June 27, 2017 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast with Iridium CEO Matt Desch

Embedded below the fold. This podcast is a bit different, in that John and I essentially interviewed the CEO of Iridium, asking him questions about the company and their launch contracts with SpaceX. I was especially interested in Desch’s earlier statements saying that Iridium is negotiating with SpaceX about using used first stages, but wanted any use to be accompanied by an acceleration of its launch schedule.
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Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine still leads race with Aerojet Rocketdyne

Capitalism in space: An independent assessment of the development work being done by Blue Origin and Aeroject Rocketdyne on their competing rocket engines says that Blue Origin is still in the lead by two years, despite a testing incident in May.

The article also outlines how the present Air Force budget includes language that would prevent the Air Force from financing any part of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, other than the money presently being spent to subsidize Aeroject Rocketdyne’s AR-4 engine.

SpaceX to try another launch on Sunday

Capitalism in space: SpaceX is aiming for another launch on July 2 in Florida, only 9 days after their last launch there.

That will make three launches in nine days.

Meanwhile, in an interview on The Space Show with David Livingston, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell revealed that, after this year’s planned demo launch of the Falcon Heavy, they plan two commercial launches of the rocket in 2018.

That means the Falcon Heavy will have flown at least three times before SLS even comes close to its first test flight.

US military tests laser weapon fired from helicopter

Life imitates science fiction: The U.S. Army and Raytheon have successfully tested the use of a laser weapon, fired from an Apache helicopter.

The U.S. Army and Raytheon have completed a flight test of a high-energy laser system on an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that was deemed successful, according to a Raytheon statement Monday.

The recent test at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, “marks the first time that a fully integrated laser system successfully engaged and fired on a target from a rotary-wing aircraft over a wide variety of flight regimes, altitudes and air speeds,” the company said. Raytheon said the test achieved all primary and secondary goals that show a high-energy laser, or HEL, on an attack helicopter can provide high-resolution, multiband targeting sensor performance and beam propagation.

I especially like the name they have given the system: HEL.

Orbital motion of a binary black hole detected for the first time

Astronomers have for the first time measured the orbital motion of two supermassive black holes that orbit each other.

Based on the initial data, the two black holes appear to orbit each other every 30,000 years. Eventually, they will spiral into each other, merge, and in the process produce ripples in the surrounding gravitational field that will be detectable by future gravitational wave detectors.

Luxembourg offers prizes for new space business proposals

Capitalism in space: Luxembourg yesterday announced that it will award two prizes, worth a total of 430,000 Euros, for new innovative space business ideas.

The call for submissions covers the full chain for exploiting space resources, from searching for minerals, mining and selling the processed product.The proposals should include a long-term view for developing space resources and be able to generate an economic return in the short and medium term.

The first award is a €400,000 prize to support a study under the Luxembourg national space program managed by the ESA. The second, for €30,000, is for early-stage projects and offers an investing campaign on www.spacestarters.com.

The ministry will support both award winners by offering workspace for the companies.

It sounds like they will entertain practically any ideas put forth. The deadline to submit is September 8, with the award announcement made in November.

Success of test mission paves way for orbiting gravitational wave detector

The success of LISA Pathfinder during the past year to test the technology for building an orbiting gravitational wave detector has now made it possible for Europe to approve construction of the full scale telescope, set to launch in the 2030s.

The LISA Pathfinder mission, launched in late 2015, beat its precision target by a factor of 1,000 and quieted critics who have doubted its potential, says project scientist Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at ESA in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. “This is not the impossible task that some people believed it was.”

Currently set to fly in 2034, the full-scale Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) will be the space analogue of the Laser Interfero-meter Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), two machines in the United States — each with a pair of 4-kilometre-long arms — that first detected the ripples by ‘hearing’ the merger of two black holes. LISA’s three probes will fly in a triangle, millions of kilometres apart, making the mission sensitive to much longer gravitational waves, such as the ripples produced by the collisions of even larger black holes.

The article also notes that the European Space Agency also approved two other large missions, one to launch in 2022 and go the moons of Jupiter, another an X-ray observatory that will launch in 2028.

The academic community weighs in on Outer Space Treaty

Link here. They recognize the problem the Outer Space Treaty creates for property rights, but not surprisingly have trouble touching on the heart of the problem, that the treaty forbids the establishment of any nation’s laws on any territory in space.

Hertzfeld points out that the industry needs policies that address for-profit operations in space, particularly activities that will be managed or operated by the private sector. Until now, he says, most private sector activities have been narrow, but that could change as companies become more involved with satellites and in spaceflight. “How do you deal with property rights in space?” he said. “Ownership of these natural resources, mineral resources, up there? How do you deal with approaching satellites that are perhaps owned by someone else, particularly if it’s another nation’s satellite? How do you deal with debris that could cause accidents?”

“There are lots and lots of questions in how you do this internationally, because other nations are involved. These are the issues that are not clearly defined right now.”

Von der Dunk adds that there are still many countries that have no, or only a limited, national space law program. As a result, he says, in the implementation of the Outer Space Treaty, a divergence has grown that has led to gaps, inconsistencies and overlaps in domestic oversight. “Ideally, at the international level it would be good to have some form of harmonization at least of the approaches, noting that of course every sovereign state may have some individual idiosyncratic elements to deal with, but that idea has never moved beyond the stage of academic discussion,” von der Dunk said. “Sovereign states are not willing to comply with any serious effort to make this happen.”

I would love to know what “some form of harmonization” means.

Nonetheless, that this article was published in a major media outlet, which asked these academics about this issue, is once again evidence that people are finally recognizing the problems posed by the Outer Space Treaty, and are beginning to discuss ways for dealing with it.

Climate scientists once again claim ozone layer is threatened

Crying wolf! New research by climate scientists suggests that the Earth’s ozone layer is once again threatened by modern human technology.

Industrial emissions of a chemical commonly used in solvents, paint removers, and the production of pharmaceuticals have doubled in the past few years, researchers have found, which could slow the healing of the ozone layer over Antarctica anywhere between 5 and 30 years—or even longer if levels continue to rise.

The findings are “frightening” and “a big deal,” says Robyn Schofield, an environmental scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia who was not involved with the work.

They might be right, but why should anyone believe them? The climate field has been spouting doomsday predictions about global warming and sea level rise now for more than 20 years, none of which have come true. As far as I can tell, this might be more of the same thing.

Worse, it might not, but by not being honest with so many other climate predictions the field has lost all political credibility, a great tragedy for them and for all of science. It will take decades, if ever, for them to recover that credibility.

Japan’s next rocket on schedule for 2020 launch

A new Japanese rocket, the H3, being built by Mitsubishi and designed to cut launch costs by half, is presently on schedule for debut in 2020.

Key quote from the article:

JAXA has given MHI a greater level of influence on the H3 than it did with the H-2A. Ogasawara said whereas the total launch vehicle design for the H-2A was JAXA’s responsibility, MHI’s role as prime contractor and vehicle integrator gives the company more creative freedom. He stressed, however, that JAXA is still directly involved in the design and development for certain key components. “Therefore, we work together, JAXA and MHI, very closely,” he said.

I don’t know how much of that claim is true. That they are making it though suggests that they have been strongly influenced by the shift in the U.S. from NASA-run projects to commercially-run projects.

Blue Origin to build its rocket engines in Alabama

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced today that it will build its BE-4 rocket engine factory in Alabama.

There is one caveat. They will only commit to the factory once they have won their contract to build the BE-4 engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. And that contract is not yet awarded.

Obviously, this decision has political components. By picking Alabama, Blue Origin hopes to blunt the political favoritism in Alabama to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s rocket engine, thus improving their chances of winning the ULA contract.

SpaceX launches 10 Iridium satellites, lands first stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched 10 Iridium satellites while also once again successfully landing the Falcon 9 first stage.

This gives them 9 launches for the year, more than any other company or country in the entire world.

One cool personal detail about today’s launch. Diane and I were doing a hike with two friends, and at about 1:20 pm I asked Brian if his Iphone might have signal and could we maybe then watch the launch. Lo and behold, he did have signal, and we were able to connect with SpaceX’s live stream, and were able to take a fifteen minute hiking break to watch the launch and first stage landing while sitting on a mountain trail in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson.

Ain’t technology wonderful?

California government healthcare plan shelved

The head of California’s assembly on Friday shelved the senate’s proposed government takeover of that state’s entire healthcare industry, saying that the plan was “woefully incomplete.”

The plan, which was estimated to cost $400 billion, several times California’s annual total budget, had not included any way to pay for it.

At first glance it appears that common sense has arrived in California. A closer look shows no such thing has happened.

“We are disappointed that the robust debate about health care for all that started in the California Senate will not continue in the Assembly this year,” Democratic Sens. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens and Toni Atkins of San Diego, the bill’s authors, said in a statement. “This issue is not going away.”

The legislation was championed by the state’s nurses’ union and the Democratic Party’s more liberal wing. “The California Nurses Association condemns the decision by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to destroy the aspirations of millions of Californians for guaranteed health care,” the union’s co-president, Deborah Burger, said in a statement that also critiqued the timing of Rendon’s announcement, which was sent out shortly before 5 p.m. “Announcing this decision at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon is a cowardly act, developed in secret without engaging the thousands of Californians who have rallied to enact real health care reform.”

Rendon suggested the Senate draft a new version of the bill that addresses how to finance the plan and more clearly details how it would work. He also suggested the plan could be taken to voters in the form of a ballot measure. In the meantime, he said he would not advance the bill through the Assembly committee process. “This action does not mean SB 562 is dead,” Rendon said. “In fact, it leaves open the exact deep discussion and debate the senators who voted for SB 562 repeatedly said is needed.”

Even if they rewrite it to include a plan to pay for this government-run healthcare system, it won’t work. It never does. The program will still cost far more than they can afford, and it will still bankrupt California, as has socialism in Russia, Venezuela, Europe, and anywhere it has been tried. Every. Single. Time.

Not that these plain facts matter to the political leaders in California. They and their voters want free stuff, and darn it, they are going to give it to them!

A detailed look at the UAE’s national space policy

Link here. The overall goals appear smart and worthwhile. They suffer from only one problem: This is a top-down policy, with the government attempting to drag the society forward in a specific direction. The direction might be a good one, but generally such efforts have limited success.

This paragraph meanwhile reveals the influence U.S. policy is having:

Effective and Attractive Space Regulatory Environment – The third enabler recognizes the need to incorporate and develop domestic space laws and regulations. These laws and regulations will be required to increase transparency, effectiveness, and resilience, and also provide protection of intellectual property rights as well as provide insurance policies and facilities for various private space activities. The legal and regulatory environment created through the third enabler will simplify the sharing of appropriate data and information to support value-added industries. The environment envisioned by the third enabler will strive to require the minimum regulatory burden on commercial space activities to enable the UAE to comply with its domestic and international legal obligations. That another country like the UAE might offer a more effective and attractive foreign legal and regulatory environment has been used to great effect in lobbying efforts in the United States and has prompted the both the House and Senate to reevaluate the U.S. commercial space licensing scheme. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the key phrases. The first illustrates the recognition that less government regulation is best, a variation of the basic American idea of freedom. The second notes the importance of competition. Just as Congress is rewriting its space laws to make it easier for U.S. citizens and companies to compete in space, the UAE recognizes that it must do the same.

Four reasons why college degrees are becoming useless

Link here. The first two reasons are illustrated forcefully by the madness we have recently seen in many college campuses, where mobs of screaming thugs take over and drown out anyone who wants to discuss the issues at hand rationally.

The last two reasons are less noticeable but more economically important. Combined with the first two reasons, expect there to be a collapse in attendance at colleges in the coming years.

SpaceX launches satellite with reused first stage, recovers stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has done it again. They have placed a Bulgarian television satellite into orbit, using a previously flown first stage.

The landing of the first stage had a moment of fear. Just before the stage was to land, as it was firing its engines during the landing burn, the video showed something hit the water next to the barge, then the image froze and was lost. For about fifteen seconds it appeared that possibly something had gone wrong during the burn. Then the image returned, showing the stage sitting neatly and upright and apparently unharmed, on the barge. Whether this stage will fly a third time will have to wait until they inspect it, but if it does, they will certainly prove without question that the decades of big space engineers telling us that such things were impossible was childish and narrow-minded hogwash.

Remember that the next time someone tells you something is too hard to try to do.

Mars rover update: June 23, 2017

Summary: Curiosity continues up hill. Opportunity has wheel problems.


For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The march up Mt Sharp continues. Since my last update on May 15, Curiosity has continued working its way up towards what the science team has named Vera Rubin Ridge, the beginning of a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the mountain’s slope. They have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, so entering this new layer of geology is eagerly anticipated by the science team. (This October 3, 2016 press release. gives an overall picture of the geology Curiosity is traversing.)

Reader Phil Veerkamp sent me a beautiful panorama he stitched together from recent Curiosity images of Vera Rubin Ridge, directly to the south of the rover and higher up hill. Below is a reduced resolution version. Be sure you click on it to explore the full resolution image. This is a new type of terrain, significantly different than anything Curiosity has seen up to now. It also appears that the rover will see far less dust, and might be traveling mostly over solid boulders. Below I have cropped out a very small section of the ridge line near the center of the full image, just to illustrate this.
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OneWeb wins FCC approval for 720 satellite internet constellation

Capitalism in space: The FCC has given unanimous approval to OneWeb to launch its 720 satellite constellation, designed to provide internet access worldwide.

They hope to launch the first 10 satellites in 2018 and begin service in 2019. The satellites will be put in orbit by a variety of launch companies, including Roscosmos, Arianespace, and Virgin Orbit.

This is only the beginning. SpaceX has its own internet competition planned, expected to begin launching in 2019.

Bulgaria credits SpaceX’s low costs for making its satellite possible

Capitalism in space: The CEO of the Bulgarian company that built the television satellite that SpaceX plans to launch later today said that it was SpaceX’s low costs that made the satellite possible.

Maxim Zayakov, CEO of BulgariaSat and its affiliate television provider Bulsatcom, told Spacefight Now that SpaceX’s push to reduce the cost of space transportation has yielded tangible results for his country. “People don’t realize that, for small countries and small companies like us, without SpaceX, there was no way we would ever be able to even think about space,” Zayakov said. “With them, it was possible. We got a project. I think, in the future, it’s going to be even more affordable because of reusability.”

This is what I have been saying for more than a decade. You lower the costs, you make it possible for more customers to enter the market. This increase in customer base makes it possible for more launch companies to enter the market in response, and that forces the costs to drop further, which starts the whole cycle again. In the end we not only get a robust launch industry, the human race gets to settle the solar system.

The article also confirms that, at this time, SpaceX is only offering a 10% discount for the use of a reused first stage. They say this is because they wish to recoup their $1 billion investment to develop reusability. While this might be true, the real truth is that SpaceX doesn’t need to provide a larger discount. The discounted price of $55.8 million saves satellite companies another $6.2 million, which isn’t chicken feed, and offers them the cheapest launch price anywhere by far. SpaceX in turn makes more money per launch.

Should another company begin to challenge this launch price I would then expect SpaceX to lower the price further. They have the profit margin to do this.

Note that you can watch today’s Falcon 9 launch of the Bulgarian satellite at 2:10 pm Eastern at SpaceX’s website.

India’s PSLV rocket successfully launches 31 satellites

India today completed its fourth launch of 2017, using its PSLV rocket to successfully place 31 satellites in orbit, including 30 smallsats.

They also did in-orbit engine tests of the rocket’s fourth stage after releasing the satellites.

For 2017 India has at this moment completed as many launches as ULA, and only one less than Russia. They have four more launches tentatively scheduled, though it is likely that not all will fly this year. If they get them off, however, they will definitely move into the upper tier of launch nations.

ESA discovers the wonders of capitalism!

Three stories today illustrate how competition is revolutionizing and energizing the European aerospace industry:

The first two stories are clearly examples of the new competition within the launch industry. The first describes the effort by ESA and Airbus-Safran, a partnership now dubbed ArianeGroup, to get the Ariane 6 rocket built fast and cheaply, under pressure as they are by SpaceX’s lower prices.

The manufacturing consortium is looking for a 40% cost reduction, at least, in the Ariane 6, compared with the Ariane 5. In part that is coming from exploiting new materials and new manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction stir welding, augmented reality design, etc) and in part by maximising the common use of elements in both the 62 and 64 variants. Avio’s solid-fuelled booster is also the same as the first stage on the company’s Vega rocket, which launches much smaller satellites.

But a big cost saving will come from simply employing fewer people. “There is a transition from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 (from 2020 to 2023), but from 2024, 2025 onwards – our workforce will be 30% less than today,” explained Hans Steininger, the boss of MT Aerospace, which is making the rocket’s huge metallic propellant tanks.

The second article describes how ESA is suddenly changing its reusable mini-shuttle program from a typical, staid, dead-end research project (where they do a series of test flights with no thought towards using what they learned) to a private mini-shuttle available for lease by researchers of all stripes.

By 2025, ESA officials said, Space Rider could be operating commercially, flying science payloads and bringing them back to Earth for roughly $9,200 per kilogram. Arianespace, the Evry, France-based launch services provider, would likely serve as Space Rider’s operator, offering industry and government customers the opportunity to fill the spaceplane 800-kilogram payload capacity with microgravity science, materials testing, telecommunications and robotics demonstrations.

Previously, the plan had been to test fly this spaceplane without selling its cargo capacity. Now they want to make money on it, right from the beginning.

The third article meanwhile illustrates that the old way of doing things is still a factor in Europe’s space effort. Europe’s Galileo GPS satellite network has been delayed badly by faulty atomic clocks. They are replacing them, and are preparing to resume launches. However, in ordering 8 new satellites they have also decided to keep OHB, the same contractor who provided the faulty atomic clocks, rather than give the contract to a competitor or at least split it between two contractors.

The contract, expected in late 2016, was delayed as the commission and the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) debated whether to maintain OHB as Galileo’s sole supplier or to award all or part of the contract to competitor Thales Alenia Space Italia.

In the event, the commission and ESA agreed that the savings realized from ordering recurrent-model spacecraft from OHB, and the schedule assurance this provided, outweighed arguments on behalf of dual sourcing. “Dual sourcing is always important but it needs to be weighed against other program requirements” including cost, said Paul Verhoef, ESA’s director of navigation. Verhoef said ESA and the commission may pursue dual sourcing for the next round of Galileo orders, when a new design will be used for the system’s second generation.

I suspect that as competition continues to prove its worth ESA will move to accept the idea of competition in the building of future GPS satellites. For right now, however, this change was more than this large government bureaucracy could handle.

House lawmakers push Air Force to use reusable rockets

Capitalism in space: House lawmakers today added an amendment to the Air Force budget that would require the military to “move rapidly to evaluate the potential use of reusable space launch vehicles such as those being flown by SpaceX.”

The amendment was approved by a voice vote in committee.

As noted by Eric Berger at the link, this marks an amazing shift by Congress in a very short time. A few years ago, SpaceX had to sue the government for the right to bid on Air Force launch contracts. At that time Congress was exceedingly skeptical of allowing military satellites to launch on new Falcon 9 rockets, no less ones using used first stages. Moreover, Congress was then eager to protect its big buddy ULA, which then had a monopoly on military launches and was making gobs of money per launch. Now, Congress is all for re-usability and saving money and competition.

This change demonstrates the importance of success. SpaceX has been successful, and with that success the nay-sayers have suddenly vanished. Now, everyone loves them, when only a few years ago they were considered risky and unreliable.

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy succeeds and flies several times prior to the first launch of SLS, watch for this same process to occur there as well. SLS will no longer be sacrosanct, and Congress will suddenly discover how much a waste of money it is.

NASA shuts down asteroid capture mission

Faced with years of congressional disinterest, NASA this week finally decided to close out its asteroid redirect mission.

The project was first pushed by President Obama as a mission to send astronauts to an asteroid. Then they downgraded it to using an unmanned spacecraft to bring a large asteroid back to lunar space, where astronauts would then visit it. Then they downgraded this to bringing back a small asteroid, which was later downgraded to bringing back a small boulder. In the process the manned mission got pushed farther and farther into the future, until it dwindled out of sight.

The mission never had any congressional support, so it was never going to happen. With the end of the Obama administration NASA can now finally stop making believe that it might happen and shut it down.

Senate introduces its version of Trumpcare

Failure theater: The Senate today introduced its version of an Obamacare replacement, and proved once again that the Republican leadership in Congress has no interest in repealing Obamacare and the parts of that law that make it economically unsustainable.

The most popular provisions of Obamacare are kept in place in the bill, including language allowing children to stay on a parent’s health insurance plan until age 26 and preserving coverage for people with pre-existing illnesses.

The bill does repeal some of Obamacare, but without freeing the insurance company from the requirement to accept anyone, whether they are sick or not, makes it impossible for the entire health insurance business to make any profit. It also does not appear that this bill frees insurance companies to offer any kind of insurance they wish, including the popular and less expensive catastrophic insurance plans that Obamacare banned.

The problem here is that the Republican leadership is timid. They fear the squealing of pigs, and thus attempt to come up with plans that will please those pigs. The result? A mish-mosh that no one likes and that solves nothing.

Update: The Senate’s own freedom caucus speaks: Senators Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul reject Senate bill, as written.

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