China’s 21-ton Long March 5B core stage to make uncontrolled re-entry

For the second time in two launches, the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket is about to make uncontrolled re-entry, with a mass large enough that some part of it is certain to hit the ground.

Where and when the new Long March 5B stage will land is impossible to predict. The decay of its orbit will increase as atmospheric drag brings it down into more denser. The speed of this process depends on the size and density of the object and variables include atmospheric variations and fluctuations, which are themselves influenced by solar activity and other factors.

The high speed of the rocket body means it orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes and so a change of just a few minutes in reentry time results in reentry point thousands of kilometers away.

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.

The previous core stage hit the Atlantic Ocean six days after launch in May 2020. Had it come down fifteen to thirty minutes earlier it would have come down on U.S. soil, possibly even on top of the New York metropolitan area.

China’s design for this rocket means that every single launch will result in similar potential disasters. They cannot restart the core stage’s engines after cut-off, so that once it has delivered its payload it is nothing more than a very big and uncontrolled brick that has to hit the ground somewhere.

This is a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty, which China is a signatory. The treaty makes signatories liable for any damage from an uncontrolled re-entry, and requires them to take action to prevent such events from occurring.

China it appears doesn’t care much about the treaties it signs. The first time could be rung up to a mistake. The second time is intentional and tells us that this country will not honor any of its obligations anywhere else, if it decides it can get away with it.

NASA suspends Starship lunar lander contract award due to protests

Because of the protests filed by both Blue Origin and Dynetics, NASA has temporarily suspended the contract with SpaceX for using its Starship spaceship for manned lunar landings.

NASA now has told SpaceX to stop work until GAO determines the outcome. A NASA spokesperson provided this statement to this afternoon. “Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement.” The issuance of the stop work order was first reported by Space News.

GAO has 100 days — until August 4, 2021 — to make a decision.

The odds are very likely that the GAO will reject both protests, but not certain. Meanwhile expect SpaceX to continue development of Starship regardless, as they already have about $6 billion in private investment capital in the bank for this project.

I also will predict that should GAO accept the protests and force NASA to reopen the bids, neither Blue Origin nor Dynetics will be able to make an offer that matches SpaceX anyway. And if they do win a contract, I predict that SpaceX will still launch and land on the Moon before them, based on their track records versus SpaceX’s.

Ingenuity’s fourth flight today a success

Ingenuity's 4th flight
For original images, go here, here, here, and here.

As planned, Ingenuity took off early today on Mars at 12:33:20 pm (local Mars time). Data from the full flight has now arrived on Earth, with images that show the helicopter rising, moving about, and then landing. The montage above captures the part of the flight visible from one of Perservance’s cameras.

Apparently Ingenuity was in the air for about two minutes, and landed a bit to the right of its take-off point. We will have to wait for an update from the engineering team to find out exactly what happened.

UPDATE: Mimi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, posted a report later today:

The helicopter took off at 10:49 a.m. EDT (7:49 a.m. PDT, or 12:33 local Mars time), climbing to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) before flying south approximately 436 feet (133 meters) and then back, for an 872-foot (266-meter) round trip. In total, we were in the air for 117 seconds.

The helicopter also took a lot of images, which they are presently in the process of downloading and reviewing.

Today’s blacklisted Americans: Any conservative trying to get published by Simon & Schuster

Cancelled Bill of Rights
No longer valid for too many employees
at Simon & Schuster.

Blacklists are back and book publishers want ’em: A petition of about 14% of the workforce at the book publisher Simon & Schuster is demanding that all former Trump administration officials be blacklisted from publication.

The petition demanding the New York publishing conglomerate to stop treating “the Trump administration as a ‘normal’ chapter in American history” collected 216 internal signatures, representing approximately 14% of the company’s workforce, and support from several thousand nonemployees, according to the Wall Street Journal. The petition singled out a planned two-part autobiography to be authored by former Vice President Mike Pence, which the publisher’s employees alleged amounted to support for “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence” in the online petition.

While the publisher has rejected the call to cancel Pence’s autobiography, it still has a track record of blacklisting conservatives. » Read more

Fourth flight of Ingenuity set for today; shifting to operational phase

Ingenuity close-up taken by Perseverance April 28th
Ingenuity close-up taken by Perseverance April 28th

Even as the Ingenuity engineering team will attempt a fourth flight of Ingenuity, JPL announced today that they and NASA have decided to now shift to operational flights, attempting to duplicate the kind of scouting missions that such helicopters will do on future rovers.

The second link takes you to the live stream of the press conference. The press release is here.

Essentially, they will send Ingenuity on a series of scouting missions after this fourth flight, extending its 30 day test program another 30 days. Its engineers will be working with the Perseverance science team to go where those scientists want to send it. After the fourth and fifth test flights they will fly Ingenuity only periodically, separated by weeks, and send it to scout places Perseverance can’t reach, and have it land at new sites that Perseverance scouted out as it travels.

They have decided to do this because they want to spend more time in this area on the floor of Jezero Crater, for several reasons. First, they are still testing the rover to get it to full working operations. Second, they want to obtain some samples for future pickup at this location. Third, they want to spend an extensive amount of time exploring the floor up to a mile south of their present location.

Finally, the relatively flat terrain is perfect for testing and actually using the helicopter as a scout.

Though the extension is for 30 days, and though the helicopter was not built for long term survival, there is no reason it cannot continue indefinitely until something finally breaks.

Right now they are awaiting the data from the fourth flight, which will arrive at 1:39 pm (Eastern) and will be used to determine what the fifth flight will do, probably a week from now.

Blue Origin ticket sales on New Shepard begin next week

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced yesterday that it will begin selling ticket for tourist flights on its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft on May 5th, which is also the 60th anniversary of the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space.

At that time the company will likely reveal its ticket price, and when the first commercial flights will actually take place. As of now New Shepard has not yet flown any humans on any spacecraft, including the one now undergoing tests. That capsule has flown twice, and is likely the capsule that will be used for the first manned flights.

Nelson confirmed as NASA administrator

The Senate unanimously confirmed former senator Bill Nelson as NASA administrator yesterday.

Not much to say that hasn’t been said previously. Nelson, a Democrat, is 78 years old, and has shown signs of his age. His testimony during confirmation hearings suggested that he, like his boss Biden, is essentially going to rubberstamp the policies told to him by his bureaucracy, which in the case of NASA means a continuation of Artemis under a pro-capitalism framework.

FAA approves next three Starship test flights with prototype #15

Capitalism in space: In a statement today the FAA announced that it has approved next three test flights of SpaceX’s Starship prototype #15.

From the statement:

The FAA has authorized the next three launches or the SpaceX Starship prototype. The agency approved multiple launches because SpaceX is making few changes on the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public. The FAA authorized the launches on Wednesday, April 28.

This likely means that SpaceX will try a flight tomorrow.

Stratolaunch’s Roc, biggest plane ever, makes 2nd flight

Stratolaunch today successfully completed the second test flight of its gigantic airplane Roc, biggest plane ever flown, and the first flight in two years.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Since the death of Paul Allen, the original owner, Cererus has re-purposed Roc from a platform for orbital rockets to a testbed platform for launching the three hypersonic test planes that the company is building. These planes will allow for regular and frequent flight tests of this technology, something that has been lacking since the days of the X-15 in the 1950s.

Ingenuity fails to take off on 4th flight

When early today Ingenuity attempted to complete its fourth and most ambitious test flight on Mars the helicopter did not lift off, for reasons that engineers are still investigating.

[JPL] engineers are assessing the data, since it’s not yet clear what caused the failure. One potential cause is a software issue that first showed up during a high-speed spin test ahead of the chopper’s first flight. That test failed because Ingenuity’s flight computer was unable to transition from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode. Within a few days, though, [JPL] engineers resolved the issue with a quick software rewrite.

But those engineers determined that their fix would only successfully transition the helicopter into flight mode 85% of the time. So Thursday’s attempt may have fallen into the 15% of instances in which it doesn’t work.

This flight was supposed to fly south for about 430 feet, take pictures, and then return to its take-off point. If they can trouble-shoot the issue they hope to do another flight quickly. They still have a week left in their 30 day test period.

The crack that splits the giant volcanoes on Mars

Source of Arsia Mons rille
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In the April download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was the photo to the right, taken on February 23, 2021 and cropped and reduced to post here, of what was labeled as “Source Region of Possible Rille on South Flank of Arsia Mons.”

Arsia Mons is the southernmost of the string of three giant volcanoes that sit between Mars’ biggest volcano to the west, Olympus Mons, and Mars’ biggest canyon to the east, Valles Marineris. This depression is on the mountain’s lower southern flank, and likely shows an ancient resurgence point where lava once flowed out from beneath the ground to form a rill meandering to the southwest. Today there is no visible resurgence. The floor of the depression appears to be filled with sand and dust, with the surrounding slopes spotted with scattered boulders.

What makes this particular image more interesting is how, when we take a very wide view, it reveals one of the most dramatic geological features on Mars, the 3,500 mile-long crack that caused these three volcanoes, and is actually not obvious unless you know what to look for.

So we need to zoom out. Let us first begin with a mosaic of three wider MRO context camera images, showing the entire rille and the immediately surrounding terrain.
» Read more

Today’s blacklisted American: Law professor under investigation for criticizing China

Cancelled Bill of Rights
Doesn’t exist at the University of San Diego.

They’re coming for you next: A law professor at the University of San Diego, Tom Smith, is now under formal investigation and could possibly be fired for a blog post on his own webpage where he strongly criticized China and its role in the start of COVID-19.

When he first published the March 10 post, the USD Law School placed him under investigation, citing complaints of bias. Now, the law school has sent his case to administration for a formal review.

The review comes as a petition circulates demanding Smith resign or be fired, alleging he has a history of saying and writing things some find offensive.

Signed by the USD Law Student Bar Association presidents for this school year and the next, they claim in the petition Smith’s alleged comments have left some in the USD law community feeling vulnerable and helpless so that students cannot balance their studies or “prepare for our futures in the legal profession.” [emphasis mine]

Beside the fact that it is utterly wrong for the university to investigate this man for simply expressing his opinion on line, the highlighted words — “feeling vulnerable and helpless” — illustrate starkly the total close-mindedness of the left’s modern blacklisting effort to any opinions outside its frame of reference.
» Read more

Virgin Orbit signs deal with Brazil to launch from that country

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit and the Brazilian Space Agency have signed an agreement to allow the company to launch satellites from one of its facilities.

Launches would occur from the Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, CLA) on Brazil’s northern coast, located just two degrees south of the equator. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, which uses a customized 747 aircraft as its flying launch pad and fully reusable first stage, could conduct launches from the existing airbase at the site, flying hundreds of miles before releasing the rocket directly above the equator or at other locations optimized for each individual mission. The approach enables Alcântara to become one of the only continental spaceports in the world capable of reaching any orbital inclination.

This is an excellent deal for both. Brazil gets some commercial space business, and Virgin Orbit’s 747 will no longer have to fly long distances to get to an equator launch point.

Starship prototype #15 completes 2nd static fire test, waits FAA approval for flight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s 15th Starship prototype completed its second static fire test in three days yesterday, and is presently poised to do its first test flight.

The scheduled road closures in Boca Chica suggest that they are aiming for either April 30th, May 1st, or May 2nd. However, it also appears they are awaiting FAA approval, which could be why they did a second static fire test. They can’t fly so rather than do nothing they reconfigured that second static fire to test the landing burn.

Musk returned to Twitter to state that this was a header tank test and that all looked good. This could mean Monday’s test was a launch static fire while Tuesday’s test was more of a landing burn static fire as the header tanks are used to supply landing propellants.

It also appears that SpaceX has had its flight application sitting at the FAA for about a week, with no action. Thus, it is the federal bureaucracy that appears to be slowing things down at this moment.

Eutelsat invests $550 million in OneWeb

Capitalism in space: The long established European communications satellite company Eutelsat has committed $550 million in investment capital in OneWeb and its internet satellite constellation.

Eutelsat, one of the world’s leading satellite operators, will receive a c.24% equity stake in OneWeb and similar governance rights to the U.K. Government and Bharti Global, making it a significant equity partner and joining leading investors including the U.K. Government, Bharti Global and SoftBank. The investment is expected to be completed in the second half of 2021, subject to regulatory approvals.

This investment raises OneWeb’s total funding to $1.9 billion, and puts it in a good position to complete its 648 satellite constellation on schedule, with the first commercial operations beginning when the total in orbit tops 250 in July, after the next two Soyuz-2 launches.

Launch of Intuitive Machine’s first lunar lander delayed

Capitalism in space: The first mission of Intuitive Machine’s lunar lander has now been delayed from late this year to early next year.

Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said April 26 that the slip was caused by its launch provider. “SpaceX informed Intuitive Machines that due to unique mission requirements the earliest available flight opportunity is in the first quarter of 2022,” he told SpaceNews.

Marshall referred questions about the “unique mission requirements” that caused the delay to SpaceX. That company did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on the topic.

Though it is entirely possible that SpaceX needed to delay the launch, we should be skeptical of this reason. More likely Intuitive has had issues that caused a delay, and is using SpaceX as a cover.

There is a race to become the first privately-built commercial lunar lander. Astrobotics Peregrine lander is still scheduled to launch by the end of the year. We shall see.

Ingenuity’s fourth flight today

The fourth flight of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity has just occurred, with data arriving momentarily.

The fourth Ingenuity flight from Wright Brothers Field, the name for the Martian airfield on which the flight took place, is scheduled to take off Thursday, April 29, at 10:12 a.m. EDT (7:12 a.m. PDT, 12:30 p.m. local Mars time), with the first data expected back at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California at 1:21 p.m. EDT (10:21 a.m. PDT).

…Flight Four sets out to demonstrate the potential value of that aerial perspective. The flight test will begin with Ingenuity climbing to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and then heading south, flying over rocks, sand ripples, and small impact craters for 276 feet (84 meters). As it flies, the rotorcraft will use its downward-looking navigation camera to collect images of the surface every 4 feet (1.2 meters) from that point until it travels a total of 436 feet (133 meters) downrange. Then, Ingenuity will go into a hover and take images with its color camera before heading back to Wright Brothers Field.

Stay tuned for new images. NASA will also hold a press conference tomorrow to outline the results and the rest of Ingenuity’s test program.

Arianespace’s Vega rocket launches six satellites

Arianespace yesterday successfully completed its first Vega rocket lift-off since a launch failure last year, placing six satellites in orbit.

This was Arianespace’s first launch in 2021. Though the year is still early, the timing of this launch, late April, puts them well behind the pace they have set for most of the 21st century.

The leader board for the 2021 launch race remains unchanged:

12 SpaceX
10 China
7 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 17 to 10 in the national rankings.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites; China launches Tianhe station module

Twas a busy evening. SpaceX successfully put 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket, with the first stage successfully completing its seventh flight, landing safely on the drone ship in the Atlantic.

China in turn successfully used its Long March 5B rocket to place in orbit the core module, dubbed Tianhe, of its planned space station. This is the first of eleven launches in the next two years to assemble the station’s initial configuration, including cargo and manned missions along the way.

The SpaceX live stream is at the link. I have embedded China’s English language live stream of the Tianhe launch below the fold. The launch is about 52 minutes in.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

12 SpaceX
10 China
7 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 17 to 10 in the national rankings.
» Read more

Twisted taffy in the basement of Mars

Taffy on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, taken on March 7, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and reduced to post here, shows us an example of one of Mars’ strangest and most puzzling geological features, dubbed banded or “taffy-pull” terrain by scientists.

Taffy-pull terrain has so far only been found within Hellas Basin, Mars’ deepest impact basin and what I like to call the basement of Mars. Because of the lower crater count in this terrain scientists consider it relatively young, no more than 3 billion years old, according to this 2014 paper, which also notes

The apparent sensitivity to local topography and preference for concentrating in localized depressions is compatible with deformation as a viscous fluid.

At the moment what that viscous fluid was remains a matter of debate. Many theories propose that ice and water acting in conjunction with salt caused their formation, similar to salt domes seen on Earth. Other propose that the terrain formed from some kind of volcanic or impact melt process.

Almost all of the taffy terrain on Mars has been found in the deepest parts of Hellas Basin in a curved trough along its western interior, as shown by the light blue areas in the overview map below.
» Read more

Today’s blacklisted American: Student is persecuted by university for asking a question

Cancelled Bill of Rights
No longer exists at the University of Virginia

They’re coming for you next: Because medical student Kieran Bhattacharya dared to question the scientific validity of the term “microaggressions” during a panel discussion, the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine began an investigation that accused Bhattacharya of being a threat to others and banned him from the campus.

Here was what the student said.

“Thank you for your presentation,” said Bhattacharya, according to an audio recording of the event. “I had a few questions, just to clarify your definition of microaggressions. Is it a requirement, to be a victim of microaggression, that you are a member of a marginalized group?”

Adams replied that it wasn’t a requirement.

Bhattacharya suggested that this was contradictory, since a slide in her presentation had defined microaggressions as negative interactions with members of marginalized groups. Adams and Bhattacharya then clashed for a few minutes about how to define the term. It was a polite disagreement. Adams generally maintained that microaggression theory was a broad and important topic and that the slights caused real harm. Bhattacharya expressed a scientific skepticism that a microaggression could be distinguished from an unintentionally rude statement. His doubts were well-founded given that microaggression theory is not a particularly rigorous concept.

You can listen to the audio of this exchange here, beginning at about 28 minutes. Bhattacharya is respectful and calm, and is asking legitimate questions. It appears his main concern was the blanket vagueness of the term that allows anyone to claim a microaggression for almost any statement or act.

Apparently, the organizers of the event then decided that his questions were a microaggression in themselves, for which he must be punished.
» Read more

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins has passed away at 90

R.I.P. Michael Collins, the astronaut on Apollo 11 who stayed in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, passed away today at the age of 90.

Collins was one of the most friendly and personable astronauts I ever met. He was always available and willing to answer questions, sometimes even willing to go an extra mile to provide you more than you asked for.

In many ways his later work as head of the Air & Space Museum was more important than his time as an astronaut. He helped make that museum and the history it documents one of the most popular in the world.

As long as humanity exists, on Earth and in space, Michael Collins will never be forgotten.

Perseverance as seen by Ingenuity

Perserverance as seen by Ingenuity
Click for full image.

Cool image time! JPL today released the photo to the right, cropped to post here. It was taken by the helicopter Ingenuity during its third flight on April 25th and shows the rover Perseverance at its left edge.

The horizon is tilted because the camera lens is very wide angle to capture as much terrain as possible and thus produces a fisheye curved distortion to the image’s periphery.

This image was taken as Ingenuity flew north about 160 feet away from Perseverance, probably in the first part of its flight as seen by photos taken by Perseverance of Ingenuity during its flight.

The mountains in the distance are the rim of Jezero Crater.

Dynetics has joined Blue Origin in protesting Starship contract by NASA

Capitalism in space? Dynetics today joined Blue Origin in protesting NASA’s decision to award SpaceX the sole contract for building a manned lunar lander, using its Starship spacecraft.

Though the company’s protest did not going into specifics, it appears that Dynetics main complaint is the decision to not award two companies a contract, as originally planned. Even so, these factors make Dynetics bid quite problematic:

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest ranked. It had a technical rating of “Marginal,” one step below the “Acceptable” that Blue Origin and SpaceX received. Its Management rating of “Very Good” was the same as Blue Origin but one step below SpaceX’s “Outstanding.”

In the source selection statement, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the Dynetics lander “suffered from a number of serious drawbacks” that increased risk. The lander was overweight, which at this early stage of development “calls into question the feasibility of Dynetics’ mission architecture and its ability to successfully close its mission as proposed,” she wrote. The evaluation also questioned the maturity of the technology for performing in-space cryogenic fluid transfer required to refuel the lander, as the company planned.

Lueders concluded that “while Dynetics’ proposal does have some meritorious technical and management attributes, it is overall of limited merit and is only somewhat in alignment with the objectives as set forth in this solicitation.” The document only stated that Dynetics’ proposal had a price “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s proposal, which in turn was significantly higher than SpaceX’s winning bid of $2.89 billion. Blue Origin disclosed in its protest that it bid $5.99 billion. [emphasis mine]

So, Dynetics proposed to build an overweight lander and do it at the highest price. If anything this protest enhances Blue Origin’s protest. It certainly doesn’t do much for Dynetics.

In fact, a good metaphor for the bidding here would be to imagine three vacuum cleaner salesman arriving at your door, all at the same time. One salesman, Mr. Newbie Dynetics, offers you a vacuum cleaner (as yet unbuilt in any form) that as presently designed will only be able to suck in about two-thirds of the dirt on your floor, and demands you pay $800 for it. The second salesman, Jeff “Blue” Origin, says his design (also unbuilt) is far better because they’ve done some successful tests of a tiny handheld prototype, and in addition he’ll only charge you $599 for it.

Neither Newbie or Jeff have any financing, so you will have to foot the entire bill.

The third salesman, Elon Starship, shows up with a full size prototype that while it has some problems, actually functions, and has been tested a number of times already. He also has more than two thirds of his development already financed by others, and only wants to charge you $289.

Who would you pick?

Since I know my readers are neither elected officials nor government officials in Washington and therefore know how to use their brains intelligently, I suspect I know.

We shall soon find out just how smart or dumb those elected officials or government officials in Washington really are.

1 2 3 7