Monday, August 2, 2021

While We Were Having A Weekend, SpaceX Was...

While we were having a weekend SpaceX was doing their version of going "where no man has gone before."  In this case, doing a few things no one has ever done before.  These are absolutely necessary steps for the first attempt at an orbital flight of Starship and the Super Heavy booster.  I don't know which part is most important but they're all important. 

First, they lifted the Orbital Launch Table onto the OLP or Orbital Launch Pad, the six-legged structure that's been in process for almost a year.  The two big cranes, Buucky and Kong, lifted the table into place where the final assembly was worked on.  


I highlighted the structure with a red circle.  I don't think the work on the table is complete, but it's standing on its own, with nothing attached to either crane.  Kong's cables and attachment point are visible above the OLT/OLP and Buucky, the large yellow crane, is pointed in a different direction.  

The other large story is that Booster 4 made a huge leap towards being ready to fly.  In one of what most be the most surprising tasks they've taken on, starting yesterday, all 29 Raptor engines were installed on B4 between Sunday night and this morning, the final two being put in place by the day shift this morning.  

After accepting delivery of five new Raptor engines earlier the same day, Super Heavy Booster 4’s (B4) first Raptor rolled out of one of SpaceX’s Starship factory tents around 6pm CDT to form what would become a line of engines awaiting installation. One by one, Raptors were rolled out of that tent and by 5am CDT, an incredible 25 engines had been spotted and installed on Super Heavy. Come shift handoff around 6am, 27 Raptors had reportedly been installed in 12 hours. The two remaining engines likely joined them an hour or two later, marking 29 high-performance rocket engines installed in just 12-14 hours.

Elon Musk Tweeted this picture


That's a busy looking area!  We don't know what the plans are for how much thrust they're going to try to set for this mission, but it's potentially the most powerful launch in history. 

It's possible that B4 can be transported to the Orbital Launch Pad as early as tomorrow, August 3rd, but that's just based on what appears to be ready and one Tweet by Musk in response to a NASA Spaceflight.com picture of the Table and Orbital Launch Pad being worked on.

Needs to be level & match booster fittings. We will find out on ~Tuesday.

It's also worth noting that the Grid Fins for B4 were installed over the weekend as well.   These are not cast titanium like the Falcon 9's grid fins, but welded steel.  They aren't retracted down parallel to the booster's body during the mission, but are rotatable for control purposes.  There's a worker visible in the upper right, behind the black crane or lift.  If that guy is in the range of about 6' tall, the grid fins look to be the length and maybe width of a small car.  Those fins are going to support the weight of the booster when it's recovered out of the air during descent after the flight. 

Photo credit to BocaChicaGal at NASASpaceflight.com - as usual.

Back in May, SpaceX had reported they had a goal of completing the first orbital mission of Starship in the "third quarter."  This isn't a government job and they didn't mean the third quarter of the Fed.gov's fiscal year, April through June, but the calendar third quarter: July through September.  July is over and we can sense the urgency to meet their self-imposed schedule of this quarter.  August or September?  Good question.  I'll be watching.



Sunday, August 1, 2021

How We Know It's August in Florida

The first indicator isn't the calendar.  The first indicator is when the UV Index says 11 on a scale of 10 and uses the description, "Potentially Fatal."  We know that's aimed at visitors to the area who aren't used to it and don't pay much attention.  

There are many places where folks look forward to summer; it's time to go outside - maybe for the first time in months, enjoy warm, glorious days; garden, bike, picnic; maybe enjoy a book while lounging on the beach.  Songs like Nat King Cole's classic "Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" come to mind.

That's not here.  Here, summer is something to be a bit more reserved about.  If you live here, you can keep up with your regular life.  If you were from a moderate place, not used to our heat and humidity, running or other outdoors activity could conceivably kill you.  August marks the Dog Days of Summer; everything outdoors slows.  Fishing slows - sure the fish have to eat, but they become more active after dark.  Animals are more sluggish.  Ordinarily, it can be nasty here from about mid-July to almost the middle of September.  The worst of it is August. 

When we first got an HDTV years ago, Mrs. Graybeard and I naturally spent much of our TV time searching out HD programming.  One of the first movies we watched was "The Chronicles of Riddick".  You have to understand this is not even particularly good scifi.  It's a fun movie to watch, it's a visual treat, it's a fantastic display of special effects perfect for HD, but don't pay too much attention to the story.  To quote a review (long gone from the net), "Furyans, Necromongers, Elementals, The Underverse, the Threshold...it so clearly wants to be epic that it forgets to tie all of these disparate worlds, universes and civilizations into a coherent story. (Director) Twohy clearly makes the mistake of not realizing that there is a huge difference between being grand and being simply confusing and the more ideas that are introduced, the more lumbering it becomes…"   

We still watch it on occasion when we run into it.

A large portion of the movie, and one of the longest action sequences, takes place on the planet Crematoria (many of the names in the movie are that cheesy).  Crematoria is a planet that has a tremendous temperature variation (probably an impossible amount) with daytime temperatures of 700F and night time temperatures 300 below zero.  When the sunrise terminator sweeps through, the force of the heat gales that come with it is literally enough to blow you apart, disintegrating flesh and blowing pieces off until you die.  There's a scene where a character (Purifier), a Furyan like Riddick, sacrifices himself by walking into the sunrise terminator and self-immolating.  That's him trying to stand up to the gales while being set afire and having pieces of burning flesh blown off him.

The first time I saw that scene, it reminded me of the time we decided to do a long bike ride on July 4th (I think it was a hundred mile ride, but for sure it was a virtually all day ride).  I mentioned it to Mrs. Graybeard who said, "sure, we've been out on days like that."  

The National Weather Service publishes charts for heat index that show the amount of danger from the combination of heat and humidity.  This is one of their charts.  I've drawn a box around the typical morning conditions here.  "Extreme caution" conditions are common.  In the afternoon, it pushes farther into the orange, maybe red.  This afternoon, for example, it was 93 with humidity around 75%.

And that's what life here is like for August plus or minus a week or two.  Stay out of the sun.  Do your outdoor activities near sunrise or sunset.  Don't expose bare skin to the sun any longer than necessary - and even then, use sunscreen if you need to be out when the sun is intense, say from 10 AM to 4 PM.  SPF 3 million is adequate.  Without air conditioning and mosquito control, a technological civilization could not exist here.

 

 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Weekend Shop Update on the 1 by 1 - part 3

"When we last left the story..."  I prepared a machining fixture, temporarily mounted the two chunks of metal that will become the side plates and said that tool paths were the next big step.   

As I started working on the tool paths, I saw an area that concerned me.  I planned to cut the part by waterline machining, which is parallel paths around the part as if the part is surrounded by water which is lowered a little bit at a time.  If the part is a simple rectangular or square box, this is simple enough to do by hand.  You just give the program the coordinates of start and stop points and tell it to go from one to the other, lowering the cutter every pass around it.  In a part with complex surfaces like this one, it either becomes a very involved program with dozens or hundreds of points you have to find, or you use Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software, which is what I did. 

The program I'm using is an old version of DeskProto, version 5. I bought this software about a decade ago, and while it has been updated several times, they appear to be offering what I bought as a free version now, and you pay to add capabilities in the SW.  I need to look at the free version and see if it's better than what I have.  I have to arm wrestle DeskProto to get it to do what I want; the problem is even when I do, I don't get exactly what I want.  This is a screen capture showing the tool paths before I save them to a file.  The green lines are what are called rapids, or rapid movements; G0 or G00 in Gcode; these are as fast as your machine can move.  The red lines are the regular movements with a controlled feed rate.


I end up editing the tool paths in a text editor to remove those loops around the raised center area; that top surface is Z=0 and that area is already flat.  Some of those paths would cut off my mounting bolts if I didn't do this.. Then I check it in GWizard Editor from CNCCookbook.com to ensure it's cutting right. There still appears to be wasted motions that I'd like it to not make, but since I'm not trying to save every second of machine time, I won't try to edit them out.

This made me concentrate on that little triangular area in the lower right.  That's a large corner that's getting cut away, and what the image doesn't show is that the waterline paths will cut a slot in the aluminum there.  Eventually an inch deep and the 1/2" width of the cutter I'm using.  That concerned me because the cooling system I'm using, a misting coolant called a FogBuster, isn't going to get into a deep slot and blow the chips out like flood cooling will.  I decided to cut away that corner manually.  To do that, I had to figure out where to start and stop along that angular path.  Enter the design program again.

The only thing here that wasn't done by eye and saying "that looks close enough" was to draw the circles the size of the cutting tool (0.500") and pick places to put them.  The reason points 2 and 3 are farther off the edge than 1 and 2 is that I tested the points I had and the cutter didn't go past the edge of the blank.  I drew the rectangle wrong, so I moved 2 and 3 further along the angled path.  Then I wrote a GCode file that moves the cutter in numerical order, 1 to 4 and back to 1 and does that loop over and over.  That will cut away most of that big piece of waste, the only part of the blank to cut away. 

It didn't take long to notice that the cuts didn't seem to be as deep as the Mach 3 display (DRO) was saying as it was cutting.  When the file was done, instead of being all the way through the 1" thick piece, it was cut about a half inch deep. The cutter had driven the rest of the way up into the collet. I thought I had tightened that as tight as always. Oh, well...

I repositioned the cutter (a 1/2" carbide, 4-flute end mill), tightened very tightly and started the cut again. This time, it cut farther down, but still left a sizable ledge on the work - maybe .050 thick. I trimmed that back but every time I cut another pass, it didn't seem to cut any more of the edge away.  

Since the cut had pretty much achieved its purpose of trimming away most of that corner, I said it was close enough to done and decided to do the actual cut. I re-zeroed the cutter in the collet yet again and loaded the big Gcode file.  This file also left a thick ledge again.  You can see it in the red highlighted area, especially on the left.  That area on the right that looks thin with an irregular edge was from the cut to remove the metal in that area.

At this point, I took the carbide cutter out and replaced it with one of my older High Speed Steel (HSS) cutters that I had used several times before.  I suspected that the first cutter might be too small in diameter and that's why the collet couldn't grab it securely enough.  It's a cutter I got from some dood's table at Cabin Fever in '15, so maybe it was surplus because it was imperfect?  My mistake in retrospect was that I never stopped to analyze the problem and didn't really ask, "why is this a problem now and never has been before?"

I did the same exact file with the HSS cutter, spent about 10 minutes cutting air before it got to the bottom and it also left part of bottom too thick. By this time, it was late enough to shut down in the shop and I said I'd look closer at the cutter and collet today.

The cutter diameter was fine. The carbide cutter measured 0.4995 to my manual micrometer while the HSS cutter measured 0.4985. The diameter clearly wasn't the issue, so I cleaned out the collet with a paper "shop towel" (the blue paper kind) and some mineral spirits.  I don't know how it got oil in there, and I didn't see anything on the paper towel, but I put the carbide cutter back in the collet and did the last couple of passes around the side plate (I edited the file to remove everything above cutting to -0.950). This time, it left a thinner margin on the very left side of the blank, but it still had a visibly thicker area.  I re-checked the Z-axis and the cutter hadn't moved, so that meant the work must have moved due to the cutting forces. I lowered the last cut from the value the CAM set (-1.001) down to -1.004 and ran it again, this time resulting in a proper looking side plate.   I think the reason that previous try left some material on the left side is I inadvertently didn't position a backing plate under the left edge.

The end result of the trials.  There's a little metal around the bottom edge - or there appears to be some.  I think a little deburring will take care of that. On the table like this, there aren't many dimensions I can check but they all check to within about .002"with a tolerance of .005".  There's lots of adventures ahead with these two pieces; for starters I need to trim off the corresponding on the other side plate (visible at the right edge of the picture) and then do the big file of cuts on it.  That's just barely getting started.



Friday, July 30, 2021

About that Russian Space Station Module, Nauka

Back near the end of June, we introduced the Russian replacement module for the International Space Station, named Nauka (science).  The module didn't launch by the "No Earlier Than" date that was given at the time, but the mission successfully launched on July 21.  There were early reports of troubles with the Proton booster's upper stage, and the first planned burn to raise the module's orbit was delayed.   

Sources said Russian ground teams were evaluating issues on the Nauka module soon after its launch Wednesday, prompting managers to forego the mission’s first planned orbit adjustment burn. The issues were not expected to be a major concern for the module’s rendezvous and docking with the space station.

The problems were resolved and Roscosmos ground controllers successfully raised its orbit slowly until it was able to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.  

Nauka is to replace the Russian Pirs (Pier) module, which has been part of the ISS for 20 years, so the module was undocked from the ISS on the 26th and then set on path for a destructive re-entry with a Progress Cargo Freighter providing the deceleration.  Here's the two of them as seen from the ISS. 

Photo Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now 

The Nauka module arrived at the ISS yesterday, the 29th, and the docking took place at 8:31 AM CDT (13:30 UTC).  There are two Russian Cosmonauts on the station, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, and the two were assigned the process of  “waking up” Nauka and integrating the new spacecraft with the station’s systems. 

The process was apparently going nominally until just over three hours later; 11:34 AM CDT when the Nauka module's maneuvering thrusters unexpectedly started firing.  The ISS is nothing if not enormous, stretching the length of a football field  with a mass of more than 930,000 pounds, but in the microgravity of orbit, small amounts of energy injected turn into movement, which turn into changing the position - the attitude - of the ISS.  The space station ended up tilted up about 45 degrees from its normal, intended orientation, moving at roughly half a degree per second at one point. 

Attitude control was fully lost at 11:42 am, and engines on the space station's service module were fired. This was followed by a handover to the Russian Progress vehicle attached to the station, which began to fire its thrusters. This tug-of-war offset the Nauka module thruster activity, which eventually stopped after fuel supplies were exhausted. By 12:29 pm on Thursday, attitude control was restored. It made for quite an hour on the ground and in space.

A video summary from Space.com is here.  

Just as there are standard procedures, some automated, for restoring loss of proper attitude, there are procedures for the aftermath and in "an abundance of caution," today's launch of Boeing's Starliner test flight was ordered held until Tuesday.  Starliner, of course, is heading for the ISS and there's perhaps a bit more concern than usual to verify everything is nominal on the ISS. 



Thursday, July 29, 2021

As SpaceX Prepares Superheavy to Fly

Over at SpaceX Boca Chica, Texas, the Orbital Launch Integration Tower had its final section put into place yesterday (July 28) extending it to its full height of ~440 feet.  That was originally supposed to have been done the day before, but some issue kept them from proceeding.  Elon Musk says that what they do now is essentially convert the OLIT to Mechazilla, the robotic version of Godzilla.  Or something like that.  

While none of us know exactly what this is going to eventually look like, it's clear that pipes to get liquid methane and oxygen (LOX) to the Superheavy booster and Starship upper stage need to be added to the OLIT, along with provisions for every monitoring cable that will attach to both.  There will be elevators to get to various levels and a large crane to lift the Starship upper stages onto the boosters (the motor for something like those has been installed).  I'm sure there's lots more that I'm not thinking of, but as of now, it looks fairly empty.  That's the OLIT on the left here, with the ground support tanks in the middle foreground.

Photo by bocachicagal, Mary, for NASASpaceflight.com.

While the work continues of completing the OLIT, the first Orbital Launch Pad, which we've known was coming for almost a year, has also become the target of some work.  The table to be installed on the launch pad also moved to a position next to the pad this week.  It's easy to underestimate how big a task SpaceX has created for itself here.  A vehicle the size and liftoff thrust of a Starship/Superheavy combination has never existed anywhere.  NASA took a couple of years to build the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads for the Saturn V, and that's a smaller task than this.  When you add in the capability of catching the returning boosters and turning them around for reuse, nobody in history has done this. 


Photo by Nic Ansuini on Twitter.

The booster currently on the test stand (visible far lower right corner above), B3, is not intended to fly and never intended to carry a full complement of Raptor engines.  Elon Musk revealed a view of the piping inside the Superheavy booster, most likely a photograph of the inside of Booster 4, currently being assembled at the shipyard.  

For the most part, Super Heavy is just a colossal duo of steel propellant tanks that is – to an extent – even simpler than its smaller Starship upper stage, which needs two types of Raptor engines, flaps, a bevy of maneuvering thrusters, and more. However, at the booster’s base, SpaceX must design, fabricate, and assemble a nightmarishly crowded and complex mechanical structure capable of mounting, fueling, and powering anywhere from 29 to 33 Raptor engines.

Simultaneously, that structure and all associated plumbing must withstand the force and pressure of more than 2000 metric tons of cryogenic liquid oxygen and the 7500 tons (16.5 million lbf) of thrust those Raptors can generate. That’s just the bare minimum, though.

Nightmarishly crowded and complex is an apt description.  I have trouble simply counting the number of workers in there trying to bring B4 to life.  Now consider the environment that will experience.  On the far side of that spaghetti-maze of pipes, will be nearly three dozen rocket engines burning fuel at a couple of thousand degrees.  On this side, the temperatures will be cryogenic with liquid oxygen in the vicinity of -300 F and liquid methane about 40 degrees warmer.   

SpaceX is being uniquely open about what they're doing, in showing pictures like this and hosting the various cameras that watch everything 24/7.  This is probably doing more to encourage STEM education, or more education and training than just about any of the regular programs out there. 



Wednesday, July 28, 2021

RIP Dusty Hill of ZZ Top

The news broke late today that Dusty Hill, bassist for ZZ Tip passed away in his sleep last night.  He was 72.  

ZZ Top: L-R Dusty Hill, bass, Billy Gibbons on guitar and Frank Beard on the drums (which I remember because the guy without a beard is named Beard).   Photo credit: R. Diamond / WireImage 

The band released statements today that sound like they were really written by a PR Person.  That article link above (NY Post) includes the statement.

“We are saddened by the news today that our compadre, Dusty Hill, has passed away in his sleep at home in Houston, Texas,” wrote ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard and lead vocalist Billy Gibbons in a joint statement Wednesday, Rolling Stone reported. “We, along with legions of ZZ Top fans around the world, will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature, and enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the ‘Top.’ We will forever be connected to that ‘Blues Shuffle in C.’ You will be missed greatly, amigo.”

Everyone knows the show business axiom that "the show must go on," and there has been talk already about resuming their tour (they cancelled tonight's show), and possibly another bassist, since Dusty had been having some health issues.  (He had left the tour recently because of hip issues.)  On The Other Hand.  These same three guys have been playing together since the late '60s.  After releasing their first record and playing professionally, they played their high school prom in 1970.  

(L-R this time) Dusty, Frank, Billy.  Photo source.

Why does it matter?  After a while, musicians get to know what their band mates are going to do.  They complete each other's sentences.  Billy is going to be expecting the new bass player to do something specific (both note and timing) and sometimes it's not going to be there.  

I've been fond of these guys for a long time.  I started noticing the lyrics to some of their songs and thinking these guys couldn't possibly take themselves too seriously; they were in it for the fun.  Then I saw the fur-covered guitar and bass during the 80s and it was easy to like them.  

Rest well, Dusty.  We'll miss you.



Tuesday, July 27, 2021

It Looks Like Bezos Is Going to Try...

Try what?  Last Wednesday, the day after Jeff Bezos' suborbital flight, Eric Berger at Ars Technica wondered aloud if Bezos was still "all-in" on the company's mission and going to try to turn it around,  

So after he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. He has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin’s success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder and instead mostly retire to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joyride?

This week, it's (at least) starting to look like he's going to try to save Blue Origin.   

Jeff Bezos published an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Monday morning and offered to pay more than $2 billion to get the agency's Human Landing System program "back on track." In effect, the founder of Blue Origin and world's richest person says he will self-invest in a lunar lander because NASA does not have the money to do so.

NASA's Artemis program aspires to land humans on the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustainable settlement on the surface. As part of this project, the agency is seeking reusable, affordable transportation to the Moon and back. It conducted a competition for a human lander (HLS) and announced in April that it would move forward with SpaceX and its Starship proposal. NASA had wanted two providers for such a lander, but due to low appropriations from Congress, it could afford only one.

At the end of April '20, NASA selected three contractors to begin initial development of lunar landing systems to take astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.  The three teams and their contracts were the Blue Origin "National Team" of big names in aerospace with a $579 million dollar contract, Dynetics with a $253 million contract, and SpaceX with a $135 million contract. This April, NASA downselected from three to just SpaceX as sole provider of the lunar landing system. They had previously said they were going to select two providers but congress had cut their budget too much.

For the current fiscal year, NASA said it needed $3.3 billion in funding to meet the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Congress provided just $850 million, and as a result, NASA acknowledged that 2024 was no longer a realistic target.

Within two weeks of that announcement, Blue Origin filed a protest of the contract award to SpaceX; BO described the award as "flawed," adding that NASA "moved the goalposts at the last minute."  We covered here in late May that BO's next tactic was to lobby their local (Washington) US senator, Maria Cantwell  to add $10 billion to NASA's budget to pay for BO's lander.  That almost worked.  The Senate passed the addition, but the House said no, and that tactic seems to have died.  

Eric Berger at Ars Technica points this out:

Blue Origin put together an all-star team for the lander competition, partnering with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. This "National Team" then proposed a three-stage lander that met NASA's specifications for the Artemis program. The problem is that this proposal was expensive and sought about twice as much money as the $2.9 billion award SpaceX received.

In this proposal, Bezos made a critical error. NASA wanted to see companies self-invest in their hardware. The space agency wanted to be a customer for these landers, but not the only customer. "I think they realized it's why they lost," one politically connected source told Ars. "Meaning they did not invest properly." So Bezos' letter offers a mea culpa. [BOLD added: SiG]

The point that nobody mentions when they say, "SpaceX got almost $3 billion from NASA" is that SpaceX told NASA they were investing $6 billion of their own money to get Starship working.  That means that when NASA selected SpaceX they were getting twice as much for their investment, 2 to 1 on their money.  BO's National Team wasn't putting up any of their own money that we know of, so NASA was getting nothing for their money other than what was on the contracts.  

I can't help but think that NASA was thinking of the National Team as the standard "old space" businesses that are running the perennially late and over budget Space Launch System, and went with "New Space" that has time after time been doing things that "they say couldn't be done" at speeds observers are constantly surprised by.  I'd go so far as to say SpaceX gave the impression that the contract was a nice way to develop a version of Starship they intended to develop anyway and, in turn, they'd get some of the knowledge NASA has acquired over the years.  Otherwise they're funding Starship themselves.  

Eric Berger points out that the letter may be more addressed to the in-house readers at BO itself; Bezos is telling them he's back and taking charge.

Multiple sources told Ars that Bezos was really disconnected from Blue Origin in 2020, and that hurt the company. For one thing, the approval rating of Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith is a painfully low 18 percent on Glassdoor.

With this letter, Bezos appears to be acknowledging that it was a mistake not to self-invest in the Human Landing System contract. Moreover, he is taking steps to rectify that mistake. If nothing else, that has to send a positive message to his employees.


Jeff Bezos in blue flight suit and white cowboy hat walks with CEO Bob Smith in the black ball cap after last week's suborbital flight. Joe Raedle/Getty Images 

 

 

Monday, July 26, 2021

NASA Selects Falcon Heavy to Launch Europa Clipper Mission

It was getting close to being a pretty clear conclusion back in December of 2020 when we were reporting that the White House was asking congress to remove the requirement from the Europa Clipper mission that the satellite must fly on the Space Launch System (SLS).  Last Friday, NASA made it official by announcing that SpaceX Falcon Heavy has been selected to launch the mission.  The current launch date is projected to be October 2024.   

From my summary:

The White House points out that a private sector rocket, such as the Falcon Heavy, could get the Europa mission to the Jovian moon it's targeting although the mission would take longer.  The trade off is that the Falcon Heavy would save NASA $700 Million, which could be used on other priorities, and moving the mission off the SLS would save one of those rockets for the Artemis moon missions.  When you combine the savings of launch cost for the Europa probe with having an "extra" SLS booster available, the savings climb to $1.5 Billion.  

The extra lift capacity of the SLS would allow a direct flight to Jupiter, taking around three years.  The Falcon Heavy would add a requirement for one or more gravitational slingshot maneuvers, and add years in deep space before the probe gets there.  This has been rather normal for launches to outer and inner planets in the past. 

Switching to the Falcon Heavy, which has only had three missions to date, is going to save taxpayers some serious money.  Teslasrati SpaceX correspondent Eric Ralph reports that the six metric ton (~13,300 lb) spacecraft will instead launch for less than $180M.  That's considerably less than the cost of two of the four main engines on the SLS at $146M each.  Had Falcon Heavy not been ready or NASA shied away from the challenge of switching launch vehicles, sending the ~$4.25 billion orbiter to Jupiter could have easily added more than $3 billion to the mission’s total cost. October of '24 is years before an SLS flight would have been available for the satellite, although the longer flight time is likely to offset some of that.

Switching over to a six year old post on Ars Technica, we get both some of the interesting history of the probe itself and interesting information on Europa.  Just a couple of paragraphs to tease the article:

Jupiter showers its moon Europa with enough radiation to kill a human in just a few days. Europa must also contend with the massive planet’s powerful tidal forces. The moon literally creaks as Jupiter’s bulk rends its frozen surface in deep crevasses, pushing and pulling the ice upward and downward by tens of meters every few days. And with only a very tenuous atmosphere, it is so very cold: -210 degrees Celsius.

Yet as forbidding as Europa’s surface may be, just a few kilometers below lies the largest ocean in the known Universe. It dwarfs any on Earth, encircling the entire moon and plunging as far as 100 kilometers deep. The tidal forces that wrench Europa's icy surface also tug on the core of this ocean, dissipating heat and providing ample energy to warm the ocean.

Outside of Earth, many astrobiologists say Europa’s vast, dark ocean probably offers the best hope for finding life elsewhere in the Solar System. For these scientists, Europa beckons like the sirens of a Homeric epic.

Of course, everyone who saw or read Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, is probably remembering or reciting the message at the end of the movie, where aliens warn the crew: “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there.  Use them together.  Use them in peace.” 

Sorry, aliens.  We're sending a robot.

JPL rendering of the Europa Clipper with the frozen moon below it and Jupiter behind, upper right. 



Sunday, July 25, 2021

Weekend Shop Update on the 1 by 1 - part 2

I'm going to try to keep numbering these sequentially.

This week's emphasis was finishing the 3D models of the two side plates and trying to envision how they should be machined.  Creating the model of the second side plate was tedious, but didn't involve any new things to learn.  It's a mirror image of side 1, so I started by making the mirror image of what I had, and then changing the features I had to.  That was primarily filling in all the holes that join the two halves together and creating new holes centered on the same places but smaller in diameter. 

I have the original builder's notes on how he approached building it, but since he did it entirely manually and I'm going to do it via CNC, it might not always make sense to do it the way he did.  It is, however, a good starting place.  If you look at that rendering of side 1 in that link above, you can see that there are two large holes that are the major features of each of the plates.  They eventually house ball bearings for the two shafts they carry.  The big hole has a diameter of 0.425 while the smaller is 0.375.  What the designer did was not make the big one the final size, but drill and ream it to 0.375" and use a drill rod that size to ensure the holes are aligned in the final shapes.  That seems like a good idea. 

I think that I can cut the outside profile of the two sides so that when they go together, the holes will line up.  I need to hold them down on a fixture to cut the outlines, and the raised area on the surface.  I started by taking an aluminum plate that measures 6" wide by 12" long and cutting off a slice a bit over 4" long (6" by 4") and then cutting that in two equal-sized halves.  Then I printed actual size pictures of the top view of both sides and taped them to the stock.  I punched a spot on both sides to mark what his drawings call (0,0). 

I put #1 in the mill vise and carefully centered a center drill on the cross hairs - over the spot that's marked on the metal.  I drilled a clearance hole for a 5/16" - 18 thread bolt, then moved left to put the center drill over the cross hairs on the left, and repeated drilling the same size hole there.  Once that was done, I removed plate one and put plate two in the vise, and started over.  After all that, I was left with this:  

Next, I took the vise off the mill, cleaned up everything, and put the 1/2" thick aluminum plate I've been using for a couple of years on the mill table.  I kept the Y axis zero where it was because it lines up over that middle channel (you can see the bolts holding the vise down coming from that slot), and used the position the mill table was in as X for the left hole on side plate 1.  The next step was to drill and tap two pairs of holes so that the spacing between them is the required distance (1.563") and separated the two sets of holes so that the two chunks of aluminum are an inch apart.  That's enough so that an end mill can go between them without hitting something I don't want to cut.  

As a final test, I mounted the two pieces as if I was going to cut their outlines.  When it's time to cut them, I'll probably re-mount them with some shim stock under them so that the cutter can cut them free without cutting up my plate.  It's bad enough the plate has marks from other builds and a large number of seemingly randomly spaced, threaded holes. 

Tool paths are the next hurdle.  Looking at this now, I think I could create a program that would cut out both sides in one long operation.  I'd need to know the distance between the two parts to about .001" - less error would be better and I'm not sure I do.  An alternative would be to use the same (0,0) point that the designer did, use two tool path files and reset the (0,0) point in the CNC controller between pieces.

 


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Something Rare for me, a TV Recommendation

This post is going to places that I've never gone before, and say things I've never said before.  I know this isn't going to appeal to all my readers, but I thought it was worth posting. 

About a year ago, we switched our streaming TV service to Hulu's offering, called "Hulu + Live TV".  The base Hulu subscription includes their own produced content and lots of things to watch, but while the "Plus Live TV" add-on is much more expensive, it's the only way to get live channels if you want to see things that aren't on the streaming service version.  I'd say over 90% of Hulu's productions don't appeal to me in the slightest, but we've watched a few of their things.  I couldn't care less about their interpretation of The Handmaid's Tale, or anything about young adult angst.  On the other hand, we watched their re-introduction of Spielberg's Animanics and we're awaiting the next season of that.  Plus, there are consistent reports they'll be carrying The Orville later in the year or in '22.  

This week, we watched a show that I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did.  It's a 6 part (six half-hour shows with no commercials) called McCartney 3, 2, 1, a three hour visit with Paul McCartney to talk about the Beatles, Wings and his solo career after the Beatles.  All six episodes are in black and white, and all simply feature Paul McCartney and music producer Rick Rubin talking.  Many times, Rick or Paul will use the mixing soundboard they have to isolate tracks and point out things about the songs that I've never heard.  Other times, Paul goes to a handy piano or guitar to demonstrate something.  They talk mostly about how many of the songs we've all heard many times came to be.  To borrow a little from the McCartney project link earlier in the paragraph:

“Never before have fans had the opportunity to hear Paul McCartney share, in such expansive, celebratory detail, the experience of creating his life’s work – more than 50 years of culture-defining music,” said Craig Erwich, president, Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment. “To be an observer as Paul and Rick Rubin deconstruct how some of the biggest hits in music history came to be is truly enlightening. It is an honor that Paul chose to return to Hulu to share this one-of-a-kind series.” 

In the series, Paul McCartney sits down for a rare in-depth one-on-one with legendary music producer Rick Rubin to discuss his groundbreaking work with The Beatles, the emblematic 1970s arena rock of Wings and his 50-plus years as a solo artist. In this six-episode series that explores music and creativity in a unique and revelatory manner, the documentary gives a front-row seat to Paul and Rick in an intimate conversation about the songwriting, influences, and personal relationships that informed the iconic songs that have served as the soundtracks of our lives.

The Beatles were the first band that appealed to me way back when I was a little kid.  When I first learned to play guitar maybe three years later, some of their songs were in the first things I tried to play.  Within a year of starting guitar, I was playing in a garage band that mostly did Beatles songs.  I thought I knew a lot of the stories, but I was continuously surprised by things Paul was revealing about the band, their relationships and how songs came to be. Paul talks about being a school boy of middle school age, riding the school bus and meeting George Harrison on the bus.  Both of them played guitar while neither knew the other one did; it led to not just working together but a lifetime friendship, with George dying 20 years ago.

Paul talks about when the group broke up and getting depressed about it; moving away from his old life, starting a farm, and discovering he still had the urge to create music in him.  He talks about John Lennon going from being one of his closest friends in life, to being so estranged that he didn't even know John had called him one of the best and most influential bass players in the world.  He talks about going from the Beatles being his job to being a band he's now a fan of, something that only happened after years of not being sure, and going from John being a guy he was extremely close with and worked with to thinking, "I got to work with one of the best songwriters and musicians in history."

If you're a Beatles fan or a Paul McCartney fan, definitely watch this.  If you're just curious about how some of these things came to be, watch this.  AFAIK, no other service is carrying this besides Hulu, but keep an eye out.  It could well get more widely available after some time exclusively on Hulu. 




Friday, July 23, 2021

The "Student Debt Crisis" As The Typical Government Mess

Today was one of those convergence days.  First Peter over at Bayou Renaissance Man did a piece on "The student loan time bomb," then later in the day, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) daily email brought a story on how taxpayers end up paying off the insane debts of graduate programs at elite universities.  It was clear student loans were going to be the topic.  

When I say typical government mess, what I mean is that the government creates the problem, makes the problem worse regularly for years, and then eventually creates an even bigger mess by "solving" the problem.  

It's arguable that the root cause of the spiraling tuition rates isn't exclusively the Fed.gov's fault.  The Fed.gov has definitely enabled the problem and made it worse by providing virtually unlimited loans.  The reason I say it's not all on them is because if there was no market to sell those student loans to, tuition wouldn't be perpetually going up about 3x the regular cost of living.  I've done many deep dives on this issue over the years, and a good, recent piece (2019) is here

The aspect that's rarely talked about is that making student loans go away is by far going to be giving more money to graduate schools and therefore professional schools than the middle-class kids getting a useful bachelor's degrees.  The average student loan balance for bachelor's degree holders is $37,000.  That pales in comparison to the things the FEE article talks about.  They begin by citing an article in the Wall Street Journal and excerpted at Tax Prof Blog.

Columbia and other wealthy universities steer master's students to federal loans that can exceed $250,000. After graduation, many learn the debt is well beyond their means," notes the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reports on Columbia University's Master of Fine Arts Film program, one of the worst examples, in an article titled "Financially Hobbled for Life: The Elite Master's Degrees That Don't Pay Off":

The article focuses on the Master of Fine Arts in film from Columbia university.  The median debt of the students who took out federal student loans for this program was found to be $181,000.  The median income of those students two years after graduation was $30,000/year.  The taxes from everyone; the people who never took a day of college, the veteran going on GI benefits, and those bachelor's degree holders with $37,000 in debt will be going to pay the debt of these MFA holders with $181,000 in debt.  Sound fair?  Equitable?   

Meet James Stoteraux.  Mr. Stoteraux is one of those Columbia MFA students but with two things about him that make him stand out from the crowd.  The first is that he didn't complete his MFA; he's two credits short.  The second thing is that the reason he didn't graduate is that he actually got a job in the film industry.  I'll quote him here:

"There were 55 students in my incoming class at Columbia’s MFA Film program. Only 4 of us ever managed to make a career out of it. And of those 4, one guy dropped out the first semester. Funny enough he’s the most successful one having co-directed Avengers Endgame."

While Stoteraux's story is interesting, the point of this article is how "to err is human but to really screw things up requires government." 

But as Ian Lamont of Lean Media observes, "a graduate financing program enabled by Congress ~15 years ago basically lets Columbia charge whatever it wants and get paid up front. Students are on the hook for hundreds of thousands; if they can't pay it off taxpayers are on the hook."

Even students who can find jobs after graduating often dump much of their massive student-loan debt on taxpayers. Once out of school, the students enroll in an income-based repayment program, in which the federal government forgives all loans after 10 or 20 years. This “Pay as You Earn” program allows eligible student-loan borrowers to cap monthly payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income, and have their remaining federal student loans forgiven after 20 years — or just 10 years, if they go to work for the government.

First of all, note that students are only required to pay 10% of their "discretionary income." How much is that?  If those MFA holders from Columbia with a median $181,000 in debt and $30,000 income are maxed out on all their other expenses, what's their discretionary income?  I can't imagine it being as much as a full 10% of their income or $3,000 per year, but it's clear that if they paid that much for 10 years, they don't get within a light year of paying off that debt (don't forget that loan will accumulate interest charges as they're trying to pay it off).  

That last part about the federal student loans being forgiven after 10 or 20 years means a few things.  First off, everyone knows there is no government money; there's only taxpayer money.  That means you and I, those already-mentioned bachelor's degree holders who are paying their own $37,000 in debt, and those student loan holders who already diligently paid off their own loans, will pay for those absurd graduate degree loans.  

Second, it means these graduate programs are an absolute gold mine for the colleges.  Their programs are in demand, they can charge whatever they want, get the tuition right now and don't even have to care that eventually the loans get paid off to whatever institution is loaning the money.  Which means those programs aren't going away any time soon.

The library of Columbia University - from the FEE article



Thursday, July 22, 2021

Boeing's Next Starliner Test is Next Friday

Next Friday, July 30th at 2:53 PM EDT, Boeing's complete re-do of their disastrous uncrewed Starliner mission will start.  Last Saturday, the capsule was mated with the Atlas V launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  

Photo credit: Boeing/Damon Tucci

As with the flight in December '19, and SpaceX's equivalent mission nine months earlier in March of  '19, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to certify that their capsule is ready to fly astronauts to the ISS.  The ULA Atlas V will launch Starliner on a mission called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) to autonomously rendezvous and dock to the International Space Station and then return about five to 10 days later to land in the western United States. 

For newcomers, NASA instituted the Commercial Crew program back in 2010 to eventually downselect to two suppliers who could fly crews to the ISS from the US instead of contracting the Russians to carry out those flights.  SpaceX and Boeing were eventually the two companies chosen to develop the spacecraft, with NASA paying Boeing $4.8 billion for Starliner and SpaceX $3.1 billion for the Crew Dragon spacecraft.  

As implied above, it was obvious from a few minutes after launch that the first OFT was not going well.  By the afternoon of the first day (launch was at 6:36 AM) it was known that Starliner would not be able to complete the mission because of a software error that caused the capsule to use too much propellant.  As the months went by, more and more information leaked out that indicated the flight went much worse than they originally let on, and that the mission had such severe, potentially catastrophic software issues that Boeing was very lucky to get the capsule back to land.

In mid-April, NASA's acting chief of human spaceflight issued a statement saying 

... I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.

The week before, Boeing had said they were going to re-do the mission completely and pay for it themselves.  

I wish Boeing well, and will be watching.  They're an old-line company, infected with woke-ism and all that goes with it, but the guys I've known and worked with there were good guys.  On the other hand, if the guys I knew had worked on the first test flight, it would have been successful. 



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Is It Too Late for Jeff Bezos to Save Blue Origin?

That's the question Ars Technica's space reporter Eric Berger posts today on the website, the day after the company's peak moment with their manned launch of CEO Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, octogenarian astronaut Wally Funk, and 18 year old Oliver Daemen. 

Left to right, Oliver Daemen, Mark and Jeff Bezos, and Wally Funk.  Getty Images photo from Ars Technica.  

I think everyone should Read The Whole Thing, and as I usually do, I'll excerpt some pieces to whet your interest. 

So after he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. He has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin’s success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder and instead mostly retire to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joyride?

The jury is very much out.

Back in May of '19, I did a story on Jeff Bezos vision for Blue Origin's role in space.  Instead of settling on and colonizing Mars like Musk advocates, Bezos is an advocate of colonies in space.  Not International Space Station style; not even rotating wheel-in-space from the movie 2001-style.  Those are thousands of times too small.  Instead, he envisions "O'Neill Cylinders;" colonies of millions of people living in permanent colonies in space.  About a million people per colony.  This is as much a multi-generational commitment as colonizing Mars.  

He envisions not lifting metals from Earth to build them, but mining asteroids and refining the metals there in space.  It means mining water, perhaps from comets, perhaps ice from the rings of Saturn.  All this depends on cheap access to space, which to his credit, Bezos has talked up with the New Glenn and other heavy lift vehicles.  He just hasn't done as much as Elon Musk has to get there.  

The company has a plan. It started small with the New Shepard system and learned how to reuse rockets. It is currently developing the much larger New Glenn rocket, which will essentially use the New Shepard design as its second stage. There are plans for even bigger rockets down the line, all with the goal of moving more mass to and from planet Earth much more cheaply.

Yet this plan has unfolded very slowly, and Bezos has not pushed forward with the same determination displayed by his leadership of Amazon. Blue Origin remains very far from self-sufficiency. Bezos still must pump more than $1 billion into Blue Origin annually to keep the lights on. Even for the world’s richest person, this kind of financial backing does not seem sustainable.

Both Blue Origin and SpaceX are about the same age - 20 years old. Since the end of 2015, Blue Origin has launched its suborbital New Shepard system just 15 more times, an average of fewer than three missions a year. In 2015, SpaceX landed the first Falcon 9 successfully on land.

Since December 2015, the company has successfully flown more than 100 orbital missions. It has developed and flown the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, and may soon debut its still more titanic Starship launch system. With the Starlink internet constellation, SpaceX now operates more satellites than any nation or company in the world. And in 2020, thanks to SpaceX, NASA broke its dependency on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA astronauts now ride to space in style, inside the sleek Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Meanwhile...

All told, Blue Origin now has millions of square feet of facilities. Currently, it just has precious little rocket hardware. For all of its construction efforts, Blue Origin has yet to deliver a BE-4 engine to United Launch Alliance. And the massive New Glenn rocket, about which Bezos has been talking about for a decade, remains at least a couple of years away from its first flight.

Seeing that the company wasn't making enough progress, Bezos sidelined long-time president Rob Meyerson in late 2017, hiring a traditional aerospace veteran, Bob Smith, to become chief executive. Coming from Honeywell, Smith instituted a more bureaucratic management style and Blue Origin’s progress seemed to slow significantly.  Not exactly what you want when a company isn't making enough progress.  

The thing to remember about yesterday's flight of the New Shepard is that it could have flown as early as 2019 - no new technology was added to what they were flying then.  Instead the launch was two years later.  Think of that when people criticize Branson and Virgin Galactic for doing a stunt to get to space before Bezos.  If Blue Origin even remotely had their act together they could have beaten Virgin Galactic by one year, if not two. 

As I said, it's an interesting article, written by a guy who has spent time interviewing Musk for a book on SpaceX and has also spent time with Jeff Bezos.  There's plenty of content left there for you to learn from. 



Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Celebration of the Momentous Day

There's a lot to talk about today.  The first and most obvious news of the day is the suborbital flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket.    

At 8:12 am local time in West Texas, about one hour after sunrise, Blue Origin's New Shepard launch system rocketed into the sky. The mission carried an eclectic mix of passengers—billionaire Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark, famed female aviator Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen.

All four emerged from the capsule, in the west Texas desert, less than 20 minutes later. During the flight they reached an altitude of 107 km, crossing the internationally agreed upon boundary of space.

This was Blue Origin's first human spaceflight and follows Virgin Galactic's successful flight of its founder, Sir Richard Branson, nine days ago. We truly have entered into a new era of human spaceflight.

Since I talked about Virgin Galactic's flight, it comes with the territory to cover Blue Origin's flight.  BO has announced they intend to make another couple of suborbital flights before the end of the year, and that will have volumes to say about how well they'll be able to do multiple flights in a year.  We know that this capsule has made three flights this year (including this one) but I found no mention of more capsules ready to fly or the number of boosters that are available.  Both the capsule and the booster are recoverable, but whether they have one or a fleet, I don't know.  Eric Berger at Ars Technica speculates they might try for a many as a dozen such flights next year. 

The number of seats available in a year will have a large bearing on the price space tourism can offer although their operating costs certainly create a price floor until some new technology comes along to change that.  The heady prices talked about for this launch are unlikely to remain.  That was $28 million for the auctioned seat - to someone who then said he had more important things to do and deferred to the second bidder who, in turn, handed off his ticket to his 18 year old son.  

Over time, if the price gets down to where the trip cost gets close to the cost of a family vacation we will be firmly in that “new era of human spaceflight.”


Of course, the reason that Blue Origin chose this day for the launch is that it commemorates what I've taken to calling Peak of Western Civilization Day - which I got from Aesop at Raconteur Report.  He has his commemorative post up again today and it's worth your time to read. 

Like millions of people around the world, I hung by the front of the black and white TV that night; this one in my uncle's house in New York City, the last big vacation I'd take with my parents.  We watched intently but I don't recall exactly how much we saw or if we watched until 1:11 tomorrow morning when the EVA officially concluded.

It's a reasonable argument that everything we've done in space exploration since the 1960s has simply been refinement of what they did back then.  


Yesterday won't challenge the 20th or Apollo 11 for that title, but it marked a new milestone for Starship and Superheavy at Boca Chica.  Booster 3 (B3) successfully static fired its three Raptor engines at a little after 7PM CDT.  This video is queued up to start just about 10 seconds before the burn.  As luck would have it, while working on the solar deflation article last night, I had another tab open and was listening.  I heard it, then went over to Lab Padre, rewound the video about 30 seconds and then watched it.  A couple of times. 

Yeah, it was only three engines on a booster that will eventually carry 33, but it's still a goal along the way that checks off several "first ever" milestones.  Elon Musk says they "might" try to put nine engines on this test booster and try it again, depending on progress on B4, which is the one intended for the first orbital flight.  


Finally, an article that's too long to summarize here, but space fanatics - especially those who care about the early days of the Mercury program - will find this article on Gus Grissom very interesting.  On July 21, 1961 - 60 years to the day ago when most of you will read this - Gus Grissom's Mercury flight ended with Gus barely surviving and his capsule being lost for decades.  

When it comes to NASA history, July 21 may not have the same significance as July 20, the date when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. But back on July 21, 1961, another pivotal moment in the evolution of human spaceflight took place when Gus Grissom splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean within a small Mercury capsule—almost drowning in the process. The lessons NASA learned that day and in the following weeks undoubtedly changed the course of human spaceflight.

and 

More than half a century later, Grissom’s name has faded from memory. Shepard has the honor of the first US spaceflight, John Glenn made the first orbital flight, and Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. Yet after an all-too-brief career that ended tragically in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, Grissom deserves recognition not as an unlucky footnote but as a genuine hero. And for today’s astronauts, Grissom's near-death experience in the Atlantic Ocean has renewed importance, offering a sobering reminder of the sea's peril as NASA plans to return its Orion capsule from deep space again by way of the ocean.

“Water is a great place to land in, but it’s a hell of a place post-landing,” Thompson told Ars. “Let me tell you, you can hurt yourself in the ocean.”

That'll keep you busy for a while. 



Monday, July 19, 2021

Why Solar Power Isn't Likely to Keep Getting More Common

Over the last few years, the industrial-scale prices on solar panel systems have come down, but solar energy and the so-called renewable energy sources are better thought of as intermittent energy sources.  Nobody can control how much time the sun shines (or the wind blows) and even the biggest photovoltaic installations are subject to weather issues. Because solar power is intermittent and not at the control of plant managers who can turn up the output when it's needed and turn it down when not needed, the power from these sources gets sold into the electricity market at the price when it's available.  The inexorable law of supply and demand says that if it's not needed, prices will plummet.  

It has happened already that solar power has gone negative in price; they have to pay the recipient to take it.  

This idea comes from a short, very readable post on Watts Up With That called "The lurking threat to solar power's growth."  The main sources are an article in MIT Technology Review and from a "Global Research Center" (Think Tank?) called the Breakthrough Institute.   As usual, I'll put some excerpts here.   

A few lonely academics have been warning for years that solar power faces a fundamental challenge that could halt the industry’s breakneck growth. Simply put: the more solar you add to the grid, the less valuable it becomes.

The problem is that solar panels generate lots of electricity in the middle of sunny days, frequently more than what’s required, driving down prices—sometimes even into negative territory.

This is already being felt in California.  Cali has among the world's highest percentages of power that come from solar, and they're feeling the pinch already.

The state’s average solar wholesale prices have fallen 37% relative to the average electricity prices for other sources since 2014, according to the Breakthrough Institute analysis, which will be published on July 14. In other words, utilities are increasingly paying solar plants less than other sources overall, due to their fluctuating generation patterns.

California gets about 19% of its energy from solar.  The next closest states are in the vicinity of 13% (Hawaii and Nevada).  Even at 19%, solar electricity is already being knocked down in price below where it's comfortable, a process known as solar value deflation. 

Lower prices may sound great for consumers. But it presents troubling implications for the world’s hopes of rapidly expanding solar capacity and meeting climate goals.

It could become difficult to convince developers and investors to continue building ever more solar plants if they stand to make less money or even lose it. In fact, California construction has already been flat since 2018, the study notes. But the state will need the industry to significantly ramp up development if it hopes to pull off its ambitious clean energy targets.

The rapidly dropping price of solar power has transformed how we think about clean energy. But it needs to still get a whole lot cheaper.

The bottom line on this is that it appears the pace of adding solar power is going to slow down.  Sure, some combination of the current heavy solar subsidies and the rapidly declining cost of solar power can offset the falling value of solar energy.  As long as it gets ever cheaper to build and operate solar power plants, value deflation is less of a problem.    

The state’s SB 100 law, passed in 2018, requires all of California’s electricity to come from “renewable and zero-carbon resources” by 2045. By that point, some 60% of the state’s electricity could come from solar, based on a California Energy Commission model.

The Breakthrough study estimates that the value of solar–or the wholesale average price relative to other sources–will fall by 85% at that point, decimating the economics of solar farms, at least as California’s grid exists today.

A solar farm in California's Death Valley.  Getty Images - from MIT Technology Review.

Think of what's going on with solar in California as a sneak preview of what's coming everywhere.



Sunday, July 18, 2021

Mass Production of Rocket Engines is No Longer An Oxymoron

SpaceX is planning to break ground soon on a new manufacturing facility for their Raptor engines in McGregor, Texas.  The plan is to produce 800 to 1000 Raptor engines in a year.  From that link to Elon Musk's Twitter account:

We are breaking ground soon on a second Raptor factory at SpaceX Texas test site. This will focus on volume production of Raptor 2, while California factory will make Raptor Vacuum & new, experimental designs.

Musk also referred to the coming factory as the “most advanced rocket engine factory in the world” and while it may sound like hyperbole, I find that very believable simply based on quantities.  Until now, rocket engines have been more like hand-crafted boutique items than something mass produced using the most advanced technologies.  I wouldn't be surprised if in their first year or two they produce more engines in the thrust class of the Raptor than have been produced in all of history. 

A fully equipped and fully modern factory is what you need if you intend to build and outfit a vast interplanetary fleet of Starships and the earthbound Super Heavy boosters that will send them on their way to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  It makes the Raptor family picture posted here on the 12th look like "an OK start." 

While the picture seems to show nine sea-level Raptors along with one vacuum version (lying on its side behind the front row), around the time Musk revealed the plans to build the new factory he Tweeted

Final decision made earlier this week on booster engine count. Will be 33 at ~230 (half million lbs) sea-level thrust. All engines on booster are same, apart from deleting gimbal & thrust vector actuators for outer 20.

That means every Starship and Superheavy combination will require 42 raptor engines: 33 in the Superheavy booster, plus three regular and three Vacuum Raptors in the Starship upper stage.  

While Raptor’s current design isn’t quite there, Musk says that SpaceX will debut an upgraded “Raptor 2” engine in the not too distant future, raising maximum thrust to 230 tons (~510,000 lbf). Aside from the removal of a few structural components required for engine gimballing on 20 booster Raptors, every engine on Starship – save for 3-6 vacuum variants – will thus be identical.

That's right; the 33 engines in Superheavy booster will produce 16.83 million pounds of thrust; over twice the thrust of the Saturn V that put Americans on the moon 50 years ago.


SpaceX photo of a sea-level Raptor (SN4) on the left and the Raptor Vacuum version in their Hawthorne, California facility. 

According to Musk, Raptor Vacuum production will remain in Hawthorne alongside work on “new, experimental designs.”



Saturday, July 17, 2021

Weekend Shop Update

I had two main things I was doing in the shop this week and neither of them involved cutting metal.  Or cutting anything else. 

The first was an improvement for my 3D printer.  Over the course if this year, while talking about the 3D printer I added at the start of the year, I've talked about wanting to get control over things that aren't available in the canned user interface it comes with.  I'm talking about things like setting control over the steps per inch so that I get finer control over the part size, the ability to command the extruder to spit out some molten plastic, or retract the filament.  These are low level control things but routine for my other CNC tools using Mach 3 to control them.

After spending some time researching alternatives, it looked like the software I wanted is the one called Pronterface (don't ask me why) which is available for a PC or the Linux-based Raspberry Pi.  As luck would have it, I have both platforms available.  I have a small Windows computer called an Intel NUC that I've used to run my Computerized Battery Analyzer, and the "nuke" was right there in the shop. I also have an older Pi (version 2) and while they're currently offering several newer versions, the one I have would probably work. 

I decided to grab the NUC and immediately got into a wrestling match with Windows 10.  I should have known.  To make the long story short it took a couple of days to get that to work.  Hours upon hours of those days were waiting for Windows to stop doing shit so I could do what I wanted to.  With machines that aren't on regularly, Windoze 10 is a giant Pain In The Ass - calling home and tying up the machine literally for hours over my WiFi network.  

The good news is that Pronterface does work with the software in the Ender 3 V2 and I'm able to talk to the machine directly, move things easily, and do lots of things I couldn't do before. It's also possible to run Pronterface instead of the software in the printer, as long as you don't ever use a screen saver.  I will probably just run the printer's own software rather than Pronterface. 

Work on the 1 by 1 involved converting drawings into solid models.  This is tedious work and while I expect I'll get faster, the first part took about eight hours over a couple of days.  When I import the drawings into Rhino, it's as a pdf file.  The drawing has several views, and most drafting systems start with a Top, Front, Side, and perspective drawing.  

In the first part I was working, it was different on every side, so there were seven views.  For the first step, I'll take the overall outline shape of the part and extrude it into a 3D solid with no holes in.  This results in the shape overlying the view I started from, and on top of the drawing sheet, so I lower it below the drawing, with its top just below the plane of the drawing.  Then I use the details of the view to tell me what holes need to be added or what needs to be milled away.

At this point, this drawing of the part is "Work in Progress."  I had finished the part by putting it under this Section View and adding at least one hole.  

You'll note there are no dimensions on the view where the part is currently sitting.  This is the issue with the way Rhino3D imports the pdf files; it drops all the dimensions and notes (I added the dimensions you can read).  So I <ALT> <TAB> back and forth between the drawing and this view when I need to. 

This doesn't do much to show you what the part looks like, so here's a better view of the finished, rendered part. 

The back side of the part is largely hollowed out in a couple of large cylinders.  This is one side of what ends up being the crankcase. It holds enough oil so that the crankshaft spins the piston connecting rod through it and splash lubricates the moving parts inside.  That larger hole on the right side in this view gets the 3/8-16 threaded oil drain plug.

I need to make the model of the other side, and it seems like the best way to machine this is to cut the outlines and then bond them together.  It's easier to drill some of the through holes with the two sides together.  You can see five holes with a counterbore clearance holes on this side; these line up with smaller holes on the other piece, sized to tap for the five #8-32 Socket Head Cap Screws.  So you bond the parts together, drill the smallest diameter holes in those five places, then drill the clearance holes on this side finally adding the counterbore.  It may be best to do as much as possible with the two pieces together.