Monthly Archives: January 2018

Video of Falcon Heavy static fire test

I have embedded below the fold the video that SpaceX has released of yesterday’s Falcon Heavy static fire test. This is the first footage I have seen that allows one to make a good estimate of the test’s length, though because the video has one edit during the firing the time length could have been edited.

The video makes it appear that the firing lasted seven seconds. Witnesses however suggest it lasted about twelve seconds, which was the length expected. The difference raises some questions. If the video was edited and the actual test lasted twelve seconds, one has to ask why SpaceX edited their video. Was there some proprietary information that SpaceX was protecting that would have been revealed had it kept the view locked on the close-up camera for the full twelve seconds? Or was there some issue that occurred during the test that they do not yet wish the public to see?

If the test did last only seven seconds, not twelve as planned, was there instead an issue that caused them to shut down early?

I’m not sure what to think. I am also of the mind that I might be over-analyzing this. Other footage from farther away suggests the test was for twelve seconds, as described by witnesses. The footage however is also not definitive. The trees prevent one from seeing exactly when the firing starts and stops.

We will have to wait and see what SpaceX does. If it schedules a launch relatively quickly, then all this analysis is what I suspect, mere junk. If not, or if they schedule a second static fire test, which was always an option, then this analysis is brilliant.

Personally, I prefer the former, not the latter.

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Falcon Heavy static fire test completed

SpaceX has apparently completed its static fire test of the first stage of its Falcon Heavy rocket.

You can see the test here, with the static fire beginning at about 37:00 minutes. From the video it is difficult to judge exactly how long the rocket fired, but it might have been longer than predicted. What is important is that all appeared to function as planned.

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Govt shutdown deal included provision reducing spending oversight of surveillance agencies

The swamp wins: The deal that ended the government shut down included a provision that will allow intelligence agencies to spend billions with much less Congressional oversight.

From the article:

The new wording was requested by the White House Office of Management and Budget at the urging of the Pentagon and was backed by House and Senate appropriations committee leaders over the strident opposition of intelligence committee leadership.

…“Essentially the intelligence community could expend funds as it sees fit,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., warned about the change on the Senate floor Monday. “A situation like this is untenable.” Senate intelligence panel Ranking Member Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., warned covert operations could be funded without oversight and the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP leadership also opposed the wording.

…Steven Aftergood, who directs the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists, has a different view. “The new provision is certainly a departure from the norm that all intelligence activities must be authorized,” he said. “What is not clear is whether this is simply an artifact of the legislative drafting process, with no particular significance, or whether it is intended as a cover for some unauthorized activity,” Aftergood said. “Normally, I would suspect the former. But the fact that steps to correct the language were deliberately blocked in the Senate … makes you wonder if there is something else going on.” [emphasis mine]

Considering the revelations in recent days about the possible secret efforts of FBI agents to overturn the 2016 Presidential election, either Congress is incredibly stupid, or corrupt, or both, to give such organizations more spending power at this time. The highlighted quote indicates to me that they are both, and that there are some people in the government who have done this for very corrupt reasons.

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The Falcon Heavy vs the Saturn 5

As SpaceX prepares for what it hopes will be the first static fire test of its Falcon Heavy rocket today, this article provides a nice detailed comparison between the new heavy lift rocket and the Saturn 5, the biggest rocket ever built and successfully launched.

But where the Falcon Heavy comes out ahead is in economy. The estimated cost of a Saturn V launch in today’s dollars is a whopping US$1.16 billion. Meanwhile, the upper estimate for Falcon heavy is US$90 million. That’s million with an “M.”

So, which rocket comes out ahead? In terms of sheer numbers, the Saturn V wins hands down, but the contest is a bit unfair. Saturn V was a Cold War project with a main objective to put a man on the Moon as part of the struggle to prove the superiority of the Free World over the Soviet Union. It was a cost-is-no-object machine intended to win a bloodless battle for world supremacy.

Falcon Heavy, on the other hand, is a business venture. Its job is to make a profit for SpaceX’s investors and its development always had one eye on the ledger at all times. Its design is different, its function is different. To compare it with the Saturn V is a bit like comparing a nuclear strike carrier with the Queen Mary 2. Beyond a certain point, the exercise becomes meaningless.

Read it all. The comparison is quite fun, especially if you are an American and proud of our country’s history in space. To date, no one has built a rocket that truly compares with the Saturn 5. And now, today, an American company is proving that such rockets can be built in the future, for an affordable price.

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ArianeGroup successfully completes first engine test of Ariane 6 rocket

ArianeGroup has successfully completed the first static fire engine test of the first stage main engine for its Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled for its first launch in 2020.

They have already been testing of the rocket’s upper stage engine now for several months. The article also notes that this main stage engine just tested is essentially a more efficient upgrade of an Ariane 5’s engine, which explains how they were able to develop it so quickly.

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Google Lunar X-Prize announces that it will award no winners

The Google Lunar X-Prize announced today that none of its five finalists will be able to fly a mission to the Moon before the March 31, 2018 deadline, and thus the prize will be awarded to no one.

With Rocket Lab’s successful Electron launch this past weekend, I thought there might be chance Moon Express might get off the ground by the end of March. They were the only finalist that had any shot at making the deadline. However, the timing of this announcement today suggests to me that Moon Express probably consulted with Rocket Lab after the launch, and probably learned that it was unwise to push for a quick launch. Moon Express then probably contacted the Google Lunar X-Prize to say they wouldn’t be able to win, which in turn resulted in today’s announcement.

The contest however was not a failure. Several of the contestants, most especially Moon Express, have said that they are moving forward as private companies offering the scientific community inexpensive planetary missions. I hope that the foundation these companies laid during the competition will result in real missions in the near future.

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ULA takes over Atlas 5 commercial marketing from Lockheed Martin

Capitalism in space: ULA has now taken over the marketing of Atlas 5 commercial launches from Lockheed Martin.

I was actually surprised when I saw this story today. I had assumed that with the merger of the launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin into the ULA joint venture in 2005 ULA had been handling this marketing already. This announcement reveals that this merger had apparently only shifted the government Atlas 5 launches to ULA’s control, and only now has the rocket’s entire business been handed to ULA.

I wonder what political in-fighting was required by ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno to get this to happen.

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Russian launch rate to drop?

More government propaganda, this time from Russia: The head of Russia’s space agency Roscomos today announced proudly that they intend to complete 150 launches by the end of 2025.

“In the period ending 2025 (the period of the newly-adopted federal space program) we plan to fundamentally upgrade the group of satellites in orbit. We plan to carry out more than 150 launches. That done the Russian orbital group will grow considerably,” he said.

The problem is that this number suggests a significant decline in the Russian launch rate. From 1995 to 2015 the Russians averaged just under 29 launches per year. The new prediction today, based on 150 launches through the end of 2025, averages instead less than 19 launches per year, about the number Russia launched in 2016 and 2017 when they discovered serious corruption in one of their rocket engine factories and had to cease launches for almost a year in order to recall all rocket engines and fix them.

It could be that the launch rate being touted today by the head of Roscosmos only counts government launches, and excludes commercial launches for other customers. Even so, it still suggests a significant decline, since Russia is simply not getting as many launch contracts as it had in the past, its market share having been mostly stolen by SpaceX.

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Long March 5B delayed to 2019?

In this article touting the release of a propaganda commercial by China’s human spaceflight center, there was this short tidbit about the status of the Long March 5, grounded since a failed launch in July.

The 1.5 stage Long March 5B, designed for the task, has yet to fly. Its maiden flight was delayed by the failure last July of the 2.5 stage Long March 5, which launches missions to geosynchronous orbits as well as lunar and interplanetary missions.

Should a return-to-flight of the Long March 5 late this year be successful, the Long March 5B will debut in 2019 before then launching the Tianhe core module from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre.

This quote illustrates the techniques used by a secretive Soviet style nation that wishes to hide its problems. Until July 2017, when the Long March 5 failed on its second flight, there was never anything called the Long March 5B. Long March 5 was the rocket that was going to launch China’s space station modules. Now that it appears that significant changes to the rocket are required to fix it, suddenly the Long March 5B is described as the rocket that was “designed for the task” of launching the space station, not Long March 5. Long March 5 was only a first version, and the real rocket that will launch the station will debut in 2019.

“Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

Meanwhile, the propaganda commercial being touted, supposedly releasing never-before seen video showing astronaut training, is almost entirely made-up of staged footage, very carefully and dramatically lit. I would guess that it contains less than 15 seconds of live documentary footage, out of the 3:44 minute film.

None of this criticism here is aimed at the Chinese engineering. In fact, it is a good thing that they have recognized the problems with Long March 5 and are fixing them. It is also a good thing that they remain determined to continue their space program. I just think it necessary for everyone to recognize propaganda when they see it. When you do, you find out that the real story here is that they appear to be delaying somewhat the launch of their space station because of the delays necessary to fix Long March 5.

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Sessions: Justice Department to investigate missing text messages

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced today that the Justice Department has begun an investigation into the missing text messages between two anti-Trump FBI agents.

“We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source,” Sessions said in a statement. “I have spoken to the Inspector General and a review is already underway to ascertain what occurred and to determine if these records can be recovered in any other way. If any wrongdoing were to be found to have caused this gap, appropriate legal disciplinary action measures will be taken,” he continued.

What makes these missing FBI text messages so much more politically flammable than the missing IRS Lois Lerner records is that Lerner was merely abusing the rights of ordinary Americans, while these FBI officials appear to have been trying to abuse the rights of other politicians. While the Republicans might have mouthed outrage over the IRS abuse, they were unable to mobilize their entire party over the issue. I can just hear the response in the Congressional cloakrooms: “What difference does it make? Lerner and the IRS were just messing with some dumb tea party rednecks.”

With the FBI, however, the entire political class is now realizing that they have become the target, and this threat to them cannot be tolerated.

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Air Force reaffirms its SpaceX certification after Zuma

In another indication to me that SpaceX had nothing to do with the claimed failure of the secret government Zuma mission (assuming it failed at all), the commander of the Air Force space unit said today that SpaceX’s Air Force launch certification remains unchanged.

“Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status,” Bloomberg News quoted Lt. Gen. John Thompson as saying in a statement today.

At this moment, we really have no idea whether Zuma succeeded or not. The government might say it failed, but it has provided no evidence to prove that. Moreover, this statement by the head of the Air Force space division makes me very much inclined to believe that not only did SpaceX’s rocket perform perfectly, but that Zuma was a success as well. And that success probably includes an effort to hide the mission’s success with the disinformation campaign that followed launch.

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FBI loses texts from anti-Trump agent covering the exact period of greatest importance

Nothing to see here! The FBI revealed yesterday that it has lost texts between anti-Trump agent Peter Strzok and anti-Trump FBI lawyer Lisa Page for the five month period just prior to the beginnings of the Mueller investigation.

Their excuse?

“The Department wants to bring to your attention that the FBI’s technical system for retaining text messages sent and received on FBI mobile devices failed to preserve text messages for Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page,” said the letter, signed by assistant attorney general for legislative affairs Stephen Boyd.

Citing “misconfiguration issues related to rollouts, provisioning, and software upgrades that conflicted with the FBI’s collection capabilities,” Boyd explained that “data that should have been automatically collected and retained for long-term storage and retrieval was not collected.”

The missing time period, from December 14, 2016 and May 17, 2017, covers precisely the five months leading up to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, which happened (surprise!) on May 17.

By any standards of common morality, this should result at a minimum in the firing of numerous people at the FBI, immediately. It should also result in an aggressive investigation by the executive branch to see if these texts were purposely destroyed.

We however do not live in a time where any standards of common morality apply. Just as the IRS agents and the head of the IRS were allowed to lie and destroy evidence to obstruct Congress, with no consequences, I do not expect to see the Trump administration do anything significant to punish anyone here.

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Proposed budget deal lifts all spending caps

It appears that the spending in the budget deals being proposed in Congress include hefty spending increases and would also end up lifting all the spending caps imposed by the 2011 budget deal.

In order to secure more money for national defense, Democrats are demanding an equal amount of extra funding for domestic social welfare programs. So to get an additional $108 billion for the Pentagon, the Republicans may agree to another $108 billion-plus in ransom money for domestic agencies. But when all the emergency funding is included, the ratio could be closer to $2 of additional domestic spending for every dollar of increased military funding. What a deal.

If this treasury raid deal gets cut, the budget caps from the 2011 budget act will be officially and irrevocably washed away. So will any pretense of fiscal discipline and debt control. “Almost no one here on either side of the aisle wants to control spending,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tells me. “It’s sad, but it’s the new reality.”

If he’s right, then any allegiance to spending control has been tossed aside at the very time the debt has been spiraling. The $4 trillion federal budget is expected to exceed $5 trillion within eight years. The $20 trillion debt is already headed to $30 trillion over the next decade — even without this new spending spree.

In other words, the corrupt swamp in Washington, from both parties, continue to win in its desire to empower itself at the cost of the nation.

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Government shutdown and its effects on science

Link here. The article is from Science, which is almost always partisan Democrat, as well as strongly pro-government spending for anything that even hints of science research.

Regardless, the shutdown is definitely causing some confusion, partly because of the partisan differences within the government:

There is confusion among scientists about who, exactly, is affected by the shutdown. Some federal agencies have been slow to issue memos clarifying who should report to work on Monday if the shutdown is still in effect. (Workers often come in for a half-day or so to complete “orderly shutdown activities” and receive furlough notices.) At the Environmental Protection Agency, officials have suggested that all employees should expect to work every day next week, in apparent conflict with the agency’s own shutdown plan. Some federal researchers planning to travel to conferences or study sites over the weekend have been uncertain about whether they should board planes or trains.

Unlike the Obama administration, which spent money to purposely block citizens from visiting public sites while also making life as difficult as possible for the general public, Trump has ordered that all public lands be left open, while minimizing the inconvenience to the general public. It appears however that the management at some agencies are still following the Obama playbook, thus causing confusion.

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Rocket Lab succeeds in placing three satellites in orbit on second test launch

Capitalism in space: The small rocket company Rocket Lab successfully placed three smallsats in orbit on the second test launch of its Electron rocket yesterday.

I have posted the video of the launch below the fold. Everything unfolded smoothly and without any issues, including the video feed. This success bodes well for Moon Express’s effort to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, which has a deadline the end of March. Though Rocket Lab had said it wants to do three test launches before initiating commercial services, they have already initiated those services with the placement of three satellites by two customers on this launch yesterday. They have also hinted that if this launch was a success they might accelerate commercial operations.

In addition, ULA successfully launched a military satellite on two days ago with its Atlas 5 rocket. The 2018 launch stands are thus as follows:

4 China
2 ULA
1 SpaceX
1 Rocket Lab
1 Japan
1 India

I should add that though the U.S.’s total matches China at the moment, the government shut down prevents any further U.S. launches. It also prevents SpaceX from doing its Falcon Heavy static fire test. (I wonder: would this be an issue if SpaceX was launching from its private launchsite at Boca Chica?)
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China successfully launches six satellites

China today successfully launched two Earth observation satellites and four cubesats using its Long March 11 rocket.

This was the third launch of this four-stage solid-fuelled rocket, designed for quick scheduling. They also hope to use it later this year to launch from the ocean.

The 2018 launch standings:

4 China
1 ULA
1 SpaceX
1 India
1 Japan

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Republicans call memo about FISA abuses “shocking”

The release to the entire House of a memo from the House Intelligence Committee outlining surveillance abuses by the FBI under the FISA law has resulted in numerous expressions of horror and alarm from many House members after reading the memo.

“It is so alarming the American people have to see this,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said.

“It’s troubling. It is shocking,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said. “Part of me wishes that I didn’t read it because I don’t want to believe that those kinds of things could be happening in this country that I call home and love so much.”

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said he believed people could lose their jobs after the memo is released. “I believe the consequence of its release will be major changes in people currently working at the FBI and the Department of Justice,” he said, referencing DOJ officials Rod Rosenstein and Bruce Ohr. “You think about, ‘is this happening in America or is this the KGB?’ That’s how alarming it is,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said.

All these comments came today, and all refer to abuses by the Department of Justice and the FBI and Obama administration of the FISA.

It is interesting that despite these howls of outrage and horror, the same article above also noted that the Senate today approved a renewal of that same FISA law, with essentially no changes.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 65-34 to reauthorize a FISA provision that allows U.S. spy agencies to conduct surveillance on foreign targets abroad for six years. The bill, which already has been passed by the House, now heads to the White House,where President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.

The law had already been approved by the House, which in case anyone might have forgotten, is controlled by the same Republicans screaming outrage above.

These elected officials might mouth platitudes about respecting the Constitution and freedom, but what they do is what counts, and what they do illustrates that they don’t believe a word of what they say.

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Republican introduces bill to end California space tax

A state Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would end the special taxes that California’s Franchise Tax Board imposed on space companies last year.

The bill would repeal the space tax formula and exempt space flight income from state taxes, which Lackey contends would give companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and United Launch Alliance an incentive to stay in the state. For example, Moon Express, a startup working to mine the moon for natural resources, moved from Mountain View to Florida in 2016, Lackey said.

In an email, Moon Express CEO and founder Bob Richard reiterated a statement he made last year that the decision to move was “in part due to the state of Florida’s progressive economic development incentives designed to attract commercial space companies.”

Since California has rigged its elections in a way that makes it impossible for Republicans to win, Republicans have little power in the state legislature. I therefore don’t expect this bill to pass.

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Japan’s Epsilon rocket successfully launches radar satellite

Japan today successfully completed its first launch of 2018, placing an experimental radar satellite into orbit that was built under a new cost saving approach.

The ASNARO satellites are designed to be small, lightweight spacecraft with masses around 900-1,300 pounds (400-600 kilograms) with a common spacecraft bus largely built from commercial-off-the-shelf parts and interchangeable payload sections. This commonality is designed to reduce cost and simplify mission planning and preparation.

Epsilon itself is also designed under the same approach. Both are part of Japan’s effort to streamline its space industry to make it more competitive.

The launch standings:

3 China
1 SpaceX
1 ULA
1 India
1 Japan

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