Tag Archives: spaceflight

New impact on the Martian south polar cap

New impact on Mars' south pole

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on October 5, 2018 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows a recent meteorite impact that occurred sometime between July and September of 2018 on the Martian polar cap . If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. As noted in the captioned press release,

It’s notable because it occurred in the seasonal southern ice cap, and has apparently punched through it, creating a two-toned blast pattern.

The impact hit on the ice layer, and the tones of the blast pattern tell us the sequence. When an impactor hits the ground, there is a tremendous amount of force like an explosion. The larger, lighter-colored blast pattern could be the result of scouring by winds from the impact shockwave. The darker-colored inner blast pattern is because the impactor penetrated the thin ice layer, excavated the dark sand underneath, and threw it out in all directions on top of the layer.

Location on edge of south polar cap

It is not known yet the size of this meteorite. The location is shown in the overview image to the right, with the impact indicated by the white dot. The black circle in the middle of the image is the south pole itself, an area where MRO’s orbit does not allow imagery. This location, on the edge of the Martian polar cap, is helpful to scientists because it has excavated material from below the cap, providing them a peek into previously unseen the geology there. Had the impact been farther south, on the thicker cap, that hidden material below the cap would likely not have been exposed.

The cap itself is made up of both ice and frozen carbon dioxide, though the CO2 is mostly seen as frost during winter months that evaporates during the summer.

Share

Blue Origin reveals redesigned New Glenn rocket

Capitalism in space: In a video animation Blue Origin last week revealed a new redesigned version of its orbital New Glenn rocket.

There are a few notable differences between the rocket depicted in the new video and the New Glenn we saw in a similar 2017 animation. For example, the older version featured a payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds spacecraft during launch — that was bullet-shaped and 18 feet (5.4 meters) wide. The current incarnation boasts a 23-foot-wide (7 m) fairing with a traditional snub-nosed look. (A previously envisioned three-stage New Glenn featured this bigger fairing, but this booster variant is no longer part of Blue Origin’s plans.)

And the first stage’s six landing legs will apparently now deploy a bit differently — by unfolding outward from the bottom, much as Falcon 9 legs do, rather than sort of sliding downward.

These changes are almost certainly are the result of the company’s Air Force contract that gave it $500 million in development money in exchange for having a say in how the rocket is built.

For example, I am not surprised that New Glenn now more closely resembles the Falcon 9. The modern American military is not known for its daring or innovation. It had to be sued to finally agree to award contracts to SpaceX. Now that the Falcon 9 is well proven, however, the military bean-counters are probably demanding that New Glenn copy it, rather than introduce innovations of its own.

Share

NASA pulls astronaut for medical reasons from Boeing manned flight

NASA has switched one member of the planned astronaut crew for the first manned Boeing Starliner mission presently scheduled in August because of medical reasons.

Eric Boe, one of three astronauts assigned to the first piloted test flight of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew ship later this year has been removed from the mission due to unspecified medical issues, NASA announced Tuesday. He will be replaced by veteran astronaut Mike Fincke.

Boe will take over Fincke’s role as assistant to the chief for commercial crew operations in the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center. In keeping with long-standing NASA policy regarding medical privacy, no details about the reason for Boe’s reassignment were provided.

The article notes that this is only the sixth time in the entire history of American manned space that such a switch was necessary. I hope Boe’s medical issue is not serious, and wish him well with the hope he will be flying on another Boeing or SpaceX flight quite soon.

Though not directly related to this story, to my mind the real question remains: Will NASA’s bureaucracy let this flight happen in 2019? I think it will have no choice, but it will be dragged kicking and screaming to the launchpad.

Share

Arianespace slashes launch price for Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has announced that it is once again dropping the launch price for an Ariane 5 launch, in order to increase the chances it will win several contracts this year.

Arianespace is competing for two major launch contracts in the Asia-Pacific region that should be awarded this year and expects there could be tenders for another three, said [Arianespace Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia-Pacific Vivian Quenet].

The article does not mention the actual price, but Arianespace had been charging about $100 million per launch satellite, while SpaceX had been charging $62 million (for a new Falcon 9) and about $50 million (for a reused one).

Share

Rocket Lab gets DARPA launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced a new launch contract with DARPA, dedicating the company’s first launch in 2019 to that government military research agency.

DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission is scheduled for launch in late February and intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly inside the small satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit. This high compaction ratio enables larger antennas in smaller satellites, enabling satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability. The mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.

…The mission, the first of monthly Electron launches this year, will lift-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand. To ensure precise insertion and responsible orbital deployment, the R3D2 payload will be deployed via the Electron Kick Stage to a circular orbit. Using this unique launch method, Electron’s second stage is left in a highly elliptical orbit where the stage is subject to significant atmospheric drag, causing it to de-orbit and burn up to nothing in a reduced time frame. The Kick Stage is then used to deploy the satellite payload to a precise orbit, following which the Kick Stage can perform a de-orbit burn to speed up its re-entry, leaving no orbital debris behind in space. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sections in the quote above indicate the schedule. Rocket Lab had suggested last year that once it successfully completed its November and December 2018 launches it would in 2019 launch monthly. They are still clearly pushing for that schedule, but it is also clear now that they will not launch in January and their February launch will be late in the month, suggesting the next launch will likely not be in March.

These delays at this point are not significant, though if they do not ramp up to that monthly schedule by the end of 2019 it will be.

This late announcement of a payload for the first 2019 launch also suggests that DARPA was willing to pay a premium to leapfrog over Rocket Lab’s already signed customers. My industry sources also suggest that the U.S. military has in the past few months become very very interested in these new smallsat rockets, and has been approaching them all to arrange future flights.

Share

Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019

Summary: Curiosity begins journey off of Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity’s silence is now more than seven months long, with new dust storms arriving. Yutu-2 begins roving the Moon’s far side.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided to provide links to all the updates that have taken place since I provided a full list in my February 8, 2018 update. As I noted then, this allows my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past few years.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now an update of what has happened since November!
» Read more

Share

UAE’s Mars mission on schedule for 2020 launch

The new colonial movement: According to one of the chief engineers for the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) unmanned mission to Mars, dubbed Hope, the spacecraft is on schedule for its 2020 launch by a Japanese rocket.

If all goes right, Hope will go into Martian orbit in 2021.

The quotes in the article from that chief engineer reveal somewhat the overall shallowness of UAE’s space effort at this point.

Omar Hussain, Lead Mission Design and Navigation Engineer for the Emirates Mars Mission, speaking at the Science Event 2019 held at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, said the team have had to overcome a number of challenges along the way.

“It is too early to talk about a specific date just yet but everything is on track and there have been no delays,” said the 29-year-old Emirati. “Speaking for myself, it has been challenging because I had to switch from planning for Earth-based projects to interplanetary missions.

“It took a lot of education to get to that point as I had never done a mission that goes beyond the Earth’s lower orbits. I had to study how I would get the spacecraft from Earth to Mars.”

The goal with their space program is to help diversify UAE’s economy. It might eventually do this, but for now, they I think are very dependent on the help they are getting from others. Japan is providing the rocket, and India the engineering expertise for the spacecraft.

Share

Problem found with Angara’s most powerful version

The new colonial movement: Engineers of the most powerful variant of Russia’s next generation Angara family of rockets, the Angara A5, have found a serious design issue in the engines that they appear to be having problems solving.

The issue with the Angara A5 was brought to attention by scientists at rocket engine manufacturer Energomash in a paper ahead of a space conference later this month.

The paper, reported by RIA news agency on Friday and published online, said the engines of the Angara A5 could produce low frequency oscillations that could ultimately destroy the rocket.

A special valve had been fitted to mitigate the issue, but in some cases the oscillations continued, it said. Energomash did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

This sounds to me like “pogo,” a somewhat common issue with rockets. A resonance builds up within the engines during launch, and the vibration can grow strong enough to cause serious damage. The Saturn 5 had this issue during its second test launch, requiring a redesign of the upper stage engine hydrogen fuel lines.

With this history in mind, I would still not make that much of a big deal about this issue. The Angara A5 is a new rocket. It simply needs testing in flight followed by engineering revisions to work out these kinks.

The problem will be Russia’s government. Putin wants this rocket flying, for his own political purposes, and the question remains whether he will allow its proper engineering development to proceed at the correct pace. This does not mean development should be slow, but that failure is accepted and allowed for while you maintain a fast pace.

Share

Hayabusa-2 names features on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science/engineering teams have now revealed the names they have given to all the significant features on Ryugu that they have photographed.

To name a place on a celestial body in the Solar System, you must first decide on a theme. For example, the theme for places on Venus is the “names of goddesses”. During discussions between the domestic and overseas project members, suggestions such as “names of castles around the world”, “word for ‘dragon’ in different languages” and the “names of deep-sea creatures” were proposed for the place name theme on Ryugu. After an intense debate, the theme was selected to be “names that appear in stories for children” and a theme proposal was put to the IAU WG. The proposal was accepted on September 25, after which the discussion moved to selecting the topographical features to be named and the choice of name.

The link provides a table describing the meaning of many of the names, which is often quite amusing. For example, Kolobok Crater comes from a Russian story about “A small round bread that ran away from home.”

Share

Kickstarter campaign starts to finance launch of garage-built cubesat

Capitalism in space: PocketQube has initiated a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund the launch of its first home-made plastic cubesat.

I have written about this project previously, because it epitomizes the old-fashioned vision of a single guy or gal working in his or her basement or garage to build a new invention. It now appears they are getting close to being ready to launch.

Make sure you watch their video at the first link above. It not only explains what they’ve accomplished so far as well as what they hope to do, it is quite amusing at how it pokes fun at the kind of fake-epic videos we see from NASA, promising big but delivering little. In the case of this project, they are instead promising little, but if they succeed they should deliver big.

This quote from the Kickstarter page though I think reveals once again where the real barriers to commercial space lie:

The biggest risk to the project is licensing. The FCC has placed additional burdens on small satellite operators after an incident earlier this year that resulted in four unlicensed satellites being placed into orbit. Possible delays in our applications could result in Mini-Cubes missing the flight. We do have a backup flight should that happen but it will not launch until 2020 at the earliest.

The quote refers to Swarm’s unlicensed launch of four cubesats in March 2018, and the FCC’s subsequent response, imposing fines and strict reporting requirements on Swarm. It now appears some of those strict reporting requirements have been applied across the board to all cubesat companies, increasing costs and paperwork, and even threatening their viability.

No matter the justification, it is once again the government that stands in the way of the ability of free humans to follow their dreams. I have seen this pattern repeat itself for the last half century, resulting in little space exploration since the Apollo landings. It now stands in the way of a new revolution in commercial space.

Share

First unmanned test flight of manned Dragon now set for Feb 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first unmanned test launch of its manned Dragon capsule, delayed repeated in recent months, has now been scheduled for no early than Feb 9, with its dress rehearsal countdown static fire test set for January 23.

It appears that this scheduled date is more firm than the previous ones, as it was announced as part of the upcoming schedule of the Eastern Range’s planning schedule.

The article provides some interesting details about the effect (or non-effect) the government shutdown on this launch. Bottom line: It should not prevent it, in the slightest. It must be repeatedly noted that the launch will use a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX run launchpad, and will only require NASA participation during docking procedures, procedures that require NASA employees who have been deemed essential and thus are working (even if unpaid at the moment).

Share

Democratic House threatens Webb cancellation

The House, now controlled by the Democratic Party, has threatened cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope should that project, already overbudget by $8 billion and 9 years behind schedule, fail to meet its present budget limits.

[The House budget] bill includes the full $304.6 million requested for JWST in 2019, but the report accompanying the bill offered harsh language, and a warning, regarding the space telescope given the cost overruns and schedule delays announced last year.

“There is profound disappointment with both NASA and its contractors regarding mismanagement, complete lack of careful oversight, and overall poor basic workmanship on JWST,” the report states. “NASA and its commercial partners seem to believe that congressional funding for this project and other development efforts is an entitlement, unaffected by failures to stay on schedule or within budget.”

The bill does increase the cost cap for JWST by about $800 million, to a little more than $8.8 billion, to address the latest overruns. “NASA should strictly adhere to this cap or, under this agreement, JWST will have to find cost savings or cancel the mission,” the report states.

I really don’t take this Congressional threat seriously. Our Congress is universally known in Washington as an easy mark for big money. The technique is called a buy-in, where you initially lowball the budget of your project, get it started, and then when it goes overbudget, Congress routinely shovels out the money to continue. Webb is a classic and maybe the worst example of this, but this game has been going on since the 1960s, with no sense that the Congresses of the last half century have had any problem with it.

And I especially don’t take it seriously from the Democrats who, even more than the Republicans, like to shovel money out.

The bankrupt unwillingness of both parties to care for the interest of the country for the past few decades in this matter explains why we have federal debt exceeding $20 trillion.

Share

Ariane 6 might be in trouble

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced that they will not be able to begin full production of their next generation rocket, Ariane 6, unless they get four more contracts from the partners in the European Space Agency.

With the maiden flight of the Ariane 6 now 18 months away (in July 2020), Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the company had anticipated signing a manufacturing contract with ArianeGroup in the second part of last year to begin production beyond the first rocket.

So far, European public entities have purchased three Ariane 6 missions — two from the European Commission for launching Galileo navigation satellites, and one from France for the CSO-3 military imaging satellite — but have not committed to the number envisioned at the start of the Ariane 6 program in 2014.

“We are confident it will happen,” Israël said of the remaining government missions. “But it is not done yet. We are working in this direction. It is now quite urgent because industry has anticipated the manufacturing of these first launchers, but now we need these institutional contracts to fully contractualize the first Ariane 6s.”

I wonder if the fact that the cost for an Ariane 6 launch is expected to be remain higher than a comparable SpaceX launch is the reason they are having trouble getting a commitment from their European partners. Why buy this rocket, when you can get the same service for less?

Share

Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

Share

ULA successfully launches U.S. spy satellite

Capitalism in space: Using its Delta-4 Heavy rocket, the most powerful in its rocket family, ULA today successfully placed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite into orbit.

It was also revealed in this article that ULA plans a total of seven launches in 2019, including today’s launch, the fewest in a year since ULA was formed in 2007 from a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The standings in the 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA

The U.S. leads in the national standings 2 to 1 over China.

Share

Scientists calculate length of Saturn’s day

Using Cassini data of the rotation rate of Saturn’s rings, scientists have calculated what they think is the precise rotation rate of the planet itself.

Using new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers believe they have solved a longstanding mystery of solar system science: the length of a day on Saturn. It’s 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds. The figure has eluded planetary scientists for decades, because the gas giant has no solid surface with landmarks to track as it rotates, and it has an unusual magnetic field that hides the planet’s rotation rate.

The answer, it turned out, was hidden in the rings. During Cassini’s orbits of Saturn, instruments examined the icy, rocky rings in unprecedented detail. Christopher Mankovich, a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, used the data to study wave patterns within the rings. His work determined that the rings respond to vibrations within the planet itself, acting similarly to the seismometers used to measure movement caused by earthquakes. The interior of Saturn vibrates at frequencies that cause variations in its gravitational field. The rings, in turn, detect those movements in the field.

…Mankovich’s research, published Jan. 17 by Astrophysical Journal, describes how he developed models of Saturn’s internal structure that would match the rings’ waves. That allowed him to track the movements of the interior of the planet – and thus, its rotation. [emphasis mine]

This work certainly seems ingenious, clever, and somewhat convincing, but I must admit I laughed when I read their estimate of the day length above, to the second. That is ridiculous. Their margin of error cannot possibly be that small. Mankovich has for sure narrowed the uncertainty in the length of Saturn’s day, but forgive me if I remain skeptical as to the precision claimed.

Share

Volcanic vent between Arsia and Pavonis Monsa

volcanic vent on Mars

Cool image time. The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken in September by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was part of the November image release. Click on the image to see the entire photograph at full resolution.

The uncaptioned release dubs this feature as “Small Eruptive Vents South of Pavonis Mons.” In truth, these vent pits are located almost exactly the same distance from both Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the line of three giant Martian volcanoes, and Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the three.

The image is interesting for several reasons. First, note the bulge surrounding the vent, making this look almost like a miniature volcano all its own. In fact, that is probably what it is. When it was active that bulge was likely caused by that activity, though it is hard to say whether the bulge was caused by flow coming from out of the vent, or by pressure from below pushing upward to cause the ground to rise. It could even have been a combination of both.

To my eye, most of the bulge was probably caused from pressure from below pushing upward. The edge of the bulge does not look like the leading edge of a lava flow. Still, this probably happened so long ago that Martian wind erosion and dust could have obscured that leading edge.

That this is old is indicated by the dunelike ripples inside the large pit, and the pond of trapped dust in the smaller pit. Because of the thinness of the Martian atmosphere it takes time to gather that much dust, during which time no eruptions have occurred.

One more interesting detail: If you look at the pits in full resolution, you will see that, based on the asymmetrical wind patterns between the west and east rims, the prevailing winds here are from the west. Located as it is just to the east of the gigantic saddle between Arsia and Pavonis Mons, this wind orientation makes sense, as a saddle between mountains tends to concentrate the wind, much like a narrowed section in a river produces faster water flow and rapids. As for why the wind blows mostly from the west, my guess (which should not be taken very seriously) is that it is probably caused by the same meteorological phenomenon that causes this generally on Earth, the planet’s rotation.

Share

Smallsat rocket company Relativity Space gets Air Force okay to launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat startup company Relativity Space has gotten Air Force approval to launch its 3D printed Terran rocket from Cape Canaveral.

They are now in negotiations to obtain a twenty year lease on one of the launchpads there.

Relativity hopes to sign a 20-year agreement granting it exclusive use of Launch Complex 16, a former Titan and Pershing missile site also used by NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. It was deactivated in 1988.

The company plans to spend more than $10 million to renovate the pad, build payload processing and integration hangars and install fuel and lightning protection systems.

It’s not yet known how many jobs will be based in Florida. The company has grown from 14 to 60 people over the past year, adding experience with a dozen former senior executives of existing Cape launchers SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance

The company has raised significant investment capital, $45 million, but there is no indication from the article when they plan their first test launches.

Share

New local dust storm activity near silent Opportunity

The Opportunity science team reported today that they have noted an increase in local dust storm activity just south of the silent rover.

The storm is expected to increase in opacity (tau) at the rover site to greater than 1.5 over the next few days. No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018) during the historic global dust storm. Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. Since the loss of signal, the team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver.

This activity, plus the fact that they have still not been able to re-establish contact with the rover during the recent dust devil season, when they had hoped a devil might clear the dust off the solar panels, bodes very bad for the rover. The Curiosity team is also seeing more dust activity, and notes that these dust storms will also act to reduce the number of dust devils.

Share

Japan’s Epsilon rocket launches seven engineering test satellites

The new colonial movement: Japan today used its Epsilon rocket, designed to cost less, to successfully launch seven engineering test satellites.

This was Epsilon’s fourth launch, and the first to launch one than one satellite in orbit.

The standings 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan

Share

Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
» Read more

Share

SpaceX shifts some Starship/Super Heavy construction to Texas

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided to shift some of the construction of its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket from Los Angeles to its Boca Chica facility in Texas.

In tweets later Jan. 16, Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said that development of the vehicle itself, including the Raptor engines that power it, would continue in Hawthorne, while at least the prototype versions of Starship are built in Texas. “We are building the Starship prototypes locally at our launch site in Texas, as their size makes them very difficult to transport,” he said.

A shift to South Texas, industry sources said, could be a way to reduce expenses, given the lower cost of living there versus the Los Angeles area. However, that region of Texas has a much smaller workforce, particularly in aerospace, compared to Southern California.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing from my sources in the industry that SpaceX is facing more serious problems because of the coming decline in the manufacture of large geosynchronous satellites. The smallsat revolution appears to be the cause, and SpaceX’s larger rockets are not ideal for launching these tiny satellites. I am not entirely convinced of this pessimistic conclusion, but if SpaceX is in trouble it will likely be a tragedy for manned spaceflight. The smallsat rockets cannot put people in space. Neither can the gigantic government rockets like SLS. Without innovative companies like SpaceX building and launching large rockets for profit, the development of the large inexpensive rockets needed for human travel will be significantly hampered.

Share

Fix pinpointed for Hubble main camera

Engineers have identified the issue that put the main camera of the Hubble Space Telescope into safe mode last week, and expect to have the camera back in operation in two or three days.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) took itself offline last week as a safety precaution, after onboard software noticed anomalous voltage readings within the instrument. But Hubble team members have now determined that voltage levels actually remained within the normal range, ascribing the glitch to a telemetry issue rather than a power-supply problem.

The mission team reset the relevant telemetry circuits, gathered some more engineering data and then brought the WFC3 back to an operational state. “All values were normal. Additional calibration and tests will be run over the next 48 to 72 hours to ensure that the instrument is operating properly,” NASA officials wrote in a Hubble update Tuesday (Jan. 15).

None of this changes the reality that it is almost a decade since the last shuttle repair mission, and Hubble is facing a long slow decline leading to its eventual loss, with no replacement planned by anyone.

Share

Summer has finally arrived on Titan’s northern hemisphere

The uncertainty of science: In a review of Cassini data from 2016, scientists have finally identified rain in the northern polar regions of Titan, signaling the onset of summer there.

The whole Titan community has been looking forward to seeing clouds and rains on Titan’s north pole, indicating the start of the northern summer, but despite what the climate models had predicted, we weren’t even seeing any clouds,” said Rajani Dhingra, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Idaho in Moscow, and lead author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “People called it the curious case of missing clouds.”

Dhingra and her colleagues identified a reflective feature near Titan’s north pole on an image taken June 7, 2016, by Cassini’s near-infrared instrument, the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. The reflective feature covered approximately 46,332 square miles, roughly half the size of the Great Lakes, and did not appear on images from previous and subsequent Cassini passes.

Analyses of the short-term reflective feature suggested it likely resulted from sunlight reflecting off a wet surface. The study attributes the reflection to a methane rainfall event, followed by a probable period of evaporation. “It’s like looking at a sunlit wet sidewalk,” Dhingra said.

Though the data somewhat matches their climate models, those models did not predict the rain’s late arrival, which means they need revision. I guarantee that this will not be the last revision, though without an orbiter at Saturn it will probably be decades before we have new data to make that possible.

Share

Argentinian smallsat company signs 90 satellite deal with China

An Argentinian smallsat company, Satellogic, has signed a 90 satellite launch deal with China.

Satellogic’s constellation seems likely to compete with the remote-imaging satellite constellations operated by San Francisco-based Planet and Seattle-based BlackSky. The company promises to remap Earth at 1-meter pixel resolution every week and dramatically reduce the cost of high-frequency geospatial analytics.

The deal is officially signed with a so-called private launch company in China dubbed China Great Wall Industry, but that company merely acts as an agent for a Chinese government space operation, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

What this means however is that China’s launch rate is going to go even higher in the next few years.

Share

A detailed look at the layoffs at SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Link here. Because of California’s complex employee protection laws, SpaceX has provided the government there a detailed list describing the 577 layoffs taking place in California.

Technicians — a critical role at any rocket company — make up the lion’s share of laid-off employees, with 174 positions eliminated (30.2% of all layoffs in Hawthorne). Engineers come next with 97 jobs let go, or nearly 17% of the locally terminated workforce.

Managers and supervisors together make up about 7% of the layoffs in Hawthorne. Positions listed under “Other” include baristas, dishwashers, drivers, recruiters, writers, and an investigator.

The article really doesn’t tell us much, other than the large majority of the 10% reduction are occurring in California, which makes me wonder if SpaceX is acting to reduce its presence in that high-tax, high-regulation state.

Share

Arianespace plans at least 12 launches in 2019

Capitalism in space: The head of Arianespace today announced that it plans at least 12 launches in 2019.

Stéphane Israël, CEO of Evry, France-based Arianespace, said the company has four launches of the light-lift Vega rocket planned for this year, plus the maiden flight of the next-generation Vega C.

Arianespace’s first mission of the year is an Ariane 5 launch on Feb. 5. The rocket will carry two satellites — Arabsat’s Saudi GeoSat-1/Hellas Sat-4 and the Indian space agency ISRO’s GSAT-31 — to geostationary transfer orbit. All five Ariane 5 missions planned for this year will carry two satellites, as is customary, Israël said in an interview.

Israël said Arianespace has three firm Soyuz launches on its 2019 manifest, starting mid-February with the launch of 10 small telecom satellites for internet megaconstellation startup OneWeb.

Israël actually lists thirteen launches here, so I am not sure why the article sets the number at twelve. This number is only two more than my initial estimate based on scheduled launches listed here.

Share

Update on Chang’e-4 plant experiments

Link here. It appears the plant experiment has now run its course, designed as it was to end before the arrival of the first lunar night.

The experiment’s chief designer, Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, told Xinhua that life inside the canister would not survive the lander’s first lunar night, which started on Sunday. The moon’s nighttime period lasts for about two Earth weeks.

It also appears that though the plant experiment included potato, cotton, and oilseed rape, only the cotton seeds spouted. China has only released a limited amount of information about this research, so to get further details we will likely have to wait for the published papers.

Share

More updates from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site

Link here. The article reviews what has been done for the past few months, as well as what has been done most recently. All of this new work appears focused on preparing for test flights of Starship and Super Heavy.

I should note however that I am beginning to sense a little bit of Barnum in this work. The steel-clad Starship Hopper that SpaceX has assembled here is clearly not even close to doing any hopper tests, as it doesn’t appear to have fuel tanks and its engines appear to be mere “placeholders for fit checks.” It looks really really cool, however, and is impossible to hide to the public, so it thus has garnered the company a lot of attention.

Share
1 2 3 213