Monthly Archives: August 2019

Has Yutu-2 found something unusual?

According to Chinese sources, China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 has spotted something unexpected and unusual on the surface of the far side of the Moon.

On July 28, the Chang’e-4 team was preparing to power Yutu-2 down for its usual midday ‘nap’ to protect the rover from high temperatures and radiation from the sun high in the sky. A team member checking images from the rover’s main camera spotted a small crater that seemed to contain material with a color and luster unlike that of the surrounding lunar surface.

The drive team, excited by the discovery, called in their lunar scientists. Together, the teams decided to postpone Yutu-2’s plans to continue west and instead ordered the rover to check out the strange material. With the help of obstacle-avoidance cameras, Yutu-2 carefully approached the crater and then targeted the unusually colored material and its surroundings. The rover examined both areas with its Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS), which detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their makeup.

VNIS is the same instrument that detected tantalizing evidence of material originating from the lunar mantle in the regolith of Von Kármán crater, a discovery Chinese scientists announced in May.

So far, mission scientists haven’t offered any indication as to the nature of the colored substance and have said only that it is “gel-like” and has an “unusual color.” One possible explanation, outside researchers suggested, is that the substance is melt glass created from meteorites striking the surface of the moon.

The report is at present too vague to really tell us anything. What I predict is that this discovery will almost certainly not be as strange or alien as this report makes it sound.

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ISS partners okay Trump changes to Gateway

The various international nations that partner on ISS and wish to partner on NASA’s Gateway project issued a statement this week saying that they approve the changes imposed on that lunar space station by the Trump administration, all of which significantly delay their participation.

In an Aug. 28 statement, members of the station’s Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB), which includes the five space agencies involved in the ISS, said the Gateway is “a critical next step” in human space exploration and that they plan to contribute modules or other elements for the facility in lunar orbit.

“Looking to exploration activities beyond LEO, the MCB members reaffirmed their continued intention to cooperate on a human outpost in the lunar vicinity – Gateway,” the document, a summary of the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, stated. “Within a broader open architecture for human exploration, the MCB acknowledged the Gateway as a critical next step.”

The board offered a similar endorsement of the Gateway at a March 5 meeting. The statement from that meeting included a diagram of one Gateway configuration, with contributions from Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia, as well as the United States, identified.

Three weeks after that meeting, though, Vice President Mike Pence announced at a meeting of the National Space Council that the U.S. would speed up its lunar exploration timeline, seeking to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, rather than prior plans for a 2028 landing. NASA subsequently said that it would initially pursue a minimal Gateway needed for that 2024 landing, deferring full-fledged development of the Gateway for a second phase intended to enable “sustainable” lunar exploration in the second half of the 2020s. [emphasis mine]

The “minimal Gateway” that the Trump administration is presently pursuing is structured to shift focus from a space station in lunar orbit to landing on the Moon. This means that many of the later components of Gateway, to be built or used by these international partners, will be significantly delayed, or even made unnecessary.

So, why did these space agencies all endorse the new plan that circumscribed their participation? They have no choice. Without NASA’s SLS, they have no way to get to the Moon. And without Gateway, SLS has no reason to exist. These government space agencies need SLS (as ephemeral as SLS might be) because it is the only free government launch option available to them. They hope, by endorsing what the Trump administration has done, to convince it to go along with the complete Gateway project, including the continued funding of SLS, thus creating a gigantic international boondoggle (paid for mostly by the U.S.) that will justify all their manned space programs.

This is another reason to dump SLS. Wouldn’t it be better for the U.S. to have its private commercial space launch industry sell its goods to these leeches, rather than have them living off our taxpayers’ dime? We will gain nothing from them with Gateway, as it is presently structured, while they feed off of us. If instead they needed to buy launch services from private rockets, the profits would accrue to U.S. companies and citizens, and help encourage competition and more innovation.

If we instead buy into this international boondoggle, we will spend a lot of money for very little space exploration, even as we make the bureaucrats at six government space agencies (including NASA) very happy.

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China launches two smallsats

Using its Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket, China’s pseudo-private company ExSpace launched two smallsats into orbit yesterday.

This rocket, using technology developed for the military, including a mobile launch platform, is designed to compete directly with Rocket Lab and the other western private smallsat rockets trying to come on line right now. Its development appears to have been wholly funded by the Chinese government, which revealed after the launch that they plan between 8 and 9 more launches before the end of the year.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

14 Russia
14 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

The U.S. continues to lead 19-14 in the national rankings.

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Hong Kong arrests three prominent protest leaders

In a sign that China has no intention of compromising with the protesters in Hong Kong, authorities there today arrested three of the most high-profile leaders of the protest movement.

Two were active in protests in 2014.

Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who rose to eminence as the student leaders of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014, were detained Friday, ahead of what is expected to be a tense weekend in the city. Authorities banned a march planned for Saturday, and warned they would use force and possibly arrest those who defy the order.

Police said Wong and Chow face charges of participating in an unauthorized assembly and inciting others to participate in an unapproved assembly, while Wong faces an additional charge of organizing an unapproved assembly, in relation to a June 21 protest at police headquarters. Both were released on bail Friday. …

The sweep came ahead of a sensitive political anniversary in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. This Saturday marks five years since Beijing announced an electoral-reform plan that denied Hong Kong free elections — a decision that triggered 79 days of pro-democracy protests.

More here, including information about other arrests in addition to the three above.

I’m not sure China’s actions here are going to prevent demonstrations tomorrow. For example,

The bespectacled Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led civil disobedience movement in 2014 that blocked major roads for 79 days, has not been a prominent figure in the latest protests, which have no identifiable leaders.

The same thing applies to the others who were arrested. There doesn’t appear to be anyone in particular running these protests, which means arresting a few scapegoats and banning further demonstrations will probably not work. We shall find out this weekend.

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Scientists look at and compare two past grand minimums

In a new paper just published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), scientists have used tree ring data to analyze and compare the last two past grand minimums, dubbed the Spörer Minimum (1432–1578) and the more well known Maunder Minimum (1640–1720).

The link takes you to the full paper. It is very technical but what it essentially finds is that there appear to be some differences between the two, but more important, during the deepest part of both grand minimums all evidence of the 11 year sunspot cycle (dubbed the Scwabe cycle) vanishes.

A detailed comparison between the Spörer and Maunder (CE 1640–1720) minima shows that the Spörer Minimum is associated with enhanced Δ14C variability in a band centered around the 11‐year Schwabe cycle from CE 1450 to 1479 and between CE 1545 and 1578, whereas little 11‐year variability is observed from CE 1479 to 1539. In contrast, we only observe enhanced 11‐year variability after the end of the Maunder Minimum at CE 1722–1744, which could indicate that the nature and origin of the two minima were different.

In other words, from 1479 to 1539 (Spörer) and 1545 to 1722 (Maunder) the data suggests that we would not have seen sunspots, even with today’s superior observational capabilities.

They base this conclusion by looking at carbon-14 data, which reflects the arrival of cosmic rays on the Earth. When the sun is active cosmic rays decrease. When it is inactive, with no sunspots, cosmic rays increase. This data can be compared with known and more recent sunspot cycles, and can thus provide a robust baseline for determining what the Sun’s behavior was like before the era of the telescope.

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China’s FAST radio telescope discovers 93 new pulsars

The research team running China’s FAST radio telescope, the largest single dish such telescope in the world, have announced that they have discovered 93 new pulsars since October 2017.

China might still be having trouble finding a big name astronomer to run the telescope, but in the meantime it looks like their own people are taking advantage of the situation to use the telescope establish their own names.

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New Russia Soyuz spacesuits interfere with Russia pee tradition

Only in Russia: The newly designed Russian spacesuits for use by astronauts during ascent and descent in the Soyuz capsule apparently do not have a fly that will allow the continuation of a long-standing Russian tradition initiated by Yuri Gagarin on his way to the launchpad for his historic spaceflight.

The Sokol-M prototype suit was designed as a replacement for suits worn during launches to the International Space Station (ISS) on Soyuz spacecraft. … The maker of the suits, the aerospace firm Zvezda, says they will be made of new materials and adaptable to different body sizes.

But the new design makes it impossible to carry out one particular ritual launched by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who had to relieve himself on the back wheel of the bus that was taking him to the launch pad in 1961.

The stop has been replicated at every launch from the Baikonur launch pad and, many male cosmonauts and astronauts pee on the tyre for good luck – something that would be impossible in the new suit, according to its maker. Female astronauts are not obligated to participate but some have brought vials of their urine to splash on the wheel instead.

“I’m not sure how they will be able to (carry on the tradition), since we haven’t designed the fly,” said the Zvezda director, Sergei Pozdnyakov, quoted by Russian agencies. “We have the design specifications. They don’t state that it’s necessary to pee on the wheel. The design specifications would need to be adapted.”

I suspect, knowing how important traditions and rituals are to the Russians, that the Russian government will require a design change to allow this tradition to continue.

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FAA required SpaceX to up its insurance for Starhopper test

The FAA’s office that regulates commercial space required SpaceX to increase its insurance coverage for this week’s Starhopper test to $100 million, thirty three times higher than their coverage for the previous Starhopper hops.

Lots of information at the link, though in summary it all makes perfect sense.

There are a number of likely reasons the federal regulator required SpaceX to boost its insurance coverage, says George Nield, a former FAA associate administrator who led its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) for more than a decade.

One is that Tuesday’s launch took Starhopper hundreds of feet higher than in July; during the prior flight, SpaceX’s vehicle only went about 60 feet (18 meters) up before landing. “The higher you want to go, the more propellant you’re going to have to load, and the more propellant you load, the bigger the boom if it were to explode,” Nield told Business Insider prior to Tuesday’s launch.

More importantly, their Boca Chica launch site is only a mile and a half from a small village of about twenty people, much closer than any other launchpad in the world. How SpaceX will manage this issue should they wish to test fly their fullscale Starship prototype from this site I really do not know. It could be that they won’t, and will confine all test flights to Kennedy, where they are also building a second Starship prototype.

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Kennedy Space Center prepares for hurricane

In preparation for the possibility of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival next week, the Kennedy Space Center is shutting down, including moving the giant mobile launcher vehicle, with the SLS launch tower on it, indoors to protect both.

The agency on Wednesday moved its hulking Apollo-era crawler-transporter out to Launch Complex 39B in order to bring the massive Mobile Launcher inside for the storm. That deployment must be made promptly because the crawler-transporter travels at just 1 mph (1.6 km/h).

The launch tower itself is 400 feet (122 meters) tall, which makes it a clear hazard in the high winds of a hurricane. NASA decided today (Aug. 29) that Dorian is threatening enough to merit moving the launch tower into Kennedy’s cavernous 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building for safety.

Their caution makes sense. Expect NASA to also announce that this two week delay in work will cause them several months more in delays to the SLS program. That has been their pattern over the years.

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ISS atmosphere issue?

Though NASA and Roscosmos both say the crews are in no immediate danger, alarms on ISS have indicated an issue with the oxygen levels on the station.

“The crew and the space station are in no immediate danger and are continuing normal operations,” the spokesperson said. “The overall atmosphere inside the station remains will below the O2 concentration limits. Teams are working to identify the root cause of the issue,” he added.

This report states that the problem is “the high oxygen content in the air in the Russian Zvezda module.”

If the problem was a drop in atmospheric pressure, the issue would likely be more serious, and suggest a repeat of the 2018 leak caused by a hole drilled in a Soyuz capsule. That the problem instead is high oxygen levels, suggests something more benign.

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OSIRIS-REx’s four candidate landing sites

The OSIRIS-REx engineering team has released a short video that flies over in close-up, showing the spacecraft’s four candidate sites on the asteroid Bennu, one of which will be where they will do a touch-and-go sample grab.

They continue to accumulate data on the four sites, all of which pose issues and risks because of nearby boulders and the looseness of Bennu’s rubble pile make-up.

Though all the sites are being considered, my sources in the industry suggest that the two dubbed Sandpiper and Nightingale are being favored. I like Osprey, because it is inside a crater and looks clear, but then, what do I know?

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Chandrayaan-2 lowers lunar orbit for the 4th time

The new colonial movement: India’s orbiter/lander/rover Chandrayaan-2 today successfully lowered its lunar orbit for the 4th time, dropping it to 77 by 102 miles.

The next engine burn is for tomorrow, and should be followed by almost daily burns from here on out, until they reach the required orbit for sending the lander/rover to the surface on September 7.

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Russia’s Rockot launches military geodesic satellite

Russia today used its re-purposed ballistic missile, Rockot, to launch the second in a two-satellite constellation of military geodesic satellites, designed to more accurately map the Earth’s gravitational field.

This launch puts Russia in the lead in the annual race for most launches for the first time since 2018. It also gives them more launches for the year than they had predicted. Both facts demonstrate that their launch industry is showing a recovery from the problems experienced in 2016, when they discovered corruption in one of their main rocket engine companies, requiring the recall of all engines.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

14 Russia
13 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

The U.S. still leads Russia in the national rankings, 19 to 14.

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Cliff collapse on Mars

Cliff collapse on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph to the left, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was found in the August image release of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

This was an uncaptioned image, with a title “Cataract and Grooves in Kasei Valles.” Kasei Valles is the giant canyon north of Marineris Valles. Though it is not as well known or maybe as dramatic, it is about as long and vast as its more famous southern canyon. It also has some very intriguing features, including what I consider to so far be the pit on Mars with the highest priority for exploration.

The image on the right shows the result when a giant section of this cliff face broke off and collapsed into the canyon. It also shows that the collapse occurred a long time ago. Not only are there newer craters on the collapse debris, the breakdown at the cliff base looks well eroded, as if many eons have passed since it piled up there.

When this section broke off however it was a very big event. The width of the collapse is about a mile across, with its depth about 600 feet. The height of the cliff is approximately 3000 feet, give or take a few hundred feet. Thus the chunk that broke off was about 600 feet wide, 5,000 feet long, and about 3,000 feet high. That’s one very big rock.

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Apparent Iran launch failure

Just released satellite photos showing fire and smoke at an Iranian launchpad suggest that a rumored attempt by Iran this week to launch a satellite into orbit resulted instead in a launchpad failure.

[S]atellite images by Planet Labs Inc. showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad there, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand. In previous days, satellite images had shown officials there repainted the launch pad blue.

On Thursday morning, half of that paint apparently had been burned away. “Whatever happened there, it blew up and you’re looking at the smoldering remains of what used to be there,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Schmerler told The Associated Press that the images of the space center suggested that the rocket either exploded during ignition or possibly briefly lifted off before crashing back down on the pad.

In July Iranian officials had said they would do three launches this year, with a communications satellite launch expected before the end of the summer. It would appear that this failure is of that launch.

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Space Command to launch today

The military today will initiate a new military office dubbed the Space Command, thereby consolidating its space operations into one office.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Raymond will serve as the first head of Space Command (SPACECOM). At launch, Raymond will lead 87 active units handling operations such as missile warning, satellite surveillance, space control and space support, Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a meeting of the National Space Council earlier this month.

The rest of the linked article is focused on the politics of Trump’s desire to turn this command into a new branch of the military, a Space Force, while facing opposition in Congress and the Pentagon. The goal however from the beginning was to end the scattershot nature of the military’s space bureaucracy, and it appears, on the surface, that the Space Command has done this.

Whether things stand as they are however is doubtful. Creating a new military branch is a wonderful opportunity for Washington power-brokers to find ways to spend money. For example, some estimates have said that the new Space Force could cost $1 to $2 billion more. You think these thieves and crooks in Washington will be able to resist that?

Of course, there really is no reason for this new agency to cost so much extra. In fact, the Space Command as created now probably adds nothing to the budget, and in fact probably has the chance to save money. And it even makes the military’s space operations more robust and efficient.

I therefore expect the powers-that-be in Washington to move to change that.

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Comey skips free

The law is only for little people: Despite a damning Justice Deparment inspector general report that concluded that James Comey had violated the law and broke FBI rules by leaking classified information when he was FBI director, the Justice Department has decided not to prosecute him.

“We conclude that Comey’s retention, handling, and dissemination of certain Memos violated Department and FBI policies, and his FBI Employment Agreement,” reads DOJ watchdog head Michael Horowitz’s report.

The watchdog office said Comey broke FBI rules by giving a memo containing unclassified information to his friend Daniel Richman with instructions to share the contents with a reporter. The office also said Comey failed to notify the FBI after he was fired that he had retained some of the memos in a safe at home. Comey wrote a series of memos about conversations with President Trump he said unnerved him. Comey has stated he wanted to make a record of the interactions because he was concerned President Trump might later lie about them.

Attorney General William Barr will not prosecute the fired FBI director over his wrongdoings.

We are no longer a nation of laws, but of corrupt power and banana republic backroom deals. By aligning himself with the Democratic Party, Comey has obtained that get-out-of-jail card that all Democrats hold. No matter what laws they break, no one in Washington will ever prosecute them, especially if they are in positions of power and are popular commentators on mainstream liberal press outlets like CNN.

Be a Republican, or a conservative, or even an ordinary citizen, however, and be prepared for the entire legal book to be thrown at you instantly, should you even jaywalk.

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NASA Inspector General to Congress: Free Europa Clipper from SLS

In a letter to Congress on August 27, 2019, NASA’s inspector general has called for Congress to immediately abandon the legal requirement it imposed on Europa Clipper to fly on NASA’s SLS rocket, thereby allowing NASA to choose any commercial rocket to launch the spacecraft.

The letter [pdf] is amazingly blunt.

[W]e write to highlight an issue at NASA that we believe requires immediate action by Congress. Language in NASA’s appropriation legislation requires the Agency to launch a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2023 on the yet-to-be-completed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. However, because of developmental delays and, more significantly, NASA’s plans to use the first three SLS rockets produced for its Artemis lunar program, an SLS will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Consequently, if completed on its projected schedule, the approximately $3 billion dollar Europa spacecraft (known as “Europa Clipper”) will need to be stored for at least 2 years at a cost of $3 to $5 million per month until an SLS becomes available. NASA recently added $250 million in Headquarters-held reserves to the project to address these storage and related personnel costs.

Congress could reduce risks to both the Europa mission and Artemis program while potentially saving taxpayers up to $1 billion by providing NASA the flexibility in forthcoming fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations legislation to determine the most cost effective and timely vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2023 or whenever the satellite is completed.

As blunt as the letter is, the wording above is also very careful to hide the fact that the $1 billion savings will come, not from avoiding the launch delay, but from buying a private commercial launch vehicle (estimated launch cost about $100 million) versus using SLS (estimated launch cost of $1 billion to $4 billion).

Will Congress take this advice? It should, though I am pessimistic. Our Congress has not shown much interest in doing the smart thing when it comes to SLS for about a decade. Why should things change now?

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Dick Cavett interviewing Orson Welles about famous people

An evening pause: Wells made one of the greatest films ever, Citizen Kane (1941), and then spent the rest of his life failing at finishing almost anything. Along the way he met some interesting people, and in this short clip during an interview on the Dick Cavett Show from July 27, 1970, he tells some of those stories.

His story about Churchill fits the gracious and humorous personality of that man to a “T”.

Hat tip Cotour.

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SpaceX begins hunt for Starship landing sites on Mars

Candidate landing sites for SpaceX's Starship

In the August image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) were five images whose title immediately caught my interest:

The overview map on the right shows the location on Mars for these five photographs. The second and third images are of the same location, taken to produce a stereo pair.

To put it mildly, it is most intriguing to discover that SpaceX is beginning to research a place where it can land Starship on Mars. I immediately emailed Nathan Williams, the JPL scientist who requested these images from SpaceX, but he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement with SpaceX and could not comment. I have since tried to get some information directly from SpaceX but so far the company has not responded. A 2017 news story had indicated the company’s interest in this Mars’ location, but gave no details either.

Based on what we now know of Mars, however, it is possible to figure out why they favor this location, on the border between the two large northern lowland plains Arcadia and Amazonis Planitia.
» Read more

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Engineers attach test helicopter to Mars 2020

Engineers have now attached to the Mars 2020 rover the test helicopter that will attempt to make the first air-born flight on another world.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won’t be impacted. If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

“Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere,” said JPL’s MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager. “Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet.”

If this works on Mars, MiMi Aung will be in a position to win contracts for similar helicopters for the rest of her life. It seems to me that this project has been her baby from the beginning.

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Elementary students to name NASA’s 2020 Mars rover

NASA announced today a contest among the nation’s elementary students to find a name for its Mars 2020 rover.

Starting Tuesday, Aug. 27, K-12 students in U.S. public, private and home schools can enter the Mars 2020 Name the Rover essay contest. One grand prize winner will name the rover and be invited to see the spacecraft launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

To enter the contest, students must submit by Nov. 1 their proposed rover name and a short essay, no more than 150 words, explaining why their proposed name should be chosen. The essays will be divided into three groups, by grade level – K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 – and judged on the appropriateness, significance and originality of their proposed name, and the originality and quality of their essay, and/or finalist interview presentation.

Fifty-two semifinalists will be selected per group, each representing their respective state or U.S. territory. Three finalists then will be selected from each group to advance to the final round.

As part of the final selection process, the public will have an opportunity to vote online on the nine finalists in January 2020. NASA plans to announce the selected name on Feb. 18, 2020 – exactly one year before the rover will land on the surface of Mars.

Obviously, there is a bit of hokum in this contest. The kids will make suggestions, the public will vote, but in the end NASA will make the selection. Requiring them to write short essays justifying their suggestion however is an excellent educational idea, and for this kudos to NASA.

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Webb assembled for the first time

Northrop Grumman engineers have successfully completed, for the first time, the full assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope.

To combine both halves of Webb, engineers carefully lifted the Webb telescope (which includes the mirrors and science instruments) above the already-combined sunshield and spacecraft using a crane. Team members slowly guided the telescope into place, ensuring that all primary points of contact were perfectly aligned and seated properly. The observatory has been mechanically connected; next steps will be to electrically connect the halves, and then test the electrical connections.

…Next up for Webb testing, engineers will fully deploy the intricate five-layer sunshield, which is designed to keep Webb’s mirrors and scientific instruments cold by blocking infrared light from the Earth, Moon and Sun. The ability of the sunshield to deploy to its correct shape is critical to mission success.

Only a decade late and nine times over budget ($1 billion vs $9 billion). Let us all pray that when this spacecraft finally reaches its operational location a million miles from Earth it operates as designed.

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What Starhopper achieved

Starhopper in flight
Click for full image.

Captalism in space: While most news reports (including mine yesterday) have focused on the spectacular 150-meter flight of Starhopper, the real story here is the Raptor engine. As one of my readers said most succinctly in a comment:

As impressive as the flight was, there is so much more going on here. This is the most efficient rocket engine ever, with all fuel and LOX running through the combustion chamber – including exhaust from the turbopumps. The Russians tried it, and NASA tried it, but this is the first time such a design has flown. It’s also the first major engine using methane, so SpaceX is learning all the ground support processes for storing, fueling, and detanking methane (mostly) safely. (Still causing grass fires at launch…) They’re aiming for production cost below $2M per Raptor, and they’re about ready to go full production on the engines, around 500 engines per year.

In fact, Musk himself reveals the truth of Diane Wilson’s comment in a tweet, found in this news story about yesterday’s flight:

Starhopper’s flying days may be done, but the stubby prototype will be retasked rather than put out to pasture.

“Yes, last flight for Hopper. If all goes well, it will become a vertical test stand for Raptor,” Musk said via Twitter on Saturday.

In a sense, yesterday’s flight was no different. Starhopper was essentially a flying test stand for Raptor, which is in itself an incredible concept, when you think about it. Now it will continue to be used as a test stand, but will no longer fly.

I have been told by rocket engineers more than once that you need to build and test your engine before you can really start your rocket design. Once you know its capabilities you can then design and construct the rocket.

This is why Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has generally been a failure. They built the ship before the engine, and when the engine had issues they had to improvise redesigns that have limited the ship’s capability and seriously delayed its launch.

SpaceX now has its engine ready. Construction on its two prototype Starships, in Boca Chica and Florida, will now proceed quickly. Based on how quickly it took SpaceX to do the first Starhopper test flights (announced in late 2018 and flying in about eight months), expect test flights within six to eight months. (Note that in this last link I expressed doubt they could get those Starhopper flights off in 2019. SpaceX proved me wrong.)

Finally, a minor news note: SpaceX today successfully brought a Dragon cargo capsule back to Earth after a month at ISS, completing its third flight in space. That this multi-use flight is hardly mentioned in the news illustrates how far SpaceX has reshaped space engineering in only a few years.

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Starhopper: Success!

Starhopper in flight
Click for full image.

It appears today’s 150 meter hop (about 500 feet) of SpaceX’s Starhopper prototype was a complete success. To the right, and also below, are screen captures grabbed by me from one private live stream as well as from SpaceX’s own live stream.

In fact, this quick hop appears to have gone amazingly smoothly. It launched almost exactly at the target time, and landed quite softly on the launchpad, as intended. You can see the nozzle of the Raptor engine shifting and adjusting throughout the flight, also another indication that their engineering here is working perfectly. Congratulations SpaceX!

I have embedded SpaceX’s video below the fold. The flight begins around 30 minutes in.

Starhopper near the top of its flight

Starhopper beginning its descent

Starhopper on the ground
» Read more

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Astronomers find Jupiter-sized exoplanet with comet-like orbit

Worlds without end: Astronomers have discovered a Jupiter-sized exoplanet with an extremely eccentric and comet-like orbit circling a star about 103 light years away.

Astronomers have discovered a planet three times the mass of Jupiter that travels on a long, egg-shaped path around its star. If this planet were somehow placed into our own solar system, it would swing from within our asteroid belt to out beyond Neptune. Other giant planets with highly elliptical orbits have been found around other stars, but none of those worlds were located at the very outer reaches of their star systems like this one.

This discovery, like so many others, illustrates again our lack of knowledge about the make-up and formation of solar systems. According to modern formation theories, you shouldn’t get such a large exoplanet in such an eccentric orbit. But here we are.

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