Monthly Archives: January 2016

Lay-offs at Bigelow

The competition cools down? Bigelow Aerospace has laid off somewhere between 30 and 50 employees out of approximately 150 total employees.

In a Jan. 6 statement provided to SpaceNews, Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow said that the company determined that many areas of the company were “overstaffed” and decided to lay off employees to reduce the company’s expenses. “In December of 2015, we analyzed the amount of staff that we employed throughout all of our departments at Bigelow Aerospace, and discovered that numerous departments were overstaffed,” Bigelow said in the statement. “Regrettably, we had to make the choice that, beginning with the New Year, we need to follow standard business protocols, which sensibly requires an attempt to achieve balance in how much staff is necessary.”

The lay-offs do not necessarily indicate the company is failing, only that it is adjusting its payroll to the specific conditions of the moment. They have completed construction of their inflatable module for ISS and now only await its launch. Time to save money until they win their next contract.

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Next Falcon 9 first stage will try to land on barge

The competition heats up: With its January 17 launch from Vandenberg, SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage on a barge in the Pacific.

This will also be the first attempt from the California launch site. If successful, it will give SpaceX greater flexibility on future first stage recoveries, as some launches won’t have the fuel to get the stage back to land but could bring it down on a barge at sea.

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Mold on ISS plants

In December four of seven zinnia plants in a greenhouse on ISS became sickly or died because they were receiving too much water and developed mold.

The story doesn’t really tell us much, but this paragraph reveals I think some fundamental management problems in the way NASA is running the station:

ISS commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly reported the mold to Mission Control Dec. 22 just as Veggie principal investigator Trent Smith was trying to manage the water problem. In pictures, Smith saw water on the plants a few days before. He told Discovery News he was trying to relay a command from NASA’s station operations team to increase fan speed in Veggie, but the mold developed before the command could be put through. One solution was, on Christmas Eve, to designate Kelly “commander” of Veggie. Kelly now has more autonomy to make changes to Veggie’s conditions if he feels the plants need it.

The scientist noticed a problem but was unable to cut through the communications bureaucracy to talk to the astronauts so that changes could be made quickly. Meanwhile, the astronauts on board ISS had not been given the freedom to make common sense changes themselves. The result is that some of the plants died.

The solution, to give an astronaut more “autonomy”, is one that the Russians learned a long time ago on their Mir space station. It was also a lesson NASA learned even longer ago on Skylab. Moreover, when astronauts are finally flying interplanetary spaceships to the planets with greenhouses just like this, they will have to have that autonomy, no matter what rules NASA establishes. It seems amazing to me that NASA is still learning this lesson now.

One more thought: It is not really a problem that the scientist had trouble reaching the astronauts quickly. In fact, it probably indicates an area of management that NASA is handling well. Communications from the ground up to ISS can be a major problem, as everyone wants to talk to the astronauts and if NASA didn’t control that communications the astronauts would never have time to do anything. Thus, placing limits on that communications makes sense, though once again it also requires that the astronauts be given a great deal of freedom to make their own decisions, as they might not be able to talk to the right experts whenever necessary.

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Betelgeuse baffles astronomers

The uncertainty of science: New data of the red giant star Betelgeuse says that the star simply doesn’t have the energy to eject the large amount of gas it routinely blows into space.

“[W]e now have a problem”, says Graham Harper, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “If you’re going to eject matter you have to put energy in, and we’re not seeing that.” Harper and his colleagues used the US–German Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 2.5-metre telescope that flies in a modified Boeing 747 aeroplane, to take Betelgeuse’s temperature. They found that the star’s upper atmosphere was much cooler than expected — so cool, in fact, that it doesn’t seem to have enough energy to kick gas out of its gravitational pull and into space.

“This challenges all our theoretical models,” Harper said on 7 January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Florida. [emphasis mine]

The data suggests the temperature of the ejected gas to be only about 512 degrees Fahrenheit. This is far too cool to fit any theory for explaining the vast amounts of gas that the star routinely puffs into space. It also suggests, not surprisingly, that scientists do not yet have a enough information to develop a clear understanding of stellar evolution. They have enough information to form rough theories, but there is still much too much they do not know.

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One last chance for Philae

With time running out as Comet 67P/C-G moves away from the Sun, the Rosetta engineering team is going to try one more time to contact the lander Philae.

The lander team are going to try another method to trigger a reponse from Philae: on 10 January they will send a command, via Rosetta, to attempt to make Philae’s momentum wheel switch on. “Time is running out, so we want to explore all possibilities,” says Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager at DLR. Philae’s momentum wheel ensured that it was stable during its descent from the orbiter on 12 November, 2014.

If the command is successfully received and executed, the hope is that it might shift the lander’s position.”At best, the spacecraft might shake dust from its solar panels and better align itself with the Sun,” explains Philae technical manager Koen Geurts at DLR’s lander control centre.

They also believe that one of the lander’s two transmitters and one of its two receivers are broken, which makes communications difficult at best.

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Sunspot decline continues

NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in December, was posted earlier this week, and I am posting it here, as I do every month, with annotations to give it context.

The decline in sunspots continues, tracking closely the rate of decline predicted by the 2007 and 2009 predictions (the lower green curve and the red curve) but the overall solar maximum has been far shorter and less powerful than predicted.
» Read more

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How to really look for aliens

Two scientists summarize the challenge for finding alien life in the universe.

Look for high amounts of oxygen and mid-infrared energy, the second of which has already produced some candidates.

A recent large survey by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite did identify five red spiral galaxies whose combination of high MIR and low near-ultraviolet luminosities are inconsistent with simple expectations from high rates of star formation. A conventional explanation for these observations, such as the presence of large amounts of internal dust, has not been ruled out, however. Such peculiar objects deserve follow-up observations before we explore whether they might represent the signatures of galaxy-dominating species.

The article is very thoughtful, however, and outlines in detail the issues and problems the research faces. We might, in a few decades, have the capability to answer this question, but then, the aliens might be alien enough to still be undetectable. Or they might not exist at all.

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Arianespace sales top SpaceX in 2015

The competition heats up: According to Arianespace’s CEO Stephane Israel, the company signed more new launch contracts in 2015 than SpaceX, despite their competitor’s much larger PR footprint.

At a briefing here outlining Evry, France-based Arianespace 2015 record and plans for 2016, Israel sought to portray Arianespace as once again in the driver’s seat when it comes to commercial launches. After drawing even with Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2014, with nine commercial orders each, Arianespace’s count for 2015 showed its Ariane 5 rocket winning 14 contracts for geostationary-orbit satellites, compared to nine for SpaceX and one each for International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which markets Russia’s Proton; and for the Atlas 5 rocket of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado.

Arianespace’s count includes one undisclosed customer. Unless it’s identified, it will not be included in SpaceNews’s annual count of firm contract awards. Of the 13 satellites remaining, two are for Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, and cannot be considered commercial wins. In addition to the geostationary-satellite contracts, Arianespace in 2015 booked the largest single launch contract, to use 21 Russian Soyuz rockets — including the Europeanized version operated from Europe’s spaceport — to launch the OneWeb low-orbiting broadband constellation.

Israel also spent a lot of time at the briefing dealing with reporters’ questions about SpaceX, where he poo-pooed the significance of the Falcon 9 first stage landing, noting repeatedly the accepted wisdom that the stress of launch limits the re-usability of rocket stages. This suggests that Arianespace’s next generation rocket, Ariane 6, is not likely to have this capability. Considering that its launch price is now estimated to be between $90 and $100 million, I wonder how they will compete with a reusable Falcon 9 that will likely cost a third this price.

That the Russians only signed one new contract for its Proton last year, as noted in the quote above, also tells us that SpaceX is getting most of its market share from the Russians. If the company should continue to lower its costs and increase its launch rate over time, they will then start stealing market share from others. Thus, Arianespace’s CEO makes a very big mistake if he takes their competitive threat lightly.

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Starliner schedule shapes up

The competition heats up: The schedule and launch plans for Boeing’s manned Starliner spacecraft are now becoming solidified.

For Boeing, Starliner will first launch on an uncrewed test flight to the Station via the “Boe-OFT” mission in April or May, 2017 – on a 30 day mission, ending with a parachute-assisted return. Should all go to plan, the second mission will involve a crew on a mission designated “Boe-CFT”, launching sometime between July and September, 2017, on a 14-day mission to the ISS.

The article also outlines the launch procedures Boeing intends to follow, some determined by the company and some by NASA’s complex safety rules. One interesting tidbit about Starliner revealed here that I was unaware of previously is that the capsule is made of separate top and bottom units that are only fitted together late in the launch process, allowing for easier access.

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Rubio as establishment proves tea party won

David French notes that if Marco Rubio is now considered a RINO establishment candidate whom conservatives must oppose it demonstrates beyond doubt that the tea party has won the debate.

It seems that [Rubio’s] now the “establishment” candidate mainly because a number of establishment figures and donors have defected to him after their preferred candidate — perhaps Bush, Christie, or Kasich — failed to gain traction. But if the standard for establishment status is simply whether establishment figures have chosen to support you after their first-choice candidate fails, then every single GOP contender is either establishment or establishment-in-waiting. After all, if Rubio falters, mass numbers of establishment politicians and donors will rush to back Cruz over Trump. And if Cruz falters, those same people will presumably back Trump over Hillary.

Here’s the reality: In the battle — launched in 2010 — between the tea party and traditional GOP powers, the tea party largely won. The contest between Rubio, Cruz, and Trump is a fight between Tea Party 1.0, Tea Party 2.0, and classic American populism. And each one of these candidates would need traditional Republican or “establishment” support in the general election.

He’s right. The political debate is now being fought entirely on tea party terms, with those terms forcing the candidates consistently rightward on every issue. Not only is this a good thing, it suggests a major shift by the American public itself. Our so-called “intellectual elites” might still be liberal, standing there with their fingers in their ears and eyes closed chanting “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-LA!!” so they won’t get triggered by new ideas, but the public has heard what tea party advocates have said and has found those positions worth supporting.

This suggests to me that we might even be seeing a shift in the voting patterns of the low-information television voter, the kind of voter who only comes out during Presidential elections and routinely supports the Democratic candidate being pushed by the mainstream networks. If so, the Democratic Party is in very deep trouble, as they continue to behave as if their low-information voting block remains solid and under their control.

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Europe might end its ISS partnership in 2020

Despite agreements by Russia, Canada, and Japan to extend their ISS partnership with the U.S. through 2024, both France and Germany of the European Space Agency (ESA) are having second thoughts and might pull out in 2020 instead.

In separate statements Jan. 4 and Jan. 5, the heads of the French and German space agencies said a detailed study is under way to assess the future operating cost of the station, and whether the cost can be justified given the pressure on near-term budgets.

Pascale Ehrenfreund, chairman of the board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency, said DLR would make no promises until after a full review of ISS’s value. “In view of the high cost involved and the resulting implications on budgets of [European Space Agency] member states, we have to evaluate very carefully costs and benefits of a continued participation in the ISS,” Ehrenfreund said in a Jan. 5 statement in response to SpaceNews inquiries. “It’s only based on this evaluation that we will be able to take a definite position.”

Germany has been Europe’s ISS champion — its biggest paymaster and most vocal booster — for more than 20 years and at times has had to strong-arm France into boosting its support under threat of reduced German backing of Europe’s Ariane rocket program, a French priority.

Eventually, all the partners running ISS with the U.S. are going to come to this decision, which means the U.S. government should begin thinking about what it does at that time. I say, when that time comes the government will privatize the station, giving it to the private companies best able to make a profit from it. And by 2024 the U.S. is likely to have a number of companies quite capable of doing so, from SpaceX to Blue Origin to Bigelow.

There also will be no reason to destroy the station at that time. Being modular, much of it is relatively new, and what is old could be replaced with relatively simplicity. This is a national asset that should not be abandoned nonchalantly.

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Hillary Clinton vows to investigate UFOs if elected

Well, we now know her priorities! In a meeting with the editorial board of a New Hampshire newspaper, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton vowed to find out once and for all whether UFOs have been discovered by the federal government and kept secret.

Her husband Bill Clinton apparently tried and failed to uncover those buried records while he was President.

I am sure this reassures you all. While the Republicans are distracted by unimportant issues, such as terrorism, radical Islam, a weak economy, an out-of-control federal budget, and a corrupt federal bureaucracy that is abusing its power while failing to do its job, Hillary Clinton has her sights on issues of real importance.

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2015 the busiest launch year for Florida since 2003

The competition heats up: With 17, Florida had more rocket launches in 2015 than it has had in more than a dozen years.

Russia once again had the most launches in the year, with 29 (including 3 failures). Overall, launches worldwide were down, from 92 in 2014 to 87 in 2015. However, the uptick in the U.S., spurred I think by SpaceX, suggests that the U.S. numbers will continue to rise, and in in a few years the U.S.will take the lead.

Note also that when the shuttle was retired many thought that — with the loss of that government operation — it would be the end of the Florida launch business. Competition and private enterprise have instead shown that a dependence on government is not the only way to do things, and is in fact not the best way to do things.

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Four elements added to periodic table

Scientists have now officially added four new elements to the periodic table, completing the discovery of all elements through 118.

All of the elements were created in the lab, by smashing lighter atomic nuclei together. The unstable agglomerations of protons and neutrons last mere fractions of a second before they fall apart into smaller, more stable fragments.

The teams that have been given credit for the discoveries can now put forward proposals for the elements’ names and two-letter symbols. Elements can be named after one of their chemical or physical properties, a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, or a scientist. Priority for discovering element 113 went to researchers in Japan, who are particularly delighted because it will become the first artificial element to be named in East Asia. When the element was first sighted 12 years ago, ‘Japonium’ was suggested as a name.

While creating element 119 is believed possible, beyond that it is thought unlikely that anything heavier can be produced in the lab.

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Millions opt out of Obamacare despite penalities

Finding out what’s in it: The White House last month admitted that millions of healthy Americans have decided it is cheaper to pay the Obamacare penalty for not having health insurance than pay for insurance that is too expensive and does them little good.

Because so many young and healthy people are doing the math and refusing to pay for a product they don’t need and costs them far more than it is worth, the insurance pool is, as predicted, increasingly made up of sick people only. Such a pool is not viable for the insurance companies, and guarantees that they will eventually go bankrupt.

But hey, Obama and the Democrats promised us all that Obamacare would lower costs and make everyone happy. They wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

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A detailed look at Trump’s positions

This link provides a very detailed but thorough summary of the political positions that Donald Trump has taken in the past year during his presidential campaign. Take a look, as it does a nice job of listing his stance on almost all the important issues that appear to concern Americans at this time. His conclusion is telling:

Except for immigration, foreign policy, and energy, all of Trump’s contemporary positions are more identifiable with liberal positions, which is not surprising, considering he has spent most of his life as a liberal Democrat. Now, if you’re a conservative and immigration is your number-one issue, you can still justify a vote for Donald Trump. But Ted Cruz is almost as good – promising to build a wall, oppose amnesty, and enforce the law – and he’s much better on just about every other issue.

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Washington state releasing convicts early by mistake since 2002

Government marches on: Because of a software error, Washington state has for more than 12 years released more than 3,000 convicted felons several months earlier than required by law

Two of those felons have now been charged with murders that occurred during the period when they should have been in prison.

Sounds stupid and bad eh? Well, it gets worse:

Even though the problem was discovered in 2012, the department repeatedly delayed fixing the software, until Gov. Jay Inslee says the problem finally came to his attention last month. He disclosed the problem to the media in a press conference shortly before Christmas. “That this problem was allowed to continue to exist for 13 years is deeply disappointing, it is totally unacceptable, and frankly, it is maddening,” Inslee says.

Hey, why should anyone be complaining? It takes time to fix software problems. And the work is hard! In fact, we should be grateful these government employees are now working to fix it.

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Leningrad Cowboys & the Red Army Choir – Sweet Home Alabama

An evening pause: I can think of nothing more appropriate to begin the new year with than this performance. Nothing.

Hat tip hondo.

By the way, with the New Year I am in desperate need of more Evening Pause suggestions. If you’ve sent me suggestions in the past, you know the email address. If not, post a comment here saying that you have a suggestion (without mentioning what it is) and I will email you for it.

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2015’s 13 most ridiculous protests on college campuses

Link here.

Read it all and weep. I would also suggest that if you need to choose a university for your child, you should cross off Swarthmore University, the University of New Hampshire, Idaho State University, College of the Canyons (in Los Angeles), Western University (in London), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Harvard University, Brandeis University, the University of California-Los Angeles, Kansas University, North Carolina University, Scripps College (in California), the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Washington, the University of Ottawa (in Canada), the University of Georgia, Quinnipiac University, and the University of California-Merced.

Most of these are government colleges, which also means that as voters we should also be demanding that their government funding should cease, now, immediately, without any negotiation. They are not only failing to educate their students, the academics who run these colleges are actually teaching them very stupid and bad ideas. They should be forced to find some real work where they will be no longer be able to do society this harm.

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Seeds from archaeological site grow into extinct squash

Update: It appears the story below is bogus. (Hat tip Pzatchok.) It appears to be a combination of two different stories, one in which gardeners from the Miami Nation in Indiana donated old seeds to a research group, and the second where that same research group attempted to grow seeds found in a Kentucky cave, with poor results.

Original post:
Students who discovered some ancient seeds in a clay pot at an archaeological site in Canada successfully planted them to grow a previously extinct species of squash.

Not all the seeds grew, but enough did. Moreover, the new squash produced new seeds. This once extinct squash is no longer extinct. And according to the article is also tastes delicious!

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Recovered Falcon 9 first stage undamaged

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: In an Instagram post, Elon Musk has revealed that the Falcon 9 first stage that successfully landed vertically after launch is in its hanger and is essentially undamaged.

Elon Musk: “Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again.”

Musk’s post included a higher resolution version of the picture on the right, showing a close-up of the stage near its top. This image reveals that, despite some minor paint damage and dirt, this section of the stage does appear whole and ready to go. Even the landing fins are folded and appear undamaged.

Musk’s post also suggests that the stage is ready for its first post-launch test firing, which underlines how unique this opportunity is. No one has ever had a functioning first stage available for testing after it had been launched and returned to Earth. Past assumptions (an important word) have always said that the stress of launch would damage it enough that it wouldn’t be cost effect to reuse it. SpaceX’s engineers now will have an opportunity to find out if that assumption was true or false. I strongly suspect they will find that this assumption was false, that it was used as a bugaboo by the small-minded to discourage just this kind of effort by SpaceX.

This article notes that Musk has previously said it costs $60 million to build the first stage, but only $200K to refuel it. Since SpaceX says it charges about $70 million per launch, that first stage is most of SpaceX’s cost for each launch. If the stage can reused later, the cost of later launches will thus plummet incredibly. Assume they can only reuse the stage once. Amortized over only two launches the cost is still cut by almost half. More importantly, the ability to reuse will be an incentive for them to build the stage right the first time, so that it can be reused multiple times.

I repeat: The importance of this breakthrough has not yet sunk in. It is going to change the entire aerospace industry and everything we do in space.

Update: I have corrected the post above, which originally incorrectly stated that the picture showed the stage near its base.

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