Monthly Archives: February 2017

Congress moves to overturn numerous Obama regulations

Using a 1990s law that allows Congress to overturn regulations with simple majorities, Congress has this week passed a slew of bills doing exactly that.

The article provides a detailed list. What is significant here is that this is only the first week. With a Republican Congress and a Republican President, there is little to prevent the passage of numerous such bills in the coming months. As much as conservatives have fretted in recent years about the cowardice of the Republican leadership, now that they have some control over the situation it appears they are moving to do something concrete and conservative with that control.

Hang on. It is going to be an interesting next few years.

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Protesters attack and shut down lecturer at NYU

Facists: Protesters attacked and shut down s speech at New York University tonight.

VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes spoke for only three minutes without interruption until the jeers started. He exited the Rosenthal Pavilion in the Kimmel Center for University Life 20 minutes after he took to the podium and was escorted from a mixed room of fans and sneering students — once he was in the back, McInnes decided to leave the premises immediately.

NYPD and NYU Public Safety Officers secured both the interior and exterior of the building, and even before he had entered, McInnes was attacked with pepper spray. He was treated immediately by EMT while security and university officials waited outside the Kimmel bathroom door.

And once he started speaking, students verbally harassed him

The definition of free speech on the modern liberal campus: get a mob together to beat up anyone who dares disagree with you.

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Congressional report worries over Falcon 9 engine cracks

A forthcoming congressional report, reported by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that NASA is concerned about cracks that occur in the turbopumps of SpaceX’s Merlin engines.

The newspaper says the report has found a “pattern of problems” with the turbine blades within the turbopumps, which deliver rocket fuel into the combustion chamber of the Merlin rocket engine. Some of the components used in the turbopumps are prone to cracks, the government investigators say, and may require a redesign before NASA allows the Falcon 9 booster to be used for crewed flights. NASA has been briefed on the report’s findings, and the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told the newspaper that he thinks “we know how to fix them.”

A spokesman for SpaceX, John Taylor, said the company already has a plan in place to fix the potential cracking issue. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” Taylor said. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9.” This final variant of the Falcon 9 booster, named Block 5, is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for potential reuse. According to company founder Elon Musk, it could fly by the end of this year.

Here’s the real scoop: SpaceX initially built the engines to fly once, just as every single rocket company has done in the entire history of space, excluding the space shuttle. Under these conditions, the cracks could be considered an acceptable issue, which is what they mean when they say “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks.” My guess is that they tested the engines, found that the cracks were not a significant problem for a single flight, especially because the Falcon 9 rocket uses nine Merlin engines on the first stage and thus has some redundancy should one fail. And based on SpaceX’s flight record — no launch failures due to failed engines — that conclusion seems reasonable.

SpaceX is now redesigning to eliminate the cracks, however, because such cracks are not acceptable for engines that will fly multiple times on reused first stages.

Thus, this story, as leaked, appears to me to be a hit job by powers in Congress who dislike the competition that SpaceX poses to big government rockets like SLS. SLS will use salvaged shuttle engines, designed initially for many reuses, and thus are superior in this manner to SpaceX’s Merlin engines. The shuttle engines however were also built by the government, which didn’t care very much about the cost of development, or making any profits. The comparison thus is somewhat bogus. Moreover, I suspect these cracks were only discovered after SpaceX successfully landed and recovered some first stages. To put them on trial in the press now for doing good engineering research and redevelopment seems somewhat inappropriate.

The report itself has not yet been released, though it does also note lingering issues with the parachutes being developed for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

Overall, both companies are struggling to start their operational flights by 2019. For Congress or NASA to try to put more roadblocks up in that development seems most counterproductive.

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More new robots from Boston Dynamics

The video at the link shows off SpotMini, of video of which I posted previously. However, the first robot shown is one they have named Handle and is something they admit could be “nightmare-inducing.” It walks upright on two legs, but instead of feetpods it has wheels, giving it the ability to move very fast. And for some reason, they put its arms on backwards so that the elbows bend inward instead of outward.

Watch the video. The robot design work here is truly breath-taking.

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The ships of Hanjin six months after it went bankrupt

Real news: Six months ago the shipping company Hanjin went bankrupt, stranding its 96 container ships worldwide. This article takes a detailed look not only on what happened to those ships since, but also at the state of the entire shipping industry.

There was a time when Hanjin’s collapse in August and this follow-up story would have been major news stories, covered by all the leading mainstream press outlets. No more. Even though it indicates significant financial and economic trends that should concern anyone who is serious about being an educated citizen, the press doesn’t cover it, and the public today really doesn’t care.

Just another indicator that a new dark age is looming.

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Iran officials thumb their noses at Trump

Responding to Trump administration statements “putting Iran on notice” for its ballistic missile tests in violation of UN resolutions, Iran officials responded today by saying they don’t care and that there is nothing the U.S. can do to stop them.

The most frightening quote from this story however is this:

While Iran says its missile program is aimed at displaying the country’s “deterrent power and its ability to confront any threat”, some IRGC commanders have said that Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles were designed to be able to hit Israel.

Iran refuses to recognize Israel.

Remember, Iran has already had one leader who advocated wiping Israel off the face of the Earth.

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The vanishing volcanoes of Ceres

New research based on Dawn data suggests that volcanoes on Ceres flatten and disappear over time.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft discovered Ceres’s 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) tall Ahuna Mons cryovolcano in 2015. Other icy worlds in our solar system, like Pluto, Europa, Triton, Charon and Titan, may also have cryovolcanoes, but Ahuna Mons is conspicuously alone on Ceres. The dwarf planet, with an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, also lies far closer to the sun than other planetary bodies where cryovolcanoes have been found.

Now, scientists show there may have been cryovolcanoes other than Ahuna Mons on Ceres millions or billions of years ago, but these cryovolcanoes may have flattened out over time and become indistinguishable from the planet’s surface. They report their findings in a new paper accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “We think we have a very good case that there have been lots of cryovolcanoes on Ceres but they have deformed,” said Michael Sori of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and lead author of the new paper.

The cause of the flattening?

Viscous relaxation is the idea that just about any solid will flow, given enough time. For example, a cold block of honey appears to be solid. But if given enough time, the block will flatten out until there is no sign left of the original block structure. On Earth, viscous relaxation is what makes glaciers flow, Sori explained. The process doesn’t affect volcanoes on Earth because they are made of rock, but Ceres’s volcanoes contain ice – making viscous relaxation possible.

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UAE considers initiating its own manned space program

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week in Abu Dhabi, a UAE official said that his country might begin work on a manned space program.

He also said that they plan a follow-up to their Hope Mars mission, which now has a July 2020 launch date.

The UAE’s prime goal right now with their space effort is to promote the development of a new aerospace industry. Thus, I do not expect them to accomplish much in the near future. Even their Mars mission is I think mostly being built and launched by others (India is helping with the spacecraft and Japan is launching it). In the long term, however, this effort is wise, and will eventually produce for them a real industry.

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Juno’s next Jupiter fly-by today

Juno is set to make its fourth close fly-by of Jupiter today, dipping to within 2,670 miles of the gas giants cloud tops.

The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys. Revelations include that Jupiter’s magnetic fields and aurora are bigger and more powerful than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the gas giant’s cloud top its distinctive look extend deep into the planet’s interior. Peer-reviewed papers with more in-depth science results from Juno’s first three flybys are expected to be published within the next few months. Also, JunoCam, the first interplanetary outreach camera, is now being guided with the assistance from the public — people can participate by voting for what features on Jupiter should be imaged during each flyby.

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Curiosity’s drill remains out of commission

Ireson Hill

In a science update on Curiosity’s research in Gale Crater, this Science journal article today gives a good overall update on Curiosity’s technical condition.

Since early December 2016, Curiosity hasn’t been able to drill. The problem, likely a stuck brake on the mechanism for extending the drill bit, is serious. “There is apprehension,” says Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But the drill still responds intermittently. “We’re not in a situation where it’s completely dead.”

Still, the clock is ticking for the aging rover, and some outside scientists regret not having used a wet chemistry cup. Rocks have punctured its wheels, and the output of its decaying radioactive power source has dropped by 15%. Jack Mustard, a planetary scientist at Brown University, says he understands the team’s hesitancy. But he wished the “mission had moved more quickly with the wet chemistry experiments,” he says. “I am eager to see what we can learn.”

The wet chemistry cup, designed to look for organic life, is an experiment that requires use of the drill but the science team has held off doing. Now it might be too late.

At the moment Curiosity is approaching [see Sol 1598-1599] the small hill that had been to its southwest in my January 18, 2017 update and shown in the image above. I had thought they might make a side trip there on their way up Mount Sharp, and they have, with their actual route taking them around the backside of the hill.

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Violent rioters shut down free speech at UC-Berkeley

Jack-booted thugs: Violent protesters tonight shut down a speech by Breibart editor Milo Yiannopoulos tonight at UC-Berkeley, once home to the Free Speech movement of the 1960s.

Hundreds of protesters began throwing fireworks and pulling down metal barricades police set up to keep people from rushing into the student union building where Yiannopoulos had been scheduled to speak. Windows were smashed and fires were set outside the building on Sproul Plaza as masked protesters stormed it, and at 6 p.m., two hours before his speech was to begin, police decided to evacuate Yiannopoulos for his own safety. The protest later moved on to city streets, where storefront windows were smashed.

Berkeley police said three to four people were injured and some people, including a man who said he had hoped to see Yiannopoulos speak, were seen with their faces bloodied. There were no immediate reports of arrests.

Police said protesters threw bricks and fireworks at police officers. University police locked down all buildings and told people inside them to shelter in place, and later fired rubber pellets into the crowd of protesters who defied orders to leave the area. Police called in support from other law enforcement agencies and warned protesters that they might use tear gas.

These protesters are no different than Hitler’s brown-shirts, aimed at intimidating and hurting those they do not like. They have made it impossible for free speech to be exercised on American campuses. Worse, it is increasingly evident that the administrations at these universities are complicit in these protests by not taking sufficient action to stop them. If you are a donor to these universities, it is time you stopped giving them money. And if they depend on tax dollars, that money faucet should be shut off, immediately.

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Russia proposes increased space cooperation with the U.S.

They need the money: At a science conference on Tuesday the Russian ambassador to the United States stated that his country would welcome increased space cooperation between the two countries.

“I think it would be premature for me to speculate as to whether this zone of overlapping interests will increase or decrease,” Kislyak said. “We haven’t heard a new policy yet from the United States.” He suggested, though, there may be opportunities for the countries to cooperate on NASA’s long-term plans for human Mars exploration. “That is moon exploration, which is very much on our agenda. It’s space medicine and many, many other issues,” he said. “Our programs are not identical, but there’s always been a lot of overlap that provides room for serious and significant cooperation.”

“If the U.S. government chooses programs that would be extending that kind of cooperation,” he added, “they will find us to be willing to work with you.”

As I said, they need the cash. They want to keep their space industry alive, but low oil prices combined with the corruption that has shut down their launch industry has left them very cash poor. A combined Russian/SLS/Orion project to the Moon would be very helpful for them.

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ESA commits $91 million to reusable rocket engine development

The competition heats up? Despite a general lack of interest in reusability, the ESA has now committed $91 million to develop a new low cost prototype reusable rocket engine.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Airbus Safran Launchers CEO Alain Charmeau said FLPP is allocating 85 million euros ($91 million) to Prometheus to fund research and development leading to a 2020 test firing. Now that Prometheus is an ESA program, Charmeau expects more countries will get involved. “ESA will pay the contract to Airbus Safran Launchers and then Airbus Safran Launchers will cooperate with European industry, of course France and Germany, but we will have also contributions from Italy, Belgium, Sweden and probably a couple of others to a smaller extent,” Charmeau said.

This project reminds me of many NASA development projects. The agency spends the money to do a test firing, but the prototype is never used and gets abandoned as soon as the test is completed.

Things might change, however, come the 2020s. By then I think American companies will be quite successful in their effort to create reusable rockets, and that will leave Europe in the lurch competitively. Their solution at this time for combating that future competition however is not getting more competitive. Instead, as noted in the article at the link, Airbus Safran, the company building Ariane 6, wants the ESA to compel its members to use their rocket, regardless of cost.

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Russian prosecutors indict four rocket engineers for Proton failure

This won’t solve Russia’s problems: Russian prosecutors have recommended criminal charges against four rocket engineers for failing to properly calculate the right amount of fuel, resulting in a Proton launch failure.

According to the spokesman, Energiya department head Balakin, section head Martynov and his deputy Lomtev responsible for asdeveloping operational documentation failed to ensure that their subordinate, engineer Bolshigin, should timely adjust the calculation formula for resetting the fuel control system. “The document on the need for such adjustment was submitted to the organization’s relevant department but was written off by the engineer as fulfilled. As a result, the calculation formula remained unadjusted,” the spokesman said. “Subsequently, Balakin, Martynov, Lomtev and Bolshigin who knew for sure that the formula for the calculation of the fueling level contained incorrect data that could not be used during a rocket launch agreed operational documentation without pointing to a mistake in calculations,” the spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

Putting these guys in prison is probably the worst thing the Russians can do. It will strike fear throughout their entire aerospace industry, causing all other engineers to take as few risks as possible, or leave the industry entirely. What the Russians should do is simply fire them, and reward those that noted the problem with promotions and increased pay.

In a truly competitive free market such a response will work, because even if the companies don’t reform themselves new companies will step forward to replace them. Russia however does not have a truly competitive free market, and so their only recourse is top-down bullying and threats. “Do it right or we will jail you!”

I should add that the company involved, Energia, has nothing to do with the recent corruption discovered in the construction of the upper stage engines for both Proton and Soyuz. That involved a different Russian company entirely.

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New Horizons adjusts its course

New Horizons successfully completed today a short 44 second engine burn to refine its course towards its January 1, 2019 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.

The spacecraft had also been making observations this past week of six other Kuiper Belt Objects, the data of which will be sent home over the coming weeks.

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How government wrecked the gas can

Link here. This story should not surprise you. More important however are the article’s concluding words:

Ask yourself this: If they can wreck such a normal and traditional item like this, and do it largely under the radar screen, what else have they mandatorily malfunctioned? How many other things in our daily lives have been distorted, deformed and destroyed by government regulations?

If some product annoys you in surprising ways, there’s a good chance that it is not the invisible hand at work, but rather the regulatory grip that is squeezing the life out of civilization itself.

Almost all of the petty technological annoyances we struggle with today are the result of foolish federal regulation.

Hat tip John Harman.

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Almost 200 federal workers to take “civil disobedience” class

One hundred and eighty federal workers have signed up to take “civil disobedience” class on how to resist the Trump administration.

Dozens of federal workers have reportedly attended a support group for civil servants that serves as a forum for discussing opposition to the Trump administration. Some federal employees have already expressed defiance against the Trump administration following a gag order, which has since been lifted, that restricted the Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services from contacting the press or posting about the administration on social media.

This will not end well for these federal workers, which in the long run will be good for the American public. These people are not qualified to work in the federal government, because they think they are there to tell us what to do, rather than work for the American taxpayer who pays their salary. They will “resist”, Trump will find out who they are, and then he will fire them.

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The private weather industry moves forward

Link here. Key quote:

Early next month, aerospace start-up Spire Global of Glasgow, UK, will send a mini-satellite into space aboard an Indian government rocket. This ‘cubesat’ will join 16 others that are beaming a new type of atmospheric data back to Earth — and some scientists worry that such efforts are siphoning funding away from efforts to push forward the science of weather forecasting. Spire will begin providing observations to the US government on 30 April.

The probes track delays in radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as they pass through the atmosphere — a technique known as radio occultation. Researchers can use the data to create precise temperature profiles of the atmosphere to feed into weather-forecasting models — and eventually, perhaps, climate models.

Spire and its competitor GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, are participating in a pilot project announced in September by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is under pressure from the US Congress to determine whether it can cut costs by using commercial weather data. But scientists worry that such efforts are hampering the development of radio occultation. For years, they have sought federal funding for a project to advance the technique, but Spire and its competitors say they can offer high-quality data for a fraction of the price. [emphasis mine]

The quotes I have highlighted illustrate the hidebound leftist scientific opposition to introducing private enterprise into weather research. The article, published in the journal Nature, never once articulates in any way how these private efforts will hurt scientific research. What it does show is that the private effort will cost a tenth of the government effort while getting launched much faster. The money, however, will go to these private companies, and not the scientific factions that up until now have lived on the government money train.

The complaints here are the same as those I saw in NASA back about a decade ago when NASA first considered hiring private companies to provide it cargo to ISS. This is a turf war. NOAA is now being pressured by Congress to do the same: stop building big expensive weather satellites and buy the service for much less from the private sector. The scientific community sees this as a threat to its funding and is trying to stop it.

With Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government I think this opposition will be fruitless, and we shall see the shift to private enterprise in weather data-gathering to accelerate.

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SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.

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Government-owned Alaska Aerospace considers second spaceport

The competition heats up: State-owned Alaska Aerospace is considering opening a second spaceport outside the state and closer to the equator.

Alaska Aerospace operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska. The Kodiak Island complex is capable of polar, sun-synchronous and high-inclination orbits, but does not support the equatorial launches that make up most of the industry demand. With the new launch facility, Campbell said having equatorial launches will give the corporation a competitive advantage and also bring more customers to Kodiak.

The state no longer funds the corporation, which has never made money. Still, it now has contracts with Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems and this new move is an obvious effort to make itself more viable.

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Recovered Falcon 9 first stage prepped for launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.

A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.

In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.

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Plotting the interstellar path to Proxima Centauri

Scientists have calculated the slingshot route that Breakthrough Starshot’s tiny interstellar spacecraft should take in order to reach Proxima Centauri while also gathering the maximum scientific data while zipping past the binary stars of Alpha Centauri.

The solution is for the probe’s sail to be redeployed upon arrival so that the spacecraft would be optimally decelerated by the incoming radiation from the stars in the Alpha Centauri system. René Heller, an astrophysicist working on preparations for the upcoming Exoplanet mission PLATO, found a congenial spirit in IT specialist Michael Hippke, who set up the computer simulations. The two scientists based their calculations on a space probe weighing less than 100 grams in total, which is mounted to a 100,000-square-metre sail, equivalent to the area of 14 soccer fields. During the approach to Alpha Centauri, the braking force would increase. The stronger the braking force, the more effectively the spacecraft’s speed can be reduced upon arrival. Vice versa, the same physics could be used to accelerate the sail at departure from the solar system, using the sun as a photon cannon.

The tiny spacecraft would first need to approach the star Alpha Centauri A as close as around four million kilometres, corresponding to five stellar radii, at a maximum speed of 13,800 kilometres per second (4.6 per cent of the speed of light). At even higher speeds, the probe would simply overshoot the star.

While most of this is hardly revolutionary, this is still the first time anyone has done the hard math based upon a real mission concept.

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