Airbus Safran begin Ariane 6 engine tests

The competition heats up: In its effort to build Ariane 6 by 2020, Airbus Safran has begun testing of that rocket’s upper stage Vinci engine.

This test phase, set to last until September, will include running the engine repeatedly as well as for as long as 1,000 seconds. Once they have determined the engine’s design, behavior, and overall thrust, they will be able to design and build the upper stage.

Orbital ATK successfully completes Antares test fire

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK today successfully completed a 30 second test fire of the first stage of its redesigned Antares rocket, using new Russian rocket engines.

The primary goal of the test was to verify the functionality of the integrated first stage, including new engines, modified Stage 1 core, avionics, thrust vector control and pad fueling systems in an operational environment. During the test, a number of operational milestones were met including full propellant loading sequence, launch countdown and engine ignition and shut down commands, as well as multiple throttle settings including full engine power. The test also validated the launch pad’s operation, including propellant tanking and the use of the water deluge system to protect the pad from damage and for noise suppression.

Orbital ATK will now purge and clean the engines of residual propellants and return the first stage used in this test to the Horizontal Integration Facility for full reconditioning prior to its use on the OA-7 mission slated for later this year. The Orbital ATK team will continue to prepare the Antares rocket that will launch the OA-5 mission, which is in the final stages of integration, systems testing and check-out in preparation for launch this summer.

They hope to launch a Cygnus capsule on Antares around July 6.

Obamacare forces small businesses to drop employee health benefits

Finding out what’s in it: An IRS ruling from 2013, based on Obamacare and now going into effect, will force small businesses that offer alternatives to health insurances to drop those alternatives, or face hefty fines.

This ruling applies to businesses with fewer than 50 employees, who supposedly were going to be unaffected by Obamacare. Previously, they could offer their employees stipends to buy insurance themselves, as individuals. Obamacare bans this, requiring the business to either join Obamacare, which is too expensive, or face fines if they provide the stipends. So, the wonderful law that Obama and the Democrats passed instead leaves these workers with less than they had before.

Rosetta almost lost during weekend

Because Rosetta’s star tracker became confused by dust particles, the spacecraft lost contact with Earth, went into safe mode, and required the entire weekend for engineers to regain control.

“We lost contact with the spacecraft on Saturday evening for nearly 24 hours,” says Patrick Martin, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager. “Preliminary analysis by our flight dynamics team suggests that the star trackers locked on to a false star – that is, they were confused by comet dust close to the comet, as has been experienced before in the mission.” This led to spacecraft pointing errors, which triggered the safe mode. Unfortunately the star trackers then got hung in a particular sub mode requiring specific action from Earth to recover the spacecraft.

“It was an extremely dramatic weekend,” says Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.”

The spacecraft has been diving to within only a few miles of the surface of Comet 67P/C-G, which means it is flying close to the comet’s coma. The increased dust in that region has confused the star tracker in the past, but this appears to have been the most serious event yet.

The B-1 Lancer Bomber

An evening pause: One reason we have a Memorial Day is to honor those who have died to keep us free. We also remember them to remind us that the sacrifice was necessary.

I think it is long past time to repeat the same effort, no matter the cost, and use this plane’s payload a lot more than we are. There are people in the Middle East who are gleefully killing people for the sake of power. We should no longer tolerate them.

Hat tip Rocco.

Premature engine cutoff on Soyuz upper stage

During a successful Soyuz rocket launch of a Russian Glonass GPS satellite last week, it appears that the engine for the rocket’s upper stage cut off prematurely, requiring the third stage to fire longer to get the satellite into its proper orbit.

This scenario is almost identical to what happened with the most recent Atlas 5 launch. There is as yet no word on why it happened, or if the Russians plan to investigate it.

XCOR layoffs, ending Lynx?

In the heat of competition: XCOR has laid off the staff working on its Lynx suborbital spaceplane.

The company has apparently decided to focus on those things that are generating revenues. Lynx was years behind schedule, unfinished with no prospect for profit, as it was only a prototype, not the spaceplane that could be used to fly tourists.

As much as I am not surprised (I have been skeptical of XCOR’s Lynx suborbital project since they announced it in 2008), I am saddened, because I really did want them to succeed.

More enraged anti-American protests against Trump

Feel the hate: Though there was less violence than previous anti-Trump protests, the protesters yesterday in San Diego, as shown by this report, illustrated several things about what they stand for.

First, they hate the United States. Just look at the plethora of Mexican flags, as well as the signs, including one that proudly reads, “America was never great,” with the word America made of dripping blood.

Second, they hate Trump. Once again, their signs and behavior, including attacking any Trump supporters that happened walk by, prove this.

Three, they hate knowledge. In this case the sign that reads “We are all women! Mexican! Muslim! Love trumps hate!” illustrates this, since it incoherently supports women and Islam at the same time, somehow forgetting that Islam is probably the world’s most aggressive oppressive of women.

Four, they hate whites, demonstrated by the signs that read “Brown power will rise!!!” and “Black and Brown lives matter” (found here).

I could go on. What I really want to note is that these people, who also make very clear their leftwing agenda, simply hate. The anger and intolerance of those they disagree with or have a skin color (white) they don’t like, is obvious and disgusting. What I find interesting is the left has always been this way, but for some reason they no longer feel a need to disguise it.

NASA to try module expansion again on Saturday

NASA will try again on Saturday to expand the privately built BEAM module on ISS.

They think the reason the module didn’t inflate as planned the first time is because it has been packed ready for launch for more than fifteen months, ten months longer than originally planned.

That extra time in a tight squeeze might explain why the first inflation attempt didn’t go as planned. BEAM’s Kevlar-like fabric “layers have a memory to them,” Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, said during today’s teleconference. “The longer they’re packed, the more they’re compressed, and then it takes a little while for the shape to return.” This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that BEAM continued to expand overnight Thursday into Friday morning, even though no more air was being pumped in, Crusan said.

R.E.M. – Losing My Religion

An evening pause: This kind of music video I really like: A live performance, filmed expressly for the video. No audience, no special effects, no fake cute story expressing the angst of adolescence. Just the musicians, their instruments, the words of the song, and the cameraman.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette.

Want to buy your own 747?

You can!

Virgin Atlantic’s first-ever Boeing 747 jumbo jet has been listed for sale on eBay with a starting bid of more than a quarter million dollars and a ‘buy it now’ price of $900,000 (£615,000). The retired double-decker plane, called Lady Penelope, was taken out of service last year and is gathering dust at an aircraft boneyard, but it could see new life as a hotel or restaurant, depending on the buyer’s intentions.

Here is the ebay listing.

Sadly, it can no longer fly as its engines have been removed. You will have to take it apart and ship it yourself.

Rosetta finds organic compounds at Comet 67P/C-G

Rosetta’s scientists have detected the amino acid glycine as well as other organic molecules in the atmosphere of Comet 67P/C-G.

Glycine is very hard to detect due to its non-reactive nature: it sublimates at slightly below 150°C, meaning that little is released as gas from the comet’s surface or subsurface due to its cold temperatures. “We see a strong correlation of glycine to dust, suggesting that it is probably released from the grains’ icy mantles once they have warmed up in the coma, perhaps together with other volatiles,” says Altwegg. At the same time, the researchers also detected the organic molecules methylamine and ethylamine, which are precursors to forming glycine. Unlike other amino acids, glycine is the only one that has been shown to be able to form without liquid water. “The simultaneous presence of methylamine and ethylamine, and the correlation between dust and glycine, also hints at how the glycine was formed”, says Altwegg.

New Horizons’ best Pluto close-up

Pitted nitrogen ice plains on Pluto

The New Horizons science team has released the highest resolution image across Pluto’s face, taken by the spacecraft during its flyby last year.

This mosaic strip, extending across the hemisphere that faced the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, now includes all of the highest-resolution images taken by the NASA probe. With a resolution of about 260 feet (80 meters) per pixel, the mosaic affords New Horizons scientists and the public the best opportunity to examine the fine details of the various types of terrain the mosaic covers, and determine the processes that formed and shaped them.

The view extends from the “limb” of Pluto at the top of the strip, almost to the “terminator” (or day/night line) in the southeast of the encounter hemisphere, seen at the bottom of the strip. The width of the strip ranges from more than 55 miles (90 kilometers) at its northern end to about 45 miles (75 kilometers) at its southern end. The perspective changes greatly along the strip: at its northern end, the view looks out horizontally across the surface, while at its southern end, the view looks straight down onto the surface.

Go to the full image, go to its top, center your browser on the image, and then pan down slowly to see it in all its glory. The image above is cropped from about two-thirds of the way down, about when the terrain is transitioning from what they call cellular nitrogen ice plains to pitted non-cellular nitrogen ice plains. It includes what looks like a cluster of cave pits on the left.

They have also provided a video which does the same as panning down yourself, but adds a scale and labeling.

Microsoft and Facebook to lay Atlantic cable

Microsoft and Facebook have announced plans to lay a trans-Atlantic communications cable from Virginia to Spain.

Running from Virginia Beach, Virgina to Bilbao, Spain, MAREA (which is Spanish for “tide”), it will be the first cable to connect the US to southern Europe, over a distance of 6,600 km (4,100 miles). From Blibao, it will connect to network hubs in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with the goal of improving speed and reliability. For Microsoft this means improvements for users of its cloud services, such as Bing, Office 365, Skype, Xbox Live, and Microsoft Azure, while for Facebook it means improvements for users of its eponymous social network.

I find this story very puzzling. The whole reason communication satellites exist is because they have historically been far cheaper to build and launch with far greater capacity than ocean cables. Thus, the decision of these companies to go with an undersea cable instead of satellites suggests that something has changed in that equation, though I can’t see what. Have undersea cables improved so much that they have a bigger capacity than satellites, so much bigger that it compensates for the higher cost of installation and maintenance?

Health insurance premiums to rise 24% because of Obamacare

Finding out what’s in it: Because of Obamacare, health insurance companies across the nation are requesting rate increases next year ranging from 8 to 65%, with the average increase running about 24%.

Too bad no one predicted this, except for every conservative think tank, every Republican politician, and the entire Tea Party movement. Luckily, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had our backs, and ignored those predictions. Otherwise, where would we be?

Belize and Guatemala

During my caving trip to Belize last week, we reserved one day off to do some sightseeing. The goal that day was to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, across the border in Guatemala about three hours from our resort in Belize.

Arranging this trip was not straightforward. We couldn’t simply get in our rental car and drive off. Locals have found it a bad idea to drive Belizean vehicles in Guatemala, as they are more likely to be attacked. So, the resort arranged for a Belizean driver to take us to the border, where it also arranged for us to be met by a Guatemalan tour guide with her own car.

On the way, we drove through several small towns of both Guatemala and Belize, as shown by the two photos below, with Santa Elena, Belize on top.
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