Tag Archives: commercial

Fire during most recent Starship prototype test

Capitalism in space: A fire during most recent Starship prototype test that did not do any apparent serious damage has however left that prototype in limbo.

The fate of SpaceX’s fourth full-scale Starship prototype appears to be in limbo after a third (seemingly successful) engine ignition test unintentionally caught the rocket on fire.

Now more than 12 hours after Starship SN4 fired up its new Raptor engine, the ~30m (~100 ft) tall, 9m (~30 ft) wide prototype is apparently trapped with one or both of its propellant tanks still partially filled with liquid (or gaseous) methane and/or oxygen. An initial road closure scheduled from noon to 6pm local quickly came and went and SpaceX and Cameron County Texas have since modified the paperwork, extending the closure a full 24 hours. In other words, SpaceX has reason to believe that Starship SN4 may continue to be unsafe (i.e. pressurized) as many as ~30 hours after it technically completed its third static fire test – extremely unusual, to say the least.

The article at the link offers a lot of speculation. The bottom line is that the first actual hop of this prototype is probably delayed. SpaceX had said it wanted to do it before the end of the month (probably to maximize publicity by having it occur about the same time as the manned Dragon launch). They will need to get this prototype safed, review the data and damage from the fire, and then make repairs before doing that hop. I would also expect SpaceX to do another tank and engine test first as well, to make sure those repairs worked.

This is not to say that the delay will be long. SpaceX does not waste time in these matters. It just probably means the hop won’t occur until mid- to late June.

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Atlas 5 launches X-37B spacecraft

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket this morning successfully launched one of the military’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles into orbit.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold, with the launch occurring at 23:50.

As has been standard procedure during all previous X-37B missions, only a few details about the payloads have been released, though the military has said it wishes to be a bit more open this time.

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.” The service module is attached to the aft end of the X-37B spaceplane, providing additional capacity for experiments and payloads. The X-37B itself, measuring more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, also has a cargo bay inside its fuselage.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said Wednesday that the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is partnering with the U.S. Space force and the Air Force Research Laboratory on the next X-37B mission. … “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” Barrett said Wednesday. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds.”

The X-37B also carries a space-based solar power experiment. “A third experiment designed by the Naval Research Laboratory transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth,” Barrett said.

Once in orbit, the X-37B will also release a small satellite named FalconSat 8. Developed by Air Force Academy cadets in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the small satellite carries five experimental payloads. It will be operated by by the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Space Operations Squadron

They have not said how long this X-37B will remain in orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 8 in the national rankings, and will likely increase that lead very early tomorrow in the next day or so when SpaceX completes its next scheduled Falcon 9 Starlink launch. (Because of weather they have pushed back one day.
» Read more

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The Artemis Accords: The Trump administration’s effort to bypass the Outer Space Treaty

Capitalism in space: The Trump administration yesterday released the guidelines it will require any international or private partner to follow if they wish to participate in its Artemis lunar and planetary manned program.

The guidelines, which you can download here [pdf], list ten very broad and vague principles. Most reiterate support for the most successful requirements of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, such as:

  • the requirement that all activities be conducted for peaceful purposes
  • the requirement that everyone design equipment for interoperability and to international standards
  • the requirement that everyone take reasonable steps possible to render assistance to astronauts in distress
  • the requirement that everyone publicly register anything they launch
  • the requirement that everyone release their scientific data publicly
  • the requirement that all parties take actions to mitigate space junk

The remaining four principles appear designed to bend the Outer Space Treaty in the direction of allowing countries and companies to have some control over the territories they occupy in space.
» Read more

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China a major investor in World View

It appears that one of the major financial backers of the Arizona-based high-altitude balloon company World View is a Chinese investment company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

World View’s long-time investors include Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech company that operates the WeChat messaging and social media service that is among the world’s largest. And like other tech companies in China, it has close working ties to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing. Tencent has sought to expand its relations with American tech firms, a move that has raised national security concerns that the Chinese government could be surreptitiously gathering information using American technology.

Hartman [World View CEO] said that isn’t happening, noting the Pentagon’s Defense Counterintelligence Security Agency examined the company last year to ensure its work was secure from foreign interference. The agency cleared World View to handle work for the military.

Tencent has “zero access, zero input and zero control,” Hartman said.

The article at the link is focused mostly on the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Arizona, Mark Kelly, and his ties to World View with its Chinese investor. To my mind the World View links are more important, as World View under Hartman has been selling its high altitude balloons as a way to do military surveillance and reconnaissance at less cost and with more flexibility than with satellites.

Getting investment capital from China means that, despite Hartman’s reassurances, China will likely get access to this technology, either to use in its own country, or maybe even use surreptitiously in the U.S., inside a World View balloon.

As much as I really would like to see World View succeed, as long as they rely on Chinese money they should be denied any military contracts. And Kelly’s involvement as a co-founder of the company, without raising this issue himself, does suggest his focus on protecting the U.S. from foreign influence and spying is quite weak. It does indicate that he can be brought, from the highest bidder, whoever that bidder might be.

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Branson selling 25% of Virgin Galactic shares to save airline business

Capitalism in space:It appears that Richard Branson is selling about 25% of shares in Virgin Galactic in order to prop up his airline and travel businesses that have been crushed by the Wuhan flu panic.

Branson’s Virgin Group may sell as many as 25 million shares in the space-travel firm, with the proceeds going to his leisure and travel businesses, according to a statement on Monday. The 69-year-old Briton is trying to save Virgin Atlantic, which has struggled to qualify for a UK-supported loan program aimed at helping businesses survive the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. He’s seeking outside investors for the airline, while also weighing an infusion of his own funds.

The irony here is that Virgin Galactic has been a big financial money sink since its inception in the mid-2000s, having never flown a single customer in its fifteen-plus year existence. However, Branson has bamboozled a lot of people into buying its stock in the past year, since it went public, causing the stock to rise from its initial price of about $12 to about $18 to $20. This sell-off gives Branson an almost 100% profit on the stock, a good deal indeed for him, even if the company never makes a dime.

He says he is pumping the money back into his other businesses, but we shall see.

What the sale means however is that Branson no longer has a majority share in Virgin Galactic. The biggest shareholder is now Social Capital Hedosophia, created by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya.

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Google routinely hands your smart phone data to the police

Reason 4,326,987 to never use a Google smart phone: Google handed the police the GPS data for every single smart phone that was in the vicinity of a robbery, resulting in an innocent bike rider becoming the primary suspect in a burglary.

The [man’s] lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, dug around and learned that the notice had been prompted by a “geofence warrant,” a police surveillance tool that casts a virtual dragnet over crime scenes, sweeping up Google location data — drawn from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections — from everyone nearby.

The warrants, which have increased dramatically in the past two years, can help police find potential suspects when they have no leads. They also scoop up data from people who have nothing to do with the crime, often without their knowing ─ which Google itself has described as “a significant incursion on privacy.”

What happens is Google gives the data to the police, with no names attached. If the police see something they think worthwhile, they then ask for the identity of the person in question. Google then warns that person, giving them seven days to defend themselves before handing the police their name.

This type of search stinks to high heaven. If Google really considered this “a significant incursion on privacy” they wouldn’t cooperate with the police. Thus, they are lying if when they say that. Google likes prying into your private affairs, and using that data for its own benefit. In fact, based on Google’s track record, I’m surprised they didn’t demand a payment from this man to prevent the release of his name to the police.

Google, like Facebook and Microsoft, is a corrupt and dishonest company. No one should be doing business with them, and if you are, you should be finding ways to switch to the competition as quickly as possible. This is why I haven’t used Google or Bing to do any web searches in about a decade, using Startpage and DuckDuckGo instead. This is why I abandoned Microsoft Windows fourteen years ago, switching to Linux.

In fact, I think this story calls for a repost of the links to the series of articles reader James Stephens wrote for Behind the Black back in 2016 for getting and installing Linux. If you want to try out Linux, all you really need is a spare laptop or desktop, one or two years old, that you aren’t using any more, and to then follow James’ step-by-step instructions below. I’ve done it now three times. The two laptops I use were bought for $20 and $35 each. I wiped Windows 7 from both and installed my favorite flavor of Linux. And they work as well if not better than any Windows machine.

Find an old laptop you aren’t using any longer and put Linux on it. And stop using Google. It is pure poison.

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California Tesla factory reopens, defying local officials

Go get ’em! As he promised, Elon Musk has reopened his California Tesla factory, defying the demands of local officials who wanted it to remain closed until June.

Not only did he institute some stringent employee rules in connection with the Wuhan flu, he also as promised had Tesla initiate a lawsuit against those local officials.

Tesla filed a lawsuit against Alameda County on Saturday after the Fremont plant was shuttered amid the statewide lockdown on March 23. The suit claims that county officials ignored Gov Gavin Newsom’s allowances for ’16 crucial infrastructure industries,’ including transportation, to continue operating.

Personally I think the company’s stringent new health rules are ridiculous, but Musk has to play this “feel-good” game while fighting to survive against this government power-grab.

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Successful static fire Raptor engine test on 4th Starship prototype

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday successfully completed the first static fire Raptor engine test on its fourth Starship prototype, laying the foundation for a planned 150-meter vertical hop later this month.

The test lasted about three seconds.

I want to make a quick comparison between SpaceX’s approach for developing Starship, and NASA’s development of SLS. The differences are stark.

First, SpaceX began cutting metal a little over one year ago, and is already testing a full scale prototype, fully fueled, with its planned flight engine.

SLS began development officially around 2011. It uses the engines from the Space Shuttle, so those are already flight proven. However, even after almost a decade of development NASA as yet to do a single static fire test with those engines actually installed on an SLS rocket, either a prototype or the real thing.

Second, in the past year SpaceX has been aggressively testing the fueling of Starship, using a series of prototypes. With this fourth iteration they have apparently gotten the fueling process and the tanks to work effectively. Further tests of course will increase their confidence in the system’s reliability.

SLS, even after almost a decade of development, has yet to do any similar tank tests. Instead, NASA has done separate individual tests of the rocket’s tanks, but never with everything fully assembled. The agency, and its lead contractor Boeing, hope to finally do their first full scale SLS tank test and static fire test sometime later this year. As they have never filled the tanks in this manner before, they have admitted that problems could arise, including the possibility that the tanks could leak.

Note the big difference. SpaceX has done this testing very early in development. NASA is doing it very late in development. Which to you seems the better approach?

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Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

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Trump administration drafting new space agreement to supersede Outer Space Treaty

The new colonial movement: According to this Reuters article, the Trump administration is presently drafting a new space agreement, which they have dubbed the “Artemis Accords,” that would allow private property ownership in space and thus supersede Outer Space Treaty’s restrictions on sovereignty.

The Artemis Accords, named after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s new Artemis moon program, propose “safety zones” that would surround future moon bases to prevent damage or interference from rival countries or companies operating in close proximity.

The pact also aims to provide a framework under international law for companies to own the resources they mine, the sources said.

In the coming weeks, U.S. officials plan to formally negotiate the accords with space partners such as Canada, Japan, and European countries, as well as the United Arab Emirates, opening talks with countries the Trump administration sees as having “like-minded” interests in lunar mining.

They at the moment are not including Russia or China in the discussions, since those countries have little interest in promoting private enterprise and ownership in space.

Back in 2017 I proposed in an op-ed for The Federalist that Trump do almost exactly this:

Trump should propose a new Outer Space Treaty, superseding the old, that would let nations plant their flags in space. This new treaty should establish the rules by which individual nations can claim territory and establish their law and sovereignty on other worlds or asteroids.

The American homesteading acts of the 1800s could work as a good guide. Under those laws, if an American citizen staked a claim and maintained and developed it for five years, that claim and an accompanying amount of acreage would then become theirs.

In space, Trump could propose that in order for a nation to make a territorial claim, a nation or its citizens must establish a facility. If they occupy and use it for a minimum of five years, that nation can claim it, plus a reasonable amount of territory around it, and place it under that nation’s sovereignty.

Now consider this quote from the Reuters article:

The safety zones – whose size would vary depending on the operation – would allow for coordination between space actors without technically claiming territory as sovereign, he said. “The idea is if you are going to be coming near someone’s operations, and they’ve declared safety zones around it, then you need to reach out to them in advance, consult and figure out how you can do that safely for everyone.”

In other words, the safety zones would essentially be the claimed property of the colonizers, a completely reasonable position.

It is hard to say at this moment whether the Trump administration will succeed in this tactic, of side-stepping a renegotiation of the Outer Space Treaty by working out a new agreement with other interested players. Canada for example has expressed reservations about the Trump administration’s recent public announcement encouraging private ownership of resources in space.

Regardless, that the administration now appears to be addressing the limitations of the Outer Space Treaty is very heartening news. Let us hope they can make it happen.

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Japan tests new engine for new rocket

Capitalism in space: Mitsubishi has successfully tested the new engine it will use in the new rocket, the H3, that it is building for Japan’s space agency, JAXA.

JAXA reports that the engine fired for the planned duration of 240 seconds (4 minutes) at the space agency’s Tanegashima Space Center. It was the seventh hot fire of the new engine, which is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

JAXA plans H-3’s first test launch by the end of the nation’s 2020 fiscal year, which began on April 1 and will end on March 31, 2021. It is not known whether work slow downs resulting from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will affect the schedule.

The two-stage H3 is intended to be a more affordable and flexible replacement for the H-IIA and H-IIB boosters now in use. The new rocket is designed to place payloads weighing 4,000 kg (8,818 lb) or more into sun-synchronous orbit at 500 km (310.7 miles) or 6,500 kg (14,330 lb) into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

I do wish JAXA or Mitsubishi would give this rocket a more interesting name. It would help their woeful marketing attempts to sell it to other customers.

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Sierra Nevada names its first Dream Chaser spacecraft “Tenacity”

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada yesterday announced that it is giving the name “Tenacity” to its first Dream Chaser spacecraft.

Though the press release does not say so, this decision essentially confirms the company intention to build more Dream Chaser spacecraft, once this one proves itself in flight. And I would expect those later craft will be aimed at manned flight.

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SpaceX successfully completes Dragon parachute tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX successfully completed the last planned parachute test yesterday for its manned Dragon spacecraft, clearing the way for its first manned launch on May 27th.

NASA also said that it has closed its investigation into the Merlin engine issue from a March Falcon 9 launch, leaving nothing but the weather in the way for that May manned flight.

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SpaceShipTwo Unity makes first New Mexico glide flight

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s Unity suborbital spaceship successfully completed its first glide test flight from its New Mexico launch site yesterday.

They still have not set a date for their first commercial flights, so the company still claims those first flights will occur this year. I will believe it when I see it.

There does appear to be one apparent positive development for Virgin Galactic. It increasingly appears as if Blue Origin is slowly abandoning its effort to compete for suborbital tourism with its New Shepard spacecraft. Blue Origin has not said so, but the extreme slow down in test flights the last two strongly implies it. Moreover, that company’s success in garnering big government contracts, a billion from the military for its orbital New Glenn rocket and about a half billion from NASA for its proposed Blue Moon manned lunar lander, reinforces the sense that the company is shifting its focus away from suborbital space.

If so, that will clear the market for Virgin Galactic, assuming a viable market still exists with the coming of private commercial orbital spaceships like Dragon and Starliner.

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Funding breakdown for three lunar landing contracts

Capitalism in space: The contracts awarded by NASA yesterday to build manned lunar landers totaled almost a billion dollars, distributed as follows:

  • Blue Origin: $579 million
  • Dynetics: $253 million
  • SpaceX: $135 million

That Blue Origin got the biggest amount might have to do with the bid’s subcontractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. This gives these traditional big space partners, who normally rely on these kinds of government contracts and have little ability to make money outside them, some financing. This will also please their political backers in Congress.

For SpaceX, this is the first time they have taken any government money in connection with Starship. It also appears that NASA is going to stay back and generally let SpaceX develop it without undue interference.

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