Scientists receiving EPA grants will no longer serve on EPA advisory panels

EPA head Scott Pruitt today announced that any scientist receiving EPA grants will no longer be allowed to serve on three EPA science advisory panels.

In the past three years, members of the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors received about $77 million in direct EPA grants while serving, according to agency calculations. “Strengthening independence from EPA; increasing state, tribal, and local government participation; and adding geographic diversity and fresh perspectives will improve the integrity of EPA’s scientific advisory committees,” Pruitt told reporters, government officials, and policy analysts in attendance.

The issue is a conflict of interest. These same scientists could not fairly advise EPA since they depended on that agency for major funding. The result was that these panels would often recommend the EPA to fund research that these scientists favored and were known to focus on, thus giving them an advantage in obtaining grants. Not surprisingly, this research often pushed the theory of global-warming and anti-industry regulation. This old-boy network for funneling funds to the right people, regardless of its legitimacy, is now hopefully cut off.

NASA wants private company to take over Spitzer Space Telescope

NASA has issued a request for proposals from private companies or organizations to take over the operation of the Spitzer Space Telescope after 2019.

NASA’s current plans call for operating Spitzer through March of 2019 to perform preparatory observations for the James Webb Space Telescope. That schedule was based on plans for a fall 2018 launch of JWST, which has since been delayed to the spring of 2019. Under that plan, NASA would close out the Spitzer mission by fiscal year 2020. That plan was intended to save NASA the cost of running Spitzer, which is currently $14 million a year. The spacecraft itself, though, remains in good condition and could operating well beyond NASA’s current plan.

“The observatory and the IRAC instrument are in excellent health. We don’t have really any issues with the hardware,” said Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, Spitzer project manager, in a presentation to the committee Oct. 18. IRAC is the Infrared Array Camera, an instrument that continues operations at its two shortest wavelengths long after the spacecraft exhausted the supply of liquid helium coolant.

The spacecraft’s only consumable is nitrogen gas used for the spacecraft’s thrusters, and Storrie-Lombardi said the spacecraft still had half its supply of nitrogen 14 years after launch.

The way a private organization could make money on this is to charge astronomers and research projects for observation time. This could work, since there is usually a greater demand for research time than available observatories.

Minotaur-C successfully launches 10 commercial smallsats

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C rocket today successfully launched 10 commercial smallsats.

It appears that they have upgraded the accused Taurus rocket in renaming it Minotaur-C.

After Orbital ATK suffered a series of launch failures with the Taurus rockets — which led to the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory as well as its Glory climate-monitoring satellite — the company redesigned the Taurus. The new and improved rocket uses newer and more reliable technologies that Orbital ATK had built for its other Minotaur rockets.

This success is a very good thing for Orbital ATK, as the rocket likely gives them a strong position in the emerging smallsat market.

New exoplanet defies accepted theories of planet formation

The uncertainty of science: A newly discovered exoplanet, the size of Jupiter and orbiting a star half the size of the Sun, should not exist based on all the presently favored theories of planet formation.

New research, led by Dr Daniel Bayliss and Professor Peter Wheatley from the University of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, has identified the unusual planet NGTS-1b – the largest planet compared to the size of its companion star ever discovered in the universe.

NGTS-1b is a gas giant six hundred light years away, the size of Jupiter, and orbits a small star with a radius and mass half that of our sun.

Its existence challenges theories of planet formation which state that a planet of this size could not be formed by such a small star. According to these theories, small stars can readily form rocky planets but do not gather enough material together to form Jupiter-sized planets. The planet is a hot Jupiter, at least as large as the Jupiter in our solar system, but with around 20% less mass. It is very close to its star – just 3% of the distance between Earth and the Sun – and orbits the star every 2.6 days, meaning a year on NGTS-1b lasts two and a half days.

No one should be surprised by this. While the present theories of planet formation are useful and necessary, giving scientists a rough framework for studying exoplanets, they should not be taken too seriously. We simply do not yet have enough information about how stars, solar systems, and planets form.

SpaceX completes installation of two antenna dishes in Boca Chica spaceport

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has completed the installation of two ground station antenna dishes in its Boca Chica spaceport that will be used to facilitate communications with its manned Dragon missions.

A SpaceX spokesman said the antennas will also be used to track flights from Boca Chica once they’re underway. The company acquired the 86-ton antennas from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and transported them to Boca Chica via semitrailer. The first antenna was installed this summer.

The article also implies that SpaceX plans to eventually launch manned missions from Boca Chica.

Satellite data business to grow to $8.5 billion by 2026

Capitalism in space: An industry analysis says that the satellite data market should grow to $8.5 billion by 2026, with the potential to reach $15 billion.

Euroconsult has identified approximately 20 companies that have announced intentions to develop lower-cost constellations to collect data at a high rate of revisit based on smallsat and cubesat technologies. As of 2017, these new operators have attracted more than U.S.$600 million in venture capital to fund their initiatives. None of the newly announced initiatives have yet reached full capacity; for these constellations to come to fruition, additional investments will be required.

Competition is expected to be fierce on the supply side, as companies must differentiate themselves in the marketplace and bring innovative solutions to maintain market share. Consolidation (such as MDA and DigitalGlobe, OmniEarth and EagleView, Terra Bella and Planet) could linger as companies refine business models and continue to seek investments. DigitalGlobe, for example, is aiming to add a lower-cost satellite constellation (Legion) to its portfolio to counter the probable impact of low-priced solutions entering the market. Airbus will also develop its own very high resolution (VHR) optical system, given that the next generation French defence system will not be commercialized.

Astronomers find 20 more exoplanet candidates in Kepler archive

Worlds without end: Astronomers reviewing the Kepler archive have found 20 more exoplanet candidates, including one that has a mass about 97 percent of the Earth with an orbit 395 days long circling a star like the Sun.

The planet would be colder than Earth, as its star is slightly cooler than the Sun, and its orbit is slightly farther away. Nonetheless, this is an amazing twin, and would certainly be a prime target when interstellar travel becomes routine.

Orbital ATK to launch first Minotaur-C in six and a half years

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK will try today to successfully launch its renamed Taurus rocket, six and a half years after its previous two launches had ended in failure.

The rocket is now called Minotaur-C and will attempt to launch ten Planet Lab smallsats. As Taurus, the rocket failed 3 times out of 9 launches, and from what I could tell watching the launch industry, was basically a dead product. I am now astonished that it is coming back to life. Apparently, Planet Lab got a good launch price, and can take the risk since its smallsats represent a relatively small investment and can be replaced much more easily than the two research satellites (Orbiting Carbon Laboratory and Glory) that NASA lost in the rocket’s previous two launches more than half a decade ago.

The article outlines nicely the history of this rocket, and how its failures significantly set back the growth of Orbital ATK. Hopefully, it will succeed now, and provide the U.S. another player in the increasingly competitive global launch market.

North Korea’s new plan to develop and launch satellites

North Korea announced yesterday a new program to accelerate the development of home-built space satellites and orbital rockets.

North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun published a commentary laying out the country’s plans to send more satellites into space over the next five years. The program “can contribute to improving the economy and people’s lives,” the article reads. “It is a global trend to seek economic development through space programs,” the October 31 piece said. “According to our five-year plan for space development, we will launch more working satellites, such as geostationary ones.” Geostationary satellites orbit the Earth about 38,500 kilometers (22,000 miles) over a fixed position over the equator and revolve from west to east like the Earth.

It is hard to know how realistic this program is, and how much of it is actually a cover for North Korea’s ICBM development efforts.

Saudi Arabia gives robot citizenship

As part of a publicity stunt to encourage investment, Saudi Arabia has given citizenship to a new robot, designed to show human emotions by facial expressions.

A humanoid robot took the stage at the Future Investment Initiative yesterday and had an amusing exchange with the host to the delight of hundreds of delegates. Smartphones were held aloft as Sophia, a robot designed by Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics, gave a presentation that demonstrated her capacity for human expression.

Sophia made global headlines when she was granted Saudi citizenship, making the kingdom the first country in the world to offer its citizenship to a robot.

Below the fold I have embedded the video of Sophia’s conversation with the host. It is obvious that most of the conversation was scripted. It is also obvious that robots still have a long way to go before their facial expressions appear natural to the human eye.

Posted north of Phoenix as we climb up onto the Colorado Plateau. Just saw the last saguaro in the cacti’s northern range limits.
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Chinese company gives live turtle a high altitude balloon flight

Capitalism in space: Chinese company has successful given a live turtle a high altitude balloon flight as prep for future tourism flights.

The news article is somewhat humorous in claiming the following:

Shenzhen-based Kuang-Chi Group said it blasted the yellow-headed turtle, nicknamed “Little Cloud”, to an altitude of 21,000 metres inside a helium-filled craft. The launch took place from western China’s Xinjiang region at about 4am on Wednesday morning.

The craft landed safely at about 8.28am the same day, and the turtle was said to have survived the trip.

The company said it was the first time a live animal had been safely taken into near space, and that the trip paved the way for it to sell commercial flights to humans by 2018 or 2019. [emphasis mine]

The company’s claim, highlighted above, is so incredibly not true it raises questions about their whole story. Humans have been taken by balloon to these elevations several times. This might be a poor translation, but then it indicates some incompetence by the reporter.

Either way, this company is aiming for the high altitude tourism market that World View in Tucson had initially been focusing on, but now seems to have abandoned.

Posted as we slog our way through Phoenix traffic.

SpaceX to resume launches at second launchpad in December

Capitalism in space: SpaceX plans to resume launches in December at its second Kennedy launchpad that was damaged in the September 2016 explosion.

This means that after the mid-November launch of Northrop Grumman’s Zuma payload, they will begin the reconfiguration of that launchpad for Falcon Heavy. Initially the company had said it would take two months to complete that work, which would push the first Falcon Heavy launch into 2018. More recently they say they can get the work done in six weeks. Either way, this suggests that the first attempt to launch Falcon Heavy around the first of the year.

Posted on the road from Tucson to the Grand Canyon. This weekend I am running a new cave survey project there, and we are hiking down this afternoon, with the plan to hike out on Monday.]

Survey finds universities teach a “thin and patchy education”

The coming dark age: A national survey has found that today’s universities no longer teach a well-rounded education but instead allow their students to skip important subjects so that their education is “thin and patchy.”

The group evaluated more than 1,100 colleges and universities based on their requirements in seven “key areas of knowledge”: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics and science. The results showed that 66.5 percent of the schools required only three or fewer of those subjects.

This leads to a “thin and patchy education,” the report states. “Students may have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose, many of them highly specialized niche courses,” it states. “Once distribution requirements become too loose, students almost inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses and, all too often, serious gaps in their basic skills and knowledge.”

Additional key findings include that fewer than 18 percent of colleges and universities require a foundational course in U.S. government or history, and only about 3 percent of the institutions require students to take a basic economics class.

Read it all. It is quite depressing, but also not surprising. It also suggests that parents and their high school children need to demand more from colleges, and reject those colleges that are failing in providing the basics of a college education.

An ancient ocean on Ceres?

Two studies released today by the Dawn science team suggest that the spacecraft has found evidence that an ancient ocean once existed on Ceres.

In one study, the Dawn team found Ceres’ crust is a mixture of ice, salts and hydrated materials that were subjected to past and possibly recent geologic activity, and this crust represents most of that ancient ocean. The second study builds off the first and suggests there is a softer, easily deformable layer beneath Ceres’ rigid surface crust, which could be the signature of residual liquid left over from the ocean, too.

Trump Justice Department settles lawsuits over Obama IRS harassment

The Trump administration has come to a settlement with the lawsuits filed by tea party groups over their harassment by the IRS during the Obama administration.

The government apologized Thursday for illegally targeting tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny and agreed to settlements with hundreds of organizations snared in the targeting, bringing to a close one of the more embarrassing episodes of the Obama administration.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the IRS owed the groups an apology after years of poor treatment and even longer refusal to concede bad behavior. He placed blame on “the last administration,” saying the targeting that went on under President Obama “was wrong and should never have occurred.”

One of the settlement agreements, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., officially admits that the IRS singled out groups because of their political beliefs, in defiance of the law. The other settlement, in a class-action lawsuit in Ohio, includes a “generous” payout to more than 400 groups snared, according to a lawyer involved.

The amount of the settlement was not released.

Meanwhile, John Koskinen remains head of the IRS, despite a long documented record of stone-walling and obstruction of justice. If the Trump administration is really sincere about fixing this proglem so that it won’t happen again, why has Trump not fired him?

Scientists propose adding smog to atmosphere to fight global warming

What could possibly go wrong? Global warming scientists have proposed injecting sulphate aerosols (another name for pollution) into the upper atmosphere in order to counter their predicted global temperature rise.

Experts are considering ploughing sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere which would cause some of the suns rays to be reflected back out into space. This could potentially cool the Earth down and help counter the effects of climate change, scientists say.

The move would also help reduce coral bleaching and help calm powerful storms.

James Crabbe, from the University of Bedfordshire, is leading the study and his initial results suggest the plan could help cool the planet.

This proposal is based on such flimsy science it appalls me that any scientist would even consider it, especially when you think about the unknown consequences.

Rosetta’s capture of a dust jet from Comet 67P/C-G

Dust jet on Comet 67P/C-G

Cool image time! The Rosetta science team has released images and data gathered in July 2016 when the spacecraft successfully observed a dust outburst erupting from Comet 67P/C-G’s surface. The image on the right, slightly reduced in resolution, shows that outburst.

When the Sun rose over the Imhotep region of Rosetta’s comet on July 3, 2016, everything was just right: As the surface warmed and began to emit dust into space, Rosetta’s trajectory led the probe right through the cloud. At the same time, the view of the scientific camera system OSIRIS coincidentally focused precisely on the surface region of the comet from which the fountain originated. A total of five instruments on board the probe were able to document the outburst in the following hours.

As should be expected, the results did not match the models or predictions. The jet, instigated by water-ice just below the surface turning into gas when heated by the Sun, was much dustier than predicted. They have theories as to why, but it appears that no one likes these theories that much.

More hints that the first SLS launch will be delayed again

Government in action! The head of the Marshall Space Flight Center yesterday once again hinted that the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion, presently scheduled for late in 2019, could be delayed again.

In September, the agency said in a statement that it would announce a new target date for EM-1 in October, citing the need to account for a range of issues, including progress on the European-built Orion service module and shutdowns at NASA centers from hurricanes in August and September.

However, an update in October is increasingly unlikely. “Within a few weeks, I think [NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot] intends to codify whatever that date is going to be,” Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in remarks at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25.

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, offered a similar assessment. “Probably in the next month, maybe sooner,” he said in an interview.

These hints have been standard operating procedure for announcing SLS’s endless delays for the past decade. First they make hints that a delay might happen, but reassure everyone that it is very unlikely. Then they follow this up later with announcements about how they need more time to accomplish all their goals. By the third announcement they outline a possible new schedule, including some delay but insist that it isn’t likely. Finally, they release the new dates, often as an aside during some other announcement in order to minimize the news.

It should be noted that the new dates have almost never been realistic. NASA has usually known that the new dates are interim, and that further delays will likely require more of this same dance to make them public.

So, here is my prediction: They are preparing us for the fact that the first unmanned flight will likely slip into 2020, which means the first manned flight slips for certain into 2023, as I have been predicting for the past three years.

Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit

Capitalism in space: Saudi Arabia and Virgin have signed a non-binding agreement for Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

I’m not sure what to make of this press release. The agreement is clearly called “non-binding,” which means Saudi Arabia is not obliged to provide any funds. At the same time, the deal appears to shift power and control of the two Virgin companies to the Arab country, which if successful (a big “if”) would also quickly give Saudi Arabia both a manned and smallsat launching capability.

Why they chose Virgin appears at first baffling, considering that company’s repeated inability to achieve any of its promises. It could be, however, that Richard Branson’s funds are drying up, and that he needed this deal to keep both companies afloat. Saudi Arabia thus saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

Boeing’s Starliner undergoing drop tests

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule yesterday successfully completed the 11th of 14 drop tests in preparation for launch.

The article includes extensive comments by two NASA astronauts who are working with Boeing on these drop tests. I found this quote interesting:

[Sunita] Williams and [Eric] Boe said there are benefits and drawbacks to either type of landing, but they preferred land over water. Williams speaks from experience: She has already made a land landing aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. “When you land on land, maybe it’s a little bit harder,” Williams said. “But when you’re coming down at high speed, the water’s hard, too.

“Landing on water, if somebody’s right there to rescue you and they know exactly where you’re coming down, that works. And we’ve shown that works with the Apollo program. But, landing on water — I’m a Navy guy, there’s a big ocean out there and it’s a little space capsule and there’s some definite risks to that, too.

“Landing on the Soyuz, you open the hatch, you smell the grass, you’re not in a huge rush to get out or stay in. You know you’re in a solid place and you know you can take your time getting out and the rescue forces will be there eventually, if they’re not there knocking on the door.”

The article also noted that Boeing plans to refurbish each capsule and reuse it up to ten times.

Email proves Obama administration targeted opponents for harassment by the IRS

Working for the Democratic Party: An email from an IRS agent, recently uncovered by lawyers representing tea party groups in a class action lawsuit, clearly shows that the Obama administration targeted for harassment conservative groups, based solely on their party affiliation.

[T]he April 1, 2011, email from Elizabeth C. Kastenberg, an official in the agency’s exempt organizations division, says it was explicitly the organizations’ politics that landed them on the target list. “These cases are held back primarily because of their political party affiliation rather than specifically any political activities,” Ms. Kastenberg wrote in an alert to other IRS employees, including her supervisor.

Edward Greim, the attorney for NorCal Tea Party Patriots and hundreds of other groups that are part of the class-action lawsuit, said that was a major admission. “What Kastenberg was saying was they have all different activities, and so there’s no ‘political activities’ that cut across this group. Instead, it’s really their political party affiliation they have in common,” he said. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the IRS decided to demand inappropriate information from these Republican organizations, merely because they were Republican, contradicting utterly the claim by the agency that they were only checking to make sure that these groups, based on their activities, should get non-profit status.

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