Tag Archives: engineering

Satellites map out Earth’s Great Whirl

Using more than two decades of satellite data scientists have mapped out the yearly evolution of the
Great Whirl, a gigantic weather formation that routinely forms off the coast of Somalia each year, lasts for more than half the year, and is closely linked to India’s annual monsoon season.

Using 23 years of satellite data, the new findings show the Great Whirl is larger and longer-lived than scientists previously thought. At its peak, the giant whirlpool is, on average, 275,000 square kilometers (106,000 square miles) in area and persists for about 200 days out of the year.

More than being just a curiosity, the Great Whirl is closely connected to the monsoon that drives the rainy season in India. Monsoon rains fuel India’s $2 trillion agricultural economy, but how much rain falls each year is notoriously difficult to forecast. If researchers can use their new method to discern a pattern in the Great Whirl’s formation, they might be able to better predict when India will have a very dry or very wet season compared to the average.

Below the fold is a short video showing the Whirl’s behavior during 2000. It appears that the Great Whirl is an atmospheric eddy formed by the prevailing east winds as they hit the coast of Somalia.
» Read more

Share

X-37B passes 600 days in orbit

One of the Air Force’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles has now passed 600 days in orbit.

At this moment this is third longest X-37B mission. However, if the mission lasts four more months it will become the longest.

The article states that it is “unclear” what the mission’s overall purpose is, though we do know that some onboard experiments are testing the ability of some technology to function for long periods in space. I suspect that the spacecraft itself is testing this. When it returns they will look at it closely to see if its design was sufficient for it to do long multi-year missions and then go back to do it again. Moreover, knowing how to build such a craft is essential for building interplanetary spaceship that carry humans to and from the planets.

Share

SpaceX successfully tests core stage for June Falcon Heavy launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire test of the core stage that it will use in its next Falcon Heavy commercial launch, now set for June.

This launch will be for the Air Force, and will place 23 satellites into a variety of different orbits. It will also help the Air Force certify the Falcon Heavy for future military launches.

Share

Firefly completes full duration test of second stage engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has successfully completed a full duration static test fire of the second stage engine of its Alpha rocket.

During the test, all of the second stage’s flight avionics, structures, and propulsion systems were subjected to a sustained firing consistent with a normal flight mission. According to Firefly, preliminary analysis of data from the test show that all of the rocket’s systems performed nominally, and a post-test inspection revealed no observable degradation of the stage systems.

Firefly is attempting to complete development of its Alpha rocket, which has a capacity of up to 1 ton to low-Earth orbit, for a launch by the end of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company could reach another milestone as early as August, when Firefly anticipates performing the first long-duration test of the Alpha rocket’s first stage.

If the company succeeds in completing an orbital launch by the end of 2019, they will have leaped from the back of the pack to become one of the leaders in the smallsat rocket industry, in an incredibly short time. The company was thought dead in 2016 after a lawsuit appeared to bankrupt it. Since then it obtained significant new capital and has risen from the ashes, at a speed that appears astonishing.

Share

Partial power outage on ISS today delays Dragon cargo mission

A partial power failure on the International Space Station has forced NASA to delay for at least two days the Dragon cargo mission that had been scheduled to launch early tomorrow morning.

The delay will allow time for NASA flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to continue troubleshooting an issue with a distribution box in the space station’s electrical power system. Engineers detected an issue with the Main Bus Switching Unit on Monday morning, and ground teams plan to replace the component later this week, ahead of the SpaceX cargo launch. “Teams are working on a plan to robotically replace the failed unit and restore full power to the station system,” NASA said in a statement Tuesday. “The earliest possible launch opportunity is no earlier than Friday, May 3.”

The Main Bus Distribution Unit is one of several that routes power from the space station’s U.S. solar arrays to the research outpost’s electrical channels. The suspect unit distributes power to two of the eight electrical channels on the station, including a power supply for the space station’s robotic arm, which the station astronauts will use to capture the Dragon cargo craft as it approaches the complex.

While the robotic arm remains powered through a separate channel, NASA flight rules require redundant power supplies for the arm during critical operations, such as the grapple of a free-flying spacecraft.

Since the cargo Dragon freighter is berthed to the station using the robot arm, they want to get this fixed before launching Dragon. Right now the new launch date will occur no earlier than the wee hours of Friday, May 3.

Share

Curiosity second drill hole in clay formation a success

two drill holes in clay formation
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has confirmed that their second drill hole in the clay formation that the rover is presently exploring was a success.

They have confirmed that enough material from the drill hole has been deposited in their chemical analysis hopper.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows both drill holes on the two different flat sections of bedrock near the top.

It seems that the science team wants to spend a lot of time in this location, as described in my last rover update. It is therefore unclear when they will move south to follow their long term travel plans.

Share

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awaken for fifth lunar day

The new colonial movement: China’s lunar lander Chang’e-4 and rover Yutu-2 have been awakened to begin work for their fifth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

According to the report from this official Chinese government news source, Yutu-2 has now traveled just under 600 feet from the lander. We know from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images taken during the rover’s second lunar day of travel that it had moved to the west, but we don’t really know much else beyond that. LRO has not released any new images, and the Chinese have not told us.

Share

Settlement reached in lawsuit about private lunar mission

A lawsuit filed in 2017 by a man who had paid Space Adventures a $7 million deposit for a ticket to fly on a Soyuz rocket around the Moon has now been settled

McPike, an Austrian businessman and adventurer who lives in the Bahamas, filed the original suit in May 2017, seeking the return of a $7 million deposit he paid to Space Adventures for a $150 million seat on a Soyuz mission that would go around the moon, and additional damages. The defendants in the suit included Space Adventures; Tom Shelley, the company’s president; and Eric Anderson, the company’s chairman and chief executive.

According to McPike’s suit, he contacted Space Adventures in July 2012 about the possibility of flying on a mission around the moon that the company had been promoting for several years. In March 2013, he signed an agreement committing to participate in such a mission, and paid an initial deposit of $7 million towards the $150 million total price with the expectation that the mission would take place within six years.

McPike was scheduled to make a second deposit of $8 million one year after contract signing, but he postponed that because of concerns he had regarding the limited progress on developing the mission, including lack of information from the Russian companies and agencies that would carry out it. Space Adventures terminated the agreement in March 2015 after McPike failed to make that payment and retained his $7 million deposit.

According to his suit, McPike later contacted the Russian space agency Roscosmos directly, and was informed that, contrary to the contract he signed, there was no formal relationship between the agency and Space Adventures for a circumlunar mission, that that the proposed mission was only in the “preliminary planning phase” along with several other future projects.

The details of the settlement were not released.

The article also provides near the end a nice summary of all recent private attempts to fly humans around the Moon, including SpaceX’s now ongoing plan to fly a Japanese businessman in 2023 using its Starship upper stage.

Share

FCC approves SpaceX’s Starlink constellation

Capitalism in space: The FCC has approved SpaceX’s revised plan for its Starlink satellite constellation designed to provide global internet access.

SpaceX already had authorization for 4,425 Starlink satellites that would use Ku- and Ka-band radio spectrum to beam internet data, but last November, the company asked the FCC to sign off on a plan that would put more than a third of the satellites in 550-kilometer-high (340-mile-high) orbits rather than the previously approved 1,150-kilometer (715-mile) orbits.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to add another wave of more than 7,500 satellites in even lower orbits to enhance the constellation’s coverage.

They hope to begin launching their first set of satellites by May, and begin commercial operations as early as 2021.

Share

Two Chinese companies test reusable rocket technology

Link here.

One company, Space Transportation, tested on April 22 a design for launching its first stage vertically and then landinf it on a runway.

The joint flight was to test the performance of the dual waverider forebody configuration designed by Xiamen University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to verify the rocket recovery and reuse technology, according to Xinhua. The 8.7-meter-long Jiageng-1 has a wingspan of 2.5 meters and part of development of the larger, future Tianxing-I-1 vertical takeoff, horizontal landing reusable launch vehicle.

Beijing-based Space Transportation, founded in August 2018 and also known as Lingkong Tianxing, received backing worth several million U.S. dollars from Source Code Capital earlier this year. [emphasis mine]

The second company, Linkspace, did on April 19th a untethered vertical take off and landing of a small prototype first stage, getting about 130 feet off the ground.

The highlighted words above are intriguing. I did not think it was legal for American investors to invest in Chinese rocket companies.

Share

NASA safety panel on SLS schedule, Dragon explosion

NASA’s safety panel held a long scheduled meeting to review NASA’s on-going manned projects, and had the following to say:

The first story describes very little new information about the explosion on April 20th that destroyed the Dragon crew capsule during engine tests, other than it occurred in connection with the firing of the Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. I am being vague because they were.

The second story describes the panel’s strong objection to any effort by NASA to trim the test program for SLS in order to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline for returning to the Moon. It also confirms officially for the first time that NASA will not be able to fly the first unmanned mission of SLS in 2020. That flight is now expected in 2021, a decade after NASA began development of SLS, and seventeen years after George Bush Jr first proposed NASA build this heavy-lift rocket.

That’s practically one person’s entire career at NASA. Seems pretty shameful to me.

While I actually agree with the panel’s advice in both of these stories, both stories however do reflect the overall culture of this safety panel: Go slow, take no risks, be patient. This culture is in fact so cautious that it has served to practically make impossible any American exploration of space, on our own rockets.

Based on what I expect now during the investigation of the Dragon explosion, I would not be surprised if the panel successfully delays the first manned Dragon launch another year or two or three.

Share

ISRO delays Chandrayaan-2 to July

An unnamed official at India’s space agency ISRO has revealed that they have decided to further delay its lunar lander/rover Chandrayaan-2 until July following the landing failure of SpaceIL’s Beresheet on the Moon.

“We saw Israel’s example and we don’t want to take any risk. Despite Israel being such a technologically advanced country, the mission failed. We want the mission to be a success,” he said.

The launch of India’s Moon mission was scheduled in April but it was postponed after Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft crashed during moon landing early this month. The ambitious mission was a first for a private effort.

“Landing on the Moon is a very complex mission and all the exigencies have to be factored in,” the official added.

No reason was given for the delay, other than a desire to be cautious. While caution is often a wise thing in experimental engineering, too much caution can be a fatal flaw. Chandrayaan-2 was originally scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2018. It has now been delayed repeatedly since then, with the only hint of a reason being an unconfirmed story suggesting it was damaged during ground tests.

If this damage is the reason, then ISRO should tell us. Otherwise, the agency is beginning to look like it is afraid to fly.

Share

The new man-made crater on Ryugu

Man-made crater on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released before and after images of the spot on Ryugu where the spacecraft’s explosive projectile caused the creation of a small crater.

On the left above is the before, with the new crater indicated by the circle on the right. Note the rocks in both pictures, some now partly covered with debris. They did not give a scale, but this is a very small area, probably less than a few feet across.

They now need to analyze whether they can safely touchdown at this spot and grab a sample.

Share

DOJ settles with company that faked tests which caused two Taurus launch failures

The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the company that had faked test results which caused faulty components to be installed on Orbital ATK’s Taurus rocket, eventually causing two consecutive launch failures.

SPI agreed to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud while SEI entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. SPI will pay $34.1 million in combined restitution to NASA, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and commercial customers, and forfeit $1.8 million in “ill-gotten gains.” The company will also pay an additional $6 million to NASA and $5 million to MDA as part of a separate civil settlement.

The companies acknowledged that SPI altered test results for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, such that aluminum extrusions that had failed mechanical properties testing instead appeared to have passed. Dennis Balius, a testing lab supervisor at SPI who led the effort to falsify test results for a number of years, pled guilty on separate charges in 2017 and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Those aluminum components were sold to a number of companies, including those who had contracts with NASA and MDA. The Justice Department statement noted that the components were used in frangible joints in launch vehicles and missiles. Such joints are used in vehicle separation systems.

“NASA maintains that SPI’s manufacturing processes lacked sufficient controls and produced extrusions unable to pass mechanical properties testing,” the Justice Department stated. “NASA further maintains that it identified SPI’s out-of-specification extrusions as the cause of two failed rocket launches, which resulted in the loss of important scientific missions.” SPI disputed those claims, although NASA has barred the company from contracting.

The worst part of this story is that it likely ended up destroying Orbital ATK, an innocent party to this fraud. Though the company lives on now as a division within Northrop Grumman, it never quite recovered from the two Taurus launch failures in 2009 and 2011. Customers went elsewhere, and the company’s launch business dried up. The only customer Orbital ATK was able to muster afterward was NASA, and the number of launches this provided was not enough, causing company’s eventual absorption by Northrop Grumman.

Share

Hayabusa-2 confirms man-made crater on Ryugu

In a planned fly-over of Ryugu yesterday Hayabusa-2 took its first direct images of the location where it had fired an explosive projectile and thus confirmed the creation of a man-made crater by that projectile.

“The asteroid’s terrain has clearly been altered,” said Yuichi Tsuda, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Hayabusa2, which began its descent toward the asteroid Wednesday afternoon, captured images of its surface to determine the existence of the crater after it successfully shot a metal projectile at Ryugu on April 5 in an experiment deemed the first of its kind.

According to the JAXA, the probe photographed the area hit by the projectile from a distance of 1.7 km. The agency compared images of the asteroid’s surface before and after the shooting of the projectile to determine the presence of a man-made crater.

They have not yet released any of these images. They will use them however for planning a touchdown and sample grab within this crater in next few months.

Share

Another spectacular landslide found on Mars

Landslide in Hydraotes Chaos
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In perusing the April image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the image above, cropped and reduced to post here, of the discovery of another landslide within Hydraotes Chaos, one of the largest regions of chaos terrain on Mars. The image above was taken on February 9, 2019, and has since been followed up with a second image to create a stereo pair.

This is not the first landslide found in Hydraotes Chaos. I highlighted a similar slide on March 11. Both today’s landslide as well as the previous one likely represent examples of gravitational collapses as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water. Some scientists have proposed that Hydraotes Chaos was once an inland sea, and as the water drained away the loss of its buoyancy is thought to cause this kind of landslide at the base of cliffs and crater rims.

The past presence of water also helps explain the soft muddy look of this landslide. When this collapse occurred the material was likely saturated with water. Today it is most likely quite dry and hardened, but when it flowed it flowed like wet mud. Its size, almost a mile long and a quarter mile across, speaks to Mars’s low gravity, which would allow for large singular collapses like this.

Hydraotes Chaos itself is probably one of the more spectacular places on Mars. It sits at the outlet to Marineris Valles, shown in the image below. This gigantic canyon, which would easily cover the entire U.S. if placed on Earth, was the largest drainage from the large volcanic Tharsis Bulge to the west, where Mars’s largest volcanoes are located.
» Read more

Share

Hayabusa-2 has begun close fly-in of man-made crater

Hayabusa-2 has begun its fly-in of Ryugu to make its first close observation of the man-made crater it created on the asteroid’s surface on April 4.

The link takes you to the images downloaded in real time from the spacecraft’s navigation camera. New images appear approximately every thirty minutes. The approach has only just begun, so Ryugu remains somewhat small in the images. This will change as the day proceeds.

Share

Long March 5B to launch first Chinese station module in 2020

The new colonial movement: China today announced that the launch of the first module for its space station will take place in the first half of 2020 on the maiden flight of its Long March 5B rocket.

China also announced today that they will launch Chang’e-5, their lunar sample return mission, by the end of this year, followed in 2020 by a Mars probe. Both launches will require use of the Long March 5.

The 5B appears to be a redesigned version of the 5, which has launched twice but failed on its second launch in 2017. Since then all launches of the Long March 5 ceased, with hints in the press that the failure occurred because the rocket’s first stage engines had badly underperformed and required a complete redesign. This redesign caused significant delays in the launch of Chang’e-5, China’s space station, and its Mars probe.

Today’s announcements suggest that that engine redesign is probably complete, and that they are now ready to resume Long March 5 launches, including the upgraded and revised 5B.

Share

Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

Share

Relativity gets a second launch contract

Capitalism in space: The startup rocket company Relativity today announced the signing of a second launch contract for its as-yet untested Terran 1 rocket.

Relativity, the world’s first autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations, today announced a partnership with mu Space, the innovative Thai satellite and space technology company, to launch a satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, the world’s first and only 3D printed rocket.

The first contract was with the well-established satellite company Telesat. The rocket, Terran 1, is scheduled for its first orbital test flight at the end of 2020.

So, where does Relativity stand among the leaders in the new smallsat commercial rocket industry? Let’s do a quick review.

Rocket Lab is of course far in the lead. It has launched four times, and its Electron rocket is now operational.

Second in this race is probably Virgin Orbit. The company has won several launch contracts, and says it will begin launch tests momentarily of its LauncherOne air-launched rocket.

Next comes Vector Launch, though some might argue it is ahead of Virgin Orbit. This company has obtained a large amount of investment capital, has completed two test suborbital launches, has a number of launch contracts, and hopes to do its first orbital launch later this year.

After these three companies there is a pack of rocket companies, all with investment capital, tentative launch contracts, and rockets that are only in the development stages. These include Exos Aerospace, Relativity, and Firefly, with Exos probably in the lead as it has already test flown its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket.

This list does not include the pseudo-private Chinese rocket companies, OneSpace, ISpace, LinkSpace, Landspace, and ExSpace, all of whom are independently developing smallsat rockets using Chinese investment capital but working under the supervision of the Chinese government. Several of these companies have attempted orbital launches. As yet none have succeeded.

Nor have I included India, which has announced it is going to build its own smallsat rocket to supplement its larger PSLV rocket in order to maintain its market share in this new smallsat industry. I also have left out a number of European companies, all of whom are far behind but nonetheless exist and are beginning development.

Other then the already-operating Rocket Lab, all of these companies are predicting their first rocket launches within the next three years. Some will succeed. Some will not. Nonetheless, the launch pace as we move into the 2020s is likely to get quite interesting.

Share

First Marsquake recorded by InSight?

The InSight science team has announced that they think they have detected their first Mars quake, though it was too small to provide much information about the Martian interior.

The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.

…Three other seismic signals occurred on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). Detected by SEIS’ more sensitive Very Broad Band sensors, these signals were even smaller than the Sol 128 event and more ambiguous in origin. The team will continue to study these events to try to determine their cause.

The data so far suggests is that Mars is far quieter than Earth geologically, but any conclusions at this point would be premature.

Share

UAE’s space agency declares its Mars probe almost ready for launch

The new colonial movement: The space agency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today announced that its 2020 Mars orbiter, dubbed Hope, is now 85% complete and on track for making its launch window.

The Probe has already entered an intensive testing phase to ensure its readiness before the launch date, with less than 500 days are remaining for the launch. It is planned to reach Mars by 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.

Several aspects related to the design, assembly of the structure, cameras and control have been verified. So far, the Probe’s systems and components, as well as its ability to communicate with the ground station have been checked by the team. The Probe has succeeded in all the tests it has been subject to so far, ahead of the five environmental tests to be conducted on the probe from June to December 2019.

While this is likely true, we must remain a bit skeptical. Though the link goes to a Reuters Arab news source, the story appears to be entirely a copy of the press release. I know this because five different Arabian news sources used the exact same language in their stories, apparently all copying from the same release.

Thus, we don’t have any independent press in the UAE looking at what is going on here. This could be true, but who knows?

Share

Dragon capsule suffers problem during engine test

Bad news: A SpaceX man-rated Dragon capsule suffered an “anomaly” during an engine test today.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson told Space.com in a statement. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

At the moment we do not have much information. We do not know if this capsule was the one that flew in March and was going to be used in the launch abort test prior to the manned mission, or whether it was another capsule planned for the manned mission itself.

Nor do we know what the problem was, or if it was a SuperDraco thruster that failed.

Regardless, this is going to cause a significant delay in SpaceX’s flight schedule. While they might be able to complete an investigation and resume flying within months, NASA will insist on a NASA-type investigation, drawn out for far longer, possibly years.

Share

How last year’s global dust storm changed one spot on Mars

One spot on the western flank of  Olympus Mons, August 2017
Click for full image.

To the right is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back in August 2017, cropped, rotated, and reduced to post here. It shows a particular spot on the western slope of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. The uncaptioned image release is entitled “Dark and Possibly Stationary Ripples in Anomalous Terrain.” The image was probably taken as a follow-up to this 2009 image to see if the the dark patches near the peaks and mounds as well as the strange wavy bands of light and dark had changed in eight years. As of 2017 however little had changed. The patches in the 2009 image seem darker, but that is almost certainly due to the lower sun angle causing longer shadows.

The slope goes downhill to the left. The wavy bands are thought to be geological layers exposed by erosion. The cause of the dark patches remain unknown.

I stumbled upon these two early images because of a third new image of this location, taken in February 2019 and spotted by me during my review of April 2019 images downloaded from MRO. That uncaptioned new image was titled “Change Detection in Olympus Maculae.” Had scientists spotted some new volcanic activity at this spot? To find out I dug into the MRO archive at this location and found both the 2009 and 2017 images.

The 2019 image is below. It is cropped, rotated, and reduced to match exactly with the image above in order to highlight any changes that might have occurred.
» Read more

Share

Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

Share

China announces plans for asteroid/comet sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced plans to fly an ambitious mission to both an asteroid and comet, which would also bring back a sample from the asteroid.

The current plan, which is still under discussion, calls for a probe to visit and collect samples from the small near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3 (also known as Kamo’oalewa). “Then, the probe will fly back to the proximity of Earth, and a return capsule will be released to bring the samples back to Earth,” Xinhua reported today (April 18), citing a China National Space Administration official. “After that, the probe will continue its journey. With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit the Comet 133P to explore it.”

Both objects are unusual. The asteroid is in a strange solar orbit that almost makes it a moon of the Earth, while the comet appears to be a main-belt asteroid with comet-like activity.

The mission is not finalized yet, so expect some revisions.

Share

ESA agrees to subsidize Ariane 6 should it fail to sell

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with ArianeGroup, the private company building its next generation rocket Ariane 6, to provide subsidizes to the company should the rocket’s inability to get launch contracts continue.

The problem is that ESA had promised ArianeGroup seven launch contracts from its various governments during the rocket’s development, but only three so far have been signed. Ariane 6, though less expensive than Ariane 5, still costs too much (it is not going to be usable), and it appears that too many member nations in ESA don’t want to pay the extra bucks when they can get the same service cheaper from SpaceX.

This lack of contracts has caused ArianeGroup to slow development.

The new agreement gives the company a financial guarantee should the additional four launch contracts not materialize.

“If seven launch service contracts are not signed by the ministerial at the end of November, then the ESA DG [Director General Jan Woerner] will propose for decision to member states to complement the revenues needed for the first Ariane 64,” said [Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation].

In other words, Ariane 6 is going to turn out just like Ariane 5, an expensive rocket that never makes a profit. Moreover, if ESA requires its members to use its cost will handicap Europe’s future space efforts.

This isn’t a surprise. I predicted this likelihood back in September 2017 when ArianeGroup first announced the prices it planned to charge for Ariane 6 launches. Those prices, for launches in the 2020s, were higher than what SpaceX charges now, and were certainly going to be more uncompetitive in the future.

It seems that Europe’s aerospace industry, both in and out of government, can’t seem to understand these basics of the free market. You have to be competitive, and if you are not, the worst way to fix the problem is pour more money into an uncompetitive product. From the get-go they designed Ariane 6 as if it was 1990, when the industry said reusable rockets were impossible. The result is a rocket no one wants to buy, because everyone knows that by the mid-2020s they will have many inexpensive reusable rockets to choose from. Why buy an overpriced dinosaur?

So, instead of pouring subsidies into Ariane 6, as designed, ESA should be demanding for its money new designs from ArianeGroup that make the rocket cheaper to launch.

Europe does not appear to be doing this, however, so expect Europe to be badly crippled in the upcoming 21st century space race.

Share
1 2 3 4 246