Lerner, in the IRS scandal.

I was going to label this a whitewash in the headline, but decided to leave that conclusion to my readers. This quote from the article however should help you decide whether it was a whitewash:

Some Republicans have questioned the validity of the probe from the beginning, after learning that one of the Justice Department lawyers assigned to the investigation was a contributor to Mr. Obama’s political campaigns. [emphasis mine]

So, Lerner and the IRS conspire with the Obama administration from 2010 to 2012 to squelch the ability of conservatives to organize and raise funds prior to the 2012 election. The result: Obama wins, and the Republicans fail to win the Senate. Afterward the Democrats shrug their shoulders, say they shouldn’t have done it, but it wasn’t really bad anyway.

The worse part will be the number of reporters and media folk who will rally to the Democrats for this corrupt use of government power to crush their political opposition.

Obamacare still accepts fake enrollees

Finding out what’s in it: For the second time the GAO has been able to sign up fake enrollees to Obamacare.

The Government Accountability Office sent 10 auditors with fictitious enrollment information to the federal healthcare.gov site as well as two state-run ObamaCare exchanges, to sign up for subsidized insurance. While eight didn’t make it through the initial identity-checking process, all 10 eventually obtained coverage, even though four obviously had made up Social Security numbers that started with “000.” They all were able to keep their coverage despite filing fake follow-up documentation.

In addition, the GAO tried to sign eight more up for Medicaid coverage. Three made it through the process, and four ended up getting subsidized private coverage instead. The only one that failed was in California, which refused to sign the person up without a Social Security number.

The GAO did this also last year. Apparently, despite having a year to fix the problem, our crack government officials couldn’t do it. Not that I am surprised. Government operations are never very efficient or successful. There is no incentive to do well, as it is impossible to get fired, there is no competition, and the funds are coerced tax dollars rather than freely given by voluntary customers.

The largest astronomical image ever

Astronomers have assembled the largest single image of the entire Milky Way ever taken.

It is 46 billion pixels across.

The amazing view of the Milky Way was built out of 268 individual views of the galaxy that includes the sun and the Earth, captured night after night over the course of five years with telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Astronomers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum used the data to examine stars whose brightness changes over time — and the image portrays more than 50,000 new objects with variable brightness that have never been recorded before.

ULA prepares Atlas 5 for its third October launch

The competition heats up: ULA will attempt its third Atlas 5 launch in October, launching a new GPS satellite for the Air Force on October 30.

In the past ULA never packed its launches in this tightly. I suspect they are now doing so because of the competition from SpaceX. They need to show their customers, both commercial and the government, that they are a reliable launch provider. Launching three Atlas 5s in one month is one way to do it.

Update on Vostochny delays

RussianSpaceWeb today has posted a good detailed update on the construction status of Vostochny.

The update suggests that the April 12 deadline is not firm. Things could be delayed beyond that date. The update also made no mention of the report that the Soyuz rocket assembly building had been built to the wrong size. This could either mean that the building was built correctly and the report was wrong, or that they are now trying to keep this fact from the press while they scramble to fix it.

Another Pluto Moon revealed


The uncertainty of science: The New Horizons science team has released their best image of Pluto’s moon Kerberos, finding it to be nothing like what they expected.

Before the New Horizons encounter with Pluto, researchers had used Hubble Space Telescope images to “weigh” Kerberos by measuring its gravitational influence on its neighboring moons. That influence was surprisingly strong, considering how faint Kerberos was. They theorized that Kerberos was relatively large and massive, appearing faint only because its surface was covered in dark material. But the small, bright-surfaced, Kerberos now revealed by these new images show that that idea was incorrect, for reasons that are not yet understood.

Instead, Kerberos is much smaller than expected, and its surface is bright, suggesting it is covered by relatively clean ice. It is also double lobed, kind of like Comet 67P/C-G.

SpaceX Dragonfly test vehicle arrives in Texas

The competition heats up: Dragonfly, SpaceX’s test capsule for testing vertical rocket landings, has arrived at their facility in McGregor, Texas.

DragonFly will be attached to a large crane, ahead of a series of test firings of its SuperDraco thrusters to set the stage towards the eventual goal of propulsive landings. The first test is set to take place in the next few weeks to kick start around two years of incremental testing.

Similar in concept to Grasshopper, Dragonfly is not an actual Dragon capsule, but a testbed for figuring out how to do vertical landings with a capsule, using thrusters.

Hawaii names third telescope to be removed from Mauna Kea

The dark ages return! The University of Hawaii has announced that the UKIRT Observatory on Mauna Kea will be decommissioned, making it the third telescope to be removed in order to try to satisfy the protesters hostile to the construction of the new Thirty Meter Telescope.

You wanna bet this won’t satisfy the protesters and that they will demand more while refusing to end their protests?

Two NASA employees indicted for allowing Chinese scientist access

Two NASA supervisors from the Langley Research Center in Virginia have been indicted for allowing a Chinese scientist unrestricted access to the facilities there for two years, including allowing the scientist to return to China with a NASA-issued laptop.

What I find amazing about this indictment is that a U.S. attorney in the Obama Justice Department has issued it. The Obama administration and NASA administrator Charles Bolden want unrestricted cooperation with China, and have even done some things that could also violate the same laws against providing U.S. technology to China. Under these conditions, I would have thought the attorney would have been ordered to drop the case, just as the Obama administration has done with numerous other examples where someone in that administration did something illegal and got away with it.

Earth might be one of the universe’s first habitable planets

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler suggests that the Earth might be one of the first planets in the universe to harbor life.

I label this result uncertain because it is based on what I consider to be a very poor sampling of exoplanets as seen by Kepler. Kepler might have found a lot of exoplanets, but the numbers are still small and skewed by the limited types of suns observed and the short time frame of its observations. Moreover, the data from Hubble is rich, but also quite small, leaving great uncertainties for all of these conclusions.

At the same time, this conclusion might help explain why, after almost a half century of looking, we have yet to detect any evidence of radio communications from any other civilizations. You would think we would have detected something by now. Maybe they don’t exist, and we are the first.

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