Beals Science – Resurrecting a carbide lamp

An evening pause: Long time cavers are very familiar with the carbide lamp, as it was used routinely until around 1998, when LED lights arrived and finally superseded it.

Until then, the advantage of a carbide light was the quality of the light it produced, a soft bright glow rather than the harsh reflective rings produced by older electric lights.

The disadvantage however was the endless fiddling required to keep them working. For example, near the end of this video when he finally gets the light to work, he turns up the water flow to brighten the light. I guarantee that very soon the light would go out, as he was flooding the carbide. The water drip had to be precisely right. Too slow and not enough gas. Too fast and too much water.

I personally hated carbide lights because of that fiddling, especially because lamps made after 1970 were junk and didn’t work well. Most cavers who used carbide would scour yard sales to find old lights like this one, as older carbide lamps were made well and would work reliably.

Hat tip Jeff Poplin.

Pioneers and the future

The asteroid mining ship Dream Watcher docked on the Mars space station.
From Pioneer: The asteroid mining ship Dream Watcher docked
on the Mars space station Landville, c2183.

When I first wrote my sole science fiction book, Pioneer, back in the mid-1980s, I strongly believed (and still do) that for the human race to prosper in space and truly build new civilizations on other worlds, freedom, private enterprise, and courage would be required.

It was for this reason there is absolute no mention of NASA in the book. Unlike most modern movies that idolize this mostly dysfunctional government agency and see it as the only solution for accomplishing anything in space (watch The Martian again to see what I mean), I knew that while government will be strongly involved in space exploration for the foreseeable future, for anything to get done quickly those governments will best step aside and figure out how to let their citizens both freely do it and also own what they do.

This weekend’s aborted SLS static fire test illustrates my point perfectly. Rather than depend on private enterprise to get this rocket built, both George Bush Jr. and Congress decided to give the job to their government bureaucrats. The result has been nothing for now over a decade.
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Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully reaches orbit

Capitalism in space: After eight years of development, Virgin Orbit has finally used its LauncherOne air-launched rocket to successfully put ten satellites into orbit.

After an eight month stand down to resolve issues revealed during the first mission of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, the company made their second orbital launch attempt on Sunday, January 17. The air-launched rocket successfully carried ten CubeSats to their target orbit for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

This makes Virgin Orbit the second smallsat rocket company to achieve orbit, following Rocket Lab. They have beat out a large number of startups, and are now well positioned to gain some of the market share in this new component of the launch market.

They have also made true my September 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit would complete its first commercial launch before Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital commercial flight, even though Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo began development eight years earlier.

As for the 2021 launch race, right now only SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have launched in 2021. They are tied for the lead, and also combine to put the U.S. ahead 2 to nothing over everyone else.

SpaceX replacing two engines on Starship prototype #9

Capitalism in space: After the static fire engine tests earlier this week, SpaceX has decided to replace two of the Raptor engines in its ninth Starship prototype before moving on to its 50,000 foot test flight.

“Two of the engines need slight repairs, so will be switched out,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter early this morning (Jan. 15).

Musk did not give a target launch date for SN9. But he did say, in another tweet, that it’s “probably wise” to perform another static fire with the vehicle after the engine swap is complete. So a weekend launch for SN9 seems pretty unlikely.

Makes sense, but I must admit a bit of disappointment. I was really hoping that the next flight would occur on the same day NASA attempts its first static fire test of the core stage of SLS. The contrast would have been edifying.

Personally this delay is great for me, as I will be out in the country caving this entire weekend, and would have missed it if it had occurred during the weekend. I will miss the SLS static fire test, but that will be far less interesting (unless something goes wrong).

Blue Origin aims for first manned suborbital flight in April

Capitalism in space: According to this CNBC report, Blue Origin is now targeting its first manned suborbital flight of New Shepard by April, after completing one more unmanned test flight in late February.

Blue Origin on Thursday completed the fourteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule. Called NS-14, the successful test flight featured the debut of a new booster and an upgraded capsule. Beyond the upgrades, CNBC has learned that NS-14 also marked one of the last remaining steps before Blue Origin flies its first crew to space.

The flight was the first of two “stable configuration” test flights, people familiar with Blue Origin’s plans told CNBC. Stable configuration means that the company plans to avoid making major changes between this flight and the next. Additionally, those people said that Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

We shall see. The sources are anonymous, and thus not entirely reliable. Furthermore, this schedule is far faster than the pace that Blue Origin has traditionally set.

At the same time, the competition to get those first suborbital passengers in space is heating up, as Virgin Galactic is rumored to have a somewhat similar schedule. Moreover, the first entirely private manned orbital tourist mission by SpaceX is presently set for October. If these two suborbital companies fail to begin manned flights before SpaceX their ability to garner customers will be sorely damaged.

Live stream of New Shepard flight: Successful flight

UPDATE: The flight has completed successfully, with the capsule reaching a height of about 66 miles, or about 107 kilometers. The booster was doing its first flight, with the capsule doing its eighth flight.

Original post:
Capitalism in space: I have embedded the live stream of today’s New Shepard suborbital flight by Blue Origin. The countdown is just under T-19 as I write this.

Watch if you want, though you will have deal with Blue Origin’s pr, including their somewhat noxious anchor, who spends much of her narration telling us how wonderful and breath-taking and amazing everything is, no matter what happens.
» Read more

Starship prototype #9 completes three static fire tests in one day

Capitalism in space: SpaceX engineers today successfully completed three static fire tests of their Starship prototype #9, all within a space of just over three hours.

The three-engine SN9 vehicle performed its second, third and fourth “static fire” tests in quick succession today (Jan. 13) at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities, near the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica. The engines lit up briefly at 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT), again at 3:22 p.m. EST (2022 GMT) and then yet again at 4:36 p.m. EST (2136 GMT).

During static fires, engines blaze briefly while a vehicle remains tethered to the ground. SN9 already had one such test under its belt, having completed a short static fire on Jan. 6.

In each case they likely practiced their countdown and fueling procedures, followed by procedures allowing for a quick recycle should they have to abort a countdown but have time to still launch that day.

All this strengthens the reliability and overall design and operation of the rocket as they develop it.

The actual hop could occur, based on road closure announcements, on Friday. It is also possible the company will do additional static fire tests beforehand.

I think it also pertinent to once again compare SpaceX’s development approach to that of Boeing and NASA in their development of SLS. SpaceX is aggressively doing a lot of tests of hardware, continually. They then redesign and rebuild based on those tests. The pace is fast and compressed, and gets things built at a remarkable low cost, considering. It also forces them to design things in a way that makes redesign easy and fast.

Boeing and NASA have done no such tests in building SLS. Instead, they designed it by computer, giving themselves large safety margins in design. This might have reduced or eliminated the need for tests, but it raises the cost of the rocket while stretching out the development time enormously. And it carries great risk. In two days they will attempt their very first static fire test of SLS’s core stage, after almost a decade of development. The actual launch is planned for within a year.

If that static fire test has any issues, the whole SLS project will face serious problems that will, based on its design, be very difficult to fix.

Blue Origin announces next New Shepard flight for January 14th

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today announced that it will launch its fourteenth New Shepard flight tomorrow, at 9:45 am (Central).

This will be the eighth flight for this particular New Shepard capsule.

The link above takes you to their live stream, which will go live 30 minutes before launch. From the press release:

For this mission, the crew capsule will be outfitted with upgrades for the astronaut experience as the program nears human space flight. The upgrades include improvements to environmental features such as acoustics and temperature regulation inside the capsule, crew display panels, and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat. The mission will also test a number of astronaut communication and safety alert systems. The capsule will be outfitted with six seats, including one occupied by Mannequin Skywalker. Also inside the capsule, Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future will fly more than 50,000 postcards to space and back from students around the globe.

The last flight New Shepard flight was in October. The company had earlier promised manned flights would begin in 2020, but that did not happen. Today’s announcement makes no mention of later flights or future plans.

While I do expect Blue Origin will eventually fly humans on a New Shepard capsule, more and more it looks like it will be more a public relations operation for the company rather than a real profit center. They might make money on it, but the focus of space tourism is shifting to orbital flights. Doing a suborbital flight will still be cool, but it will no longer have the pizazz that it would have had, had the flight been two, three, five, or ten years ago. This shift I think is reflected in the slow pace of New Shepard launches in the past three years.

Starlink begins rollout in United Kingdom; blocked in Russia

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Starlink internet service has now begun providing its service in the United Kingdom, following approval by the government there.

Because the British government is now also an owner of Starlink’s direct competitor, OneWeb, this creates an interesting conflict of interest that fortunately has so far not impeded SpaceX. We shall have to see whether this changes with time.

Meanwhile, in Russia a similar conflict of interest has resulted in some government action against Starlink.

Russia’s legislative body, the State Duma, is considering fines for individuals and companies in the country that use Western-based satellite Internet services. The proposed law seeks to prevent accessing the Internet by means of SpaceX’s Starlink service, OneWeb, or other non-Russian satellite constellations under development.

…In the Russian-language article, translated for Ars by Robinson Mitchell, members of the Duma assert that accessing the Internet independently would bypass the country’s System of Operational Search Measures, which monitors Internet use and mobile communications. As part of the country’s tight control on media and communications, all Russian Internet traffic must pass through a Russian communications provider.

It is not surprising that Russia would take steps to block Starlink service—the country’s space chief, Dmitry Rogozin, views SpaceX as a chief rival in spaceflight. Rogozin has been critical of both NASA and the US Department of Defense for subsidizing SpaceX through government contracts. (While it is true that SpaceX has received launch contracts from the US government worth several billion dollars, it has also provided launch services at a significant discount compared to other providers.) More recently Rogozin has said Starlink is little more than a scheme to provide US Special Forces with uninterrupted communications.

That the legislation is also aimed at blocking OneWeb however is strange, considering that OneWeb is quite literally Rogozin’s only remaining commercial customer for Roscosmos’s launch services.

In the end, such laws will only end up doing more damage to Russia than to SpaceX. When you don’t allow competition you basically don’t allow any achievements at all. Russia will sink into a second-class status, not because its people are second-class but because its government is.

Tragically it appears the U.S. federal government is now in a race with Russia to the bottom.

Dream Chaser first flight delayed to ’22

Officials from Sierra Nevada today revealed they have now delayed the first flight of their mini-reusable Dream Chaser shuttle Tenacity until ’22 rather than late this year.

They claim the cause of the delay is the Wuhan flu.

Sierra Nevada has not announced when in 2022 Dream Chaser will attempt to make its first flight, but Lindsey described how pandemic restrictions prevented engineers from being on site for structural testing of the cargo model. Instead, engineers remotely oversaw the tests from a mission control center in Colorado. While the workaround allowed testing to continue, it took three or four times as long as it should have, Lindsey said.

Other delays came from supplier shutdowns due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Technical challenges not related to the pandemic also caused problems, though Lindsey did not elaborate. “All of those things have conspired to move the date a little bit,” Lindsey said.

The first issue is a management decision by the company. I note that SpaceX does not create these kinds of restrictions, and has therefore not experienced any slowdown in its launches or Starship development. It also appears to be experiencing no significant issues with COVID-19 infections.

The second issue is also in a sense a management decision. Sierra Nevada is subcontracting a lot of its work, and thus is at the mercy of other companies. Once again, SpaceX made a decision years ago to do as much as possible in-house. Thus, they are at no one’s mercy, and can push forward even as others cower in fear.

Overall, the pace of development at Sierra Nevada has not been impressive, but then, much of their work is being done by others, such as Lockheed Martin.

Another new rocket startup, ABL Space, to launch its rocket in ’21

Capitalism in space: ABL Space, another one of the many startups attempting to enter the launch market using private investment capital, now predicts it will attempt its first orbital launch sometime before June of this year.

The company was formed by veterans of SpaceX and Wall Street, and uses that company’s philosophy of building as much of the rocket in-house as possible. That rocket is also more powerful than Rocket Lab’s, aiming for bigger payloads, and is designed with a very simple launchpad arrangement, so that it can launch from practically anywhere there is a concrete pad and do it quickly.

ABL now has about 105 employees, with about 90,000 square feet of space in several buildings in El Segundo, as well as testing facilities at Edwards Air Force Base and at Spaceport America in New Mexico. “We can build and ship a launch vehicle about every 30 days, based on infrastructure we have now,” Piemont said. “We’re tracking towards eight or nine [rockets] a year based on existing infrastructure.”

While ABL has significant contracts and relationships with the Pentagon, Piemont said the company’s customer pipeline is 60% private, or commercial, versus 40% government payloads. The company has customers lined up to launch payloads on its first few missions, although ABL may fly mass simulators, which are often a slab of concrete to represent a spacecraft’s weight, for the first RS1 launch.

By my count, this makes seven new rocket companies — Virgin Orbit, Firefly, Astra, Relativity Space, Aevum, ABL Space, and Blue Origin — all planning their inaugural launches in ’21. The competition for business thus should be very fierce, which is all to the good, as it will encourage these companies to all find ways to cut costs.

Momentus forced to delay its first mission due to FAA bureaucrats

Capitalism in space? Momentus, aiming to provide satellite makers a tug that can move satellites to their preferred orbit, has delayed its first mission because the many bureaucrats in the federal government need more time to review the paperwork.

In a Jan. 4 statement, Momentus said the flight of its first Vigoride tug, which was to be part of the payloads on a Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission launching as soon as Jan. 14, will be delayed to later in the year because it was unable to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission. “This move will allow for the additional time necessary to secure FAA approval of Momentus’ payloads, including completion of a standard interagency review,” the company said in a statement.

The company did not elaborate on that review, but part of the FAA commercial launch licensing process is a review of the payload that the agency describes as intended “to determine whether its launch would jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.” That process can include consultation with other government agencies.

In a Jan. 5 document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the form of an interview, Fred Kennedy, president of Momentus, said there was no specific issue that was delaying that review. “The FAA did not express any specific concerns of its own, but rather indicated that more time was needed to complete its interagency review of Momentus’ payload,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words reveal the truth. There is nothing wrong with the payload or its tasks. The problem is that several government agencies have not completed the paperwork, and so Momentus must wait. I imagine that there is a thick application sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk, requiring a signature, and that bureaucrat has been too busy collecting his or her paycheck at home because God forbid he or she might get the cororavirus by coming into work.

This is modern America. You don’t have the real freedom to do what you want. You must sit, twiddling your thumbs, while your betters in Washington decide whether they will allow you to do it. It doesn’t matter they know little or nothing about your goals. All that matters is that they are in charge, and can boss you around at their whim.

DARPA cubesats damaged in mishap at SpaceX facility

Though no details have been released, DARPA revealed yesterday that two experimental cubesats being prepared for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 were damaged when the payload separation system was accidently activated.

As these were military satellites not much information was revealed by DARPA, and SpaceX made no comment.

Such things do happen rarely, but for SpaceX it is still an embarrassment and a problem. They will certainly have to figure out how this could have happened by accident, and make sure it does not happen again.

Who pays the cost for repair or replacement (more likely) is a tangled question, and will be buried in the launch contracts between DARPA and SpaceX.

Starship prototype #9 completes first static fire test

Capitalism in space: SpaceX engineers yesterday successfully completed the first static fire test of the ninth prototype of Starship, in preparation for its first 50,000 foot flight.

The SN9 vehicle’s three engines lit up for about one second today (Jan. 6) at 5:07 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) during a static-fire test at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities, near the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica.

It is possible they will do additional static fire tests before that flight, as they did this with the eighth prototype. It is also possible that all went right in this first test, and they will proceed to launch, as soon as January 8th.

Updates on Starship development: next 50K foot flight this weekend?

Two different updates yesterday and today on the development of Starship by SpaceX suggest strongly that the company is aiming for its next test flight to about 50,000 feet as early as this coming weekend.

The second story notes how the company has apparently decided it was not worthwhile keeping much of the debris left over from the crash of the eighth Starship prototype after its successful test flight on December 9th. They have instead focused entirely on clearing the landing pad as quickly as possible, even if it meant destroying some of the prototype’s remains.

The first story outlines the ongoing pressure tests for the ninth prototype, now on the launchpad, and how those tests have so far proceeded very smoothly. All that remains is SpaceX’s standard dress rehearsal countdown ending in a static fire test of the prototype. This is presently scheduled for tomorrow. Once it is accomplished, the test flight can follow quickly, probably no more than a week later, depending on weather, the data from the static fire test, and the innumerable uncertainties that routinely occur in a robust test program such as this.

The state of the global rocket industry in the 21st century

With the year of 2020 coming to an end, it is time to look back to see how the world’s rocket industry fared in what was a truly difficult year for most. And with the 21st century now one fifth over, it is also time to take a wider view, to see what the trends have been for space exploration during this new century, and to see where those trends might lead.

Below is my annual updated table showing all successful orbital launches by every nation and company, beginning in 2000. While the table in my 2019 report last year had gone back to 1990, I decided to shorten the graph to just the 21st Century, in order to better focus on that century in particular.

» Read more

Musk: Super Heavy will land on launchpad, caught by launch tower

Capitalism in space: In a series of tweets yesterday SpaceX founder Elon Musk revealed that the company is considering landing Starship’s first stage, Super Heavy, on its launchpad but rather than use landing legs it will be caught by the launch tower.

Instead, Musk says that SpaceX might be able to quite literally catch Super Heavy in mid-air, grabbing the booster before it can touch the ground by somehow slotting an elaborate “launch tower arm” underneath its steel grid fins. Although such a solution sounds about as complex and risky as it gets, it would technically preclude the need for any and all booster recovery infrastructure – even including the legs Super Heavy would otherwise need.

While true, catching Super Heavy by its grid fins would likely demand that control surfaces and the structures they attach to be substantially overbuilt – especially if Musk means that the crane arm mechanism would be able to catch anywhere along the deployed fins’ 7m (23 ft) length. Even more importantly, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that such a complex and unproven recovery method could be made to work reliably on the first one or several tries, implying that early boosters will still need some kind of rudimentary landing legs.

The idea is to save weight on the booster. It also would speed its reuse, as there would no longer be a need to transport it from a landing pad back to the launchpad.

Whether this will work will depend on the accuracy of SpaceX’s vertical landing software. That the company has repeatedly proven, from almost the first time it tried it, that it can bring its rockets down exactly where it intends suggests they will be able to be as accurate as necessary.

Nonetheless, expect more than a few launchpad crashes as they work out the kinks on another audacious engineering concept.

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