Tag Archives: engineering

SpaceX pinpoints cause of Dragon explosion during test

SpaceX today revealed that it has pinpointed the cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon manned capsule during an engine test in April.

The company believes that the problem originated with the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system, which consists of a series of small thrusters embedded within the capsule. If all goes well during a mission, these tiny thrusters are never really meant to be used. But if there is some kind of failure during a future launch, the thrusters can ignite and carry the Crew Dragon safely away from a disintegrating rocket.

SpaceX says that a leaky valve caused the propellant needed for these thrusters to cross into another system — one of really high pressure. When this contamination occurred, the high forces slammed the liquid around, causing valuable components to fail and leading to the ultimate loss of the capsule.

Koenigsman said that this contamination definitely was not anticipated, though the kind of valve that leaked has been known to have some internal leakage problem. Ultimately, he acknowledged that, to some extent, this was a design issue. “It’s something that the components should not have done,” Koenigsman said. “But at the same time, we learned a very valuable lesson on something going forward, one that makes the Crew Dragon a safer vehicle.”
““it was a huge gift for us.” ”

SpaceX will replace all of these types of valves with another component known as a burst disk, which is supposed to be much more reliable, according to Koenigsman.

The company is still hoping to fly before the end of the year, but admits that this may not be possible. Right now they have a tentative launch date in November.

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Hayabusa-2: Carbon-rich asteroids too delicate to reach Earth surface

New data from Hayabusa-2 has confirmed the long-held suspicions of astronomers that the reason they find so few fragments of C-class asteroids, such as Ryugu, on Earth is because they are too delicate to reach the Earth’s surface.

Ryugu and other asteroids of the common ‘C-class’ [chondritic] consist of more porous material than was previously thought. Small fragments of their material are therefore too fragile to survive entry into the atmosphere in the event of a collision with Earth.

…Until now, only a few chondritic meteorites found on Earth have been identified as fragments of C-type asteroids, which are very common in the Solar System (‘C’ is the chemical symbol for the element carbon). …”We can now confirm that fragments of these asteroids are very likely to break up further when they enter Earth’s atmosphere, and then usually burn up completely. This means that only the largest fragments reach the Earth’s surface,” explains Grott. “That is why meteorites from this type of asteroid are so rarely found on Earth.”

The good news is that, because of this, Earth’s atmosphere offers increased protection from C-type asteroids, which account for 75 percent of all asteroids. …However, further research is necessary to determine the maximum asteroid size for which this atmospheric protection is effective.

It is likely that even the largest rubble-pile C-asteroids will not pose much risk. Even if some pieces reach the Earth’s surface they are probably going to be small and unable to do much harm.

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Europe’s GPS-type constellation Galileo down

For as yet unexplained reasons, Europe’s entire Galileo constellation of GPS-type satellites has been out-of-operation for the past four days.

The European GNSS Agency (GSA), the organization in charge of Galileo, has not published any information in regards to the root of the outage, which began four days ago, on Thursday, July 11. On that day, the GSA published an advisory on its website alerting companies and government agencies employing the Galileo system that satellite signals have degraded and they “may not be available nor meet the minimum performance levels.” The agency warned that the Galileo system “should be employed at users’ own risk.”

The GSA published a more dire warning on Saturday, July 13, when it said that Galileo was experiencing a full-service outage and that “signals are not to be used.”

I cannot imagine any technical problem on the satellites themselves that would cause them all to fail at the same time. Instead, this appears to be some form of sabotage, a variation of the recent Russian tactic of disrupting GPS in areas they consider sensitive.

It also may explain the announcement yesterday by French president Macron that France is going to create its own space command.

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Russia successfully launches Spektr-RG carrying two X-ray space telescopes

Russia today successfully used its Proton rocket to launch Spektr-RG, carrying two X-ray space telescopes.

Spektr-RG was first conceived in the 1990s, but got shelved then because Russia did not have the money to launch it. The project got revived in 2005 when the Germans came on to build one of the two telescopes.

“We had an ambitious plan for the project which didn’t correspond to the power of the country of that moment,” [lead scientist Mikhail] Pavlinsky told Spaceflight Now. “We decided to restart it with a smaller version.”

The Russian and German space agencies signed an agreement in 2009 to jointly develop the Spektr-RG mission, but the project faced additional schedule delays due to technical problems and a decision to switch the observatory from a Zenit launcher to a Proton rocket.

Designers also changed Spektr-RG’s observing location from an orbit around Earth to a looping trajectory around the L2 Lagrange point.

Spektr-RG is the largest Russian astronomy satellite to launch since the Spektr-R radio observatory in 2011. Spektr-R stopped responding to commands from the ground in January after exceeding its planned five-year mission lifetime, and Russian officials declared the mission over in April.

Spektr-RG’s planned mission is set for seven years.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. continues to lead China in the national rankings 14 to 9.

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity

Curiosity as seen from orbit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team today released an image taken on May 31, 2019 by the orbiter’s HiRISE high resolution camera of Curiosity when it was nestled against the cliff at the bottom of Vera Rubin Ridge.

The image above is that enhanced color image, reduced and annotated to post here. I have added the track of Curiosity’s route down from Vera Rubin Ridge leading up to the point where this picture was snapped.

In the image, Curiosity appears as a bluish speck. Vera Rubin Ridge cuts across the scene north of the rover, while a dark patch of sand lies to the northeast.

Look carefully at the inset image, and you can make out what it is likely Curiosity’s “head,” technically known as the remote sensing mast. A bright spot appears in the upper-left corner of the rover. At the time this image was acquired, the rover was facing 65 degrees counterclockwise from north, which would put the mast in about the right location to produce this bright spot.

Mirror-like reflections off smooth surfaces show up as especially bright spots in HiRISE images. For the camera to see these reflections on the rover, the Sun and MRO need to be in just the right locations. This enhanced-color image of Curiosity shows three or four distinct bright spots that are likely such reflections.

From this location Curiosity first continued along the cliff’s base to study that dark patch of sand to the northeast, then it turned almost due south in order to get back to its nominal route into Gediz Valles canyon, as shown in my May 30, 2019 rover update.

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Hayabusa-2’s second touchdown sample grab

Hayabusa touchdown sequence

The Hayabusa-2 science team yesterday released a series of close-up images taken just as the spacecraft touched down and then backed off from the surface of Ryugu.

I have cropped and annotated that sequence and placed all three images side-by-side above. The red arrows in the first two images highlight similar shadows in both pictures, with the appearance of dust visible in the lower center of the middle touchdown picture. I have not marked any comparable surface features in the third image because the uplift of material makes it too difficult.

That uplift however is exactly what the Hayabusa-2 science team needs, as it is some of this material that has hopefully been captured. Their fear was that this uplift posed a risk to the spacecraft itself, but they took precautions to minimize the risk and it appears that these precautions have worked.

We now must wait until the samples come back to Earth in December 2020 to see exactly what they caught.

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Major management shake-up at NASA’s manned program

NASA today did a major shake-up in its manned program, most specifically relating to the management of its SLS/Orion program.

In a major shakeup at NASA Headquarters, agency Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday that Bill Gerstenmaier, the widely respected director of human spaceflight, has been replaced in the midst of an ambitious push to meet the Trump administration’s directive to send astronauts back to the moon within five years.

Effective immediately, Bridenstine wrote in a letter to agency employees, Ken Bowersox, a five-flight shuttle veteran, space station astronaut and Gerstenmaier’s deputy, will take over on an acting basis while Gerstenmaier serves as “special advisor” to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.

…Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development within HEO also has been replaced. A long-time NASA veteran, Hill helped manage development of the agency’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, needed to carry astronauts back to the moon.

While the long delays and cost overruns at both SLS and Orion can partly be blamed on micromanagement by Congress and a lack of interest by the previous Obama administration, the internal management by Gersternmaier and Hill during this time is also at fault. They have allowed these programs to drag on, and were in charge when numerous major screw ups occurred, from badly built test stands that went overbudget to dishonest budget manipulations to cracks in the first Orion capsule to contamination in SLS’s rocket engines to the dropping of an SLS oxygen tank to brittle and weak welds in those tanks to establishing an overall slow motion pace for construction of the entire project.

I suspect that this shake-up is linked to the story earlier this week where NASA hinted it was going to have to delay the first SLS launch for another year.

I wrote then that the Trump administration would not take kindly to such a new delay, even if it was justified so the agency could do a required full stack static fire test of SLS’s core stage. I am willing to bet that this shake-up occurred because Gertenmaier and Hill had finally revealed the need for this delay, and the shake-up was the Trump administration’s response.

This doesn’t mean that SLS won’t be delayed. It just means the Trump administration has decided it was time to put new people in charge.

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Arianespace Vega launch fails

The launch of a United Arab Emirates military satellite on an Arianespace Vega rocket failed tonight two minutes after liftoff.

Luce Fabreguettes, Arianespace’s executive vice president of missions, operations and purchasing, said the failure occurred around the time of ignition of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled Zefiro 23 second stage.

“As you have seen, about two minutes after liftoff, around the Z23 (second stage) ignition, a major anomaly occurred, resulting in the loss of the mission,” Fabreguettes said. “On behalf of Arianespace, I wish to express our deepest apologies to our customers for the loss of their payload.”

Prior to this failure the Vega had flown fourteen times successfully since its inauguration in 2012.

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Virgin Orbit successfully completes rocket drop from 747

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today successfully completed a drop of a dummy rocket from the fuselage of its 747.

Although the rocket was “fully loaded,” as the company put it, its engines never fired—nor were they meant to. Instead, the rocket fell freely to Earth so the company could see how it performed during its first few seconds of freefall. This was the last major test for Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system, which will launch rockets from a gutted jumbo jet, known as Cosmic Girl, to boost small satellites into orbit. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it could significantly reduce the costs of getting to space.

The article says they plan their first orbital test flight in the fall. Whether today’s success and that launch can get the company back on track after OneWeb cancelled the bulk of its contract remains to be seen. If they succeed in launching to orbit this year that will make them the only operational competitor to Rocket Lab in the smallsat market, with a system that might be cheaper.

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White House objects to House language on military space

The White House today released a detailed statement listing its objections to the House language on the upcoming military space authorization bill and threatening a veto if the Senate version is not passed.

Their objection seem to center on two issues. First, while the administration has accepted the idea of a space corp within the Air Force rather than a separate new military branch, they appear prefer the Senate language for this change. This disagreement appears relatively minor in the entire scheme of things.

Second, and more significantly, the White House has objections to the planned launch contract set up the Air Force has been pushing that would have them pick two launch providers now for all their launches through 2024, rather than allow all comers to bid on those launches as they came up.

On the National Security Space Launch program, the administration “strongly objects” to HASC [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman Adam Smith’s Section 1601 language “as it would increase mission risk for the nation’s national security satellites.”

Section 1601 would mandate that the Air Force compete contracts for any launches beyond 29 launches during the period from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2024. This section would also mandate that the Air Force provide up to $500 million to launch companies that either win a Phase 2 contract after fiscal year 2022 or win a Phase 2 contract but are not part of a Launch Service Agreement, in order to meet national security-unique infrastructure and certification requirements for a Phase 2 contract. This section also require a notification of the selection in fiscal year 2020 of the two providers for Phase 2 launches.

The administration opposes these provisions. “After careful and considered study, DoD determined that a contract for national security space launch requirements over the course of five years would optimize warfighter flexibility, minimizes mission risk, and provides exceptional value to the taxpayer,” says the White House statement. “Confining Phase 2 to fewer missions would increase per-launch cost while simultaneously introducing risk and costs for some intelligence payloads. Finally, notifying Congress prior to a contract would be a departure from long-standing tradition and might put DoD at a greater risk of a protest.”

To put this in simple terms, the House language was an attempt to open up the bidding, while also offering $500 million development money to any company who missed out initially. The White House, and the Air Force, wish to restrict the bidding process, and don’t want to pay that extra $500 million.

All of this I think will become irrelevant the first time the Air Force issues a bid offer for a launch contract but restricts bidding to only two launch companies, even if a third or fourth is available and capable of fulfilling the contract. The excluded launch companies will sue for the right to bid, and they will win.

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Beresheet design adopted by Firefly & Israeli private partnership

Capitalism in space: The American smallsat launch company Firefly Aerospace announced today that they will be partnering with a private Israeli company to use the design of Beresheet to build their own lunar lander for NASA.

Firefly Aerospace announced that it is partnering with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to create a new lunar vehicle based on the crashed spacecraft’s blueprints. Firefly says this lander will build upon “lessons learned” from the accident to ensure that the new lander does not meet the same fate.

…If Firefly does mount a lunar mission, the company’s lander, called Genesis, will leverage much of the Beresheet design as well as the IAI team’s flight experience. “Firefly Aerospace is excited to partner with Israel Aerospace Industries to provide the only NASA CLPS program flight-proven lander design,” Shea Ferring, Firefly’s vice president of mission assurance, said in a statement. The name of the lander is also a nod to Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew.

It appears that a group of engineers from the non-profit SpaceIL, that built Beresheet, have teamed up to form their own company. It also appears that they have some rights to the spacecraft’s design, and could take them with them.

Firefly is competing for a NASA contract to land on the Moon. This deal strengthens their bid considerably.

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Study says space radiation less of a risk

A newly released study now claims that, based on a long term review of astronauts who have spent a considerable time in space, it appears that space radiation does not cause an increase in cancer later in life.

The new study analyzed information from 418 space travelers, including 301 NASA astronauts who had traveled to space at least once since 1959, and 117 Russian or Soviet cosmonauts who had traveled to space at least once since 1961. These participants were followed for about 25 years, on average.

During this time, 89 of the participants died. Among the 53 NASA astronauts who died, 30% died from cancer and 15% from heart disease; while among the 36 Russian or Soviet cosmonauts who died, 50% died from heart disease and 28% from cancer.

The researchers used a special statistical technique to determine whether deaths from cancer and heart disease likely had a common cause — in this case, the common cause would be space radiation. But their results did not point to a common cause of death. “If ionizing radiation is impacting the risk of death due to cancer and cardiovascular disease, the effect is not dramatic,” the authors wrote in their study, published July 4 in the journal Scientific Reports.

This story first appeared about two weeks ago, but I didn’t think it significant, and still don’t. The sample is just not large enough to draw any solid conclusions. Moreover, this is exposure in low Earth orbit, not on interplanetary missions where the radiation risk is higher. It would be a big mistake for future space engineering to accept these findings blindly.

Still, news reports keep popping up about it, and I decided I should at least note it here on Behind the Black.

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Chang’e-4/Yutu-2 return to dormant mode for lunar night

According to one story in the Chinese press today, the science teams running Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the far side of the Moon have now put both into dormant mode for the coming lunar night after completing their seventh lunar day.

What is intriguing about this short story is that while to lauds the work done by Chang’e-4 during that seventh lunar day, it says nothing about Yutu-2. Early comparable reports would have at least told us how far the rover moved during the lunar day. This time they say nothing at all about Yutu-2, other than it has been placed in dormant mode.

It could very well be that they had a problem with the rover. Sadly, China is not an open society. We can only wait for them to tell us.

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Private lunar lander company files for bankruptcy

Capitalism in space: Former Google Lunar X-Prize competitor Part Time Scientists has now filed for bankruptcy.

The company, with about 60 employees, has emphasized a number of partnerships with major corporations, such as Audi, Vodafone and Red Bull Media House, a subsidiary of beverage company Red Bull. The company is also teamed with ArianeGroup to study development of a lunar lander mission for ESA.

PTScientists, though, had suffered delays in the development of its lunar lander. The company said last November its lander could launch as soon as late 2019, a date it revised in January to no earlier than the first quarter of 2020. However, at a conference in early June, a company official said that lander mission would now launch no earlier than the second half of 2021 as it continues to work on the lander’s design.

It appears to me that they simply were never able to raise the capital necessary to build their lander, despite these partnership deals.

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Hayabusa-2 begins second touch&go sample grab on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has begun the approach to Ryugu for the spacecraft’s second tough-and-go sample grab.

The link outlines the plan and timing of the operation. You can view real-time images taken by the probe’s navigation camera here. The actual touchdown will take place on July 11 (Japan time).

You can also view a set of stereoscopic images of Ryugu produced by Brian May, lead guitarist of Queen who clearly wants to return to his roots as a trained astrophysicist.

As they note at the first link:

The 2nd touchdown is the last big operation at Ryugu for the Hayabusa2 project. We will proceed with caution and the upmost care. Please wish us success…!

If successful, their next big operation will be getting those samples back to Earth.

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Faking gravity in space with a spinning table

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder are experimenting with the use of a rotating table to give space-farers short doses of artificial gravity in order to mitigate the negative consequences of weightlessness.

In a series of recent studies, the pair and their colleagues set out to investigate whether queasiness is really the price of admission for artificial gravity. In other words, could astronauts train their bodies to tolerate the strain that comes from being spun around in circles like hamsters in a wheel?

The team began by recruiting a group of volunteers and tested them on the centrifuge across 10 sessions.

But unlike most earlier studies, the CU Boulder researchers took things slow. They first spun their subjects at just one rotation per minute, and only increased the speed once each recruit was no longer experiencing the cross-coupled illusion. “I present at a conference and everyone says, ‘she’s the one who spins people and makes them sick,'” Bretl said. “But we try to avoid instances of motion sickness because the whole point of our research is to make it tolerable.”

The personalized approach worked. By the end of 10th session, the study subjects were all spinning comfortably, without feeling any illusion, at an average speed of about 17 rotations per minute. That’s much faster than any previous research had been able to achieve.

The idea is that you could install this rotating table on a interplanetary ship, and have its occupants periodically spend time on it to get their daily dose of gravity. This way you would not have to build a giant spinning spaceship.

The research has potential. The one question that remains unanswered and is probably central to this concept is how little gravity is needed to avoid the problems of weightlessness. Right now, we do not know. It could be for example that 30 minutes at 1/10 g could do the job. Or maybe 1 g for 2 hours. If the former the engineering challenges become minor. If the latter the problems are more difficult.

I am aware of only one centrifuge experiment ever done in weightlessness, on a Russian space station. They rotated a plant at a very tiny percentage of g’s and found it might help plants prosper in space. The data point however is too small, with no followup. This is the kind of research that should be going on on ISS, and is not.

Hat tip Marcus A.

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Wheel update on Curiosity

Periodically, the Curiosity science team stops from its research to reassess the condition of the rover’s wheels. To do this they use the rover’s color camera, dubbed the Mast Camera (Mastcam), taking close-up pictures of the wheels to compare those with earlier photographs see if there has been any additional damage and deterioration over time.

Yesterday Mastcam took a new series of images of the rover’s wheels. Below are two pictures, the left taken on August 27, 2017, the right taken on July 7, 2019. I have annotated the images to help indicate where they match.
» Read more

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Light Sail 2 beams back first images

Capitalism in space: The Planetary Society’s privately funded spacecraft Light Sail 2, launched June 25 on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, sent back its first images from orbit on July 7.

The images are not very interesting to look at, mostly because their purpose is engineering. Two cameras took pictures of the light sail’s deployment equipment inside the spacecraft to show that it is still in good shape. Another picture showed the Earth, demonstrating that the camera will be able to image the deployment of the solar sail, which might occur as early as today. UPDATE: They have announced that the deployment will not occur prior to July 21.

Once deployed from a cubesat about the size of a loaf of bread, the sail will be about the size of a boxing ring. They will then attempt to use the sunlight bouncing off it to sail in space, changing the sail’s orbit.

The science team also announced the debut of a mission control website, where the public can see live updates whenever the spacecraft sends back new information. As I write this the solar sail is still listed as “stowed,” but that status will change once they attempt the deployment.

For the public this website will be especially useful once the sail deploys, because it will be very bright to observers on the ground. The site shows Light Sail 2’s present position, making it possible for viewers to better anticipate when they will be able to see it fly overhead.

Update: This post has been revised slightly to make it more accurate, as per a comment by reader Rex Ridenoure.

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NASA begins the slow leak process prior to announcing new SLS delays

As it has been doing for the past half decade, NASA has now begun the process of issuing hints about a future announcement of more SLS launch delays, in order to prepare the public and neuter any possible negative news coverage.

The linked article above outlines in great detail the present status of SLS and the assembly of its core stage. The main decision the agency now faces is whether it will do what it calls an “SLS Green Run,” where they assemble that core stage on a test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and fire it for a full duration static test. Such a test is necessary to validate the engineering models that were used to build the rocket. Without it no one will know if they have modeled the design correctly, meaning that during the first real launch they might find the rocket does not perform as predicted and could even fail.

Doing this test however will guarantee that the first SLS launch, Artemis 1, will not occur in June 2020 as presently scheduled, and will likely be delayed for another year.

The Trump administration has already made it clear it will not take kindly to more SLS delays. It has also made it clear that it will consider already available commercial options, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, if NASA cannot deliver SLS as promised.

This puts NASA in a quandary.
» Read more

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Amazon releases more details about proposed Kuiper satellite constellation

Capitalism in space: Amazon on July 4 submitted to federal regulators a more detailed description of its proposed 3,000+ Kuiper satellite constellation.

Amazon’s Kuiper System satellites will have a design life seven years — less than half that of a traditional geostationary communications satellite — and will be launched in five waves, according to a July 4 filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

The first wave consists of 578 satellites that would provide internet service in two horizontal coverage bands, one between 39 degrees north and 56 degrees north (roughly from Philadelphia north to Moscow) and another from 39 degrees south down to 56 degrees south (roughly from Hastings, New Zealand, to the top of Great Britain’s South Sandwich Islands in the Atlantic Ocean). The subsequent four waves would fill in coverage to the equator.

Amazon didn’t say when those satellites would launch or what launch vehicle they would use to reach orbit. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, also owns launch company Blue Origin, whose New Glenn orbital rocket is slated for a first launch in 2021.

If Amazon intends to use Bezos’ New Glenn rocket, this system cannot launch prior to 2021, at the earliest, and that means it will likely enter the internet competition with SpaceX and OneWeb late. This is not fatal for Amazon, but it will require them to offer something to their customers that will draw them away from the earlier constellations.

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Fire at SpaceX Starhopper facility in Florida

A fire in SpaceX’s Florida facility yesterday, where it is building a Starship prototype, caused between $50,000 to $100,000 damages.

City spokesperson Yvonne Martinez confirmed a small fire broke out at the facility on Cidco Road around noon and that the Cocoa Fire Department was able to quickly extinguish it. She said crews suspected an electrical fault as the source of the fire.

“This afternoon, a small fire occurred at a SpaceX facility in Cocoa,” SpaceX spokesperson James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “The fire was contained to a sea van on site and extinguished thanks to the Cocoa Fire Department, which responded within minutes.”

“There were no injuries as a result of the fire, and the cause is under investigation,” he said.

Martinez said the fire department estimates about $50,000 to $100,000 in damages were sustained by the shipping container and equipment inside, as well as the adjacent building.

This will be a blow to the Florida SpaceX unit that is competing with the Boca Chica unit on the construction of Starship.

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Branson sells 49% of Virgin Galactic, stock to be publicly listed

Capitalism in space: Richard Branson has sold 49% of Virgin Galactic in a deal that will have the company’s stock publicly listed by the end of 2019.

The firm will list its shares as part of a merger deal with Social Capital Hedosophia, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) created by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya. Social Capital Hedosophia, formed by Palihapitiya’s Social Capital and venture capital firm Hedosophia in 2017, will invest $800 million for a 49% stake in the combined company. The firm will have an enterprise value of $1.5 billion, Virgin Galactic said.

…Branson’s space venture would be the first publicly-listed human spaceflight firm, with the stock market listing slated to take place in the second half of 2019.

Branson had been in talks with Palihapitiya since he suspended talks over a Saudi investment in his space companies last year. Riyadh had planned to invest a total of $1 billion into Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, which focuses on small satellites, but the deal fell through over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Branson was the person who said the Saudis backed out because of Khashoggi, but I personally do not believe that story. What I think happened was that, after 15 years of empty promises and no tourist flights, the Saudis suddenly realized that Virgin Galactic was a bad investment, and backed out. Branson now needs cash to keep the company afloat.

I am honestly unfamiliar with the ways of Wall Street. I do not know whether being “publicly listed” means the stock will be available for trade. If so, I expect the stock value to quickly plunge.

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Reused Falcon 9 wins NASA launch contract instead of Pegasus

Captalism in space: NASA has awarded SpaceX a Falcon 9 launch contract using a reused first stage for its next X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)..

SpaceX will charge NASA just over $50 million, its normal price for a reused Falcon 9 and significantly less than NASA has previously paid for this kind of launch. More important, the telescope had been designed with the expectation that it would be launched using Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket. It appears NASA had instead decided to bypass Pegasus, partly because it probably costs more, and partly because there is some issue with Pegasus that has delayed the launch of NASA’s ICON since 2017.

In fact, that ICON launch is the only contract that Pegasus presently has, and it is charging NASA $56 million for that launch, with NASA also having to bear the additional costs associated with the delays caused by Pegasus. All these issues, plus the loss of the IXPE launch, strongly suggests that Pegasus is in big trouble. It does not appear that, as it is presently being marketed, it is able to garner any business.

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Engineers adjust Voyagers 1 & 2 because of steadily dropping power

In recognition that the available power on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 continues to drop due to the age of the spacecraft, engineers have decided to make some major changes in how they operate both spacecraft.

For example, to save power on Voyager 2 they have turned off the heaters for the instrument that confirmed last year that the spacecraft had entered interstellar space. Even so, the instrument is still functioning and sending back data. It is expected it will continue to work for some time before finally succumbing to the cold of deep space.

They have also decided to reactivate the back-up thrusters on Voyager 2, just as they did with Voyager 1 in 2017.

Another challenge that engineers have faced is managing the degradation of some of the spacecraft thrusters, which fire in tiny pulses, or puffs, to subtly rotate the spacecraft. This became an issue in 2017, when mission controllers noticed that a set of thrusters on Voyager 1 needed to give off more puffs to keep the spacecraft’s antenna pointed at Earth. To make sure the spacecraft could continue to maintain proper orientation, the team fired up another set of thrusters on Voyager 1 that hadn’t been used in 37 years.

Voyager 2’s current thrusters have started to degrade, too. Mission managers have decided to make the same thruster switch on that probe this month. Voyager 2 last used these thrusters (known as trajectory correction maneuver thrusters) during its encounter with Neptune in 1989.

It is thirty years since those thusters on Voyager 2’s were used. If they work it will be an incredible testament to the engineers who designed both spacecraft.

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Aliaksei Zholner – Paper Piano

An evening pause: Humans can make anything out of anything. From the youtube website:

The model is completely made of paper and cardboard….Strings are made of paper strips, tension mechanism is like one in guitar, using worm-gear (worm is made of paper, gears – from cardboard). Soundboard is combined with stiffness frame and made of 2.5mm cardboard enforced with stiffening ribs. Hammers – from paper and cardboard, dampers – from rolled up paper napkin, keys – from paper. Body is made of cardboard and painted.

Hat tip Martin Kaselis.

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UCLA professor found guilty of stealing military technology for China

A UCLA professor has been found guilty of stealing military technology and sending it to China.

UCLA adjunct professor Yi-Chi Shih was convicted June 26 on 18 federal charges, Newsweek reported, and could now lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, while also facing up to 219 years behind bars for numerous violations of the law. These include conspiracy to break the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), committing mail and wire fraud, lying to a government agency, subscribing to a false tax return, and conspiring to gain unauthorized access to information on a protected computer, according to a Department of Justice news release.

Shih and co-defendant Kiet Ahn Mai tried to access illegally a protected computer owned by a U.S. company that manufactured semiconductor chips called monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs). MMICs are used by the Air Force and Navy in fighter jets, missiles and missile guidance technology, and electronic military defense systems.

The chips were exported to Chengdu GaStone Technology Company (CGTC), a Chinese company, without a required Department of Commerce license. Shih previously served as the president of CGTC, which made the Commerce Department’s Entity List in 2014 “due to its involvement in activities contrary to the national security and foreign policy interest of the United States – specifically, that it had been involved in the illicit procurement of commodities and items for unauthorized military end use in China,” according to court documents cited by the DOJ.

The only surprise here is that the these guys got caught. Since the late 1990s China has been making aggressive effort to steal American know-how, and has largely been successful. The visible result of that effort has been their space program, almost all of which began with technology thefts.

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