Monday, December 6, 2021

An Unusal Milestone for SpaceX

This Thursday morning, December 9th, no earlier than 1:00 AM, SpaceX will launch their second satellite for NASA in two weeks, the DART mission on November 24th.  Thursday's payload will be the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer or IXPE.  

The unusual milestone is that IXPE will be the smallest, lightest satellite to ever be launched by itself on a Falcon 9.  

... IXPE was originally meant to launch on the small but expensive and oft-delayed Pegasus XL rocket and weighs about 325 kilograms (720 lb) as a result.

Instead, in mid-2019, SpaceX effectively stole NASA’s IXPE launch contract out from under Orbital ATK in the midst of chronic delays of a different Pegasus XL NASA mission, bidding just over $50 million to launch the smallsat on Falcon 9. Some two years behind schedule when it finally completed the mission, Pegasus XL ultimately launched NASA’s similarly small ICON spacecraft in October 2019 for the equivalent of ~$66 million in 2021.

Note that SpaceX is charging less for a much more capable launch vehicle than Orbital ATK was charging: $50 million vs. the roughly $66 million Orbital ATK charged.  Orbital's Pegasus can put 600 kg (~1300 lb) in low Earth orbit (LEO) while a Falcon 9 can put about 16,000 kg (~35,000 lb) in the same orbit.  $50 million shouldn't present a problem of not being profitable enough.  In various online quotes, I keep reading that a Falcon 9 launch actually costs around $20 million, possibly more if special modifications need to be made or there's something special about the mission (rush, lots of overtime for workers, or something peculiar).  The range that's quoted in the source article is $15 to $28 million.  

This will be the fifth flight for booster B1061, which has launched eight astronauts (Crew-1 and Crew-2), as well as SXM-8 (the Sirius XM satellite) and CRS-23 (cargo supplies to the ISS).  B1061 had a rough landing after its first mission (Crew-1) and looked to have a broken leg.  Or at least a bit of limp. 

Photo by Richard Angle for Teslarati - as labeled.  

IXPE is going look very small and alone in that payload fairing.  I'd like to know why there's no ride-sharing going on, perhaps like NASA putting up several thousand pounds of Cubesats for high schools and colleges everywhere, but maybe that's just me.  

B1061 was successfully static fired on Saturday, December 4th, concluding a thorough inspection and testing of the vehicle.  Judging by our weather, it looks like it should be a pretty morning for a launch and NASA's IXPE website says the weather is 80% chance of favorable conditions.  The trajectory for the launch and booster recovery look to be just south of due east of the Cape, so visibility should be good.  

IXPE during testing.  NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center Photo.

For more on the mission, see NASA's page

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Weekly Update on the 1 by 1 - part 17

After last week's post, a few commenters said I shouldn't do the approach I outlined.  To borrow a vivid quote from Wandering Neurons (first comment as Anonymous):

Dollars to donuts, as soon as your mill hits that bar edge from the side, or the forces are the least bit uneven, the square bar will rotate out of the V-blocks and bounce around the room violently. More pressure from your vice jaws will only increase the bounce!

In my mind that bounce will likely be into something either expensive, hard to repair, or irreplaceable.  Probably painfully me.  So it was back to the drawing board.  

I had already made my alternate vise jaws by that time, so I had two options: first would be to grab the block by the ends and cut down the pointed ridge with movements along the Y-axis.  The vise is just not quite big enough to handle the rough piece.  The second option would be to put the square blank in the vise along the X axis, clamped more securely, and try to chamfer it.  Unfortunately, I don't have a chamfer cutter, but I do have a large countersink (3/4" diameter) for metal cutting.  It cuts an 82 degree angle, and while I'd rather have a 90 degree countersink so that I cut a 45 degree chamfer this is rough cutting just to get rid of extra material and I think I can live with a 41 degree angle instead of a 45.  

I decided to try the second approach and went off to make a test cut.  While making that cut the cutter slipped in the mill's collet and made a deep divot.  I was noticing that the cut was getting deeper toward the left in this view.  I was milling right to left (climb milling here) and the face that had been cut was definitely wider on the left.  It took embarrassingly long before I realized it must be the cutter slipping in the collet, took a quick look and saw that was going on.  I hit the emergency stop button on the computer which stops the axis from moving but not the spindle motor and then raised the cutter out of contact.  That divot you see got cut in the few seconds it took to stop the CNC, decide what to do, command it to raise the cutter and hit return.

I don't think it's too deep, but frankly don't care.  The finished cylinder is going to look like this (except for some holes I haven't drawn in, yet).  If one or two cooling fins have a divot, it's a "don't care." 

The  square section on the left is 1.75" on a side, the same as the diameter of the finned portion.  The finished length is 2.375" and my rough is now 3.25" long, so I have 7/8 of spare for the lathe chuck to grab.  That 3.25" is also 1/8" longer than my vise will open to.  I could probably spare that 1/8" so that I could clamp the blank on the ends.  I'm just not sure how I'm going to make this thing.

Unfortunately, the cut was done last Monday and I haven't had the time to get back into the shop since then.  What's that stuff about having no limits on time available once you're retired?  No need for a watch, no need for an alarm, all you need is to know when to nap and when to get up?  Sure hasn't been the case for me. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

A Ham Radio Series 28 – Directional Antennas

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been working on and planning a project to improve my ham radio station.  It involves a change to my directional antenna for the six meter ham band.  Somewhere else in the same time interval, I saw a reference to directional antennas for emergency and SHTF communications.  The combination gave me the idea this might be a worthwhile thing to talk about.   

A word about how I’m going to go about this.  In an effort to reduce the amount of nitpicky and often extraneous information that could go into a piece like this, I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations without a lot of time to justify them.  After all, the ARRL Antenna Book is over a thousand pages, and is just one of the books they sell.   

Let me start here.  What I’m going to write about applies everywhere in radio.  It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to operate low power (QRP) or high (QRO), portable or fixed station, low frequency to microwaves, beginner to very experienced.  The antennas will sometimes look very different like a microwave dish versus a VLF vertical, but the concepts are valid everywhere.

Furthermore, let me start with a statement that might surprise a lot of you.  Let’s say you got a Christmas bonus or came across an unexpected chunk of money and want to improve your station.  Needless to say, the same goes if you’re saving up to improve your station.  If you have a reasonably good radio, not even a top-end, extreme-featured radio, just reasonably good, chances are that the best thing you could do to improve your station is improve your antenna system.  If you have that reasonably good radio, an improvement in your antenna system is going to help you more than a power amplifier for the simple reason that the antenna will work on both transmit and receive while the power amplifier just helps on the transmit side.  Probably the oldest clichĂ© in Ham Radio is “you can’t work ‘em if you can’t hear ‘em.” 

Antenna Gain 

What directive antennas do for you that makes them the best thing you can do to improve your station is to provide gain.  In radio speak, gain is to make signals bigger.  It’s what amplifiers do.  Unlike amplifiers, though, antennas are passive devices – you don’t supply power to them so they can’t amplify (remember the first law of physics: you don’t get something for nothing?).  So how do they create bigger (louder) signals?  Think of squeezing a balloon; as you squeeze the balloon you make part of the balloon bigger as you squeeze the air out of the rest of it and the parts of the balloon you are squeezing get smaller.  

As always (first law again!) there are good aspects and bad aspects of this.  The good side is really good.  Let’s say you squeeze the balloon and get four times more power going in the direction the antenna is pointed (6dB gain – which isn’t terribly hard to get).  You haven’t put any more watts out, the power at the antenna is exactly what it was before, but you’ve made your signal at the other guy’s receiver a full S-unit stronger which made your signal much easier to understand.  Furthermore, you’ve done that by reducing the amount of power you put in undesired directions, reducing the amount you might interfere with others.  Even better, that same forward gain reduces your receiver sensitivity in other directions, making it easier for you to hear the desired station if interference isn’t exactly in the same direction as the station you’re working.  In antenna design, they often talk about front to back ratio and even small directional antennas can put 20 dB less power out the back than the front (1/100 the power).  It’s not always specified, but front to side ratio can be more important than front to back in populated places like much of the US.  It’s not uncommon to see front to side ratios of 30 dB (1/1000 the power) and more.   

The bad aspect for many hams is that you need to be able to reposition the antenna to get it to point exactly where you want.  In most cases, that’s done with an antenna rotator that has to be wired into place outdoors and controlled from inside the station.  There are antenna systems where rotation is done entirely electrically, too.   If you need to communicate with other stations in opposite directions, this can be a problem.  In some extreme situations, you might want to switch between two antennas pointed in both directions.  Most of the time, the communications can be arranged to keep from needing that.  The only disadvantage to you is that if you’re trying for stations at very different headings, you tend to need to contact one, then rotate the antenna and try for the other.  

That rarely seems to be a major hardship. 

How Do I Get Me Some?  

How do you get antenna gain?  The simplest way to look at it is that you need to put more metal in the air, but I hope you understand that if you just put up randomly sized hunks of metal in equally randomly chosen places that doesn’t count.  There are many established antenna designs to get gain, and you need to buy or build one of them.  

In broad-brush overview, there are two main types of antennas; those whose performance is determined by being portions of a wavelength, that is, made of quarter, half or full wave elements and those whose performance is largely determined by angular relationships between the elements which tend to be broader bandwidth than the first kind.  Since angles of electrical length can be expressed as physical lengths, it can be easy to lump them together.  

The most common examples of the first kind are commonly called beam antennas, most are actually Yagi arrays (and more properly Yagi-Uda after both original inventors).  Just behind those in popularity are quad antennas; these are based on four sided, full wavelength loops, most often of wire.  There are also arrays of vertical antennas; most commonly four verticals forming a square array.  Quad and Yagi arrays look like this:

The one on the left is a two element quad (full wave loops) while the one on the right is a three element Yagi (half wave elements).  A two element quad is generally considered equivalent to a three element Yagi based on real measurements.  You can justify that by saying “there’s more metal in the air so more gain.”  Again, these are classes of antennas; both kinds are available with different numbers of elements.  There have been antennas that were a hybrid, with a quad driven element and sometimes a quad reflector and then Yagi directors.  There are quads made into hexagons, quads with two wavelength elements and other variations.

While designing for antenna gain is an art form, the general trends are that more elements and longer booms give more gain.  It’s a game with diminishing returns.  Each additional half wave element (always a director) gives improvement but think of it as 10 * log(new number/old number).  That is, going from three to four elements yields 10*log(4/3) or 1.25 dB but going from 10 to 11 elements gives 0.4 dB.  

There comes a point when if you need twice the gain, the way to get there is by adding a second antenna with the same number of elements.  “Stacked Yagis” (two identical antennas), four antennas and even two arrays of four antennas are used where high antenna gain is required, like communicating by bouncing signals off the moon.

The antennas whose performance is largely determined by angular relationships are very common and if you’re old enough to know about outdoor TV antennas, you’ve seen them all your life.  The descriptive name is Log Periodic Dipole Arrays, or LPDA antennas.  

This may look like a tapered Yagi at first glance, but look at the dipoles again. The two halves alternate between two booms that are insulated from each other.  In other words, you see the connector on the bottom front, a signal driving that “dipole” drives the right side, travels down the entire length of the bottom boom to the far end, moves up to the top boom and travels all the way back to just above the connector.  

While a Yagi is typically good for just one amateur band (ignoring antennas that have traps to allow use on multiple bands), LPDAs are common with frequency ranges from 2:1 to 10:1.  My HF antenna for 14 to 30 MHz is an LPDA (and I’ve used it successfully on 50.1 MHz), I’ve seen LPDAs for 50 to 500 MHz.  (My HF antenna is a Tennadyne T6)  The trade is that generally no more than two or three dipoles are active on any frequency, so while they cover a broad band of frequencies, they’re not the choice for a high gain antenna.  We used to say, “they’re an antenna that works poorly over a wide range of frequencies.”  (And, yes I just said I'm currently using one for HF and another for VHF)

Mounting the antenna, towers and such are not really part of this discussion.  All horizontal antennas, whether a simple random length wire, a dipole, or a humongous Yagi for 20 meters work better when mounted over ½ wavelength above ground and in the clear.  For 20 meters, a half wave is obviously 10 meters, about 33 feet.  That’s a very different support problem than a yagi for 40, 80 or 160meters.  For those bands, I think vertical antennas are the best choice for the ham without 40 acres and a big budget.   Note that means that a 2 meter antenna can work fine at just over 3 feet over ground.  From the feedpoint impedance view, that’s completely correct.  It will still work better if it’s higher because of that part about being “in the clear.”

In my case, the work has been lining up a replacement for my 6m antenna, a no-longer manufactured five element, dedicated, six-foot long 6m LPDA with a five element Yagi.  My antenna lists its gain as 7.2 dBi in free space.  The replacement I’ve picked out is twice as long, and has 10.2 dBi gain in free space.  The limiting factor that got me to stop at five elements instead of six (slightly more gain) is the resulting boom length and being able to take down the antenna for a storm.  What the existing 6m LPDA offers that my new antenna won't is it operates acceptably on 2m and even loads on 70cm (432 MHz SSB or CW), but it's not a particularly good antenna on either of those two bands.



Friday, December 3, 2021

Space News Week Roundup

It has been an interesting week for space news.  We've gone several weeks with nothing noteworthy happening and then this week we got four interesting stories.  Let me present a few other stories that caught my eye.  

From where I sit the big one is that this morning on Twitter, Elon Musk announced that they've started construction of a Starship pad at the Kennedy Space Center, at Pad 39.  

I'm stoked because that means I'll be able to see Starship launches from my backyard.  We've joked that we moved here too late, in '1982 while Saturn V launches ended with Apollo 17 in '72.  We did get to see almost every Shuttle launch but it wasn't the biggest rocket in history.  That may change in '23.

He projects it to be operational by '23, and possibly early '23.

There are reports out via Aviation Week magazine that the SLS (Space Launch System) is facing yet another problem.  Linked by Ars Technica's Rocket Report but the magazine we used to call "Aviation Leak" is not allowing nonsubscribers to read anything but one lead-in paragraph.  These two paragraphs are from Ars Technica.

There's an issue with an SLS engine controller. This past weekend, rumors emerged about a problem with the controller for one of the four RS-25 engines that power the Space Launch System. NASA has not officially commented, but Aviation Week's Irene Klotz spoke with Aerojet's RS-25 program manager, Jeff Zotti. Troubleshooting the problem began on November 22, Aviation Week reported.

Schedule impacts yet to be determined ... If necessary, "replacing a line or a component … we're probably talking about multiple days. Replacing an engine, we're probably talking about multiple weeks," Zotti told the publication. "On top of that, we have to assess what that does and how that affects the vehicle and the integration activities that are going on," he added. All of that must be factored into a potential delay of the launch, presently scheduled for February 12. A summer launch for the SLS now seems far more likely than spring.

Last March, Rocket Lab announced a heavier lift vehicle called Neutron that's planned to compete with the Falcon 9 and allow them to put heavier payloads into space.  On Thursday, Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck unveiled the Neutron.  Well, not in hardware, but in renderings and a slickly produced video.  It's a stubby-looking rocket that they claim is designed that way to ease in recovery.

Neutron, he said, is optimized to serve both for the deployment of megaconstellations as well as geostationary satellites and even interplanetary spacecraft.

"This is what a rocket should look like in 2050," Beck said. "But we're building it today."

Beck says the wider, stubbier rocket is intended to catch more atmospheric drag during reentry, requiring less fuel to slow down.  The structure will be made of a proprietary carbon fiber for strength to weight ratio, much like Starship was originally conceived.  The first stage will have fixed landing legs, and the rocket will only land back at the launch site rather than offshore. 

Rocket Lab famously flew the first 3D printed engine that has successfully (and routinely) made orbit, and they're following up by creating a new engine, Archimedes, for the Neutron.  Like Starship, and (allegedly) the New Glenn, Archimedes will be a methane/oxygen engine.  They intend to aim for at least 10 re-uses of each Neutron, which is (of course) SpaceX's original protocol.  

What got me, though, was the rendering of the fairing opening to release a payload.  Rocket Lab calls it the "Hungry Hippo" fairing and once you've seen that, you can't unsee the kids' hippo game.  

Finally, Thursday afternoonNASA announced that it had awarded three different teams, each involving multiple companies, more than $100 million apiece to support the design and early development of private space stations in low Earth orbit.  Much like the competition between private sector companies for the Human Landing System, there are three groups of companies that have been awarded contracts.  In fact, with one conspicuous absence (the winners) the companies seem to be the same.  

  • Blue Origin, $130 million, leading a team including Sierra Space, Boeing, and Redwire Space
  • Nanoracks, $160 million, leading a team including Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space
  • Northrop Grumman, $125.6 million, leading a team including Dynetics
  • Previously, in February of  '20, NASA awarded a $140 million contract to Axiom Space to develop a habitable module that is to be docked with the ISS.  In particular, they're allocated the station's Node 2 forward point.  This award gives NASA four options for a private space station. 

    The ISS is only technically expected to remain operational through 2024 - which will be here before you blink a few times.  I'd bet these contractors won't even have completed their design reviews by then, although with Axiom's head start they would seem to have the best chance.  Could the ISS make it to 2030?  Longer?  It's possible but not a certainty.  Then there's the question of whether it could get funded or whether it should even be funded.  What's the public's interest in the space station?  We hear about all sorts of things that seem good for manufacturing or other private sector concerns.  If a company wants to put up their own space station, why not let them and get NASA out of that?   

    Thursday, December 2, 2021

    Is SpaceX Really In Trouble?

    A story broke within the last week that Elon Musk sent an email to the company saying that SpaceX could be facing bankruptcy.  The email was sent last Friday, Black Friday, from Elon at work to employees probably relaxing in their turkey-induced comas from the day before or doing their Black Friday shopping.  Musk said, 

    I was going to take this weekend off, as my first weekend off in a long time, but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend.

    Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster.

    What's going on?  Is a SpaceX bankruptcy really likely?  It's a bit of a story.  In the immediate aftermath of the email, Musk backed off on the story a bit.  It's not likely, it's not something that is likely to happen without other things breaking down, but it's a possibility.  Here's the tweet, dated Tuesday.

    So what's the story?

    The story revolves around a relatively sudden realization that Raptor engine production is not going well.  The news broke about a week after CNBC reported that Musk had fired the vice-president of propulsion due to “a lack of progress” in the development of Starship’s Raptor engine. Now, apparently after taking his first good look ‘under the hood’ in a while, Musk says that “the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago.”

    Musk may be a demanding boss, they seriously push to increase their launch cadence and you know there are lots of people working long weeks to do that, but while he may be a hard boss, he's not a full-tilt crazy boss.  Driven, yes; insane, no.

    The fact is that apparently Musk had not paid as close attention to the Raptor production facility as he thought and was surprised when he started digging into things.  I think everyone knows that bad surprises are not a good thing to leave for your boss.

    This matters because SpaceX has undertaken two immense, unprecedented technological space projects simultaneously. Each will cost billions of dollars—conservatively, $5 billion each, and likely significantly more—to bring to fruition and provide some return on investment. And ultimately, the success of SpaceX hinges on both projects, as they are each to some extent dependent upon the other.

    The first big project is well known: Musk wants to get to Mars; not just land on Mars and come back home, but to establish a civilization on Mars.  By his own own estimate, that's going to require "not less than 1 million tons" delivered to the red planet.  In the 60 years of the "space age" the combined efforts of every civilization on the planet have delivered a few tons; probably less than 10 tons combined.  Notice this is not "let's get the government to do this," it's "we're going to do this" where we is SpaceX.  Immediately, the question of "how are you going to pay for that comes up."  Musk is ultimately counting on revenues from Starlink and launch services.  Ultimately, the number of satellites that can be put into orbit by even the Falcon 9 is too low to get the Starlink revenue stream they'll need. 

    The company has already delivered over 1600 satellites to orbit, more than any country or other organization has ever done, and gathered almost 150,000 customers.  The service, though needs more satellites and more customers to meet its goals. 

    To reach truly global and reliable service, SpaceX needs to complete its constellation. This is the "Starlink Satellite V2" that Musk refers to in his email. It represents about 12,000 second-generation satellites that are a bit bulkier than the first edition, as they carry more capacity.

    To launch these into orbit would require about 300 launches of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. Although the Falcon 9 is the cheapest and most efficient rocket in the world, that is still a costly proposition. Assuming an internal cost of $25 million per launch, that would be $7.5 billion. And that many launches would likely take seven to 10 years, an eternity for Musk. Finally, these launch costs are on top of the billions of dollars to build the satellites themselves and ground terminals for customers to receive signals.

    Don't forget that they're also developing Starbase Boca Chica along with a dedicated Raptor engine factory in Texas.  That's another billion dollars a year SpaceX is spending (well, reported but not confirmed).  

    This is why they need Starship so desperately.  While a single Falcon 9 launch puts up 53 Starlink Version 1.5 satellites (they weigh more than the version 1 satellites that F9 could launch 60 at a time), a Starship can probably lift 400 at a time.  That turns the 300 F9 launches into 27 Starship launches - of a vehicle designed to be turned around for reuse within a couple of hours.  There's the reason for Elon's priority on getting Starship running.

    Which returns us to the Raptor engines that started this story.  While the first orbital Starship launch is likely to be next month, it's not going to be recovered.  Chances are the next vehicle won't be recovered, either.  Each booster will have 29 engines while each Starship will have another 6 - a total of 35 engines used in each test flight.  It's really not unreasonable to think it will take eight to 10 test flights before the boosters and Starships are being recovered reliably.  While they could do it faster, a conservative estimate is that they might need 300 to 350 engines. 

    By comparison, NASA provided Aerojet Rocketdyne with $1 billion a few years ago to restart the production of space shuttle main engines. Four of these will power each Space Launch System rocket. Each individual engine, on top of the "start-up" fee NASA paid, will cost an additional $100 million. For all of this money, NASA will get a maximum production of four engines a year—engines that are not reusable and largely based on technology decades old.

    The target price for Raptors is $250,000 each and scuttlebutt picked up online is that the current production engines are running under $1 million but to get to that final price requires the Raptor 2.  The SLS engines, which are essentially the same thrust, price out at nearly $150 million per engine when that "start-up" fee is amortized over the expected production run.  For a use once and throw away engine.  

    Unfortunately, we don't know in any detail what the problems they're facing with Raptor production are.  All I can say is that in every kind of product development I know of, "oh, shit!" moments are a regular thing.  SpaceX has had them before and solved them.  My belief is they'll eventually get this situation resolved, too.  

    The first test firing of a flight version of SpaceX's Raptor rocket engine.  Elon Musk/Twitter



    Wednesday, December 1, 2021

    Planetary Scientists Starting to Grasp How Starship Changes Everything

    Back in mid-November, I quoted and linked to an important blog post by Casey Handmer about Starship.  A couple of quotes in there are truly stunning (they stunned me) but he has blogged for years about exploring the solar system and has come to the realization that Starship is so much of a leap over the current ways of doing things that most of the groups who can get the most out of it just don't understand that.   

    A longer than usual article on Ars Technica offers some very reassuring information that they're starting to understand.  It starts out with something guaranteed to catch my attention: author Eric Berger re-tells a story I told last night from a different perspective. 

    Jennifer Heldmann stared at the computer screens on her desk, watching as a rocket's upper stage slammed into a crater near the South Pole of the Moon. In the name of science, a 2.3-ton chunk of steel struck the Moon with the force of 2 tons of TNT.

    It was October 2009, and Heldmann tracked the impact from inside the Science Operations Center at NASA Ames in California. As a 33-year-old planetary scientist, she was working her first major mission for NASA by coordinating observations of the impact with ground-based telescopes.


    After poring over the data, NASA declared that it had indeed found water in the vapor plume kicked up by the Centaur impact, as well as material ejected by the blast.

    The discovery of water on the moon was paradigm-shifting for planetary scientists.  It had long been held that if life was to be found it would be on a body with water - or that had water.  For some years, planetary scientists had been finding ice and water all over the Solar System—on the ice-encrusted moons of Europa and Enceladus, on and beneath the surface of Mars, and potentially in even more far-flung locations, such as the interior of Pluto or Neptune's largest moon, Triton.  As they looked beyond Earth, scientists were beginning to discover water was nearly everywhere.  Maybe, instead of looking for fossils of life in dry lake beds on Mars, they could look for living things in the large oceans of Europa, Enceladus, and those other places.   

    We've talked about the Europa Clipper, currently projecting October 2024 launch on a Falcon Heavy, several times here.  As Starship has moved from lofty dream to real hardware readying for orbital flight, it's starting to attract the attention of planetary scientists.  Jennifer Heldman, from that moon mission is out on the forefront.  

    Imagine sending a lander to Europa, which harbors a vast, warm, subsurface ocean. During recent NASA planning meetings, scientists contemplated sending a complex spacecraft, costing billions of dollars, to conduct science on Europa. At best, they were hoping to land a payload of science instruments about the size and mass of a mini-refrigerator there.

    With Starship, by contrast, NASA might land a cache of scientific payloads the size of a single-story unfurnished house.

    "You can really take advantage of the Starship architecture and get to the outer Solar System in ways we haven't thought about before," Heldmann said. "It could provide a revolutionary new way of exploring these worlds."  [Bold added: SiG]

    Earlier this year, NASA's group of planetary scientists began to recognize the urgency of getting the space agency on board with using Starship for science missions.  So they wrote a white paper (PDF warning), with Heldmann as the lead author, titled "Accelerating Martian and Lunar Science through SpaceX Starship Missions."

    "NASA must develop a funded program aligned with the development approach for Starship, including a rapid development schedule, relatively high risk tolerance compared to traditional planetary science missions, and ultimately a high ratio of potential science value for the dollars spent if successful," the scientists and engineers wrote.

    Starship's key differentiator is mass. Today, when a scientist plans a mission to explore another world, there are two big constraints: cost and mass. Starship may have some effect on cost by offering more rocket for less money. But the biggest change is that scientists will no longer need to be hyperfocused on mass. They can carry more instruments, more shielding, more whatever.

    One of the reasons spacecraft for these missions are so expensive is the focus on both mass and trying to ensure mission success.  The drive for lower liftoff mass while still minimizing the risk of failure causes the price to skyrocket, which only serves to increase the pressure to ensure that for such a high price tag the mission must succeed.  

    Will NASA do anything to take advantage of the opportunities a fully operational Starship can bring?  It's hard to know.  NASA has selected Starship for the Human Landing System for the moon, but there's much more of the Artemis program that can be done directly with Starship, such as not bothering with the Lunar Gateway concept (which SpaceX will launch, also on a Falcon Heavy).  Aside from examples like this, though, NASA likes doing things with multiple bidders and international partners. 

    [E]ven if NASA's leadership decided it wanted to create a Starship-specific program for science payloads, it's doubtful that Congress (or perhaps even the White House) would go along. Members of Congress like jobs in their districts and states, and NASA's traditional contractors provide this. SpaceX, by contrast, focuses heavily on cutting costs and efficiency. It works in comparatively few states and employs fewer subcontractors.


    Consider the Mars Sample Return mission. NASA plans to partner with an important ally in space, the European Space Agency, to launch a sample retrieval rover (developed in Europe) and an ascent vehicle, built for NASA by Northrop Grumman. This mission, launching no earlier than 2026, could perhaps fly on United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket. Then, a European-built return orbiter would launch on an European Ariane 6 rocket to bring the small cache of samples back to Earth.

    Such a mission would likely have a broad array of political support because it would fund multiple US contractors and bolster ties with Europe. By contrast, a SpaceX-only mission on Starship would upset NASA's other contractors, the European Space Agency, and the politicians who back their interests.

    In shorter form, the problems the planetary scientists face are political problems.  The agency is "old space;" an arthritic bureaucracy.  They're more concerned with spreading money around to different constituencies and the concomitant kickbacks to the right officials than achieving the best missions for the cost.  Changing that is an uphill battle.

    Still, there are positive signs.  Today the agency has the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program, which awards money to private companies to build spacecraft that can carry NASA payloads to the surface of the Moon. CLPS has awarded a half-dozen contracts so far to a diverse array of bidders (examples here) and has a total budget of $2.6 billion through 2028.  Why couldn't they "start small" and create such a program for Mars payloads?  

    Such an idea has already been proposed by scientists in the influential Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, which suggested (pdf warning) that "a Mars-focused CLPS-like program could allow technology development for future exploration as well as delivery of science payloads."  

    Remember that comparison of sending a payload the mass of a mini-fridge to Europa with a conventional mission or a single story house with a Starship?  Starship is massive.  If ride-sharing is profitable for smaller satellite builders on a smaller launcher like Falcon 9, imagine a ride-share mission to Jupiter, carrying multiple rovers for which ever moon they land on, or different Jupiter observing satellites.  It could be a regular occurrence, perhaps every couple of years.  A Starship could stay on orbit around Jupiter as well, acting as communications relay back to Earth and lowering the cost of the various satellites.  

    Starship's "Photo Opportunity" stacking from August 6, '21.  Screen capture from

    As long as this piece has been, it's just touching the surface of everything linked herein and the source article at Ars Technica. If this has been interesting, go read.


    Tuesday, November 30, 2021

    Asteroid Material Returned to Earth Contains Surface Water

    In May of 2003, the Japanese Space Agency launched the Hayabusa mission to an asteroid called 25143 Itokawa.  In November of 2005, the satellite touched down on the surface of Itokawa becoming only the second vehicle in history to land on an asteroid.  But there was more.  Hayabusa was intended not just to land on the asteroid, but to return a sample to Earth.  During the November 2005 landing, after a series of troubles, the ground lost contact with Hayabusa, not regaining contact until March of 2006.

    The story of the mission reads like a case study in perseverance through difficulty after difficulty.  When the vehicle started back for Earth, it wasn't known for sure if any of the asteroid was successfully sampled.  The capsule potentially containing - perhaps - one gram of asteroid surface - re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 13 June 2010.  The capsule experienced peak deceleration of about 25 G and heating rates approximately 30 times those experienced by the Apollo spacecraft. It landed via parachute near Woomera, Australia, and was recovered the next day.

    Fast forward 11 years and we find that Itokawa contains significant amounts of water.  It has probably flown below most peoples' radars that NASA has confirmed (on almost the same time line) that there's plenty of water on the surface of the moon, as well.  One mission, crashing a used rocket stage into the surface near the south pole, revealed the lunar regolith (sort of lunar topsoil) was 5% water.  Considering the temperatures on the moon and the exposure to hard vacuum, how is this even possible?  Wouldn't water evaporate or, if ice, sublimate?  One of the explanations offered at the time was that the solar wind sends a steady stream of protons out in the Solar System, and these protons could interact with lunar material to produce water.  It was found the temperatures at the lunar poles, in the perpetual shadows where the rocket stage hit, are so far below freezing that sublimation is very slow and rare.

    Here's where the story of Itokawa gets a little more interesting. 

    Itokawa is what's called a "rubble pile," as it's made up of small fragments produced by collisions among asteroids and then slowly gathered together by gravity. Asteroids like this may have fragmented and re-formed multiple times over their history, and they could be composed of portions of more than one body.

    A large, international research team took some of the fragments returned to Earth and subjected them to a variety of imaging techniques. The researchers determined that the outermost 40 to 180 nanometers [1-1/2 to 7 millionths of inch] of rock were transformed by their time in space due to bombardment by high-energy radiation. This region also had elevated levels of water and hydroxyl ions (OH-). This finding is consistent with the idea that the water was produced by the interaction between protons in the solar wind and silicate-rich materials in the rocks themselves.

    Based on the typical depth of the material that was transformed by the solar wind, the researchers could calculate the amount of water in particles of different sizes. And while there's very little here individually, Itokawa has a lot of small, dust-like particles, which have a high surface area relative to their volume. So it all adds up to an estimated 20 liters of water in every cubic meter of the powdery regolith on the asteroid.

    Itokawa - ISAS, JAXA photo 

    People who study asteroids like this believe that on a rubble pile like Itokawa, all of the dust gets cycled between the surface and interior as the asteroid has collisions over the millennia, and as a body like Itokawa orbits, it sweeps up more dust which has been hit by high energy solar wind.  So even if something is now buried in the interior, it almost certainly was exposed to the solar wind in the past.

    It also presents us with somewhat of a way out of a problem.  For years, we've been told that Earth's oceans are probably the result of a massive collision that formed the moon.  Over time, chunks of proto-Earth fell back down, bringing significant amounts of water.  The problem with that is it doesn't agree with observations of the isotopes of the water found on Earth versus other planets.  

    But if we go by the elements in our crust, the bodies that arrived on Earth have a different ratio of hydrogen isotopes from the waters in our ocean. Put differently, the oceans have water that (in isotope terms) is somewhat lighter than the water found in the asteroids that have a composition similar to Earth's. The solar wind, in contrast, has hydrogen isotopes that are overall lighter than what we see in our oceans. So the researchers propose that the solar wind has indirectly helped fill our planet's oceans by producing water on dust particles that eventually fell to Earth.

    The interesting side here is that the process continues today.  An estimated 30,000 tonnes of dust grains fall from space each year. And these tiny particles will have the highest amount of water per mass of anything exposed to the solar wind. That's not much water in a given year, but it adds up over time, year after year, after thousands, millions or billions of years. 



    Monday, November 29, 2021

    SpaceX Going Into Year-End Launch Cadence Push

    At the end of last year, SpaceX was talking about 48 launches this year.  

    Musk also says that SpaceX is “doing a broad review of launch site, propulsion, structures, avionics, range, & regulatory constraints” to determine if an apparent goal of “48 launches” in 2021 is feasible.

    “We will need to make a lot of improvements to have a chance of completing 48 launches next year!”  Elon Musk, October 3, 2020.

    As the year progressed, it became evident the goal of roughly one launch every eight days wasn't going to happen (probably the most bizarre supply chain story (or rumor) I heard was that there's a shortage of liquid oxygen).  Notably they went from producing more Starlink satellites than they knew what to do with to redesigning them for laser based communications between satellites on orbit.  As a result there were only 20 launches in the first six months of the year, but only three in the entire third quarter of 2021.  The new Starlink "version 1.5" satellites are sufficiently bigger that the recent missions carrying them have only put 53 in orbit at a time instead of the 60 they've been lifting on one flight.  

    In an attempt to get back to the originally desired cadences, there's a year end push going on.  The first of these launches will be No Earlier Than (NET) this Wednesday evening, December 1st at 6:20 PM EST.  This launch will break the company’s record for their annual number of launches.  The way Teslarati author Eric Ralph describes the mission, though, is kinda confusing. 

    Somewhat confusing known as Starlink Shell 4 Launch 3 or Starlink 4-3, the batch of 53 laser-linked V1.5 satellites is scheduled to fly before Starlink 4-2 for unknown reasons and at the same time as Starlink 2-3 is scheduled to fly before Starlink 2-2 on the West Coast. 

    Got that?  Yeah, me neither. 

    The launch calendar I watch the most doesn't have that level of detail.  After Wednesday's launch they don't list another Falcon 9 until NET December 9.  The calendar fills out like this:

    • Dec. 9 • IXPE (NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer)
      Launch window: 0600-0730 GMT (1:00-2:30 a.m. EST)
      Launch site: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida 
    • TBD • Starlink 2-3
      Launch time: TBD
      Launch site: SLC-4E, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California
    • Dec. 18/19 • Turksat 5B
      Launch window: 0358-0528 GMT on 19th (10:58 p.m.-12:28 a.m. EDT on 18th/19th)
      Launch site: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
    • Dec. 21 • SpaceX CRS 24
      Launch time: 1006 GMT (5:06 a.m. EDT)
      Launch site: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

    If everything goes according to these goals, considering that Wednesday's launch will set a new SpaceX record for launches in year, this will have been a banner year for the Falcon 9 and SpaceX even though by the numbers Eric Ralph presented, this adds up to 28 launches this year and not 48.

    To quote myself from back in October of '20, 48 launches a year is obviously four short of one per week, and I don't know of any company, any government, or any entity launching orbital class vehicles that can do that.  It's ambitious, but the company is nothing if not ambitious, as seen both here and over in Texas.

    This is booster 1063 after it's third flight and return to the Port of Long Beach aboard Of Course I Still Love you.  This is booster that launched the DART mission last week. Photo (as it says) by Pauline Acalin.

      Sunday, November 28, 2021

      Weekly Update on the 1 by 1 - part 16

      At the end of my last update, I talked about cutting down my square bar of cast iron from a bit over 2-1/16" on a side to a size that's more reasonable to turn to the final size, 1.750" on a side.  That's a rather routine step in pretty much all projects.  I cut it down to about 1.875 on each side.  

      I also said that I plan to mill away some of the protruding corners so that it's easier on the lathe than turning the rectangular crankshaft bar was.  Every revolution of the bar as the lathe spun whacked the cutting tools loudly.  Commenter Malatrope said I should go ahead and make it a regular octagon for the minimum amount of whacking the lathe cutter. 

      On the cylinder, go ahead and cut it all the way down to a regular octagon while you have it set up on the mill, don't just whack off some of the sharp corners. Then the turning will go smooth as silk.

      The question becomes how do I stand the square bar on one of those points and immobilize it against the cutting forces.  To me, the most obvious way is to hold the square in something that holds the 90 degree corner on the bottom.  The most common solution is Vee blocks - they have a 90 degree included angle that's 45 degrees from the base - like this.  I have a pair but they're too big to fit in the mill's vise and there's no way to hold the square bar.  I saw that if I had some smaller Vee blocks such that they supported the square bar but let the vise hold the bar, that should work.  This was followed by some time in CAD drafting to work out the details.  

      The Vee block is shown at the bottom (red highlight).  The horizontal dimension really isn't critical, it just needs to be smaller than corner to corner dimension so that my vise can close on the corners of the square.

      The drawing is busy, but note that the 1.875" on a side square is 2.652 inches across (which my vise can open enough to grab).  There's a dimension there to indicate how high the corners are over the bottom of the vise, 1.530", and a rectangle representing a vise jaw.  The problem is that 1.53" height is over half an inch taller than my vise jaws.  I made a pair of replacement jaws for the vise back while working on the Duclos flame eater engine; those were too short as well, by about a quarter inch. 

      The Vee blocks don't get high forces (I don't think) so those became a job for the 3D printer.

      and just to show you the problem with grabbing the bar, the vise jaws need to squeeze tightly on those sharp corners.  Once the top is cut down the right depth (0.389"), the bar is flipped so the bottom point is now on the top and that point gets cut down the same amount.  Then the bar is rotated to put one of the remaining sharp points on the top, at which point the vise is grabbing the newly flat sides.

      What to do?  

      Sure looks like time to make another set of vise jaws.  I took off one of those thick jaws visible there; they're bigger than the body of the vise - and measured the placement of the two holes.  I changed the dimensions while working in the shop today.  Notice the height here is 1.600; that picture at the top is 1.625, and I made the actual jaws over 1-3/4 (I forget the actual number).

      I finished making them today.  They're 3/8" thick steel plate, so less likely to bend appreciably when I crank the vise down onto the square bar. 

      I ran out of time to test them today, but all of this to make a tool so that I can make a part for the engine. If all goes as hoped, I'll actually be making the cylinder within a couple of days.

      Saturday, November 27, 2021

      James Webb Space Telescope Launch Delayed Four Days

      For several days, maybe a week, I've been trying to find more details on a reported anomaly that has caused at least a four day delay in the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from No Earlier Than (NET) December 18th to NET December 22nd.  Details are hard to find, but apparently while in the early phases of mating the JWST to the Ariane 5 launch vehicle something went wrong.  This was earlier this month, November 9th.  The best summary I've found so far is this video from a channel I wasn't aware of. 

      The story he presents is essentially complete on  There's a spring loaded band that's part of the adapter that attaches the JWST to the Ariane and while the JWST was being attached to the booster, that band unexpectedly sprung open.  While nobody was hurt and the instrument appeared undamaged, it was certain that a shock impulse was transferred to the satellite. During movement around the US and by ocean-going ship to its launch site in French Guiana, the JWST was instrumented to record the shocks and vibrations it was exposed to.  Those instruments had been removed at the time of the incident, in accordance with the established procedures.  As a result, nobody knew the exact levels that JWST was exposed to.

      NASA convened an Anomaly Review Board to determine what testing is necessary to ensure nothing received more vibration than it was rated for and previously tested to.  On Wednesday, just before the long holiday weekend, NASA tweeted that the review concluded JWST was safe to launch.  (The last line of the tweet, cut off by Twitter, is to here.)

      To me, the money quote to end this with is from Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, identified as the director of science at NASA.  He said, 

      "Just for sheer caution what we have done... [is go back] to a small number of subsystems and just do the functional tests to make sure that nothing happened as this energy went into the [telescope]," he told reporters.

      "When you work on a $10bn telescope, conservatism is the order of the day."

      Friday, November 26, 2021

      A Day of Normalcy

      When you get down to it, normalcy feels pretty darned good.  

      We enjoyed what has become our traditional Thanksgiving celebration at my brother's house in south Florida.  There and back combine into five hours of driving, but it's mostly the Florida Turnpike and I-95 so it's easier than driving in stop and go traffic.  This was the smallest gathering I can remember; there were just eight of us.  We spent from about 12:30 till about 7:30 PM with my extended family.  It's just good to spend time with family.  

      Today was our Thanksgiving here with just us.  I smoked a turkey using a method I found on Serious Eats; a combination of spatchcocking the turkey together with a dry brine and then smoking in my Weber kettle grill.  It gives such a nice pink smoke ring in the meat that you just don't get with the electric smokers.  I've done this basic recipe a few times and it does produce a good turkey.  I have fooled around with what I do a bit but I never know if the main difference is what I've done or how the turkeys are being raised.  

      Since it's Black Friday (for another few hours), I feel like I do at least one post about the absurdity of this new national "holiday" every year.  I'm a bit on the curmudgeonly side on this whole thing.  

      I don't know about you, but I'm sure I started seeing black Friday ads in July.  For sure, I must have been getting 50 to 75 emails a day with black Friday in the subject for the last month.  When we have a Black Friday sale in every month, what's so special about it anymore?  In the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.  Add to that the fear of product shortages causing people to start doing their Christmas shopping early, and I don't even know if Black Friday is today or if it was some weeks ago.  

      Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  

      It always pays to know what going prices are.  I've heard that generally speaking, the best time for deals isn't today, it's closer to Christmas; and especially the last couple of days before Christmas.  You could get better prices than this week, but it's a gamble.  You're betting that the stores will be stuck with something you want and would rather discount it than not sell it.  If they sell out first you lose.  If they don't sell out but still won't or can't cut the price, again you lose.  That said, it has worked out for me in the past.  It's sort of like calling a bluff in poker. 

      Retail is a rough way to make a living. I'm sure you've heard how airline reservation systems base the seat price on the apparent interest in a flight.  If you go back and check on the price of that seat every week, the system says there must be more demand for that flight and raises the price.  What if stores could measure real time demand and adjust the price.  Say you're looking for a new tool or other gadget; what if they see someone checking the web site regularly and interpret that as several people interested in that item and raised its price?  Would you be upset or offended?  What if they dropped the price to see at what level you can't resist pushing the Glistening, Candy-like, "BUY IT" button?  I don't have any hard evidence that anyone does that, but it seems trivial for an online store to track interest in something.  The biggest risk is scaring away customers.

      To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  My inner engineer drives me to optimize things, but if people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year", and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in anyone's corn flakes by telling them they didn't get the best price.

      Wednesday, November 24, 2021

      Falcon 9 Aces First Interplanetary Launch Overnight

      In the overnight hours last night/this morning, SpaceX successfully launched NASA's Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on its trajectory out of the Earth-Moon system into a solar orbit and headed toward the dual asteroid system.  DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission.  Right on time at 0621 UTC (10:21 PST or 1:21 AM EST on the 24th over here), Falcon 9 B1063 lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base's SLC-4E on its third mission, reaching orbit about eight minutes later.  

      A few seconds after that, B1063 successfully landed on drone recovery ship Of Course I Still Love You.  DART was the first interplanetary NASA mission launched on a flight-proven commercial rocket and the Falcon 9 vehicle’s first interplanetary launch.  Falcon Heavy launched Elon Musk's Tesla to Mars, and while the two strap on boosters and the core stage are essentially Falcon 9s, those were not considered to have been the same as this one.  Whatever they like. 

      Around 28 minutes after liftoff, Falcon 9’s orbital second stage fired up for the second and final time. In just 53 seconds, Falcon 9’s upper stage accelerated from a stable velocity (relative to Earth’s surface) of 7.5 kilometers per second (4.7 mi/s) to almost 11.1 km/s (6.9 mi/s), sending DART (and itself) from low Earth orbit (LEO) to an Earth escape trajectory that will ultimately leave them in orbit around the sun. 

      SpaceX provided their usual video coverage, but it started a few minutes longer before liftoff to include a few minutes of presentations on DART. 

      DART (NASA's mission page) is the first time people have attempted to change the orbit of an asteroid.  The key is in the name Dual Asteroid Redirection Test: DART is headed for a dual asteroid, and is intended to smack into the smaller asteroid (Dimorphos) orbiting a larger one (Didymos) under power.  

      “If DART succeeds, NASA anticipates it will be able to observe a slight 1.5% change in Dimorphos’ orbital period (how long it takes to orbit Didymos) with Earth-based telescopes. Perhaps one day – building upon DART, follow-up reconnaissance mission HERA, and other asteroid missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx – NASA and other space agencies will team up to develop a fleet of planetary defense spacecraft that can intentionally redirect asteroids that threaten Earth, preventing catastrophic impacts like the one that likely wiped out 75% of species and virtually all nonavian dinosaurs around 66 million years ago.” — November 23rd, 2021

      Basically, it's the movie Armageddon turning into reality, except for the mission being unmanned, so no Bruce Willis equivalent and no live video as it's going on.  Well, it's a test of the concept; Dimorphos and Didymos are no threat to Earth. 

      The Dimorphos/Didymos system is in solar orbit relatively close to Earth, and the mission is going to complete between September 26 and October 1, 2022; under one year from launch.  

      Final words to Teslarati's Eric Ralph:

      Given that CEO Elon Musk’s entire motivation for founding the company and pursuing spaceflight was to help make humanity multiplanetary and protect against mass-extinction events like those that befell the dinosaurs, it’s only fitting that SpaceX ultimately won NASA’s DART launch competition and sent the DART spacecraft on its way to Dimorphos as part of the first true planetary defense test in history.

      As is usually the case, I'll be taking off tomorrow for our annual family gathering in South Florida with my brother and his extended family.  Friday we'll be back, and I'll be smoking a turkey for us. That ordinarily doesn't affect my ability to look up something interesting.

      In the meantime, a happy and healthy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

      Tuesday, November 23, 2021

      A Perfect Economic Storm

      I've been a regular reader of Bill Bonner's economic ramblings for years. My earliest reference to him here on the blog was back in 2011, a decade ago, and I'm fairly sure I was reading him longer than that.  Possibly into the early '00s.  Today, his home site is called Rogue Economics, but he has had a few others.  I currently get his daily emails and read many but not all.  Articles by Bill tend to be weekdays. Saturdays are usually other partners, and Sunday is a summary with links to postings from the previous week. 

      Bill is an interesting commentator and observer of the world, strongly focused on the win-win transactions of a free market as opposed to the win-lose world of the command driven, fake economies.  Last week, he ran an article that was called, “Who Could Have Seen That Coming?” in the email but which the website tonight calls, “What to Expect When the Government Ignores Consequences.”  I like the original title better.

      He starts it with a simple proposition.  If you were to see someone with a gas can and matches apparently targeting a Federal building, shouldn't you say something?  (Let's pretend the Federal building is worth saving.)  Then he follows with this gem to get you to keep reading:

      The Federal Reserve printed up nearly 5 trillion brand-spanking-new dollars between August 2019 and today.

      Surely, there must have been at least one alert economist among the 1,000 Ph.D.s on the Fed’s payroll who noticed that they were about to cause the whole economy to go up in flames.

      Surely the “one alert economist” at the Fed must have known that no nation had ever created this much money in so short a period before.  Nobody questioned this?  Have you ever heard the expression, “it takes a Ph.D. to be that stupid?”  This is an example.  Here I must quote another economic columnist I used to read, the Mogambo Guru who wrote about monetary creation in 2009:

      Whether or not this theory is true, I don’t know, but I don’t think so, as I have never read anything like, “From the moment that the government started creating and spending large amounts of money, everything got better and better, and the more money that was created for the government to spend, the better things got, until they reached Utopia and everybody lived happily ever after.” 

      Every one of the millions of us who have seen inflation and monetary destruction before this could tell the Fed what was going to happen.  Something about the training of those Ph.D.s at the Fed has blinded them to even acknowledging the role of central banking in all the economic collapses in history.  Remember this famous quote from Nobel Prize winner Milton Freedman: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”  

      The truth though is that Fed wants inflation; the only question is exactly how much inflation they're going to create.  You can find any number of citations saying they aim for 2% inflation, although they rarely achieve it.  By the Rule of 72 (really 69.3, but you can't do that in your head) says to divide 72 by that 2% and it tells you the cost of living doubles in 36 years.  If they reported the COL honestly and consistently. 

      The Fed is deathly afraid of deflation, of prices going down, which is their natural tendency.  As people get better at doing their jobs, the costs go down and the brains at the Fed say that there will be no reason for people to spend beyond their immediate needs (and even the cost of food goes down as producers learn new ways to increase crop yields or food production).  They believe forcing people to spend is the proper goal because their forcing is what drives the economy.  

      The response to the Covid-19 outbreak has created a perfect storm of things that are now causing epic inflation.  First, there's this:

      Supply chain disruptions were relatively unknown back in March 2020, when the spree of money-printing began in earnest. Now, they’re as common as strip malls.

      How came they to be?

      When the offices, restaurants, and bars closed, people turned to their home computers… found that they had stimmy money from the feds in their accounts… and determined to spend it.

      Then there's the attempt to shut down transportation by limiting domestic energy production (while saying they're trying to convince OPEC increase production).  That raises shipping prices which immediately adds to the prices of everything simply because everything gets shipped.  The prices of food go up; again because everything gets shipped.  Because of the supply chain disruptions you add real cost increases caused by real market forces - lower supply for the same demand pushes up prices - to prices being bid up by the increased supply of dollars.  Housing and car prices, both used and new, go up.  

      Now a totally new wrinkle caused by the virus responses including the "jab or job" blackmail the Biden administration is pushing.  People quit their jobs.  As Bill puts it:

      Perhaps less foreseeable… but with so much liquidity weeping from the clouds, many people just decided to stay home permanently.

      In what came to be known as the Great Resignation, some 4.4 million workers went AWOL, in September alone.

      And then businesses, eager to meet the increased demand, found they had to pay higher wages and benefits to keep their workers happy. Our friend David Stockman tells us that the latest Employment Cost Index figures show labor costs rising at a 6% annualized rate.

      Compensating workers is the number one expense of U.S. industry. So, any rise in labor costs is important… and must be passed along.

      It is also the most “sticky” of cost increases. Prices for raw materials may go up and down, but once an employee gets a raise, it is hard to take it back; there’s nothing “transitory” about it.

      Nothing about the current situation is transitory.  It will keep going.  Shadowstats shows that using the methods for measuring inflation during the end of the Jimmy Carter era shows the same levels of inflation as the end of the Jimmy Carter era (1980).  

      The Carter years are still widely quoted as the worst period of inflation in the US.  Those were my first years working for a living, getting 5% pay raises compounded every six months (10.25%/year) which still didn't keep pace with inflation.  The eventual fix for the inflation was to raise the prime interest rate into territories now considered impossible, hitting 19.1% in June of 1981.  Pigs will fly fast enough to break the sound barrier before that rate could be instituted now.  The line item for "interest on the debt" in the Federal Budget would blow up - blowing the budget up with it.  Everyone knows they need to stop the monetary creation and raise interest rates, but that's destructive, too. 

      Everywhere you look, it seems the chances of a total collapse of the dollar are higher than at any time.  Those chances continue to go up with this inflation. 


      Monday, November 22, 2021

      Super Heavy Booster 5 Down to Final Assembly Details

      Last Friday, November 19th, workers at SpaceX Boca Chica lifted the liquid methane tank for B5 and put it on top of the oxygen tank, marking the last of the major assembly steps in readying the ~225 foot tall rocket for testing.  A team of welders has been doing final assembly since then.

      Two days earlier, Elon tweeted this upskirt photo of B4 after the installation of heat shielding between the Raptor engines.  The tweet simply said, “12 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.” 

      This will be the most powerful rocket launched in human history.  Then it will be upgraded with an additional four engines to a total of 33.  I calculate the additional four engines will raise the thrust to 13.7 million pounds.  

      Teslarati author Eric Ralph points out that B5 is being assembled differently than B4 and is coming along faster.  Refining processes while in motion is how SpaceX works, though, so not surprising in the least. 

      Once Booster 5’s two halves are welded together, only a few things will set it and Booster 4 apart. In recent weeks, SpaceX’s slow progress on Super Heavy B4 relented a bit as technicians began closing out the booster’s raceway (a conduit for plumbing, wiring, and avionics) with basic covers. More importantly, SpaceX also began reinstalling Raptor engines and installing heat shielding around those engines for the first time. In the photo Musk published on November 17th, that heat shield is easily visible and there are signs that it will ultimately enclose the entire outer ring of 20 Raptor Boost engines above their nozzles.
      Super Heavy Booster 5, on the other hand, has taken a slightly different path through assembly. Unlike Booster 4, which first rolled out as little more than a giant steel tank with Raptors half-installed, SpaceX appears to have installed most of Booster 5’s external plumbing, wiring, equipment racks, and maybe even the start of its Raptor heat shield during assembly instead of after. Perhaps as a result, SpaceX has taken more than ten weeks to stack Booster 5 versus 2.5 weeks for Booster 4. But given that Booster 4 still doesn’t appear to be complete some 18 weeks after its assembly began, there’s a chance that Booster 5 will ultimately take 4-6 weeks less to reach initial test readiness.

      It looks like B5 could conceivably be ready to test before B4 is.  I don't see them rolling it to the launch area because there's nowhere to put it.  There are two test stands: one still has B3 on it, the other has B4.  The Orbital Launch Pad is said to be nearing the point when a fully loaded booster can be mounted and do a full static fire of the 29 engines, but isn't there yet.  

      Let's pretend the FAA gives approval on December 31st, like the schedule shows.  That means they can launch as soon as they want.  The first week in January?  There's a lot to do, a lot to test before they try to put that thing into orbit.  Flounder said it best.