Monthly Archives: September 2018

Three U.S. small space companies establish offices in Luxembourg

Capitalism in space: Three U.S. small space companies have now established offices in Luxembourg in order to take advantage of the financial backing that nation is willing to afford.

The government of Luxembourg announced Sept. 27 that CubeRover, Hydrosat and Made In Space will all establish facilities in the country, in many cases working with local universities and companies. The work those companies do in Luxembourg will range from development of robotic arms to small planetary rovers.

“The success of our development strategy for the space sector, including the recent launch of the Luxembourg Space Agency, is confirmed once more with the settlement in Luxembourg of three space companies that plan to employ up to 85 people in the Grand-Duchy by 2023,” said Étienne Schneider, deputy prime minister and minister of the economy of the Luxembourg government and the driving force for the country’s recent space initiatives.

The largest agreement, in terms of jobs created, goes to Made In Space. That company, best known for additive manufacturing work on the International Space Station, plans to work on a low-cost modular robotic arm for in-space applications, and will create up to 50 jobs in the country.

They did not mention what the terms are of Luxembourg’s financial support, but I suspect it is most helpful for these companies.

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Musk settles with SEC, pays fine, reduces control at Tesla for 3 years

Elon Musk and Tesla have negotiated a settlement with the SEC, agreeing to each pay a fine of $20 million while Musk reduces his role with the company for the next three years.

Musk and Palo Alto-based Tesla agreed to pay a total of $40 million to settle the case, and he will give up his chairmanship for at least three years. The electric-car maker also is required to install an independent chairman and two new board members, though Musk will remain on the board, according to terms of the settlement.

Musk and Tesla will each pay $20 million to settle the case; both reached the deal without admitting wrongdoing.

I suspect this will not reduce Musk’s influence on Tesla very much. To me, this whole kerfuffle was the SEC acting like a bunch of mobsters, pulling its weight against someone it apparently doesn’t like. “Nice business you have there, Elon. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it.”

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UAE astronaut flight to ISS tentatively scheduled for April

Russia has now tentatively scheduled the flight to ISS of the United Arab Emirates first astronaut.

The first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 5, 2019, and will return to Earth on April 16, 2019, the ISS launch schedule, shared with Sputnik, has shown. According to the document, an astronaut will fly to the ISS on board the Russian Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft.

It has not been determined yet if Hazza Mansouri or Sultan Nayadi will take part in the mission. Both astronauts have qualified for it and have begun their training in Russia earlier in September.

Though the goal of this mission by the UAE government is to encourage a private space industry in their country, the mission remains wholly a government creature. What has not been released is how much UAE is paying the Russians for their flight.

Had the launch of the U.S. commercial crew spacecraft not been slowed by NASA and had been operational, either SpaceX or Boeing could have competed for this business. Expect them to do so in the future.

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China launches smallsat

One of China’s claimed-to-be private companies, Expace, today launched a smallsat into orbit using the Kuaizhou-1A solid-fueld rocket. .

Exspace, like OneSpace and Ispace, is considered private by the Chinese. I find it interesting however that all these private companies have remarkably similar names, and all appear to be doing military work. Even if they get private financing from Chinese investors and their management is formed independent of the government, we should not be fooled. These are wholly owned and controlled by the Chinese government. They do nothing without its knowledge and support.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

26 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China has widened its lead over the U.S. in the national rankings, 26 to 24.

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Stratolaunch building its own rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch yesterday revealed details about its PGA rocket engine that it is developing in house.

The hydrogen-fueled PGA will produce 200,000 pounds of liftoff thrust. “When you try to do something like single stage to orbit, or in our case air launch, you really have to have hydrogen performance to make it happen,” Jeff Thornburg, Stratolaunch’s vice president of propulsion engineering, told Aviation Week.

Stratolaunch says that 85 percent of the manufacturing process will take advantage of additive-manufacturing techniques, also known as 3-D printing. That’s aimed at reducing the cost of engine production. “The propulsion team is currently in the process of manufacturing and testing prototype subscale and full-scale hardware,” Stratolaunch says. “The team has completed ignitor development, with injector testing currently underway. After this is completed, the team will perform a full-scale preburner test by the end of 2018.”

The engine is being designed to power the rockets and manned ferry that they also plan to build to be launched from the bottom of their giant airplane Roc.

It is clear now that they could not find anyone else willing to build these upper stages, and are now building them themselves. This means that SpaceX, with its Big Falcon Rocket, is now not the only company building a completely reusable system for gaining access to space.

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Roscosmos head meets with Chinese

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, held meetings this week with China, discussing possible future space cooperation.

Russia can’t really afford to do much right now on its own, but it also wants to negotiate the best deal it can with anyone it works with in space. These discussions are therefore specifically designed to give Rogozin some negotiating leverage when he meets with NASA’s head Jim Bridenstine on October 10.

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New images from Hayabusa-2’s mini-bouncers

Three press releases from the Hayabusa-2 science team last night provide new images from the spacecraft’s MINERVA bouncers, presently on the surface of Ryugu, as well as new high resolution images from Hayabusa-2 during its recent close-in maneuvers.

The images from the first story also includes a ten second movie showing a very rocky surface with the sun moving across the sky. The last link shows the primary landing site candidate with two backup sites.

All told, these images suggest that Ryugu is nothing more than a rubble pile stuck together. If it was heading to Earth, it might be difficult to deflect it, as it might break apart caused by any stress.

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Next Long March 5 launch delayed again?

There are indications in the Chinese press that suggest the next launch of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5, will be delayed from its present November launch into 2019.

An online report by People’s Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, reports Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), as saying at a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday that the Long March 5B will not make its planned test launch in the first half of 2019.

“Due to the failure of the launch of the Long March 5 remote launch vehicle, the first flight of the Long March 5B carrier rocket will be postponed. The specific implementation time needs to be clarified after coordination with relevant departments,” Xiqiang said.

The November launch was to put up a test communications satellite. Should it slip into 2019, this would likely also cause delays in the launch of China’s first lunar sample return mission, Chang’e-5 (originally scheduled for 2017), the launch of China’s first Mars planetary mission in 2020, and finally the launch of the first module of China’s space station, also set for 2020.

All this once again indicates that the problems with Long March 5 were very serious, and might not yet have been addressed, even with a redesign of its engines.

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SEC goes after Musk

The Securities and Exchange Commission today filed a complaint against Tesla in an effort to force Elon Musk out as head of the company.

The complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission came after a last-minute decision by Mr. Musk and his lawyers to fight the case rather than settle the charges.

The filing by the SEC in federal court in Manhattan threatens to deal a severe blow to the Palo Alto, Calif., electric car maker. Its brand and Mr. Musk are closely intertwined, and analysts have said the company’s roughly $50 billion market value is driven by Wall Street’s appreciation for Mr. Musk’s vision and skill as an innovator.
SEC Sues Elon Musk for Fraud, Seeks Removal From Tesla

Tesla wasn’t named in the suit as a defendant, but the SEC is seeking to bar Mr. Musk, Tesla’s largest shareholder and its top executive, from serving as an officer or director of any U.S. public company. Tesla shares, which have been under intense pressure amid questions about the firm’s financial strength and Mr. Musk’s behavior, tumbled 9.9% to $277 in after-hours trading Thursday on Nasdaq.

This is very bad news for Tesla. However, it might be good news for SpaceX, as Musk has admitted to being very overworked. If he is forced from Tesla, he will have an enormous load removed from him.

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ULA picks Blue Origin rocket engine for Vulcan first stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine to power the first stage of its next generation rocket, which they are now calling Vulcan-Centaur.

Two BE-4 engines will be used to power the Vulcan first stage. The press release does not mention anything about how they plan to recover these first stages. Earlier announcements had said that they would separate from the rocket stage and parachute down to be capture before hitting the ground.

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Local Texas city council votes to keep spaceport

The Midland, Texas city council today voted to renew its contract with the company managing its spaceport there.

The council voted 6-1 to renew its contract with SilverWing Enterprises, an aerospace consulting company that manages Midland’s spaceport license. The one vote came from Spencer Robnett, who has been public with his belief that the spaceport needs to be shut down.

“Yeah I don’t think it would ever have a chance in Midland,” Robnett said. “I do think the space business and space technology and aerospace sector is evolving. There’s a lot of money being invested in it by billionaires, Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Unfortunately we don’t have a billionaire in Midland chasing aerospace investment. We’ve got a small economic development corporation that takes direction from the city council.”

Robnett might have a point. Midland’s spaceport had been the base of operations for XCOR’s Lynx, and with XCOR bankrupt and gone there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest by anyone else in flying any rockets from there. Part of their problem is their location, which is far from the coast and would likely limit the launch options in order to avoid populated areas.

The question has to be: What does Midland offer to rocket companies that other spaceports don’t? Until they can provide an answer to that question, the money the council is spending on this spaceport is probably going to waste.

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NASA extends Chandra telescope operation to 2024

NASA has extended its contract with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts to run the Chandra X-ray Observatory through 2024.

In many ways the longevity of both Hubble and Chandra as well as other space telescopes has demonstrated the robustness of much in-space engineering these days. It suggests that when we finally begin building manned interplanetary spaceships we should have confidence they will operate reliably for long periods.

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SpaceX gets contract to launch private lunar rover missions

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a contract for two launches of lunar rovers built by a private Japanese company.

okyo-based lunar-exploration startup Ispace has signed up for launches on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2020 and 2021. The first will carry a lunar lander into orbit around the moon, and the second aims to put one on the moon’s surface so it can deploy a pair of rovers, Ispace said Wednesday. “We share the vision with SpaceX of enabling humans to live in space, so we’re very glad they will join us in this first step of our journey,” Ispace Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement.

SpaceX already has a contract for another private lunar rover, built by the Israeli company SpaceIL, that is set to launch as a secondary payload in December.

Both companies are former competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. Based on these contracts, as well as the pending launch of Moon Express’s private lunar rover on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, it appears that private commercial planetary missions are about to become routine.

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China schedules deorbit of Tiangong-2 station for July 2019

Assuming nothing goes wrong beforehand, China has now scheduled the deorbit of its Tiangong-2 test space station module for July 2019.

This decision is not surprising. They want to keep the station aloft and operating as long as possible to test its design and how that engineering can be applied to their full sized station planned for the 2020s.

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Ariane 5 launches two communication satellites

Capitalism in space: Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket today placed two commercial communication satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

25 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China remains ahead of the U.S. 25 to 24 in the national rankings.

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Millennials are staying married; thus divorce rate plummets

Good news the future’s children! New data shows that millennials are returning to more traditional marriage patterns, staying married longer and thus causing the divorce rate to plummet.

New data show younger couples are approaching relationships very differently from baby boomers, who married young, divorced, remarried and so on. Generation X and especially millennials are being pickier about who they marry, tying the knot at older ages when education, careers and finances are on track. The result is a U.S. divorce rate that dropped 18 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to an analysis by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen.

…the divorce rate’s decline isn’t a reflection of a decline in marriages. Rather, it’s evidence that marriages today have a greater chance of lasting than marriages did ten years ago. “The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”

The news is not all good. The drop in the divorce rate is partly there because of the non-stop behavior of baby boomers to get divorced, repeatedly. Their behavior warps the stats, and makes a mediocre marriage stat by Millennials appear better than it is. Nonetheless, the change in behavior between these two generations is a very good sign. And it will be an especially good thing for the innocent children that result from these more stable marriages, which in turn will be better for society as a whole. One of the reasons American culture has become more crude and unstable in the past few decades is strongly linked to the raising of children in broken homes. Give children a stable home and numerous studies have found they will grow up more stable and mature, and thus help make society itself more stable.

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots Opportunity through dust

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken a picture through the fading Martian dust storm that spots Opportunity about halfway down Perseverance Valley in the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Engineers have been increasing the number of times per day they are attempting to communicate with the rover, so far all to no avail. The picture thus only really tells us that the storm is lifting and that MRO’s high resolution camera is operating normally after three months of limited picture taking because of the dust storm.

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Australian agency pushes Australia to join NASA Gateway project

The new colonial movement: An Australian government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has put forth a space roadmap for that nation that includes a push for them to participate in NASA’s lunar orbiting Gateway project.

“And when you look at a moon base, the support systems of oxygen, water, food – and the general support systems around it – is something that nobody has ever done before,” he said. “When we looked around Australia, these are areas where Australia has as much skill as anyone else. Things like dry farming capabilities, remote mining capability, the fact that CSIRO perfected the titanium dust that you can 3-D print from … there are a whole range of things where we can potentially contribute.” It is an interesting fact that Australia has exceptional expertise in 3D printing titanium. This is even more interesting when you consider that on the moon – according to Dave Williams – there is an oxide that is very similar to titanium that could be reduced to a titanium dust, with oxygen as a by-product.

“Realistically, NASA will lead the whole thing. But they will be looking for partners, and the idea will be to identify which niche areas Australia should try to push its industry into, and try to get support for and to make it work,” he said.

Essentially, they are proposing that Australia get in on the Gateway boondoggle by focusing on and then offering to provide peripheral support services.

Much of this is bureaucratic twaddle, not to be taken too seriously. At the same time, it does outline for Australia areas where there are needs, and where their private space companies could make money.

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Has Aerojet Rocketdyne lost engine race with Blue Origin?

Aerojet Rocketdyne financial documents suggest that it has given up the bidding competition with Blue Origin to supply a rocket engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

The latest financial release from aerospace manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne reveals that the company spent none of its own money on development of the AR1 rocket engine this spring. Moreover, the quarterly 10-Q filing that covers financial data through June 30, 2018 indicates that Aerojet may permanently stop funding the engine with its own money altogether—a sign the company has no immediate customers.

Although Aerojet will continue to receive some funding from the US military through next year to develop its large, new rocket engine, this money won’t be enough to bring it to completion. Instead of having a flight-ready engine for use by the end of 2019, the filing indicates that Aerojet now intends to have just a single prototype completed within the time frame.

Essentially this means ULA will have no choice but to pick Blue Origin’s engine, unless the Air Force pulls its weight and demands it take Aerojet rocketdyne, even if that means a significant delay before Vulcan can launch.

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Four candidate stars identified as home for Oumuamua

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have identified four stars as possible home stars for the interstellar object Oumuamua.

Bailer-Jones and his colleagues found four stars that are possible candidates for ‘Oumuamua’s home world. All four of them are dwarf stars. The one that came closest to ‘Oumuamua, at least about one million year ago, is the reddish dwarf star HIP 3757. It approached within about 1.96 light-years. Given the uncertainties unaccounted for in this reconstruction, that is close enough for ‘Oumuamua to have originated from its planetary system (if the star has one). However, the comparatively large relative speed (around 25 km/s) makes it less probable for this to be ‘Oumuamua’s home.

The next candidate, HD 292249, is similar to our Sun, was a little bit less close to the object’s trajectory 3.8 million years ago, but with a smaller relative speed of 10 km/s. The two additional candidates met ‘Oumuamua 1.1 and 6.3 million years ago, respectively, at intermediate speeds and distances. These stars have been previously catalogued by other surveys, but little is known about them.

There is much uncertainty here. None of these stars might be Oumuamua’s actual original star, but might have instead shifted its orbit from its past course.

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Dust storms spotted on Titan

Scientists reviewing Cassini data have identified dust storms for the first time of Saturn’s moon Titan.

When Rodriguez and his team first spotted three unusual equatorial brightenings in infrared images taken by Cassini around the moon’s 2009 northern equinox, they thought they might be the same kind of methane clouds; however, an investigation revealed they were something completely different. “From what we know about cloud formation on Titan, we can say that such methane clouds in this area and in this time of the year are not physically possible,” said Rodriguez. “The convective methane clouds that can develop in this area and during this period of time would contain huge droplets and must be at a very high altitude — much higher than the 6 miles (10 kilometers) that modeling tells us the new features are located.”

The researchers were also able to rule out that the features were actually on the surface of Titan in the form of frozen methane rain or icy lavas. Such surface spots would have a different chemical signature and would remain visible for much longer than the bright features in this study, which were visible for only 11 hours to five weeks.

In addition, modeling showed that the features must be atmospheric but still close to the surface — most likely forming a very thin layer of tiny solid organic particles. Since they were located right over the dune fields around Titan’s equator, the only remaining explanation was that the spots were actually clouds of dust raised from the dunes.

Obviously there are large uncertainties here. Nonetheless, the conclusion is a reasonable one, as it is expected that such dust storms would occur on Titan.

Posted just outside Zion National Park in the town of Springdale.

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Greenhouse in Antarctica survives winter for 1st time

A greenhouse in Antarctica that is partly maintained remotely from Germany has survived through the polar winter for the first time.

Regularly withstanding temperatures below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius), the greenhouse provided herbs, lettuce and other vegetables to 10 people who were riding out the winter in the remote station, called the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Neumayer Station III. It’s the first time the greenhouse operated through the winter. “After more than half a year of operation in Antarctica, the self-sufficient greenhouse concept appears to be effective for climatically demanding regions on Earth, as well as for future manned missions to the moon and Mars,” DLR officials said in the statement.

“The harvests are now so plentiful that some of it does not always make it straight to the table, and we now have the luxury of spreading out our consumption of some refrigerated lettuce and herbs over several days,” Paul Zabel, a DLR researcher who works with EDEN ISS, said in the statement. “The overwintering team members are always looking forward to their next fresh meal.”

From a space exploration perspective, the most interesting aspect of this story is that, when the weather was too hostile for its Antarctic maintainer to reach it, the greenhouse was then maintained remotely from Germany, for up to three consecutive days. Clearly hands-on maintenance is necessary for such a facility, but to design it so that remote maintenance can occur is a technical capability that space-colonists are definitely going to want to have.

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On the road

My previous post was written from Flagstaff, Arizona, where Diane and I are temporarily stuck. Yesterday we had planned to drive to Zion for a week of hiking and sightseeing. South of Flagstaff the car overheated when all the antifreeze leaked out from below. Calls to insurance got a tow truck, which got us and the car to Flagstaff. Hopefully it will be fixed quickly and we will head out to Zion later today.

During this unplanned adventure I could not help wonder at how, in this case, satellites and smart phones have made life much better. In the past getting stranded on the side of the road in a remote place could mean hours of waiting. Unless the highway patrol saw you you had no way of contacting anyone. Yesterday however we immediately called our insurance’s roadside assistance, who arranged a tow truck. I then used the car GPS to local a hotel in Flagstaff near the car repair place and then used the phone to call them to make reservations. We were at the hotel, with the car in the shop, only two and a half hours after we had been forced to pull off to the side of the road. And we did this from a spot on the interstate miles from anything.

If only smart phones did not come with other baggage. Sadly they do, since no gain is ever truly one-sided. One must take the good with the bad, while trying to minimize the bad as much as possible.

Posting shall continue all week, though the timing might be different than normal.

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