Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Bad news for NASA, good news for private space

Earlier this week NASA submitted a report to Congress reviewing the design and construction status of the heavy-lift rocket and manned capsule that Congress has required them to build and launch by 2016. NASA’s conclusion: the space agency doesn’t think it can do the job in the schedule or budget that Congress has provided.

NASA does not believe this goal is achievable based on a combination of the current funding profile estimate, traditional approaches to acquisitions and currently considered vehicle architectures. . . . We will not commit to a date that has a low probability of being achieved.

NASA’s conclusions here are not surprising. The agency had been having trouble building Constellation on the much bigger budget and longer schedule given to them by past Congresses. For them to build the-program-formerly-called-Constellation for less money and in less time is probably impossible.

Nonetheless, this was the response of the Senate Commerce committee:

The production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law.

This is why I have been saying that the money for this program is nothing more than pork. Congress knows that nothing can be built on this budget, but wants the money spent nonetheless, to keep people employed in their districts.

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, Space Adventures yesterday announced a new deal with Russia, whereby the Russians have agreed to build and launch one extra Soyuz capsule per year, beginning in 2013, to fly 3 tourists to ISS. In addition, there is this report today about how SpaceX is successfully meeting all its milestones in building its cargo ferry for ISS. An earlier report last week also noted how Orbital Sciences is also moving forward with its cargo ferry, with a planned first test launch by the end of 2011.

All in all, this news is not good news for NASA. The space agency’s manned spaceflight program appears to have two futures, neither of which will involve it continuing to build rockets or fly humans into space. In one option, the new Congress, when it finally sits down to write a budget, will decide that pork and happy constituents are more important than a balanced budget, and will appropriate the money for the-program-formerly-called-Constellation. NASA will struggle hard to build it, but will not succeed. Thus, no government-built manned space program.

In the second option, Congress will agree with me and decide that it just doesn’t have money for pork, especially considering the terrible state of the federal budget. Moreover, seeing the success of the private efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Space Adventures, Congress will wonder why it needs to pour more billions into a vain effort by NASA to build something it can’t, when there are other private companies that can do it, and do it for less. In this circumstance, it will be very easy for them to cut the-program-formerly-called-Constellation. Once again, no NASA manned program.

Neither scenario is actually a bad thing. What we are actually seeing play out here is the free competition of different companies attempting to provide a service to a customer, and the customer eventually picking the best company from which to buy the product. NASA, as a government agency, simply can’t compete, and unless Congress decides to provide them welfare, will lose this competition hands down.

The U.S. will still have the capability of getting into space, but for far less money. And having multiple private companies competing to provide this service will also encourage innovation, something the rocket industry has sorely needed these past five decades.


Giant black holes

From the AAS meeting, the black hole press conference!

  • Scientists, using the Gemini telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have measured the mass of the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy M87, and found its mass equals 6.6 billion suns, far larger than expected. They also estimate that the event horizon of this gigantic black hole is so large our entire solar system would fit inside it.
  • Other scientists have found that the total mass of M87 is more than 5 trillion suns, about 60 percent higher than earlier investigations estimated. This makes M87 one of the most massive galaxies known. In addition, more than 80 percent of that mass is contained with the galaxy’s dark matter halo.
  • In other research, astronomers have located 16 close binary pairs of supermassive black holes hidden in the nuclei of the galaxies. Scientists have long believed that the merger of smaller orbiting supermassive black holes helps form bigger supermassive black holes we see, but until this discovery, almost no close binary pairs had been located. Of these 16 binaries, all show signs that they are spiraling into towards each other, and will crash together in several millions of years.

Penguin tracking bands do harm

The bands that scientists attach to penguins to track them actually do harm. The data also suggests that certain climate research might also be skewed because of this. Key quote:

Overall, the team found, bands were bad for penguins. Banded penguins had a 16% lower survival rate than unbanded birds over the 10 years, the researchers report online today in Nature. Banded birds also arrived later at the breeding grounds and took longer trips to forage for food. As a result, they produced 39% fewer chicks. . . . [The researcher noted] that his team’s results suggest that research using banded penguins may be biased. For example, he says, several high-profile studies have used banded penguins to investigate the impact of climate change on the birds. The findings of those studies aren’t necessarily wrong, but the numbers need to be reconsidered, he says.


A new deal to fly tourists to ISS using Russian Soyuz capsules

A new deal has been announced to fly tourists to ISS using Russian Soyuz capsules. According the arrangement between Space Adventures and the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA) and Rocket Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia), three seats will be made available on Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS), beginning in 2013.

These seats will be made available through the increase of Soyuz production, from four to five spacecraft per year. Each flight will be short duration, approximately 10 days, and will contribute to the increase of launch capacity to the ISS.


The uncertainty of astronomical science

From today’s first press conference at the AAS meeting, astronomers have found that two of the fundamental objects they use as units of measure might not be as reliable a unit of measure as they thought.

  • Astronomers have discovered that the Cepheid variable stars that they use to estimate the distances to the nearest galaxies are not necessarily the stars they thought. At least two Cepheids, which are variable stars, do not pulse reliably (one actually stopped pulsing entirely). Another is surrounded by a previously unknown nebula cloud, which affects its apparent brightness, an essential data-point when using these stars as a measuring tool. Here’s one press release.
  • The Crab Nebula threw out some gigantic gamma ray bursts last fall. In addition, astronomers have found that the nebula actually flickers wildly, and is also changing in gamma ray energy output over the long term, declining by seven percent in the last two years. No one yet knows what exactly causes these different variations. Like Cepheids, the Crab has been used as a standard for measuring the energy of astronomical gamma ray objects. This is no longer reliable. Here’s one press release, plus images.

It’s time the left toned down its rhetoric

Look, I agree that we’ve got to tone down the rhetoric. And I also agree that conservatives bear as much responsibility to do this as anyone. Free debate in a civilized society requires reasoned discussion of the issues, and a willingness to tolerate disagreement. It should not include ad hominen attacks, or the wishful desire to murder your opponents.

However, it is not the tone of rightwing discourse that worries me much these days. You would be hard pressed to find any examples of any Republicans or Tea Party activists suggesting it would a good thing to kill Democrats. Such suggestions are not only considered unacceptable, everyone on the right knows that to say such a thing would probably destroy your career in the public arena. Thus, it just doesn’t happen.

Instead, it is the left, the press, and the Democratic Party’s efforts to whip up anger at the right that scares me. Nor did this ugly behavior begin on Saturday after the Tucson murders. In the past decade there have been the numerous examples (which I have been documenting these past few days) of leftwing activists, Hollywood movies, talk radio hosts, and Democratic officials advocating violence against the right. (For a talk radio host example, see this new list of liberals calling for the murder of conservatives.) Worse, such behavior has almost become routine in recent years. It seems that every random violent act has become a vehicle for the left and the press to attack and slander conservatives, despite the fact that there is no evidence that any of these accusations are true.

This behavior must stop. Violent and angry rhetoric can and will cause violence. And it probably has, considering the fact that a large number of the random violent acts in recent years have actually been committed by deranged individuals with liberal, not conservative, leanings. This is not to say that I blame the left for this violence, but that the left has as much of a responsibility as the right to think carefully about what it says, before it says it. Otherwise, they might find that they have made their less rational followers more angry than they ever imagined, or can control.

Or as Michael York says to his NAZI friend at the end of this scene from the 1972 movie, Cabaret. “You still think you can control them?”


Facebook Group “I Hate It When I Wake Up & Sarah Palin Is Still Alive” Passes 2,000 Members

Is this an example of toning down the rhetoric? The Facebook Group “I Hate It When I Wake Up & Sarah Palin Is Still Alive” has more than 2,000 members.

So you have no doubt about the ugly tone of this Facebook group, here is a screen capture from the page. Note the desire to kill Palin (and Bush) in several images.

Facebook I hate Palin page


NASA submits its Heavy Lift rocket proposal to Congress

NASA has submitted its Heavy Lift rocket proposal to Congress. However, NASA also noted bluntly that:

“Neither Reference Vehicle Design currently fits the projected budget profiles nor schedule goals outlined in the Authorization Act.”

In other words, they can’t build it for the money or in the timeframe they’ve been given by Congress.

Didn’t someone say this already? Several times?


The climax to The Roaring Twenties

An evening pause: The Roaring Twenties (1939). Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney were often cast as gangsters. However, their film personas’ were very different. Bogart’s characters generally showed a trace of weakness in his soul, while Cagney’s characters were rock solid no matter how much things fell apart. The finale of this classic Hollywood film, in which each man dies, illustrates this difference quite starkly.


New results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

From the second press conference at the AAS meeting today, results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has been surveying the sky in incredible detail over the past eleven years:

  • The largest digital color image of the heavens, covering one third of the sky, imaging a half a billion stars and galaxies. Despite looking the sky in wide-field view, the data also has incredible close-up detail. This has and will continue to provide astronomers a precise baseline reference for future research.
  • A 3D reconstruction of the local galactic neighborhood, showing the three dimensional position of the visible galaxies within a billion light years. They plan to use the new Sloan color image above to further extend this 3D reconstruction out to seven billion light years.
  • The largest map of the Milky Way’s outer regions, showing the streams of stars captured from other galaxies, absorbed in the past galactic mergers that formed the Milky Way.

All this data will be available for anyone to dig around in.


New discoveries by Planck

From the first press conference at the AAS meeting today, focused on recent discoveries from the European space telescope Planck:

  • has identified 10,000 cold spots in Milky Way, all believed to be places where stars will soon begin to form. They range widely in size, and are from 30 to 10,000 light years from us.
  • Planck’s all sky survey has found 189 giant galaxy clusters, 20 of which are newly discovered. “The largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe.” Very hot, filled with hot gas.
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