Monthly Archives: December 2015

Virgin Galactic to use 747 for LauncherOne

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic has purchased a 747 from Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines to use as the launch vehicle for its LauncherOne rocket.

They say that WhiteKnightOne will still be used for suborbital flights, but that they need the 747 for the orbital missions of LauncherOne. They also say that test flights will begin in 2017. We shall see.


NASA Mars lander might miss 2016 launch window.

A leaking French instrument planned for NASA’s next Martian lander, InSight, might force the spacecraft to miss its launch window next March.

The instrument is still in France. If they can’t get the problem solved they can’t install it on the spacecraft. With a launch window only four months away time is running out.


LRO finds lunar impact site for Apollo rocket stage

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has located the impact site for the Apollo 16 rocket booster that, like four other boosters, had been deliberately crashed on the surface so the Apollo seismometers could use the vibrations to study the Moon’s interior.

The other impact sites had been found already, but Apollo 16 was harder to pin down because contact with the booster had ended prematurely so its location was less well known.


Boxer cites California gun laws to stop California terrorist attacks

The reality-challenged Democratic Party: Today Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), in demanding new gun control regulations in response to yesterday’s terrorist attack in California, noted that “sensible gun laws work. We’ve proven it in California.”

You can’t make this stuff up. The so-called sensible but very restrictive gun control laws in California did nothing to stop the murderers yesterday, but they did do a good job of making sure the innocent people there were unarmed, helpless, and easy targets. (The attack also took place in a government facility that is a gun-free zone.)

So of course, Boxer and the Democrats want to disarm everyone else, so that these killers won’t have as hard a time at killing us.


Oblique view of Ceres’s bright spots

Occator Crater on Ceres

Cool image time! The image above is a newly released image of Occator Crater on Ceres, the location of the dwarf planet’s double bright spots, taken by Dawn in October.

I have cropped the image to focus on the crater and the bright spots. Unlike most previous images, this one is taken from an angle to bring out the topography, which also confirms what other data had shown, that the bright spots are not on top of any peaks. If anything, they appear to be located at low spots in the crater, as that previous data had suggested.

Though the spots are not really very bright, they are very bright relative to the dark surface of Ceres. This is why it is difficult to get a good image of them. Either you have to over-expose the spots to see the surface details around them, or under-expose the surface around them to see some detail in the spots. This image tries to find a middle ground.

Eventually they will move Dawn in very close to try to get higher resolution images of the spots alone. At that time we might finally be able to get a better understanding of what causes them.


Syria’s only astronaut now a refugee

The uncertainty of life: Muhammed Faris, the only Syrian to ever fly in space, is now a refugee living in Turkey with his family.

Then in 2011, just as he was preparing to enjoy a life in retirement, it all went wrong – as it did for his country. In 2012, he defected from the Syrian Air Force and joined the armed opposition. He was deemed a traitor, had all his honours revoked and his belongings confiscated. He eventually had to flee his country, leaving almost everything behind.

Read it all. He says that his reasons for leaving the air force were because it was bombing its own citizens but I wonder if it might be more complicated than that.


Arm yourself

As usual, yesterday’s mass shooting in California caused President Obama and the entire left to go into spasms demanding more gun control. A gunman shows up at a random site and begins shooting innocent unarmed people, and the first instinct of the left is to disarm more people so that vicious murderers will have more unarmed people to nonchalantly murder.

I say, it doesn’t matter whether yesterday’s killers were Islamic madmen, right-wing madmen, left-wing madmen, or plain-old madmen. What matters is that they had an easy time killing lots of people, because those people decided to remain unarmed and helpless in the face of violence.

I say, arm yourself. Get prepared so that if you find yourself in such terrible circumstances you can fight back and possibly survive, and in the process maybe save a lot of other lives as well. The likelihood that there will more such killers, most of whom will likely be Islamic terrorists because that is whom we are presently at war with, is quite high. To sit helpless and not prepared for battle is the height of foolishness.

You are personally responsible. You cannot depend on the police or government to defend you. You need to be prepared to defend yourself.

Arm yourself. The next time a killer shows up there should be ten free Americans capable of stopping him or her in their tracks, before anyone innocent dies.


Russia’s ten-year space budget slashed again

The uncertainty of budgets: Russia has once again cut the ten-year budget for its space program, forcing its space agency Roscosmos to reconsider its ten-year plan running through 2025.

Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos will receive just 1.5 trillion rubles ($22.5 billion) in government funding over the next ten years, less than half of estimated figures cited by space officials earlier this year, a Roscosmos statement said on Monday evening. The space agency was planning on receiving around 3.4 trillion rubles as part of the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 (FSP), a decade-long planning document that lays out Russia’s goals in space and allocates funding for them.

But Russia’s economic crisis and a broad readjustment of government spending across all sectors has forced Roscosmos to redraft its 10-year proposal several times over the past year.

This is not necessarily bad news for Russia’s space program. The cuts will force them to function like a private company, lean and mean, rather than a bloated wasteful government operation. They therefore might actually be more competitive as a result.


Hawaii’s Supreme Court kills TMT

The coming dark age: As I expected the Hawaiian Supreme Court today ruled that the construction permit given to the builders of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is invalid, putting all construction on Mauna Kea on hold indefinitely.

It is very clear that the very liberal government of Hawaii is on the side of the protesters and is doing what it can to stop construction. Will the builders of TMT recognize this and try to find a new site for the telescope, or will they continue the legal battle to build it in Hawaii? I think they stand no chance of winning in Hawaii, but they might not have any other choice.

I also ask: What about the decisions to decommission other telescopes to make room for TMT? Do those telescopes still get removed, even if TMT isn’t built?

All in all, this decision probably puts an end to new cutting-edge science in Hawaii. Like the Catholic Church’s attack on Galileo (which essentially killed the Renaissance in Italy), astronomers, and in fact all scientists, will likely go elsewhere now to find a friendly haven for the search for knowledge.


Lisa Pathfinder lifts off

Lisa Pathfinder, an experimental probe to test the technologies for measuring gravity waves in space, was successfully launched today by Arianespace’s Vega rocket.

At its core is a pair of free-floating, identical 46 mm gold–platinum cubes separated by 38 cm, which will be isolated from all external and internal forces acting on them except one: gravity. “LISA Pathfinder will put these test masses in the best free-fall ever produced in space and monitor their relative positions to unprecedented precision,” says Karsten Danzmann, who also is the Co-Principal Investigator for the LISA Pathfinder Technology Package, the scientific heart of the satellite. “This will lay the foundations for future gravitational-wave observatories in space such as eLISA.”

It is important to point out that this probe will not measure gravity waves. It doesn’t have the sensitivity to do it. Instead it is testing the engineering, as described above, for building a later probe that will have sensitivity. To gain that sensitivity the floating cubes must be much farther apart, and likely will require several independent satellites flying in formation.


Loggins & Messina – Watching the River Run, House at Pooh Corner, Danny’s Boy

An evening pause: I am usually terrible at remembering the names of songs and the pop singers who sing them, so there are many pop songs that I know and really like that I have no idea what they are named or who performed them. Thus, though I have been very familiar with the name of Loggins & Messina, I never knew these were their songs until I saw this very nice clip of a live concert they put on in 2005. And what impressed me most about this particular performance was their focus on creating good music.

Hat tip Danae.


More than half Kepler planet candidates false positives

The uncertainty of science: In attempting to confirm the giant exoplanet candidates in the Kepler telescope database a team of scientists has found that more than half are not planets at all but false positives.

An international team1 led by Alexandre Santerne from Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA), made a 5-year radial velocity campaign of Kepler’s giant exoplanet candidates, using the SOPHIE spectrograph (Observatory of Haute-Provence, France), and found that 52,3% were actually eclipsing binaries, while 2,3% were brown dwarfs. Santerne (IA & University of Porto), first author of this paper commented: “It was thought that the reliability of the Kepler exoplanets detection was very good – between 10 and 20% of them were not planets. Our extensive spectroscopic survey, of the largest exoplanets discovered by Kepler, shows that this percentage is much higher, even above 50%.

The news article above is unclear about the number of candidates total this study actually looked at and pinned down. It appears they began looking at the full database of almost 9,000 candidates, but then narrowed it to 125. Were 50% of the 9,000 false positives, or of the 125? The article is unclear.

At first glance, this study appears to tell us that there might be fewer giant Jupiter-sized exoplanets out there than previously thought. Then again, the data is uncertain enough that this conclusion could easily be wrong. The real take-away is that the science of exoplanets has only just begun, and that sweeping generalizations about the nature of solar systems in the galaxy are exceedingly unreliable. We simply don’t know enough yet.


Next Falcon 9 first stage to touch down on land?

The competition heats up: SpaceX is considering an attempt to land its Falcon 9 first stage on land in its next launch in two weeks.

Carol Scott, who works technical integration for SpaceX within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today that SpaceX’s first attempt at a land-based rocket landing may be coming sooner than the public expects. “You know how they want to fly the stage back, right? Their plan is to land it out here on the Cape [Canaveral] side,” Scott told reporters.

The company declined to comment on Scott’s remarks, which are vague enough to leave them plenty of wiggle room. Not that it matters. Even if they attempt the next first stage landing on a barge, a landing on land will soon follow. It is only a matter of time.


Money is worthless in 2016 Presidential campaign

A graph of the amount of money spent by candidates on television ads reveals the utter worthlessness so far in 2016 for spending a lot of money. The big spenders are doing poorly in the polls, while the frugal candidates are doing great.

The campaigns and allies for three establishment presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – have spent a combined $47.5 million in TV ads in the 2016 race so far, according to ad-spending data from NBC News partner SMG Delta.

By contrast, the campaigns and allies for the three Republicans who have been leading or surging in the most recent polls – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz – have spent just $2.9 million.

The full list at the link is even more astonishing. The three bottom Republican candidates in spending (Carson, Cruz, and Trump) are in the lead, while the four top spenders (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, and Christie) have gotten little for their money, with their campaigns mostly doing poorly. Rubio might be the only one with any traction, but I suspect he will crash and burn once Republican voters actually begin voting. They feel betrayed by him after he decided to make immigration amnesty his most important issue after his election, taking a position completely opposite to the positions he campaigned on.

What this graph tells us is that the geography of elections had changed drastically. Big money means much less. Other things are more important, including the reliability and trustworthiness of the candidates.


The first Ceres atlas

Ceres's first atlas

Using data during Dawn’s first orbit of Ceres German scientists have compiled a global atlas of the dwarf planet.

The images used for this are the wide angle survey images, which won’t show the smallest objects because they were taken from about 2,700 miles above the surface. Nonetheless, this atlas gives scientists a baseline for studying the giant asteroid.


NY’s Obamacare co-op failure forces doctors to demand cash up front

Finding out what’s in it: Facing the possibility that they won’t be paid because of the failure of the New York Obamacare health insurer, doctors there are now refusing to see patients without an upfront cash payment.

Though the article describes examples where patients were turned away, what is really happening is that the doctors would be glad to treat them, as long as the patient pays for the treatment first. Their insurance ain’t worth anything, and the doctor rightly does not wish to work for free.

Meanwhile, our reality-challenged president, who somehow thought Obamacare would cut health premiums by $2500 and wouldn’t require anyone to change their health plans or doctors, is in Paris this week (which experienced a mass shooting only two weeks ago) telling the world that mass shootings only occur in the United States.

Sadly, the entire Democratic Party generally agrees with him on all issues. Let’s vote for them again!


Scientists begin another attempt to drill through the Earth’s crust

An expedition to the Indian Ocean is about to begin an effort to drill a core down through the Earth’s crust and into its mantle.

Geologists have been trying to drill through the contact between the crust and the mantle, called the Moho, since the 1960s, with no success. Either the projects have gone way over budget and been shut down, have failed due to engineering problems, or were stopped by the geology itself. This last issue is maybe the most interesting.

Expeditions have come close before. Between 2002 and 2011, four holes at a site in the eastern Pacific managed to reach fine-grained, brittle rock that geologists believe to be cooled magma sitting just above the Moho. But the drill could not punch through those tenacious layers. And in 2013, drillers at the nearby Hess Deep found themselves similarly limited by tough deep-crustal rocks

This new project hopes to learn from these past problems to obtain the first rock samples from below the Earth’s crust.


Turning planes into trucks

The competition heats up: Airbus has patented a concept for having the cargo/passenger section of an airplane modular and removable.

Instead of a single hull, aeroplanes would essentially be built with a hole in their fuselage between the nose cone and the tail section, into which modular compartments could be fitted and removed. The compartments, which could take on the purpose of a passenger, luxury passenger or freight unit, would be transferred between the aircraft and airport via a docking module, which according to Airbus would (ideally) be integrated into airport terminal buildings.

For passenger planes this idea really doesn’t work. However, for cargo it is brilliant. Like trucks, it allows cargo to be loaded without using the expensive flight infrastructure.


Deposed XCOR founders form new company

The competition heats up? The founders of XCOR, who only weeks ago were pushed out in a management reorganization, have teamed up again to form a new company.

Forgive me if I am as skeptical of this new company as I am of XCOR. I’ve looked at all the news articles describing this new company, and see little there that excites me. Lots of talk about new management ideas and agile production efforts, but in the end nothing that suggests anything revolutionary.

These guys had more than a decade at XCOR to produce something and essentially never did. Why should I think they will do it now, just because they are hanging a different company name on their sign?

Don’t get me wrong. I will be the first to celebrate if they make something happen. I just remain exceedingly skeptical.


Russia describes its planned first manned Moon mission

To accomplish its first manned lunar landing, tentatively set for 2029, Russia will have to launch six Angara rockets.

According to the source, the launches are planned to be carried out in pairs from the Vostochny cosmodrome (the Amur region in Russia’s Far East) and the Plesetsk cosmodrome (Archangelsk region in the northwest) with small intervals between the blast-offs. Under the proposed scheme, after the orbit placement, the complex with a total weight up to 70 tonnes will be docked with the manned spacecraft, after which it will fly to the Moon. A payload of 18-20 tonnes will be delivered to the lunar orbit by the end of the mission.

According to a preliminary plan, Russia’s first manned flight to the Moon is possible in 2029. One year ahead of that it is planned to conduct a flight around the Moon, the testing and qualification of space systems for the future manned landing. However, this project may become a reality only if the work to create a new-generation manned transport spacecraft, the Angara-A5 rocket, lunar boosters and other needed rocket and space technology and infrastructure is included in the draft Federal Space Program for 2016-2025.

The final draft Federal Space Program, however, has not yet been approved. This story is obviously a lobbying effort within Russia to get this lunar mission included in that master plan.

What strikes me most about all this is the timing. The big national space programs, Russia, China, and NASA’s SLS, are all aiming for big lunar missions in the late 2020s. All will spend a lot of money for a very limited number of flights, mostly single stunts that merely demonstrate that they can do it. None of these programs will have much staying power on the Moon.

Private space is likely aiming for the Moon as well, and will likely be capable of getting there about the same time. However, private space will be cheap and designed to go many many times (for profit). Watching this race between nations and private companies is going to be quite fascinating. And unlike the 1960s space race, which was a race between two different top-down government programs, this 2020s space race will be between bottom-up capitalism versus top-down government.

I think in the end the governments will be very embarrassed. They will either lose, or act to squelch their private competition.

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