Tag Archives: engineering

America’s modern rocket industry illustrates the power of freedom

SpaceX's first Starship prototype
SpaceX’s first Starship prototype

Capitalism in space: Today’s launch by SpaceX of another sixty Starlink satellites in its planned constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide worldwide internet access, was significant in a way that is actually not obvious at first glance. To understand its significance, it is necessary to look at the launch in a wider context.

Below is the list of launches that have so far occurred in 2020. I keep track of this, and post an update here on Behind the Black after each new launch:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

Notice anything? While the launches of every other nation in the world are centralized under one rocket company or agency, the United States has many different and independent companies competing for this business. Right now the U.S. has four different companies on this list, with one (SpaceX) now tied after today’s launch with China for the overall lead, and three (Rocket Lab, ULA, and Northrop Grumman) tied with Europe, Russia, and Japan for second place.

Only in America can you have individual private rocket companies competing head-to-head with whole nations, and beating them. (Some might argue that China’s rocket industry is also made up of competing companies, but that is a lie. While those companies might function somewhat independently, they are all under the strict supervision of the central communist government. They are not functioning as free and privately-owned companies.)

Nor is this pattern seen only in the launch market. Among airline companies it has been the norm since the beginnings of cheap passenger flight after World War II. While most other nations have a single national airline (British Airways, Aeroflot, El Al, Air Canada, Korean Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines, to name a few), the U.S. has a plethora of competing independent companies, with many flying many more passengers than these national airlines, sometimes even to their own countries.

How is this possible? Why does the U.S. so often dominate so many industries in this way?
» Read more

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites; 1st stage landing fails

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched sixty more Starlink satellites, raising the number in the constellation to 300.

However, though the launch was successful, the first stage, on its fourth flight, failed to land successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic. Watching the live stream, it appeared from a whiff of smoke on the edge of the screen that the booster missed the target by only a short distance. This is the first time this has happened since 2015 2018 (correction from reader).

That this first stage landing failure is the news story illustrates how far they have come..

The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

In the national rankings the U.S. now leads China 6 to 3.

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Successful launch today of Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched it Cygnus unmanned cargo capsule on a supply mission to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first flight in 2020. The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 5 to 3 in the national rankings. The U.S. will likely add to that lead with the planned SpaceX launch of another 60 Starlink satellites Monday.

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Rocket Lab gets launch contract for lunar cubesat

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded Rocket Lab the contract to launch the privately-built, for NASA, lunar orbiting cubesat CAPSTONE, designed to test technologies and the orbital mechanics required to build its Gateway lunar space station.

This quote says it all:

The firm-fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat.

Using two different private companies, one to build the satellite and the other to launch it, NASA will get a lunar orbiter for just over $23 million. That total equals the rounding error for almost all NASA-built projects.

The launch is set for early 2021.

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Engine failure during test for startup rocket engine company

Capitalism in space: The rocket engine startup Rocket Crafters experienced what the company called “an anomaly” during an engine test yesterday, requiring the local fire department to put out brush fires surrounding the test site.

The company is trying to use 3D printing to build its engines, but appears to have had a string of engine failures, none quite so spectacular, during previous tests.

According to an earlier post about Rocket Crafters in 2018, they had hoped to launch a rocket in 2020. It does not appear they will. Moreover, they are testing the use of hybrid fuels in a somewhat radical design.

[T]he rocket fuel consisted of plastic tubes made from the same base materials as Legos, measuring two feet long and weighing about five pounds, that were stacked on shelves and safe to touch. Combined with nitrous oxide — commonly known as “laughing gas” — the small-scale test engine on Monday generated about 200 pounds of thrust firing at half-power.

They are not the first to try hybrids and have issues. Virgin Galactic has tried it to, and suffered probably a decade delay in development and a spaceship that does not have as much thrust as they would like.

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Virgin Galactic relocates SpaceShipTwo Unity to New Mexico

Capitalism in space: In what appears to be preparation for the final tests before beginning commercial flights, Virgin Galactic yesterday used its carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo to transport SpaceShipTwo Unity to New Mexico.

The relocation of VSS Unity to Spaceport America enables the Company to engage in the final stages of its flight test program. This will begin with a number of initial captive carry and glide flights from the new operating base in New Mexico, allowing the spaceflight operations team to familiarize themselves with the airspace and ground control. Once these tests are complete, the team will carry out a number of rocket-powered test flights from Spaceport America to continue the evaluation of VSS Unity’s performance. During this phase, the final spaceship cabin and customer experience evaluations will also be concluded in preparation for the start of commercial spaceflight operations.

They are aiming for a July 18, 2020 first flight, carrying Richard Branson on his 70th birthday. Whether they can meet that date remains open. Based on the company’s track record, don’t bet on it.

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Anomaly during OSIRIS-REx flyover of secondary landing site

During its close fly-over of its secondary candidate touch-and-go landing site on the asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx’s laser altimeter failed to work as planned.

On Feb. 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus.

They are analyzing their data to figure out what went wrong and whether it can be fixed. The press release implies that this loss will not impact the touch-and-go at the primary landing site, but does not say so directly. Without the laser altimeter I wonder, how they will know their exact distance as they approach?

Then again, they have not yet downloaded the full dataset from the fly-over, so they might be able to get the instrument working again.

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Large glacier-filled crater/depression on Mars?

Glacier-filled depression?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 21, 2019. It shows the eastern half of the floor and interior rim of a large squarish-shaped crater or depression in what seems to be an unnamed region of chaos terrain located in the transition zone between the Martian southern highlands and the northern lowland plains.

The floor of this depression has many of the features that indicate the presence of a buried ice glacier, including flow features on the depression floor, linear parallel grooves, and repeating moraine features at the slope base. In fact, all these features give the strong impression that this crater is ice-filled, to an unknown depth.

Chaos terrain, a jumble of mesas cut by straight canyons, are generally found in this transition zone, and could be an erosion feature produced by the intermittent ocean that some believe once existed in the northern lowlands. Whether or not an ocean lapped against these mesas and created them, this chaos terrain is believed to have been caused by some form of erosion, either wind, water, or ice.

Wide context view

The location is of this chaos terrain in that transition zone is illustrated by the context map to the right. It sits on the edge of the vast Utopia Basin, one of the largest and deepest northern lowland plains. It also sits several hundred miles due north of the planned landing site of the Mars2020 rover in Jezero Crater. There is a lot of chaos terrain in this region, with lots of evidence of buried glaciers flowing off the sides of mesas.

Today’s image, with its numerous features suggesting the presence of a buried glacier filling the depression, reinforces this evidence.

Closer context view, showing the chaos terrain region

What impresses me most about this particular depression — should it be ice-filled — is its size. I estimate from the scale of the image that the depression is about six miles across, somewhat comparable though slightly smaller than the width of the Grand Canyon. And yet, unlike the Canyon it appears to have a wide flat floor across its entire width. The second context map to the right zooms in on this chaos region to show how relatively large the depression is. It would not be hard to spot it from orbit. We don’t know the depth, but even if relatively shallow this depression still holds a heck of a lot of water ice.

While the depression appears like a crater in lower resolution wider photographs, higher resolution images suggest it is not round but squarish. Why is not clear, and unfortunately MRO’s high resolution camera has taken no other images of it. This image was also one of their terrain sample photographs, taken not because of any specific research request, but because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature. This location, having few previous images, fit this schedule and made sense photographing.

Thus, no one appears to be specifically studying this location, making it a ripe subject for some postdoc student who wants to put their name on some Martian geology.

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Dragon capsule for first manned mission shipped to Florida

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday shipped to Florida the Dragon capsule it will use for its first manned mission, now set for sometime between April and June.

No official word yet on any specific launch date, though there are reports that they are targeting May 7.

In that same story at the second link a NASA official admitted that one of the big issues is filling out the paperwork.

“Even though it sounds mundane, there is a load of paper that has to be verified, and signed off, and checked to make sure we’ve got everything closed out,” [said chief of human spaceflight Doug Loverro.] “It is probably one of the longest things in the tent to go ahead and do. It’s underappreciated but critically important. You’ve got to make sure you’ve done everything you need to do along the way.”

Properly documenting what you are doing is always essential, but if you over do it you raise costs unnecessarily while simultaneously delaying things. And isn’t it interesting that both of these issues — budget overruns and scheduling delays — have been systemic on all of NASA’s projects for decades?

Furthermore, while good documentation can help prevent problems and help you figure out what went wrong, when things go wrong, doing more of it will not further reduce problems or failures. If anything, too much paperwork will likely increase mistakes by focusing workers on the wrong things. This seems to be one of NASA’s problems in recent years.

Regardless, it does look like that first privately built launch will happen in mere months. The one decision remaining that could legitimately delay it would be if NASA decides to make it a longer mission, requiring more training for its astronauts.

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NASA breaks ground on new communications antenna

NASA has broken ground on the construction of the first new communications antenna since 2003 at its Goldstone, Californa, site, one of three the agency maintains worldwide for communicating with its planetary probes.

There has been a desperate need to both expand and upgrade this network, dubbed the Deep Space Network, for years, a need that will grow even more desperate next year with the addition of two more rovers on Mars.

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The range for exposed ice scarps on Mars keeps growing

Overview of ice scarp locations on Mars

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of eight cliffs with visible exposed ice layers in the high mid-latitudes of Mars. At the time, those eight ice scarps were limited to a single crater in the northern hemisphere (Milankovic Crater) and a strip of land in the southern highlands at around latitude 55 degrees south.

In the past two years scientists have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor these scarps for changes. So far they have seen none, likely because the changes are below the resolution of the camera.

They have also been able to find more scarps in the southern hemisphere strip beyond that strip at 55 degrees south.

Now they have found more scarps in the northern hemisphere as well, and these are outside Milankovic Crater. As in the south, the new scarps are still all along a latitude strip at about 55 degrees.

The map above shows with the black dots the newer scarps located in the past two years. The scarp to the east of Milankovic Crater is typical of all the other scarps, a steep, pole-facing cliff that seems to be retreating away from the pole..

The scarp to the west of Milankovic Crater is striking in that it is actually a cluster of scarps, all inside a crater in the northern lowland plains. Moreover, these scarps are more indistinct, making them more difficult to identify. According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
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SpaceX hires Bill Gerstenmaier as consultant

SpaceX has hired NASA’s former manager of its human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, as a consultant working with their “reliability team.”.

It appears that SpaceX wants to take advantage of Gerstenmaier’s expertise on human spaceflight as it is about to begin manned Dragon flights. It also appears that Musk wants to return a favor as well, as Gerstenmaier was likely the main person behind the decision to award SpaceX its initial Dragon cargo contract in December 2008. Musk has said repeatedly that this decision in many ways saved his company.

Overall, a wise decision by SpaceX. In his later years at NASA, Gerstenmaier lost sight of the importance of budget and schedule in his management of SLS and Orion, leading to his ouster. However, his knowledge of human spaceflight and the political mechanics needed to do it with NASA is unsurpassed. SpaceX will definitely benefit from this hire.

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Remnant moraine on Mars

Remnant moraine on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Using both Martian orbiters and rovers scientists are increasingly convinced that Mars has lots of buried glaciers in its mid-latitudes. These glaciers are presently either inactive or shrinking, their water ice sublimating away as gas, either escaping into space or transporting to the colder poles.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows some apparent proof of this process. Taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 23, 2019, it shows a weird meandering ridge crossing the floor of a crater. The north and south parts of the crater rim are just beyond the cropped image, so that the gullied slope in the image’s lower left is actually a slope coming down from that rim.

My first reaction upon seeing this image was how much that ridge reminded me of the strange rimstone dams you often find on cave floors, formed when calcite in the water condenses out at the edge of the pond and begins to build up a dam over time.

This Martian ridge was certainly not formed by this process. To get a more accurate explanation, I contacted Dan Berman, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who had requested this image. He explained:
» Read more

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Martian dust devil!

Martian dust devil!
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera today posted a new captioned image, cropped by me to the right to post here, showing an active Martian dust devil as it moves across the surface of Mars.

Dust devils are rotating columns of dust that form around low-pressure air pockets, and are common on both Earth and Mars. This Martian dust devil formed on the dust-covered, volcanic plains of Amazonis Planitia. The dust devil is bright, and its core is roughly 50 meters across. The dark streak on the ground behind the dust devil is its shadow. The length of the shadow suggests the plume of rotating dust rises about 650 meters into the atmosphere!

That’s about 2,100 feet tall, almost a half mile in height. The location, Amazonis Planitia, is part of the northern lowlands of Mars, flat and somewhat featureless. It is also somewhat near the region near Erebus Montes that is the candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship rocket, a region that appears to have a lot of ice just below the surface.

The science team also linked to a 2012 active dust devil image that was even more spectacular. I have also posted on Behind the Black a number of other dust devil images, highlighting this very active, dramatic, and somewhat mysterious aspect of the Martian surface:
» Read more

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ULA’s Atlas 5 launches Solar Orbiter

Capitalism in space: ULA tonight successfully launched a new solar science spacecraft Solar Orbiter.

For more information about Solar Orbiter, which will take the first high resolution images of the Sun’s poles, see the link above or video I’ve embedded below the fold.

Earlier today Northrop Grumman aborted the launch of its Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS only three minutes before launch because of an issue with a ground support sensor. Right now they are are targeting a new launch date of February 13, 2020.

The status in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA

In the national ranking, the U.S. now leads China 4-3. If Northrop Grumman had launched, that lead would have been 5-3, and the U.S. total would have been comprised of four different and completely independent competing launch companies, all capable of topping the efforts of entire nations. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of freedom, capitalism, competition, and private ownership, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this is only the start. The U.S. right now has numerous other new launch companies rushing to join the competition.

Even more startling, the way we do things is freely available to every other nation in the world. All they have to do is to embrace freedom and the reduction of control and power by their governments. Sadly, very few in these times are willing to do this. In fact, even the U.S. resisted this concept for the entire last half of the 20th century. Only in the past decade have we returned to our roots, and that decision is now beginning to bear abundant fruit.
» Read more

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The impact of coronavirus on China’s space industry

Link here. The focus when discussing the epidemic, which continues to grow, should certainly not be on how it is slowing China’s space industry. At the same time, any slow down in their space effort will give us a good indicator on how the virus is effecting their entire economy.

Anyway, it appears, at least as this moment, that the biggest effect in space is the halt of operations for the Kuaizhou smallsat rocket.

Expace, a launch service provider for solid-propellant Kuaizhou rockets, has temporarily halted work due to its proximity to the epicenter of the outbreak. A new Kuaizhou-11 rocket, larger than the Kuaizhou-1A currently in service, was reportedly scheduled for a test flight late February.

Expace is situated in the Wuhan National Space Industry Base, a hub designed to facilitate commercial space activities. The firm is a spinoff from defense contractor CASIC and its subsidiary, China Sanjiang Space Group. The Kuaizhou launch vehicle series are understood to be derived from missile technology.

Other impacts probably won’t become obvious for months, when we can gauge whether there has been a slow down in Chinese launches below the predicted 40 for 2020.

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Voyager-2 back in action

Engineers announced yesterday that Voyager-2 has resumed science operations after going into safe mode in late January.

“Mission operators report that Voyager 2 continues to be stable and that communications between Earth and the spacecraft are good,” agency officials wrote in a mission update yesterday. “The spacecraft has resumed taking science data, and the science teams are now evaluating the health of the instruments following their brief shut-off.”

Still ticking after 42 years in space. Take that, Timex!

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NASA confirms seriousness of 2nd Starliner software issue

At a press conference today, NASA and Boeing officials confirmed the rumors that there was a second software error during Starliner’s unmanned demo mission in December that might have caused a serious failure had it not been caught on time.

[After the first software error], engineers began reviewing other critical software sequences as a precaution and discovered yet another problem. Software used to control thruster firings needed to safely jettison the Starliner’s service module just before re-entry was mis-configured, set for the wrong phase of flight.

Had the problem not been found and corrected, the cylindrical service module’s thrusters could have fired in the wrong sequence, driving it back into the crew module and possibly triggering a tumble or even damaging the ship’s protective heat shield.

While a detailed analysis was not carried out at the time, “nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping back into one another,” said Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing Space and Launch.

That two different software errors were not caught prior to flight has NASA demanding a complete review of Boeing’s quality control systems. And NASA here is correct. Boeing as a company appears to have fundamental quality control issues up and down the line, in all its projects. A complete review appears warranted.

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A bullseye on Mars

Bullseye crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 30, 2019. It shows a lone crater on the flat northern lowlands of Mars in a region dubbed Arcadia Planitia.

The crater is intriguing because of its concentric ridges and central pit. As this region is known to have a great deal of subsurface water ice, close to the surface, these features were probably caused at impact. My guess is that the ice quickly melted, formed the kind circular ripples you see when you toss a pebble in a pond, but then quickly refroze again, in place.

This location is also of interest in that is it just north of the region that SpaceX considers the prime candidate landing site for its Starship manned spaceship.

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Successful first light for CHEOPS space telescope

The science team for Europe’s exoplanet-hunting CHEOPS space telescope announced today that the telescope has successfully obtained its first pictures, and that all appears to be working correctly.

Preliminary analysis has shown that the images from CHEOPS are even better than expected. However, better for CHEOPS does not mean sharper as the telescope has been deliberately defocused. This is because spreading the light over many pixels ensures that the spacecraft’s jitter and the pixel-to-pixel variations are smoothed out, allowing for better photometric precision. “The good news is that the actual blurred images received are smoother and more symmetrical than what we expected from measurements performed in the laboratory,” says Benz. High precision is necessary for CHEOPS to observe small changes in the brightness of stars outside our solar system caused by the transit of an exoplanet in front of the star. Since these changes in brightness are proportional to the surface of the transit planet, CHEOPS will be able to measure the size of the planets. “These initial promising analyses are a great relief and also a boost for the team,” continues Benz.

I suspect the planned fuzziness of their images is why the press release did not include them.

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A Chernobyl fungus that thrives on radiation

Scientists have found that a Chernobyl fungus that eats radiation, turning it into food, is so successful that they have sent samples to ISS to see how it responses to space radiation.

By growing it in the International Space Station, where the radiation level is hiked compared to that on Earth, Venkateswaran and Professor Clay Wang of the University of Southern California were able to monitor mutation. When microorganisms are put under more stressful environments, they release different molecules, which could further out understanding of the fungi and how it can be used to develop radiation-blocking drugs for humans.

It is also possible that the fungus could be adapted for other uses.

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a research scientist at NASA who is leading the experiments on the Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, believes that by extracting its radiation-absorbing power and manufacturing it in drug form, it could be used as a ‘sun block’ against toxic rays.

It would allow cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, nuclear power plant engineers and airline pilots to operate without fear of absorbing a deadly dose of rays, Venkateswaran envisaged to Scientific American magazine.

The fungi’s radiation-converting power could also be used to power electrical appliances, with it being touted as a possible biological answer to solar panels.

It appears that the fungi’s high level of melanin contributes to its ability to do this.

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NASA delays commercial bidding process for its unmanned lunar landers

Capitalsm in space: NASA has postponed the bidding process for both the commercially-built lander that will bring its its VIPER lunar rover as well as the smaller landers that will bring simpler science packages to the Moon.

In the first case, it appears that the commercial companies wanted more time because VIPER is a heavier and bigger payload than their landers are currently designed for. In the second case, the reasons for the postponement are less clear, leaving the companies involved somewhat puzzled and in the dark.

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SpaceX might spin off Starlink with stock offering

Capitalism in space: Comments by SpaceX’s CEO suggest the company is considering spinning off its Starlink internet operation, with the additional possibility that spin-off would go public.

SpaceX President & COO Gwynne Shotwell told a group of investors that the company may spin off its Starlink internet satellite business, possibly as a public company. “Starlink is the right kind of business that we can go ahead and take public,” Shotwell said, according to a report from Bloomberg.

…There’s no time frame yet disclosed for a potential IPO of the Starlink side of SpaceX, and the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It’s unlikely the whole company would go public. Elon Musk has said for years that he wouldn’t take SpaceX public until the company has been regularly launching to Mars.

Don’t start counting your chickens. While there might be good reasons for SpaceX to do this, I suspect there are other good reasons for not doing it. They will likely make the decision once the Starlink constellation is operational and they have begun providing service to customers. At that point they will see what the demand will bring, and will have a better idea what’s the best course to take.

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NASA safety panel raises more questions about Boeing and Starliner

In its quarterly meeting yesterday, NASA’s safety panel raised more questions about the software problems during the unmanned demo mission of Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule in December.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) revealed today that a second software error was discovered during the uncrewed Boeing Starliner flight test in December. Had it gone undetected during the flight, it had the potential to cause “catastrophic spacecraft failure” during reentry. The panel wants a complete review of Boeing’s software verification processes before NASA decides whether a second uncrewed flight test is needed. In an email this evening, Boeing said it appreciates the input and is working on a plan with NASA to address all the issues and decide what comes next.

In that Boeing email it noted that it was “unclear” what the consequences would have been if this second software issue had not been fixed.

The safety panel also called for an overall organizational review of the entire Boeing company, similar to the review done to SpaceX after Elon Musk was videoed taking a toke on a joint during a podcast interview.

The decision on whether Boeing will be required to fly another unmanned demo mission is targeted for before the end of February.

One comment: While there is clear evidence here that Boeing had issues on that demo flight that must be resolved before humans fly on Starliner, we must also recognize that NASA’s safety panel has an unfortunate tendency to overstate risk, demanding margins of safety that are frequently unrealistic for an endeavor pushing the envelope of exploration. That panel has also exhibited an almost corrupt bias against private commercial space, while looking past much more serious safety issues in the NASA-built SLS and Orion programs.

At the same time, the larger corporate issues here with Boeing do appear far more systemic and concerning that those that occurred with SpaceX. A cold independent audit of the company by NASA could actually do Boeing a lot of good.

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Russian Soyuz launches 34 OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Russia’s Soyuz rocket, launching from Russia, today successfully placed 34 OneWeb satellites into orbit.

This is the first of 20 launches over the next two years to build OneWeb’s satellite constellation. A previous Soyuz launch put up six demonstration satellites.

This was also Russia’s first launch in 2020. The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia

China leads the U.S. 3 to 2 in the national rankings.

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Long March 5B arrives at launch site

The new colonial movement: China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5B, has arrived at its launch site, where launch crews will do rehearsals using a prototype of that country’s core space station module, prior to an unmanned launch to test China’s new upgraded manned capsule.

The 5B is a variation of the Long March 5, which had its first successful launch (after two failures) in December.

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First Virgin Orbit launch pending?

Capitalism in space: According to their CEO, the first launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is expected to occur in the “coming weeks.”

“We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” he said. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

In an interview after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operations quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory.

He also admitted that as a demo test flight, that first launch could go sour, and they were prepared for that.

The development of LauncherOne slowed appreciably in the past two years. In July 2018 got their first launch license, and said they would do this launch late that year. It did not happen. Then, in November 2018 they began capture-carry flights, with the expectation they would fly this first launch in 2019. This did not happen either. Worse, in August 2019 it was revealed that the company had lost a major launch contract, the lose of which might explain the slowdown in development.

Despite this slow down, my 2016 prediction that LauncherOne will complete its first commercial flight before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, still looks good, even though SpaceShipTwo began development more than a decade before LauncherOne.

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