Tag Archives: government

ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

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India confirms details of Vikram’s crash on Moon

India’s government has finally officially admitted that its Vikram lunar lander crashed in September.

In a written answer to a question posed to the Department of Space in Lok Sabha, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Jitendra Singh said the “reduction in velocity” of the Vikram lander during the final phase of its descent on the moon’s surface “was more than the designed value”. As a result, Vikram “hard-landed” on the moon “within 500 metres of the designated landing site”, he said.

…“The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km above the moon surface. The velocity was reduced from 1,683 m/s to 146 m/s. During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value. Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase (final phase below 7.4 km altitude) were beyond the designed parameters. As a result, Vikram hard-landed within 500 m of the designated landing site,” the minister said in a written answer in the Lok Sabha.

Except for the detail that they think Vikram landed within 500 meters of its planned landing site, this answer really doesn’t tell us much new. It was very obvious during the landing that the spacecraft was traveling too fast as it began its final braking phase, and that it then descended much too fast thereafter.

In fact, the couched language and the unwillingness so far of ISRO, India’s space agency, to provide a detailed report on the failure does not reflect well on them. This kind of cutting edge engineering requires a hard kind of intellectual honesty. They have so far not shown that kind of honesty in their response to this failure.

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Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

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NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

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Indonesia to building rocket and spaceport

The new colonial movement: Officials from Indonesia’s space agency, LAPAN, today revealed that they picked a location for a new larger spaceport, and will use it to test their own home-grown rocket.

Indonesia plans to construct its first spaceport in Biak, Papua, to serve the country’s rocket test launches, the country’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) has confirmed.

LAPAN flight and aerospace study centre head Robertus Heru Trijahyanto said Indonesia will build the spaceport following LAPAN’s existing rocket launch site in South Garut on West Java. However, it will be bigger so that it can be used for larger test launches.

The article mentions that they will get help from international partners, but provides little detail.

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Second Kuaizhou-1A launch in less than a week

The new colonial movement: China today successfully completed its second Kuaizhou-1A launch in four days, placing two communications satellites into orbit.

In just a little more than a four day period, from the very same pad, with the very same launch team and launch truck, China has launched yet another Kuaizhou-1A rocket carrying satellites into orbit.

…The Kuaizhou-1A is a 4 stage, mostly solid fuel powered launch vehicle developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASIC) and commercialized by the China Space Sanjiang Group Corporation (also known as Expace Corporation).

Promoted by CASIC as being high reliability, high precision and low cost, the launch vehicle can send a 200 kg payload into a 700 km altitude sun-synchronous orbit. The vehicle is possibly based on the road-mobile DF-21 missile, with two additional solid fuel upper stages and a re-startable liquid fuel upper stage. It was designed with the goal to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long periods and to provide launch missions on short notice.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

25 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

In the national rankings, China widened its lead over the U.S. to 25 to 23.

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Inspector general slams NASA’s management for bonus payments to Boeing

In a report [pdf] issued yesterday, NASA’s inspector general blasted the agency’s manned commercial space management for issuing a $287 million bonus payment to Boeing to help it avoid delays in developing its Starliner capsule — which would have caused gaps in future American flights to ISS — even though the cost to use Russian Soyuz capsules would have been far less.

Worse, the agency never even allowed SpaceX to make its own competitive offer.

NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co (BA.N) a $287 million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.

Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.

…NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said. [emphasis mine]

I’ve read the report, and from it the impression is clear that when NASA management discovered that Boeing was facing delays in Starliner and needed extra cash, it decided to funnel that cash to it, irrespective of cost. While it is likely that the agency did so because it did not wish to buy more Russian Soyuz seats, it makes no sense that it didn’t ask SpaceX for its own competitive bid. By not doing so the management’s foolish bias towards Boeing is starkly illustrated

Eric Berger at Ars Technica also notes that the report makes clear how Boeing’s prices for Starliner are 60% higher than SpaceX’s Crew Dragon prices, further illustrating how the agency favors Boeing over SpaceX.

Boeing’s per-seat price already seemed like it would cost more than SpaceX. The company has received a total of $4.82 billion from NASA over the lifetime of the commercial crew program, compared to $3.14 billion for SpaceX. However, for the first time the government has published a per-seat price: $90 million for Starliner and $55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to carry four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.

What is notable about Boeing’s price is that it is also higher than what NASA has paid the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, for Soyuz spacecraft seats to fly US and partner-nation astronauts to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average cost per seat of $55.4 million for the 70 completed and planned missions from 2006 through 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $79.7 million.

I don’t have a problem with NASA favoring Boeing over Russia, considering the national priorities. I can also understand the agency’s willingness to keep buying some Starliner seats in order to guarantee an American launch redundancy. However, giving Boeing even more money to keep its schedule going, when SpaceX is available to fill the gaps, demonstrates the corruption in the agency’s management. They haven’t the slightest understanding of how private enterprise and competition works.

The report is also filled with the same tiresome complaints about the on-going delays to the manned commercial program, focusing greatly on past technical issues (now mostly solved) while hiding in obscure language how it is NASA’s paperwork that is likely to cause all further delays.

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Upcoming big satellite constellations vex and worry astronomers

Astronomers are expressing increasing distress over the possible negative consequences to their Earth-based telescope observations from the several new giant satellite constellations being launched by SpaceX and others.

[M]any astronomers worry that such ‘megaconstellations’ — which are also planned by other companies that could launch tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years — might interfere with crucial observations of the Universe. They fear that megaconstellations could disrupt radio frequencies used for astronomical observation, create bright streaks in the night sky and increase congestion in orbit, raising the risk of collisions.

The Nature article then details the issues faced by some specific telescopes. Hidden within the article however was this interesting tidbit that admitted the problem for many telescopes is really not significant.

Within the next year or so, SpaceX plans to launch an initial set of 1,584 Starlink satellites into 550-kilometre-high orbits. At a site like Cerro Tololo, Chile, which hosts several major telescopes, six to nine of these satellites would be visible for about an hour before dark and after dawn each night, Seitzer has calculated.

Most telescopes can deal with that, says Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Germany. Even if more companies launch megaconstellations, many astronomers might still be okay, he says. Hainaut has calculated that if 27,000 new satellites are launched, then ESO’s telescopes in Chile would lose about 0.8% of their long-exposure observing time near dusk and dawn. “Normally, we don’t do long exposures during twilight,” he says. “We are pretty sure it won’t be a problem for us.” [emphasis mine]

The article then proceeds with its Chicken-Little spin as if the astronomical world is about to end if something is not done to stop or more tightly control these new satellite constellations.

As indicated by the quote above, it appears however that the threat is overstated. The constellations might reduce observing time slightly on LSST, scheduled for completion in 2022 and designed to take full sky images once every three nights. Also, the satellite radio signals might impact some radio astronomy. In both cases, however, the fears seem exaggerated. Radio frequencies are well regulated, and LSST’s data should easily be able to separate out the satellite tracks from the real astronomical data.

Rather than demand some limits or controls on this new satellite technology, the astronomical community should rise to the occasion and find ways to overcome this new challenge. The most obvious solution is to shift the construction of new telescopes from ground-based to space-based. In fact, this same new satellite technology should make it possible for them to do so, at much less cost and relatively quickly.

But then, astronomers are part of our modern academic community, whose culture is routinely leftist and therefore fascist in philosophy (even though they usually don’t realize it). To them too often the knee-jerk response to any competition is to try to control and squelch it.

We shall see if the astronomers succeed in this case.

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China unveils Mars lander during landing simulation test

The new colonial movement: China today unveiled to the international press its first prototype Mars lander, showing it attempting a simulated controlled descent on a gigantic test stand.

The demonstration of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities was conducted at a site outside Beijing simulating conditions on the Red Planet, where the pull of gravity is about one-third that of Earth.

China plans to launch a lander and rover to Mars next year to explore parts of the planet in detail.

This is the first time I have heard anything about China sending a lander/rover to Mars in 2020. Previously the reports had discussed only sending an orbiter.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. It shows the prototype hanging by many wires from the test stand, then dropping quickly, with its engine firing, before stopping suddenly, followed by an engine burst. While impressive, it did not strike me that China is even close to sending this spacecraft to Mars. The test only proved the spacecraft’s ability to do some maneuvering during descent. It did not show that it could land.

That the project’s designer said that landing would take “about seven minutes” also suggests that they are copying the techniques used by JPL to land Curiosity. Considering that JPL’s computers have been repeatedly hacked, including some hacks identified as coming from China, it would not surprise me if China has simply stolen those techniques.

I still expect them to launch an orbiter to Mars in 2020. Whether they also send a lander and rover remains to be seen.
» Read more

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India targets Nov 2020 for new lunar lander mission

The new colonial movement: Sources inside India’s space agency ISRO yesterday revealed that they are now working to build and fly another lunar lander/rover, dubbed Chandrayaan-3, with a target launch date of November 2020, only one year from now.

Isro has formed multiple committees — an overall panel and three sub-committees — and held at least four high-level meetings since October. The new mission will include only a lander and rover, as the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is functioning well. On Tuesday, the overview committee met with the agenda of reviewing the configuration of Chandrayaan-3. It also looked into the recommendations of various sub-committees on propulsion, sensors, overall engineering, navigation and guidance.

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter had provided the propulsion capabilities to get the Vikram lander (with rover) to lunar orbit earlier this year, only to have the lander fail shortly before touchdown. To do this new mission without an orbiter will require adding a propulsion unit to the rover/lander. They are also looking at strengthening the lander’s legs to better resist a high velocity landing.

Kudos to ISRO for moving so quickly. There is no reason a replacement lander/rover should take years to build. They already know what to do, they need only do it again, with upgrades designed to avoid the failure in September.

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No manned New Shepard flights in 2019

In an interview with CNBC, Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed that the first manned flights of New Shepard will not take place in 2019, as previously predicted.

Smith: We were planning on this year; unfortunately, it’s very unlikely we’re going to get in this year. We need a few more flights to make sure that we’re all comfortable with the verification. We hold ourselves to very, very high standards here, we’re never going to fly until we’re absolutely ready. I think we have a very, very good amount of confidence around the system itself, I think it is working very, very well. But we have to go look at all the analysis, and then convince ourselves that we’re ready to go. … So it probably will be next year.

This statement confirms what Smith said in late September. However, though he says they need to do a few more unmanned test flights, they have not done one since May, suggesting there was some issue during that last flight that they aren’t telling us about.

The interview overall contains little concrete information, and in fact suggests that the company’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, is likely not going to meet its 2021 launch target. When asked when he expects their rocket factory in Huntsville to begin building 40 engines a year, he said, “when we are at-rate and flying, so in ’22 and ’23. We are opening the factory there this coming first quarter.”

That 2021 date was a delay of a year from the original goal of 2020. That they won’t be opening their rocket factory until 2020, and won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023, suggests this entire schedule is out the window. I will not be surprised if there are no New Glenn flights before 2023.

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China completes two launches today

In a space of three hours today China successfully completed two launches. First, a Kuaizhou-1A rocket, intended for commercial launches, placed a civilian Earth resource satellite into orbit. Then, a Long March 6 rocket put five remote sensing satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

24 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

With these two launches China has leap-frogged past the U.S. to take the lead in the national rankings, 24 to 23.

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Putin slams Roscosmos for continuing corruption at Vostochny

At a meeting yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted Roscosmos for the corruption at the new spaceport at Vostochny, noting that despite the prosecution of numerous individuals the criminal behavior continues.

Russian President Putin said at a government meeting on Monday that dozens of criminal cases and jailings had failed to stem theft at the Vostochny spaceport construction site….

“It has been stated a hundred times: you must work transparently because large funds are allocated. This project is actually of the national scope! But, despite this, hundreds of millions, hundreds of millions [of rubles] are stolen! Several dozen criminal cases have been opened, the courts have already passed verdicts and some are serving their prison terms. However, things have not been put in order there the way it should have been done,” the Russian president said.

This article notes that out of $1.4 billion allocated for the spaceport, $169 million has been stolen. It does not however provide any details about any new corruption. Instead, it outlines the investigations and prosecutions that have already taken place.

According to Peskov, “at the first stage, 128 criminal cases were opened, which were later consolidated into 32 criminal cases and at the next stage the Investigative Committee singled out 21 cases and transferred them to the court of law and 18 persons were sentenced at the time,” Peskov said. “The Interior Ministry investigated 8 more cases,” he added.

Either Roscosmos officials revealed to Putin newly discovered corruption that the state-run press has been forbidden to discuss, or Putin’s criticism was aimed to discouraging future corruption.

Either way, Vostochny remains a typical government boondoggle. It has cost Russia far more than it should, and construction has been slow, beginning officially in 2012, though Russia has been working on it in fits and starts since the mid-2000s.

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We are not going to die from climate change

Tony Heller today published this quite thorough review of the failed climate predictions by global warming scientists/activists, while also providing a great summary of the real state of our climate.

You can disagree or question him on one point or another, but the overall data once again illustrates the uncertainty that surrounds climate science. We really do not know what is going on, and any predictions that claim we do are hogwash.

Above all, take a look at the section on the benefits of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. This data is widespread and robust, and has been confirmed by agriculturists for decades. The planet is getting greener and as a result more fertile as there has been an increase in atmospheric CO2.

Meanwhile, the fear-mongers insist the world will end in just over eleven years, based not on any real data but on their emotional desire for catastrophe.

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New InSight image of mole shows collapse of hole

View of InSight drill hole
Click for full movie.

The InSight science image has lifted the lander’s rover arm off the drill hole and taken a new series of images in an effort to discover what caused the mole to pop out during its most recent drilling effort.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, was the first in a short movie made from all the images taken over the course of a day. The sequence shows the change in shadows, which helps define the situation in the hole.

This image however I think tells all. It shows that the walls of the hole have collapsed all around the mole, widening it further. It also shows that, once the mole popped out to lean sideways against the left wall, much of that material then fell into the hole, refilling it. These facts are very evident when today’s image is compared with this image from October, taken prior to the most recent drilling effort. The hole has become much wider, there is more material inside it, and the mole is now much farther out.

All these facts bode ill for the mole ever succeeding in drilling down the planned fifteen or so feet to insert a heat probe into the interior of Mars in order to take the first ever measure of the planet’s interior.

An overall assessment of this NASA mission is not very positive. The contribution from its international partners is especially bad. The mission was launched two years late because the French effort to build the seismometer failed. NASA had to subsequently give the job to JPL to get it done. Now the heat sensor is a failure, because the German-built mole has failed to get the heat sensor where it needs to be.

The seismometer and heat sensor were InSight’s only science instruments. This means that we will likely only get results from one.

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The dark future predicted by this week’s elections

Because the elections this past week on November 5 took place during an off year, they were mostly local, and thus have a limited value in predicting the public’s overall political attitude. The results however can still give us a hint about the future, and are thus worth looking at for that reason.

In general, the results were mostly mixed, with Democrats doing great in some suburbs and in Virginia, and Republicans doing great in the down slate races in Mississippi and Kentucky. The governorship elections were also mixed, with the Republicans winning in Mississippi and the Democrats winning in Kentucky.

Other results also suggest mixed results on a variety of propositions. The link above notes the defeat of a leftist proposition in Washington that would have repealed the state’s prohibition on using affirmative action quotas. On the other hand, in New York City voters approved ranked voting, an election system that Democrats have used in Maine and California to destroy Republican opposition.

Overall however I consider these results a disaster for the future of freedom, democracy, and our Constitutional system. The Democratic Party has made it very clear in the past three years that it no longer respects all three. More importantly, they have also made it clear that they are willing to use slander, libel, and any number of vicious McCarthyite tactics to squelch and destroy anyone who opposes them.

It is terrifying to me that the public seems undecided or ambivalent about these facts, and still willing to vote for Democrats, many of whom have openly supported these tactics and positions. In fact, it suggests a large percentage of the population, majorities in many places, actually applaud the Democratic Party’s fascist tactics and positions.

This week’s elections therefore once again reaffirm for me a very pessimistic future coming in the next few election cycles. Even if Trump should win in 2020, the voting pattern that we have seen in both 2018 (when the voters gave control of the House to the Democrats) and 2019 suggest that his win will be mixed, and that the power the Democrats presently hold in Congress will remain firm and unchallenged. This is what the voters have been telling us. They are not ready to clean house in the Democratic Party.

Dark times are coming. Be ready.

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White House: Cost for each SLS launch is $2 billion

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OPM), the cost for each SLS launch is now estimated to equal $2 billion.

This is the first time anyone in the executive branch has put a number to the SLS per launch cost. NASA has always refused to give a number, for good reason, since this price compares so horribly with even the most expensive private rocket (generally more than $200 million for the biggest members of the Delta rocket family). The Falcon Heavy costs about $100 million, so that to get the same mass into orbit would require two launches, but that would still be only $200 million, one tenth the cost.

The article then notes how this cost is affecting the Europa Clipper mission, which has three launch options, with SLS mandated by Congress.

The powerful SLS booster offers the quickest ride for the six-ton spacecraft to Jupiter, less than three years. But for mission planners, there are multiple concerns about this rocket beyond just its extraordinary cost. There is the looming threat that the program may eventually be canceled (due to its cost and the emergence of significantly lower cost, privately built rockets). NASA’s human exploration program also has priority on using the SLS rocket, so if there are manufacturing issues, a science mission might be pushed aside. Finally, there is the possibility of further developmental delays—significant ground testing of SLS has yet to begin.

Another option is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an excellent safety record and has launched several high-profile missions for NASA. However, this rocket requires multiple gravity assists to push the Clipper into a Jupiter orbit, including a Venus flyby. This heating would add additional thermal constraints to the mission, and scientists would prefer to avoid this if at all possible.

A final possibility is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, with a kick stage. This booster would take a little more than twice as long as the SLS rocket to get the Clipper payload to Jupiter, but it does not require a Venus flyby and therefore avoids those thermal issues. With a track record of three successful flights, the Falcon Heavy also avoids some of the development and manufacturing concerns raised by SLS vehicle. Finally, it offers the lowest cost of the three options.

The fact that Congress is requiring the use of SLS for a cost of $2 billion, a rocket that might not even be ready in time, when Europa Clipper could be launched on two other already operational rockets at about a tenth of the cost illustrates well the overall corruption and incompetence that permeates Congress. They really aren’t interested in the interests of the nation. They’d rather distribute money to big contractors and local interests, even if it costs the taxpayer billions and risks the mission’s success.

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Virgin Orbit gets $9.5 million from UK space agency

The space agency of the United Kingdom yesterday awarded $9.5 million to the smallsat rocket company Virgin Orbit

ccording to the statement, the funds will be used “to develop launch operations support systems and manufacture them in the U.K.” in addition to conducting “mission planning, and to further ready the facility for satellite launches from Cornwall”.

This award is part of a larger funding package of $26 million (£20 million) from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, while Virgin Orbit have also said they will contribute about $3.2 million (£2.5 million) to the Spaceport Cornwall project. The hope is that Cornwall could become a hub for European launches to space in the future.

Essentially this is an effort by the UK to bring Virgin Orbit’s launches to Cornwall spaceport. Why Virgin Orbit has got this money is puzzling however. Launched from a 747 which can take off from almost all airports, Virgin Orbit doesn’t necessarily need to launch from a spaceport. That fact is probably why the company got this “pay-off”, using somewhat more blunt words.

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NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

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NASA to fly more year-plus missions to ISS

Leaving Earth: In an effort to shift the research focus on ISS toward learning how to do interplanetary missions, NASA wants to fly more year-plus missions to the station.

Crewmembers usually spend about six months aboard the ISS before coming back down to Earth. But that’s far shorter than a Mars mission would be; the trip to the Red Planet takes eight to nine months one way with current propulsion technology. So, NASA wants more data about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the physiological and psychological health of astronauts. (The ISS isn’t a perfect Mars analog in this respect, of course; it resides within Earth’s protective magnetosphere and is therefore exposed to less-damaging radiation than a Mars-bound craft would be.)

To date, the agency has launched just one yearlong ISS mission, sending Scott Kelly to live on the orbiting lab from March 2015 to March 2016. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko took part in this flight as well, spending 342 days in space, just like Kelly. NASA has also extended two other astronauts’ ISS stays into the “Mars transit” range: Peggy Whitson racked up 289 days of continuous flight in 2016 and 2017, and Christina Koch, who arrived on the orbiting lab in March, is now scheduled to come down in February 2020.

But these three data points aren’t enough, said [Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the ISS Program],. “What we’re saying now is we want to really bump that up a notch and add 10 more subjects to that U.S. database,” she said.

The ISS Program has approved that plan, which NASA can start implementing once a private astronaut taxi is up and running, Robinson added.

NASA should have been doing this from the beginning, The Russians have always wanted to do longer missions, and have been frustrated by NASA’s resistance. That the agency is now pushing to focus ISS research on learning how to do interplanetary travel is wonderful news. It means that we will finally be using ISS properly.

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Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

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U.S. formally begins exit from Paris climate agreement

On Monday the Trump administration fulfilled one of Trump’s campaign promises and formally began the year-long process to exit the Paris climate agreement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move in a statement. “President Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement because of the unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses, and taxpayers by U.S. pledges made under the Agreement,” Pompeo said. “The United States has reduced all types of emissions, even as we grow our economy and ensure our citizens’ access to affordable energy….The U.S. approach incorporates the reality of the global energy mix,” he added, arguing “innovation and open markets” will drive emissions reductions.

There is ample data that indicates the U.S. is beating the targets of the Paris accord, even though Trump made it clear very shortly after taking office that the government would no longer require its implementation.

The article is amusing in its biased effort to provide a soapbox for every special interest (from environmentalists to Democrats) to express their horror at Trump’s decision. Like most
mainstream outlets, it devotes practically no effort to give the whole story.

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China uses Long March 3B to launch GPS-type satellite

China yesterday successfully launched another Beidou GPS-type satellite, using its Long March 3B rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

22 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

China has now tied the U.S. 22 each in the national rankings, surging in launches to come from behind in the last few weeks. This is not surprising, in that China tends to concentrate its launches in the fall.

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

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Sunspot update October 2019: Sunspot activity continues to flatline

For the fifth month in a row the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, possibly the longest such stretch since astronomers began recording the sunspot cycle in the 1700s.

This flatlining is very obvious in NOAA’s October update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, released yesterday, and posted below, with annotations:

October 2019 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

SILSO October graph

As it has done in previous four months, in October the Sun produced practically no sunspots. The graph on the right, produced by Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations (SILSO), shows only one weak sunspot at the beginning of October.

Even though the previous 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded, the lack of sunspots in the past five months has significantly beaten it for inactivity, as shown on the first graph above. That previous minimum never had a period of even two months with so few sunspots. Furthermore, the Sun has now been blank 74% of the time in 2019, a record of blankness that beats the yearly record of either 2008 or 2009. If the Sun continues to be as blank as it has been for the next two months, 2019 will easily set the record for the year with the fewest sunspots ever recorded.

The big question remains: Are we heading for a grand minimum with no sunspots for decades? We still do not know. Even these unprecedented trends prove nothing, as we really do not yet have a clear understanding of why the Sun undergoes these various cycles of sunspot activity/inactivity. The Sun could still come back to life in the coming years. We can only wait and see. As I noted however in last month’s sunspot update, the arrival of a new grand minumum, the first since the 1600s, could have important consequences:

During past grand minimums there is evidence that the Earth also cooled, though the link between the two phenomenon remains circumstantial and unproven. If we see another grand minimum, and the Earth once again cools, then we might be able to finally tie these two phenomenon together.

It is essential that climate scientists pursue this question. Answering it might very well defuse the fears presently expressed by leftist politicians and the leftist press of an oncoming period of global warming.

At the same time, it might also present us with the possibility of an oncoming period of significant global cooling, during which it will be so cold that we might face crop failures (as happened in the previous grand minimum in the 1600s).

We need to know what is going on with the Sun, and its consequences for Earth, as soon as possible. Whether we can find out this solar cycle is unlikely, but a cold hard look at the data would do much to answer the question.

I wonder however if there any climate scientists around willing to do so. Questioning human-caused global warming carries great career risks. In fact, taking any position counter to the prevailing wisdom on any scientific issue appears to carry risks, as demonstrated by the experience recently when a journal decided to publish a paper that questioned modern gender politics:
» Read more

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 complete 11th day on Moon

After successfully completing their eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon, Chinese engineers have put both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 back into dormant mode for the long lunar night.

Yutu-2 traveled another 28 meters during this eleventh lunar day. It is now about 218 meters to the west of Chang’e-4.

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China launches remote sensing satellite

Using its Long March 4B rocket China today successfully launched a remote sensing Earth resources satellite.

They also once again tested grid fins on the first stage, comparable to the ones on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for controlling the landing zone of that first stage.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

21 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 22 to 21 in the national rankings..

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Cygnus successfully launched by Antares

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today successfully launched its Cygnus unmanned cargo freighter to ISS, using its Antares rocket.

This was only the third launch for Northrop Grumman this year, which matches its total last year and has been its typical count for the past decade and a half. Previously that number was mostly Pegasus launches. Now it is the Antares/Cygnus launches to ISS, as Pegasus has lost most of its business.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

20 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 22 to 20 in the national rankings.

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Upcoming schedule of Boeing & SpaceX manned capsule tests

The next two months are going to be a busy time for both Boeing and SpaceX as they attempt to complete the last tests necessary to their respectively Starliner and Crew Dragon capsules before they each launch a manned mission to ISS.

Below is that schedule as of today:

November 4: Boeing will do a Starliner pad abort test, to be live streamed.
November 6: SpaceX will do a final static fire test of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines.
November-December: SpaceX will do a series of parachute drop tests of Crew Dragon
December 17: Boeing will launch Starliner unmanned in a demo mission to ISS.
December (third week): SpaceX will complete a launch abort test of Crew Dragon

The article at the first link above provides a lot of detail about both companies’ abort tests.

Assuming these tests all go as planned, both companies will then have completed all engineering tests required prior to their first manned missions. As far as I can tell, the only thing standing in their way at that point will be filling out the voluminous paperwork that NASA is demanding from them.

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Russia ships three more engines to U.S. for ULA’s rockets

Russia announced yesterday that it has delivered three more RD-180 engines to ULA for use in its Atlas 5 rocket.

The article notes that this contract, as well as the contract with Northrop Grumman to make RD-181 engines for the Antares rocket, both end in December 2019. While ULA has said it plans to replace the Russia engine with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine (still under development), it is not clear what Northrop Grumman will do.

In both cases, Russia has delivered enough engines to cover launches for the next few years. This will give Blue Origin time to complete development of the BE-4. As for Antares, the lack of its Russian engine, combined with its inability to obtain any customers other than NASA, could spell the end of that rocket once Northrop Grumman has used up its engine stockpile.

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