Monday, March 30, 2020

Behind The Virus Shock, The Oil Price War

As I'm sure most of you know, about a month ago as the US started grappling with responses to the Kung Flu, an oil price war broke out at an OPEC meeting in Vienna when Russia and Saudi Arabia turned the world's oil markets into the World's Highest Stakes Game of Chicken.  Since they can't exactly hang a sign at the airports saying, “we will not be undersold!!!” this erupted as nations informed the markets of how much oil they would export per day.  From that linked article at Foreign Policy, dated March 14th:
One week ago, as Saudi Arabia and other big OPEC countries and Russia gathered in Vienna to plan production cuts that could put a floor under falling prices due to the outbreak of coronavirus, crude was trading at more than $50 a barrel. That’s when Moscow decided to blow up a three-year-old pact to manage global oil supplies, refusing to sign on to Saudi Arabia’s proposed cuts, sending the price of oil sharply down.

Riyadh responded not with unilateral cuts of its own but in the opposite direction: It slashed selling prices for its oil and later announced plans to massively increase oil output, further driving down the price of oil that was already plunging due to the disease outbreak and its toll on the global economy. Oil trades today around $33 a barrel.

For Russia and Saudi Arabia, both more or less dependent on oil sales to fund their national budgets, it was—and still is—a dangerous game of chicken.
For example, on March 3rd, just before this began, West Texas Intermediate Crude was selling for $47.18/barrel (bbl.) and that was low.  Today it closed at: $20.48. 


The Oil and Gas Industry news website I link to in the right sidebar has nervous projections of $10/bbl oil.

Like all games of chicken, this is a gamble between Vladimir Putin (who routinely has political opponents disappear on him) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who had a questioning reporter (Jamal Khashoggi) assassinated, his body sliced, diced, and carried out in suitcases) over who flinches and quits first.  It's like two James Bond movie villains in real life.
Russia figured that it could afford to walk away from its informal cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries, even if that meant crashing the price of oil, for a few simple reasons. First, it has tucked lots of money away in the years since the last oil-price crash, giving it a big financial cushion. Second, the biggest losers in any oil-price war, Russia figures, will be high-cost U.S. shale producers; driving the price down would both inflict economic harm on the United States and undermine its ability to wield its favorite tool of international coercion: sanctions.
Ironically, the US shale oil producers are the common enemy of Russia and all of OPEC.  But when suppliers aren't dumping oil at well below their cost, the market self-regulates - which markets are well-known to do.  When OPEC tried to smother it in 2014 and 2015 with a flood of cheap oil, as prices fell, U.S. production fell just enough to get prices up, and then rigs start pumping again.  While the U.S. oil industry may have less cushion now than before, it's open to question whether or not Putin or MBS could ruin it.  It seems like the very worst they could do is drive companies out of production, but as soon as the oil price got back to where Russia and Saudi Arabia could make a profit - if not sooner - the American industry would figure out how to produce at a profit.

Remember the oil geologist who said it was best to consider the Permian Basin (under Texas and New Mexico) as a permanent resource - as close to infinite as we can approximate? 

The story at Politico is an interesting read.  Russia claims to have put aside a Wealth Fund full of enough cash to survive oil prices between $25 and $30 a barrel for up to a decade.  But that's still political and while Putin has apparently gotten laws put in to make him President for Life, he's still a politician. 
Putin rode the oil boom of the early 2000s to a strong economy and huge popularity—but that’s a harder act to maintain when oil prices plummet. With economic growth a focal point of Putin’s current presidential term—and with his time in office now possibly extending until 2036—big increases in infrastructure investment and social spending are central to his future and key to promises to help turn around long-stagnant living standards.
The Wealth Fund is only so big and he can't spend it forever.  That budget surplus can be gone in flash if he doesn't watch it.

The Saudis think they can make life uncomfortable enough for Putin to outlast him.  They announced more oil exports today, lowering the price farther. 
Earlier this month, the Kingdom said it was intent on unleashing growing crude oil volumes on the market, aiming to significantly boost its crude oil exports to a record-breaking more than 10 million bpd in May. 
Can they really do 10 million barrels per day?  There are talks about oil facilities drowning in oil due to demand cratering to record lows.  If Saudi Arabia even can produce 10 million bpd (they're never done it before) they may have to pay to store it!  Sort of like negative interest rates for oil.  

My local 7-11/Exxon Mobil gas station is selling regular for $1.97/gal - I can't recall the last time I saw gas for less than $2/gal.  As others have said, with forced social isolation, we're seeing record low gas prices and have nowhere to go.  There's plenty of misery in the oil and gas industries, but not all of it is coming from the virus.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on Jun. 28, 2019. Jacques Witt/AFP/Getty Images



Sunday, March 29, 2020

First Manned Spaceflight From US Since 2011 Likely to be Delayed

I reported here almost as an addendum to another post that during the March 18th SpaceX launch of 60 Starlink satellites there was a booster anomaly in the Falcon 9 first stage.  About 10 seconds before Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), one of the Falcon 9 booster's nine engines shut down early.  The booster's computer control extended the burn time of the other eight engines for a few seconds to make up for the speed loss.  The mission was a success, but the booster was lost and not recovered (never considered a mission objective).

NASA has decided to postpone the first manned mission aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule until the investigation into what happened to the booster is completed, in an abundance of caution to ensure nothing about that failure is relevant to the mission.
“According to the CCtCap contracts, SpaceX is required to make available to NASA all data and resulting reports. SpaceX, with NASA’s concurrence, would need to implement any corrective actions found during the investigation related to its commercial crew work prior to its flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA and SpaceX are holding the current mid-to-late May launch timeframe, and would adjust the date based on review of the data, if appropriate.”
The launch had been previously slated for No Earlier Than (NET) the first week of May.  My take on that is you can push that date out for a month and possibly more.



Scene from the launch video stream immediately before and then at the moment of the engine failure. The yellowish-white plume to the exhaust is unusual. 
On March 18th, less than three minutes after liftoff and shortly before stage separation was scheduled, Falcon 9 booster B1048 – on its historic fifth launch attempt – suffered an engine failure visible on SpaceX’s official webcast. By all appearances, Falcon 9’s autonomous flight computer accounted for the engine’s failure, shutdown, and the resultant loss of thrust by burning B1048’s eight remaining engines for several seconds longer than planned. 
...
The anomaly was Merlin 1D engine’s first in-flight failure ever. The 2012 failure of one of an original Falcon 9 V1.0’s rocket’s nine Merlin 1C engines is SpaceX’s only other in-flight failure.
With nine engines in the booster and the sheer number of flights SpaceX has conducted, that must put this in the parts per million defective range (I don't have enough data to fill in numbers).  The reflexive reaction among readers on Teslarati news was that it must be from being an engine in its fifth flight, and that may be true but I don't think that they know that to any certainty.  The practical problem is that if telemetry doesn't tell them what they need to know to be sure, SpaceX engineering may need to find and recover the booster from the bottom of the Atlantic offshore North Carolina to do failure analysis on the engine.  That sounds like it could be extremely time consuming.

NASA requires all manned launches to be on new boosters, so if the anomaly really was caused by the age of the engine, it's irrelevant to the manned launch.  If it was my ride, I'd want to be sure that the booster was as safe as reasonably can be made.  NASA says that SpaceX will now have to complete its internal failure review and implement necessary hardware, software, or rule changes before it’s allowed to launch NASA astronauts.



Saturday, March 28, 2020

Juggling Projects

At one point in my late 20s I had decided I wanted to learn how to juggle.  In the days before there were lessons for everything on YouTube or on someone's blog, this meant specialty books.  Word got around, and I was gifted a book that explained how to get started and included props to juggle.  I learned to juggle three things at a time (practical advise: don't try tennis balls or something that's going to bounce away when you drop it; stick with something that just sits there when you drop it like small bean bags).  As with many physical skills, like falling off a bike or falling on my face, I find I can always remember how to do it with a few minutes of practice. 

I still juggle things in life, and this time it's projects.  One project is the Webster internal combustion engine that I've been making very little progress on (last update).  Let me start with the hardest part to measure, the cylinder.  In that last post, I say that I had found that the cylinder was tapered so that the combustion chamber end was narrower than the entrance end, so that if I could get the piston into the cylinder, it would be looser in the important zone.  It seemed to me that the best course would be to make the cylinder wall straight but if I had to live with a mistake, it would be better to have the end opposite the combustion chamber wider.  

I had measured it before and wanted to verify the measurements so I retook all the measurements and found no mistakes from the last time I measured, which is a good thing.  I set up the lathe to carefully trim the inside diameter of the cylinder. I made a cut that should have taken .001" diameter off the first 3/4" of an inch of the bottom.  There was virtually no metal taken off - it looked more like dust than chips.  I thought I must have made a mistake setting up, so reset the tool to the start of the cut and set it to take off another .001".  Again, no evidence of chips, just some fine scrapings of dust.  The micrometer and telescopic gauge were telling me the same number for diameter, saying I had not cut it at all.  This went on a few more times until I had to think even I couldn't be that screwed up and the settings on the lathe couldn't possibly be right.  Still no evidence of cuts.  I stopped trying to cut, thinking I'd eventually mess it up if I kept going.

After a few days of trying to figure out what was going wrong, I took a look at my boring bar.  It's not a typical steel tool; it uses a carbide insert (like this but not this).  I looked at the cutting point with a 10x magnifier and thought it seemed too rounded; perhaps the cutting edge was pushing the steel away from the tool at the contact point rather than shearing some off?  I pulled the screw holding the insert down, turned it to a fresh corner and without changing the cutting tool from where it was set, started a cut.  Instantly, I could see chips coming off, and before the tool had cut 1/8" saw it was taking off too much.  After some resetting, I got a bell mouth by about .002 to .003.  In an exaggerated sketch, it's like this:



Last weekend, I had ordered replacement piston rings for the two I broke - and two spares.  After a couple of days of consistent measurements of the cylinder, I took it off the lathe and put the piston back.  Yesterday, I addressed the single biggest problem I had seen with the piston: the grooves were too tight and the ring wouldn't go to the bottom of the groove.  Using the same cutoff tool I used to cut the grooves, I got my positions reset and took off .002 of width on each ring's groove.


You can just see a little light under the ring in each groove (the rings are called out at 3/32" wide but measure a little short of that: 0.090".  I haven't tried to install the rings, yet- I want to remeasure another dozen times since I don't know how to remove a ring if it's not right. 

The other task I've been working on is my semi-annual task of cycling and recharging the bigger storage batteries we have.  My six year old AGM battery looks like it has lived out its life and needs to be replaced.  There's a "date sold" sticker on top that says 1/5/14.  The last time I did this wasn't six months, it was 11 months ago - last April.  When six months rolled around, we were still working on the lightning strike repairs and some car issues.  I put it on the ToDo list and just kept forgetting to do it.

I finally got around to it around the start of last week and have had a lot of issues getting it to run clean test or two on my Computerized Battery Analyzer.


This is a high current discharge, but a pretty standard rate of 1/10th the battery's capacity (called C/10 rate).  Discharges at more gentle rates, like C/20, have a similar shape and that dip in the curve just to the right of 10 AmpHrs is abnormal.  This test completed with a measured capacity of 41.9%.  A retest had some other oddities and ended up at 39.3% of capacity.  I consider anything less than 80% to be a bad battery, although it's clearly holding some charge so not completely worthless.  This is part of our hurricane preps, so I really want every Amp*Hour I can get out of this.  In fact, I might want two or three of these. 

As others say, sometimes I'm so busy in retirement I don't understand how I worked for a living.  For sure, most of it is that I worked on their priorities not mine, but some of it is also that I'm sure I move slower than I did while working. 



Friday, March 27, 2020

Space Startup Company Firefly Plans Summer Launch and More

Firefly isn't a new space startup, but a rocket company that hasn't launched their booster has to be called a startup in my book.  The company was started in 2014 by former NASA plasma physicist Tom Markusic, who had been assigned by the agency to monitor the work on Kwajalein of a startup called SpaceX.  That assignment was in early 2006.  The first SpaceX launch, in March of '06, had failed, but by that summer, he had left NASA to join SpaceX and wound up directing the central Texas site where SpaceX tested its Merlin rocket engines.  Between SpaceX and his own Firefly, Markusic had also worked for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Firefly hit hard times in 2016 and was almost shuttered.  Markusic found an angel investor from the Ukraine, Max Polyakov, and the two of them pulled the company forward with a skeleton crew by force of will.  2019 articles hint that could be the year they get into space, but it still hasn't happened.

Now they're focused on a launch this summer and a plan to sell a service to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon.  Markusic believes that the key to success as a business is not so much as being the competitive small launcher business but being in the more profitable sectors.
Launch, he said, is only worth about $10 billion of the overall space industry valued at $350 billion. Having plans beyond launch helps with Markusic's pitch to investors when explaining how Firefly's business can scale. "Building a launch vehicle gives you the keys to space," Markusic said. "But if you want to tap into the full revenue potential of space, you have to have a spacecraft as well."

So Firefly has designed its spacecraft, and this week the company confirmed it has submitted a bid for the CLPS program's fourth task order, 19C, to deliver scientific instruments to one of the lunar poles. The deadline for bids was early March, and NASA is expected to award contracts some time in April. That would leave about 2.5 years for companies to deliver on a lunar mission to be launched in the latter half of 2022.
CLPS?  NASA's Commercial Lunar Services Program (or CLPS, which rhymes with chips) has put $2.8 billion on the table for delivery services.  Over the next decade, a pool of more than a dozen companies is eligible to bid for contracts to deliver scientific instruments to the surface of the Moon. As an added benefit, NASA is helping to stimulate a cislunar economy.

Firefly is working on development of its Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) and a lander called Genesis to deliver customer payloads to the surface of the moon.  That seems like quite a lot for a (roughly) 300-man company, so Firefly is buying technologies and building their designs around them.
To power its OTV vehicle, Firefly has partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, an industry leader in in-space propulsion. The vehicle will use Aerojet's XR-5 Hall Thrusters, which have already been tested in space on the Air Force's uncrewed X-37 space plane.
...
For the Genesis lander, Firefly will license technology developed for SpaceIL's Beresheet lander. True, this vehicle crashed into the Moon in April 2019, but it nonetheless met a number of mission milestones. "This gives us the highest level of technology readiness in its class for our lunar lander," Markusic said.

Firefly will build the lander with US components to make it eligible for NASA and other government contracts. Firefly will also change the propulsion system to use Aerojet thrusters to make for a more powerful, capable lander. Genesis will be able to carry 85kg of cargo to the Moon's surface.
In the space program of the '60s, when a mission was launched to the moon, it went to the moon Right Freakin' NOW, by God!  Flight times were on the order of three days.  There are ways to get there that are cheaper but take more time - this is what Firefly's mission looks like.

The Genesis lander and OTV are put into a highly elliptical orbit on launch day (Day Zero here).  For the next month and a half, the Aerojet Hall Thrusters slowly add energy at the right part of the orbit to get the spacecraft high enough to be captured by the moon's gravity and go into lunar orbit.  The customer's payload lands on the moon's surface 2 months after launch. 


Firefly's Genesis lander has 10 different slots for customer payloads in three different "footprints" on the lander.  Five of one, four of a second and one of the third. 

Can they make a launch by this summer?  The latest problem Firefly is facing is the same as everyone else: the COVID-19 virus interruptions.  They're getting engineers to work from home as much as possible, separating shifts so that there's no overlap and fewer people are in the buildings at once.  The biggest problem is getting everything to work, and that's the fundamental problem of the launch business.  It will be the first test of a lot complicated hardware and software.

Will they make it?   I don't know, but it will be interesting to watch.


Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Good News is You Don't Need to Worry About Toilet Paper

I've been going through what I can find out about the $2 Trillion* stimulus bill that passed by unanimous consent in the senate last night. The good news is, indeed, that you don't need to worry or otherwise be concerned with toilet paper.  The bad news is that instead of toilet paper, you're gonna need Quik Clot for the a**-raping you're getting.

You might find this 15 minute video from Glenn Beck's radio program worthwhile.  I'm pretty sure you've heard about the $25 Million for the JFK Center of Performing Arts.  Have you heard of the $48 Million for the Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Program?  (Stay home! You can send me a $48 Million check)  How about the $75 Million for the National Foundation on Arts and Humanities?  $350 million to the State Department for “migration and Refugee Assistance?” In the midst of self-isolation and city shutdowns, we want to bring in migrants and refugees?  $65 Million specifically for “Housing Opportunities for Persons With Aids?”  In a Coronavirus bill? 

Ever heard of The Tiny Findings Child Development Center?  They're getting taken care of by special call out.  It's a childcare center INSIDE the Capitol Building...

One of my favorite head scratchers is the IRS getting $250 Million “to support taxpayer services in the extended filing season.”  As far as I know IRS employees aren't being laid off and they're not seasonal workers so they're either busy now and slow in June, like every other year, or they're slow now and busy in June as they will be this year.  Besides, if you contact the IRS for help, your odds of getting the right answer are essentially the same as asking Jim The Wonder Horse at your local state fair.

The examples here are either from that Glenn Beck link or from research into the bill from Open The Books (pdf), as linked in the Forbes article, “Is There Wasteful Spending In The Coronavirus Stimulus Bill?” which strangely isn't behind a paywall this time.  I'd recommend looking at the Open The Books link, which goes section by section through the bill.
 

As always, the politicos take something that the majority of people support, like doing things for people harmed by the quarantines through no fault of their own, and inflate it like some sort of engorged tick with special giveaways for everyone. 

* I've seen three different totals for that bill and I'm frankly not clear about which is real: $2, $2.2 and $2.5 Trillion.



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

John P.A. Ioannidis Weighs in on COVID-19 Response

Are you old enough to remember the EF Hutton (a financial company) advertising “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen” back in the late '70s/early '80s?

In the world of medical science and epidemiology, when John P.A. Ioannidis talks, I listen.  Dr. Ioannidis has been mentioned many times in this column when the topic of junk science comes up (the first, I think and a recent example).  He's the author of what’s widely quoted as one of the most downloaded papers in history, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False 2,” in which he presents data that as much as 70% of published science is wrong.

So when I saw via the Daily Wire that he had posted a paper on the response to the Coronavirus, I had to read.  Especially in light of his title, “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.”
The current coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But it may also be a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.

At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments to people quarantined or just social distancing, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance and to monitor their impact.
Consider the current social-distancing paradigm.  If the pandemic appears to be easing up or dissipating, is that because of our policies or did it happen on its own?  Without data that simply doesn't seem to exist, we can't know.  What we can know is that those who want the restrictions will claim that it's only because of them and that those opposed to the restrictions will say that they had nothing to do with the pandemic easing.  That kind of bickering is what you get without solid data.
The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable. Given the limited testing to date, some deaths and probably the vast majority of infections due to SARS-CoV-2 are being missed. We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300. Three months after the outbreak emerged, most countries, including the U.S., lack the ability to test a large number of people and no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.
Combine the lack of testing with how governments around the world decide not to test everyone and add in how we hear of situation after situation where any death in which the person tests positive for the virus is blamed on the virus, even in absurd situation.  In Italy, reporting almost 7000 dead, only 12% had nothing but the virus and died of other causes.  This is nothing like accurate, useful data.
Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%. But since this estimate is based on extremely thin data — there were just seven deaths among the 700 infected passengers and crew — the real death rate could stretch from five times lower (0.025%) to five times higher (0.625%). It is also possible that some of the passengers who were infected might die later, and that tourists may have different frequencies of chronic diseases — a risk factor for worse outcomes with SARS-CoV-2 infection — than the general population. Adding these extra sources of uncertainty, reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%.

That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.
There's a term thrown around a lot these days that we'd like to see applied here: evidence-based medicine, and (as always), “when all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.”  I understand that data is never complete until it's too late.  I understand we can't always get everything we need to know.  The most valuable piece of information to fill in the gaps in what we need to do would be to know the current prevalence of the infection in a random sample of a population and repeat this exercise at regular intervals to estimate the incidence of new infections.  I understand that simple tests like this are considered lower priority than treating patients. 

It's an interesting article that addresses many of the uncertainties.  Worth your time to read.




Tuesday, March 24, 2020

SpaceX's Historic Next Launch Next Monday Victim of Coronavirus

According to Teslarati news, SpaceX's next launch has been postponed due to the travel restrictions from the worldwide Coronavirus panic.  The mission is to launch the twin of an Argentine satellite that SpaceX launched in October 2018.  It appears to be the first launch from the Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center complex to be delayed by the virus.
Previously expected to launch as early as March 30th, the ~3000-kg (6600 lb) SAOCOM 1B radar satellite departed its Bariloche production facilities and arrived at Cape Canaveral around February 23rd, around the same time pandemic impacts began to be felt outside of China. Now likely sitting in a SpaceX payload processing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), it appears that SAOCOM 1B will have to wait for the foreseeable future before teams from Argentina and other countries are able to access the spacecraft and prepare it for launch.
...
Shortly after the growing global pandemic began to bare its teeth, the Argentinian government made the decision to almost completely ban international travel for the time being, while citizens now face heightened restrictions in a bid to legally enforce social distancing precautions. A scientific satellite launch has unsurprisingly not won exemption rights, meaning that it’s now all but impossible for the Argentinian space agency to send people and supplies back and forth from Florida – a necessity for something as complex as a satellite launch campaign.
But Historic?  This is a fun aspect of the launch that has had me waiting for this one since February 21st when I heard of it.  This launch is into a polar orbit and the launch will be toward the south; so potentially right overhead here.  The last launch into a polar orbit from Cape Canaveral was in November 1960, and caused an international incident - with Cuba.  (I swear I'm not making this up.)  Polar orbit launches have been prohibited from the Florida launch sites since then.
“In what somewhat inaccurately became known as “the herd shot around the world,” some..falling rocket debris apparently splattered on a Cuban farm and killed a cow. “This is a Yankee provocation,” accused Revolucion, an official Cuban publication, insisting that the rocket was deliberately exploded over the country. Government radio stations cited the incident as further proof that the United States was trying to destroy the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. One cow was even paraded in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana wearing a placard reading “Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters.”

Castro filed a complaint at the United Nations, and Washington sheepishly conceded the possibility that “fragments from the rocket booster” could have landed in Cuba. CIA Director George Tenet later quipped somewhat tastelessly that it was “the first, and last, time that a satellite had been used in the production of ground beef.” Further launches overflying Cuba were postponed, and improvements were made to the Cape Canaveral range-safety system. In any case, it was a dejected NRL group that returned to Washington.”


Naval History Magazine – April 2008
I said potentially overhead?  It gets better.  The 6600 lb payload is considered light enough for the Falcon 9 that the booster – I assume it's reused – will be able to perform a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) recovery, touching down at one of SpaceX’s two Landing Zone (LZ) pads on the Cape.  Depending on the exact trajectories the booster could go overhead on the way back, too.


SAOCOM 1B during checkout in Argentina before transport to the Cape.

Because of the restriction on launches into polar orbit, SAOCOM 1A was launched from Vandenberg AFB in California.  Exactly why the mission has been approved hasn't been commented on, but Teslarati author Eric Ralph noted:
While Falcon 9’s upper stage will still technically overfly Cuba over the course of the launch, the combination of a rare ‘dogleg’ maneuver shortly after launch and the fact that said upper stage will be far above the Earth’s surface have effectively mitigated any technical or legal showstoppers.


By leaving a camera on a well placed tripod and taking a couple of exposures, photographer Pauline Acalin got both the launch of SAOCOM 1A and the booster landing.  

Teslarati has made a statement that I honestly think has never been said in the English language before - if ever on the planet.  SpaceX is building satellites faster than they can launch them - referring to their Starlink satellites.  They build 4-5 satellites every day, and at current launch rates are building at least 20-40 extra satellites for each batch of 60 it launches.

The next Starlink satellite launch was going to be around the middle of next month, judging by the roughly three to four weeks between launches so far this year.  There has been no announcement, but if they have the hardware lying around to move that launch forward, I'd be less than surprised to see SpaceX put up another 60 Starlink Satellites sooner than that. 

The next launch is an Atlas V, this Thursday afternoon, carrying a military communications satellite, the sixth and final one of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites AEHF 6.


Monday, March 23, 2020

How Can We Have an Apocalypse Without a Good Comet?

Comets, like many astronomical phenomena, have long been associated with apocalyptic forecasts.  Even as recently as the 1910 apparition of Halley's Comet, two hundred years after Halley had calculated that the same comet had been returning roughly every 76 years without causing an apocalypse, predictions of disaster were rampant.
As the comet neared the Earth that year, the New York Times wrote that a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion had warned that poisonous cyanogen gas in its tail might “impregnate the atmosphere and snuff out all life on the planet.” Other scientists dismissed the claim as nonsense, but the prediction still sparked a minor panic. Before the comet passed by without incident that spring, many people sealed up their homes to keep out the fumes, stocked up on gas masks, and went to churches to pray for salvation. The more gullible among them even bought “anti-comet pills” from street vendors.
So how ya gonna have a proper apocalypse without a comet?

Take heart!  It turns out we may well have bright comet, visible to the naked eye, peaking around Memorial Day.  This aligns pretty well with Kung Flu virus and they could be peaking at the same time! Eleventy!
The possible celestial showpiece is known as Comet ATLAS, or C/2019 Y4. When it was discovered on Dec. 28, 2019, it was quite faint, but since then, it has been brightening so rapidly that astronomers have high hopes for the spectacle it could put on. But given the tricky nature of comets, skywatchers are also being cautious not to get their hopes up, knowing that the comet may fizzle out.
It has been quite a while - almost a quarter century - since we had a really great comet.  Comet Hale-Bopp's visit in the spring of 1997 might well have been the last great comet visible in the northern hemisphere, along with Comet Hyakutake the year before.  Hale-Bopp appeared during the year Mrs. Graybeard was battling cancer (a private apocalypse, a distant second behind your own private Idaho) and I'll always remember watching the comet keeping me company while out bike riding by myself - even visible above shopping centers with their lights on!  Hale Bopp had been being observed since its discovery in July of 1995, so it was much anticipated.  By comparison, Hyakutake was a surprise; discovered by Yuji Hyakutake with binoculars in January of '96.  It peaked in brightness within a few months, and was a lot of fun to watch.  At its peak, and from a dark location, the tail stretched virtually horizon to horizon.

Since then, opportunities for comet observation have poor.  ATLAS C/2019 Y4 was discovered at 273 million miles from the sun, at a very dim magnitude of 20, about 398,000 times dimmer than the threshold of naked-eye visibility.  Since then, though, ATLAS has been brightening at almost unprecedented rates.
As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May.
I've seen estimates that put the comet as the second brightest thing in the sky, behind the moon but brighter than Venus, during that week (May 24-31).  The best finder charts I've found have been at Comet Watch in the UK, and I'll post their overview chart here. 


Nobody that publishes things on comets wants to commit to anything about the comet's brightness because they're just not very predictable.  Those of you of a certain age may remember hearing about Comet Kohoutek in about 1973, and how it was supposed to be the next Comet of the Century.  Except the predictions failed spectacularly and it barely made naked-eye visibility. 

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be correlation with how apocalyptic events down here on Earth become and the comets' appearances either.  At least we can say we have both a pandemic and a comet!



Sunday, March 22, 2020

“Best if Used Before” Date Rapidly Approaching

With any luck, this will be out of date soon:


Only one has the "to the tune of" beside it (and it didn't work until I read the song), so hopefully these tunes are familiar enough - there's a few I still don't get.  From somewhere on the vast Sargasso Sea of the Interwebz.  

From the “I wish I'd thought of that” collection:


(clearly from) and finally...




Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Law of Unintended Consequences And Unaskable Questions

Economist Stephen Moore from the Heritage Foundation was on some show I was watching within the last week and talked about some of the impacts of the economic hole that's being dug in response to the Kung Flu (no, he didn't use that term... unfortunately).  That started a background processor in my head where I think about things without realizing I'm thinking about them, except that every now and then the background process interrupts my daily life and either asks for something (usually more input) or tells me something.

As I said two days ago:
To be honest, the response to the Coronavirus scares me more than the virus does.  The only scary thing about the virus is that it reproduces.  Eventually, everyone gets it and gets over it (or not, whether the fatality rate is 1% or 3% or 0.2% is still hard to know); the essence is that it's still self-limiting in the long run.  Gradually, the population develops immunity to the virus and the toll lessens.  The reaction of sending everyone in the country a "four digit" check is terrifying.
As an economist, Moore put it more succinctly.  There's a cost associated with our response.  That one piece of proposed legislation (still being haggled over in congress) is estimated to cost north of $1 Trillion.  In that linked piece, Karl Denninger says that could be needed monthly.  Not one single debate or conversation has been had about this and someone needs to ask something about how much we're spending and at what cost is it too much?  It's a difficult question because it's dealing with so many unknown quantities, especially touchy questions like how many lives we're saving and how much one life is worth.  What if to save a live costs a life?  Or to save one costs two?  There's simply no way to know to how many lives can be saved because all we have is various models of the important characteristics of the virus and those models don't seem to be doing very well at explaining the things we're seeing.  For example, we need to know how deadly the disease is; one of the fatality rate measurements.  Look at the chart at the bottom: 34 countries, no two with the same rate.

We are shutting down vast sectors of the US economy, and even broader, almost the entire Western World's economies.  Opinion writer Leon Wolf at The Blaze brings a lot of smart in a few simple paragraphs.
I suppose it's entirely possible, and even probable, that the current extraordinary measures being taken to combat the spread of coronavirus are necessary to prevent significant loss of human life. I'm not here to argue that point, and I myself am participating in social distancing, which is being advised by the experts.

But there's another side to this coin that isn't being adequately discussed, or even discussed at all, at least as far as I've seen. And that is the fact that the social distancing measures currently being imposed across the globe are also going to cost lives. Perhaps quite a lot of them.
What we're doing is going to cost lives?  How?  Let's start with the obvious.  I think everyone knows that the greatest health risk is poverty.  No, not because rich people get treated better, but because they're generally better educated and take better care of themselves.  Simply, the more wealth people have, the longer they tend to live, and the fewer health problems they tend to have.  It's as true for nations as it is for people. 

The response to the virus is destroying wealth like crazy.
And when I say "wealth," I don't just mean that the wealthy are going to lose money; in fact, lower-income people across the globe are likely to bear the brunt of the coming economic contraction, as they are the ones most likely to be laid off from industries that rely on person-to-person contact, like food, leisure, and travel.
You've probably heard other people predicting this will go past recession to full depression level contraction of the economy, bringing the wholesale destruction of wealth we associate with depressions. 

Up in the third link, Karl Denninger on the Market Ticker does a long piece on this.  If you haven't yet read anyone saying this leads to total economic collapse and all the things that come with that, go read Karl.

I'll leave last words to Leon Wolf.
How many lives is it going to cost? I don't know. I can't quantify it and don't have the resources necessary to make even a reasonable guesstimate, to be perfectly honest. But it's going to be some, and potentially quite a few.

Will the social distancing measures we are putting into place save more lives than they are going to cost? I don't know the answer to that question, either. But it bothers me — and it should bother us all — that no one who is in a position to find the answer is even bothering to ask the question.

Case fatality rate for Covid-19 from The Centre for Evidence Based Medicine.  There is no One Number to plan by.  


Friday, March 20, 2020

Amid the Cost Overruns and Schedule Slips

According to Spaceflight Now, NASA is closing the facilities involved in testing the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion crew capsule, in both Louisiana and Mississippi.  The reason is Coronavirus and "work from home" guidelines.
At Stennis, NASA and Boeing teams were readying the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System for a series of critical tests in the coming months, culminating in a test-firing of the rocket’s four main engines that had been scheduled for early August. With the shutdown of Stennis, that testing will be delayed.

SLS core stages are manufactured at the Michoud plant in New Orleans, and pressure vessels of Orion crew capsules are welded there. The SLS and Orion vehicles are the centerpieces of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land astronauts at the moon’s south pole before the end of 2024, a goal that was already widely considered ambitious.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said a Stennis employee has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“The change at Stennis was made due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community around the center, the number of self-isolation cases within our workforce there, and one confirmed case among our Stennis team,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “While there are no confirmed cases at  the facility is moving to Stage 4 due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the local area, in accordance with local and federal guidelines.”
The agency is keeping as much emphasis as they can on two upcoming missions with hard deadlines.  The first one depends on interplanetary timing, because it's set to launch during the period before the next closest approach to Mars that shortens the flight to its minimum length. 
Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science division, said the Perseverance rover remains on schedule for liftoff during a limited 20-day window opening July 17. If the mission — also known as Mars 2020 — misses this summer’s launch window, the next chance to send the rover to Mars won’t be until 2022, a delay that could add to the $2.5 billion mission’s price tag.
The other mission is the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Webb telescope is currently scheduled for launch in March 2021, but officials are expected to reassess that schedule in May after recent delays in testing at the observatory’s Northrop Grumman factory in California.
In a separate article on the Coronavirus shutdown changes from NASA I got a chuckle from a contrast between two NASA centers.
Earlier this week, the director of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans introduced mandatory telework for non-essential workers. Robert Champion, Michoud’s director, said in a statement Monday ... “Access to the facility will be restricted to mission-essential personnel only, as defined in the response framework and by your company leadership.”
... and...
Officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where many of the agency’s interplanetary robotic missions are built and controlled, announced Monday that only non-essential workers there would be allowed access to the facility. [BOLD Added: SiG]
That right there is funny.  The JPL controls the Voyagers and other deep space probes.  The people doing the controlling are essential but they're kept out of the lab because they'll be able to access their control consoles while working remotely.  I don't know what qualifies as non-essential there, but not counting the cleaning staff, maybe people who touch real hardware?  The mock-ups and prototypes they use to debug things?  Michoud Assembly Facility is part of the Stennis team that's testing the SLS.  They will ensure all the hardware is made safe and then only people qualified to touch that flight hardware will be allowed in.


The SLS booster core (without strap on solid rockets) being lifted into the test stand at Stennis. NASA photo.



Thursday, March 19, 2020

An Interesting Economics Experiment

Economics is regularly derided as "the dismal science" but in my experience contains the only social science law that approaches the character of physical law: supply and demand.  More relevant to my peripatetic writings tonight is that economics frequently studies incentives and how they work.  

The Silicon Swamp area isn't a big city or anything the size of Silicon Valley, but it's not a small town either.  The entire county, 70 miles long and mostly along the coast, has a population of about 600,000.  As of this afternoon, there have been exactly 2 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county.

Last week on our weekly grocery store run (a Publix), the only things that were in short supply were toilet paper and Clorox wipes (Mrs. Graybeard prefers those for cleaning the stove so they're something we buy regularly).  Today was different.  The entire toilet paper, facial tissues and paper towels aisle was stripped clean, and all around the store other sections were either bare-shelved or stripped close to bare.  Rice and pastas had a couple of packages left.  There was not a single package of chicken, or turkey to be had.  Do I need to say I've never seen anything like this?


Many sections had a "Limit 2 per customer per day" sign, including eggs, prepared meats and cheeses, prepared sauces of all ethnicities (like Italian, Mexican, etc) and more.  It got me thinking this is an interesting economics experiment, in that sense of economics as the study of incentives.

In particular, when faced with a sign like that and a need for one, do you buy one like every week or do you buy two on the possibility it's worse next week and there are none to buy?  We had that with eggs.  There were very few eggs out; not stripped clean but close.  We ordinarily get a local brand of "pasture raised, all natural" eggs (because the package has picture of a manatee on it, we refer to these as manatee eggs).  Ordinarily, we go through about a dozen eggs a week.  We bought two dozen this week on the possibility these are the last eggs we'll get for a while.  

As I said, that was all around the store.  My guess is that the limit causes more people to increase what they would buy rather than limit it.  People coming for a few giant packages of paper towels or TP will stop at two because they have to.  There's no saying they won't come back the next day, though, while it's pretty sure that we won't. 

To be honest, the response to the Coronavirus scares me more than the virus does.  The only scary thing about the virus is that it reproduces.  Eventually, everyone gets it and gets over it (or not, whether the fatality rate is 1% or 3% or 0.2% is still hard to know); the essence is that it's still self-limiting in the long run.  Gradually, the population develops immunity to the virus and the toll lessens.  The reaction of sending everyone in the country a "four digit" check is terrifying.  It seems like Modern Monetary Theory springing to life and I've always been critical of these ideas.  They believe they can make up whatever amount of money they want out of thin air, and I say that devalues every dollar we have.  I've said a thousand times that printing money out of thin air is painting a target on the backs of the middle class and especially anyone living (or planning to live) on savings.

Stupidity in the response to the virus?  As Einstein said, “two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.” 



Wednesday, March 18, 2020

NASA Spent A Decade and Almost $1 Billion on a Launch Tower

Around the Kennedy Space Center and common knowledge to space geeks everywhere is the gargantuan tracked vehicle called the Crawler or crawler transporter that has been used since the mid 1960s to carry full built rockets to the launch pad.  Originally built for the Apollo program, the hardware was modified and reused for the shuttles (Space Transportation Systems).


An Apollo Saturn V on the crawler way from assembly to the launch pads of complex 39.  The photo credits this as Apollo 10, March 11, 1969.

The launch umbilical tower is essentially all you can see in this photo, unless you look closely at the bottom where you'll see a squat, flat structure with enormous treads that it runs on.  That's the crawler.   The launch tower we're talking about replaces the large gray platform and the red painted tower that stands taller than the Saturn V (365') by a healthy margin.

The tower being built is for NASA's Space Launch System, and will take the place of the Apollo Launch Umbilical Tower.
A new report published Tuesday by NASA's inspector general looks into the development of a mobile launch tower for the agency's Space Launch System rocket.

The analysis finds that the total cost of constructing and modifying the structure, known as Mobile Launcher-1, is "at least" $927 million. This includes the original $234 million development cost to build the tower to support the Ares I rocket.

After this rocket was canceled in 2010, NASA then spent an additional $693 million to redesign and modify the structure for the SLS rocket. Notably, NASA's original estimate for modifying the launch tower was just $54 million, according to the report by Inspector General Paul Martin.
Mobile Launcher-1 will support the 355-foot-tall SLS rocket when stacked with the Orion spacecraft, allow access to the Orion, provide power, communications, coolant, and fuel to the rocket.

How does one spend "at least" $927 Million, 17 times the originally estimated $54 Million?  NASA awarded cost plus contracts to engineering services company Vencore.  The company's contract started in March 2011, and NASA renewed them year after year until finally choosing to not exercise Vencore’s final contract year option in 2017 due to the company's overall performance.

You can point fingers at Vencore all day, but at times they were just doing what NASA requested they do.
Moreover, NASA did not use contractual mechanisms to punish Vencore for its poor performance. According to the inspector general, employees at Kennedy Space Center who rated Vencore’s performance "stated that even though design work was over budget and behind schedule they believed the contractor performed well due to the obstacles they had to overcome. As a result, Vencore received 'excellent,' 'very good,' or 'good' ratings despite the ML-1 project being significantly over budget and behind schedule."
Shades of the SLS itself.
NASA officials did something similar for award fees with the contract for the SLS rocket's core stage and its prime contractor Boeing. Critics have said the rocket is a make-work project for the space agency designed to maximize jobs rather than further exploration. The new report tends to support such criticism of a rocket originally planned to launch in 2017 but unlikely to fly before late 2021 at the earliest.
A piece on Ars Technica from last November points out the $2 Billion cost per launch of the SLS.  For comparison, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy can only lift about 2/3 of the payload of the SLS, but does so at $150 Million per launch.  That means two launches for the equivalent payload at $300 Million or about 1/6 the price.  It seems I've criticized Alabama Senator Richard Shelby for pork barrel politics in pushing the SLS but I've ignored my own (former) senator Bill Nelson.  In that piece, Ars reports:
The Space Launch System was created as part of a political compromise between US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and senators from Alabama and Texas.
Bill Nelson was voted out last time and replaced by former governor Voldemort: Rick Scott.




Quick followup on today's SpaceX mission to launch the next 60 Starlink satellites, the launch went by the numbers until about 10 seconds before Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) when one of the Falcon 9 booster's nine engines shut down early.  The booster's computer control extended the burn time of the other eight engines for a few seconds to make up for the speed loss.  Whether that was the cause or not isn't completely clear but "good ole booster B1048" ended up missing its landing on their drone ship off the coast of North Carolina.  It's also possible, but not proven, that the engine that shut down early was the one that caused the abort Sunday morning.

While B1048 completed five launches with the main mission succeeding, the fact remains no booster has yet to be recovered five times.   The only other booster with four launches (B1049) is said to be in line for the next Starlink mission.  Musk says he won't use these most-flown boosters for someone else's satellites. 



Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Remember The Flu Boat?

Remember the story of the Diamond Princess that we talked about here in mid-February?  I had said having all those people quarantined on a boat might be a good opportunity to study the virus.

It turns out that it really was quite a good place to study COVID-19.  Thanks to a post on Watts Up With That and hat tip to Borepatch for seeing it first, we get to learn some pretty remarkable facts about COVID-19.

To begin with, it really was a scenario almost designed to provide massive numbers of infected people and mass casualties; a way to observe the virus spread across the thousands on board, perhaps killing hundreds.  If the fatality rate was the kind of number people were talking about months ago (10% or more), that could have meant 400 killed.
As you might imagine, before they knew it was a problem, the epidemic raged on the ship, with infected crew members cooking and cleaning for the guests, people all eating together, close living quarters, lots of social interaction, and a generally older population. Seems like a perfect situation for an overwhelming majority of the passengers to become infected.
Patient zero was on board on January 20th to the 25th.  They man wasn't diagnosed until February 1st.  In those five days, he spread the virus.  In the next week, the situation was like that previous paragraph.  People unaware they were spewing virus working in close contact with each other. 
  • It was a "worst case" scenario, as people were confined for weeks with other infected people in very close quarters.  While this protected the general public from the infection, it likely maximized the spread of the virus on board the ship.
  • It was a "worst case" scenario as the population on board skewed dramatically to older - and thus, more vulnerable - people.
The reality turned out far less scary.  Obviously, if you're one of the people who dies, it's very serious to you and your family, so I'm talking in the “detached, passive, scientist voice.”  Despite the dire situation...
  • 83% (confidence interval of 82.7% – 83.9%) of the passengers never got the disease at all.  Said the other way, only 17% of the passengers were infected.
  • The oldest portion of the passengers, over 80 years old, had a higher infection rate: 25%, but that's not even twice the rate of the general population.
  • Wait - it gets better.  Slightly less than half the passengers (48.6% ± 2.0%) who would test positive for the disease did NOT get sick and showed NO symptoms.  They never knew they had it.
  • The young (under 20) and old (over 50) disproportionally showed no symptoms after being infected
  • The overall, age-adjusted death rate was 1.2% (7 cases total)
These two graphs go together.


This shows the percentage of each age group on board the Diamond Princess who did NOT contract the virus.  The youngest, birth to 9 years, looks to say 93% did not test positive for the virus.  Note that the lowest percentage who didn't test positive is the 80-89 year old cohort, which says the chance of contracting the virus seem so go up with age.  Note how the colored bars are shorter for ages 50-59 than the three groups above it, and then shorter every additional decade.

The next plot is percentage of each age group who showed no symptoms.


The birth to 9 years old group was 100% symptom free.  From the first plot, roughly 7% of that age group tested positive and that test was the only way it could be known they had the virus.  We can keep going on those; the second group in first plot shows 78% did not contract the virus, so 22% did.  Of the 22%, 60% showed no symptoms.  Even in the oldest group, with 25% testing positive for the virus, almost half of them (45%) had no symptoms.

The study itself is Estimating the infection and case fatality ratio for COVID-19 using age-adjusted data from the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship (PDF warning).  The study authors define an age-adjusted Infection Fatality Rate of 1.2% with a possible interval of 0.38%–2.7%. The wide uncertainty range is due to the small number of deaths.  Although this might not be relevant to an epidemiologist studying the disease, I see this as 7 deaths out of 3,711 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess.  I don't see any reason to exclude the 83% who didn't get infected because they were exposed and could have been infected.  7 deaths out of 3711 people on board is a 0.19% fatality rate.  I hear the number 0.1% for the annual flu, but I don't know if that compares more directly to my raw numbers or their age-adjusted 1.2%.

These 3711 people were in a virtual incubator for the virus and there's every reason to think they were all at risk.  According to this article, a Japanese Infectious Diseases expert went onboard the Diamond Princess and was afraid of how poorly they implemented their quarantine.  The fact that 83% never got the disease hints that it may not be as communicable as everyone fears. 

It seems that the more I learn about COVID-19, the less concerned I am about it. 



Monday, March 16, 2020

Pad-Aborted SpaceX Flight Rescheduled

The Falcon 9 that had the T=0 abort Sunday morning has been rescheduled for no earlier than (NET) 8:21 am EDT (12:21 UTC) on Wednesday, March 18th.

Like most modern boosters, the Falcon 9 has monitors and telemetry for everything on board that an engineer could imagine wanting to know about, and all of those signals have go/no-go limits assigned.  The vehicle takes over the countdown on its own at the T-60 second mark in the countdown.
This is mainly done to allow the vehicle to simultaneously analyze thousands of channels of telemetry far faster and more reliably than humans ever could. During today’s launch attempt, that meant that Falcon 9 saw something it didn’t like just milliseconds before it was scheduled to command the release of the pad’s hold-down clamps and lift off.

Per one of SpaceX’s on-console engineers, the specific issue Falcon 9’s computer flagged was an “engine high power” alert. Soon after, SpaceX provided an update on Twitter, stating that the abort was “triggered due to out-of-family data during [an] engine power check” – putting the blame more on the sensors and software used to determine engine thrust than the engine hardware itself. An actual hardware or software failure that caused one or several booster engines to exceed their design limits could have potentially damaged B1048’s Merlin 1Ds, likely requiring weeks of repairs or a full swap with a different booster.


The last time a Falcon booster did this sort of abort was in February 2016, just over four years ago.  Considering that they've only been launching the Block 5 F9 since May of 2018, that was either a Block 4 or 3, which means it was a different launch vehicle in many details.

This is a noteworthy launch because it will be the fifth use of booster B1048, and the first launch with a complete fairing made of two recovered halves from previous flights.  The Block 5 Falcon9 was designed with the idea of flying 10 times with minimal reprocessing between launches; none has flown more than four so far.  If a booster can fly 10 times, that opens the door to replacing progressively more parts on it, or perhaps a major refurbishment every 10 launches.  Could we see tens of launches by the same booster?  100 launches on an F9?  It's an intriguing thought.
Now, according to Next Spaceflight, pathfinder Falcon 9 booster B1048 is scheduled to launch for the fifth time in support of Starlink L6 – a bit less than four months after it became the first SpaceX rocket to cross the fourth-flight milestone. Just days ago, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed that Falcon boosters might never need to fly more than ten times. Given that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters were first and foremost designed to launch no less than ten times each, B1048 is now on the brink of reaching the halfway point of one SpaceX’s most ambitious Block 5 design goals.

If B1048 (and B1049 shortly after that) can prove that Falcon boosters can successfully launch five times, it’s hard to imagine any technical showstoppers that could prevent SpaceX from achieving its self-imposed ten-flight milestone. With SpaceX likely to attempt anywhere from 10-20 more Starlink launches this year, there will be no shortage of opportunities for Falcon 9 to continue pushing the envelope of reusability.
If you're interested in watching the retry, https://www.spacex.com/webcast goes active around 10 to 15 minutes before launch and they always have some commentary by SpaceX managers during the mission.



Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Hash

Leftover odds and ends.

If you haven't read Borepatch's piece today, Corona Virus and the Illusion of Science, I want to point out a couple of things.  First off, go read.  Borepatch excerpts and gets the important points from a piece by The Reference Frame piece.  But I think the original source that



Then he goes through the exercise called “bounding the problem” in order to try to put realistic limits to numbers on the axes.  All in all, his arguments seem rather reasonable.
What is the capacity of the healthcare system?

This is a difficult question and cannot be answered in a short post like this. The US has about 924,100 hospital beds (2.8 per 1000 people). California has only 1.8. Countries like Germany have 8. South Korea has 12. (Their hospital system got overloaded nonetheless.) Most of these beds are in use, but we can create more, using improvisation (for instance using hotels and school gyms) and strategic resources of the military, national guard and other organizations.
...
More important is the number of ICU beds, which by some estimates can be stretched to about a 100,000, and of which about 30,000 may be available. About 5% of all COVID-19 cases need intensive care, and without it, all of them will die. We can also increase the number of ICU beds somewhat, but the equipment that we need to deal with sepsis, kidney, liver and heart failure, severe pneumonia etc. cannot be stretched arbitrarily between them.
I won't go into everything he has, but he assigns numbers to a whole host of variables to try to turn this conceptual graph into one with real numbers.  It looks very, very different.

The peak of the flattened curve, where we just barely touch the capacity of our healthcare system is about 2500 to 2600 days out.  That's around seven years.  Worse, the time to almost no cases stretches out nearly 4500 days; over 12 years.  Can you imagine living in the current state of the last self-isolating, toilet paper-hoarding week for 12 years?  Seven years? 

Bach also says, and this is very important so don't miss this:
My back-of-the-envelope calculation is not a proper simulation, or a good model of what’s going on either. Don’t cite it as such!
Go read!


While on the subject of the COVID-19 emergency, you should also look at Willis Eschenbach's piece on Watts Up With That, “The Math of Epidemics.”  Willis' main point is that when we talk about exponential growth of the pandemic, that can't happen - or it least it can't happen for very long.  The supply of new people to get infected can't support that growth for much time.  The real growth curve is the one I showed 10 years ago and re-posted a few weeks ago, the Logistic Function.  Willis uses a name I'll confess to having never heard, the  “Gompertz Curve.”  Then he goes on to plot some data from various measurements against the Gompertz Curve.  This one is the total deaths from the Wuhan Virus in China.




As a By The Way, there was to be SpaceX Starlink launch again this morning of another 60 satellites.  The launch aborted at T=0 in the count, which means the controlling computers saw something they didn't like and shut the engines down.  The vehicle was safe - nothing blew up on the pad or anything dramatic like that, it just shut down.  As of now, there's no announcement of what went wrong and when they plan to retry.  Since it's Sunday, I expect all the usual sources are self-isolated. 

Double BTW, remember the SpaceX Starship SN01 tank blowing up on February 29th?  They had started on building SN02 before that happened, and tested it last Monday night, March 9th.  The test was a success, with no repeat of the problems from SN01. 


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Spring Cleaning & Summer Preparations – Part 3 – Lightning Grounds

A really fundamental idea that underlies the entire discussion about shunting lightning to ground is just what ground is and how to get effective grounds.  It’s really a broad discussion because there are safety grounds for AC power, circuit grounds for the equipment, and lightning grounds.  They can all be the same thing, but they don’t have to be.  In some parts of the world, this is called earthing, but that word is now being co-opted by people who think walking barefoot on the ground will heal every health issue they have. 

It’s no secret I come from the world of commercial aviation electronics – avionics – and that I’m a radio frequency (RF) designer.  The fundamental difference between being an RF designer and a “plain old” analog designer is that we have to think of everything in terms of its electrical length; the proportion of the size of anything to a wavelength.  Anything means anything; wires, traces on circuit boards, component sizes, anything we deal with.  Let me tell you the world’s worst-guarded secret: nothing on an airplane has an earth ground.  No aircraft spools out miles of wire to a ground rod stuck eight feet in the ground.  Since a ground that’s farther than about 1/10 wave away isn’t really effective as a ground anyway, virtually everything on the airplane uses the concept of electrical common as ground.

When an airplane gets hit by lightning, the entire body changes potential with respect to Earth when the electrons in the lightning go into the body.  Since everything electronic onboard is referenced to that common potential, they stay the same amount above that potential.  I don't have hard numbers, but commercial airliners are hit around once every thousand hours of flight, once a year on typical routes but more often in the tropics, and generally aren't damaged.

If we're going to talk about lightning in RF terms, what’s the wavelength of lightning?  Since wavelength is just another way of describing frequency, and many people would say, “it’s DC, how can it have a frequency?” I should address that.  Here’s a question to answer that question: if it’s DC why do you hear it on your radio?  The voltage and current of the strike over its duration goes from nearly zero to full 10s of thousands of volts in a time interval that’s fast to a person but glacially slow to electronics. 

Lightning has been studied as long as people have been on this planet, and the measurements have gotten more refined with technology.  For the purposes of trying to have common science to base designs on, there are common models for lightning.  In the aviation world, the industry has agreed to specifications that they’ll require equipment work through.  Take a look at these sample pulses that electronic assemblies on a commercial airliner are tested to.



The rise times have been characterized as ranging from 100 nanoseconds (1/10 of microsecond) to as long as 120 microseconds, 1200 times the shorter duration.  However, these aren’t periodic signals, like a radio carrier; these are impulses that appear a small number of times and then are gone.  To really grasp their wavelengths, we need to perform an operation called a Fourier Analysis – the common digital algorithm used for this is usually the Fast Fourier Transform.  A useful rule to recall is that the narrower the pulse, the broader the spectrum the signal uses, so there’s no unique wavelength to cite.  It’s simply not realistic to assign one frequency to lightning events, with the only exception being the top right plot which is a decaying sine wave.  Lightning is a low frequency phenomenon with its energy primarily below the AM broadcast band, often in the “few hundred” kilohertz range, which is why you can hear it on an AM radio.  You hear a combination of the harmonics of the fundamental frequency of the lightning and the broadband noise resulting from the impulse.  The decaying sine wave (upper right) doesn’t show the timing of the wave, but it’s a broadband signal that presents energy as high as 10 MHz.  The other waveforms are regarded as lower than 2 MHz. 

The caveat is these waveforms come from studies of the effects of the cabling on an airplane, which reduces the peak voltages or currents and spreads the pulse out over time.  It's arguable that the decaying sine wave at upper right isn't something seen in a strike, and is the effect of the cable itself.  Since the electrical length of a higher frequency is shorter than that of a lower frequency, anything designed to handle the higher frequencies will work for lower frequencies.

Another important point about grounds is You Can’t Have Too Much Ground.  Consequently, instead of one ground rod for the entire house, like the electrical code says, one of the standard plans for grounding a tower is to have three 8’ ground rods equally spaced around the legs of a tower (virtually all towers are three-legged).  Think of this as a minimum.  This is a rendering of that concept with a model of my tower installation.


Since my tower cranks over, when I put the system in, I used the steel pole that the held the winch as the left one of those grounds.  Like all steel does around here, that rusted and I replaced it with an aluminum pipe in ‘16 – which ended up even farther to the left in this image.  That pipe is connected as one of the grounds.

Remember how I said you can’t have too much ground? An effective addition to this layout is to run wires from each of the ground rods a few inches below the surface in the soil. Bare wire is best. Two or three wires from each rod with perhaps 60 degrees between them is probably all you’d be able to run.

It’s true that a wide copper strap is better than wire, but wire is more convenient to obtain and I've never seen enough hard numbers to justify going for it.  My tower legs are connected to the copper ground pipes by #8 stranded copper wire.  As part of the spring cleaning, I renewed all those connections so I started with shiny copper and aluminum, coated everything with the anti-seize compound and replaced the old wires.  This is the side closest to the house, and you’ll notice a second wire, red, heading out of the picture.  This goes to another ground rod, directly below where the cables enter the house.



You’ll notice I said copper pipe and not a typical copper-coated steel ground rod; this might be another “do what I say not what I do”  because I'd be pretty sure what I did doesn't meet code.  It’s my calculation that the copper contributes far more than the steel does to the conductivity to ground.  Copper is 40x more conductive than good steel, much more than 40x better than some kinds of steel. It's my belief that the steel is just there for mechanical reasons; the steel makes it easier to pound into the ground.  With our (mostly) sand soil, I can jet water from a garden hose through the pipe into the ground and sink it so fast that sometimes it’s almost like it’s falling into the ground. 

How long can the ground wires be?  The fundamental relationship of wavelength and frequency is that when multiplied together, they equal the speed of light so wavelength equals the speed of light divided by the frequency (be careful of your units here).  We’d like to make our grounds shorter than 1/20 of a wave.  That decaying sine wave that we looked at above presented energy at 10 MHz.  I'm going to cut that in half, to 5 MHz, and still think we'll never see anything that high.  One wavelength at 5 MHz is 60 meters, and 1/20 of that is 3m or 9.8 feet – call it 10’.  This doesn’t mean that no wire in the station can be longer than that.  First off, both the cutoff frequency I used and the 1/20 wave are a bit arbitrary.  I could have just as easily said 1 MHz, making that 49’, and covered all but some very rare lightning strikes.  But in the case of the tower, those black wires (one on each leg of the tower) are not even one foot long to ground.  The gap from these two grounds to the one closest to the house is about 8’.  The distance from that third ground to the radios inside the house is less than 5’. 

What I’m trying to say here is “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.”  If your distance to ground is 11 feet, it will never make a difference.  Some people say 1/10 wave instead of 1/20.  I’ve said it myself many times but the only times I’ve seen 1/10 vs. 1/20 make a difference was with high powers and lightning is nothing if not high power.

It is possible to design radio installations to survive a direct lightning strike.  Cellphone towers get hit all the time.  Broadcast radio and TV stations do, as well as virtually all public service radio systems do as well.  Tons of remote stations do.  Will mine survive?  I don't know.  Once again, I refer to the ARRL book I mentioned in part 1, “Grounding and Bonding for the Radio Amateur” by H. Ward Silver, N0AX.  This week's update was to fix a weak spot I had overlooked before.  A sobering reality is that the commercial radio services I just described get taken out by lightning, too, and that's partly because lightning strikes don't come off an assembly line.  “Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.”

EDIT 3/15/20@1715 EDT:  Commenter Eaton Rapids Joe raised some questions about the middle of the post, where I discuss the wavelength of lightning.  To be honest, I looked at it with fresher eyes and really thought I did a bad job with that.  There are substantial edits to the middle of the piece (paragraphs 5&6 as seen here) to improve the accuracy, and numerous "word smithing" changes that I did to try to reduce chances of misinterpretation. - SiG