Monday, May 31, 2021

Memorial Day 2021

Let me join the chorus of folks saying that while you're enjoying your day, be it beach, barbecue, pool or whatever, take a moment to think of and thank those who have given their all in service to us.  Some don't get that chance.  

There's a handful of pictures for Memorial Day that have resonated with me over the years, and this is one of them. 

I seem to have first found this picture in 2016, and have used it a few times.  If I read that caption correctly, Ms. Sayne was visiting her husband's grave when taps sounded from another funeral in process, causing her to almost roll up into a little ball.  Her pain is palpable in the picture.  

For most of us, Memorial Day is "the unofficial start of summer", or the start of barbecue season (which never ends around here), or it's a day of picnics, family get togethers and more cheerful things.  Allow me to join the chorus of folks saying that while you're enjoying your day, take a moment to think of and thank those who have given their all in service to us.  If one was family or friend, I don't need to tell you that.  Some don't get the chance for a day like that.  

Sunday, May 30, 2021


This is the finished Version 3 of the Epiphone jack plate I talked about yesterday.  

I tried the version I mentioned at the end of last night's post and while the jacks fit better, it was still too high in the middle.  After playing with it a while, I thought that must mean the corner mounting holes were too far apart and putting the screws in place was pushing the plastic toward the center, making the plate buckle.  I made some measurements of the hole spacing but wasn't confident that measuring on the (roughly) 6" radius of curvature gave me anything I could count on.  I decided to make the screw holes into slots.  It now mounts flat onto the body.  All of the screws are closer to the ends of the slots where the original holes were than the newer end.

I'm not happy with the lettering, and that's after switching to a different font that seemed like it was bolder and wider.  I might make another one with no lettering and engrave it on the mill, but I'm not sure.  I could extend that to not being wild about the finish, either.  There are videos about acetone smoothing of PLA; I should look into that, too.


Saturday, May 29, 2021

In the Midst of Another Useful Printer Job

Much like the first time, I'm not saying you should buy a 3D printer for a task like this, it's just that if you have one, it changes the way you approach problems like this. 

You don't have to be very long term reader to know that I play guitar and work on them.  Sometimes I make things for working on them, one time I built a kit guitar, and then I had my "side project", building a side onto an absurd guitar.  As a musician, I think I make a good engineer, which is to say that real musicians will have no threat from me, but I enjoy playing.  

One of my guitars is an Epiphone Les Paul Ultra 2 guitar.  I'm hazy on when I bought it, but a couple of stock photos of the model that I have are dated in September 2011, so that's my best clue.  It has a unique feature, a magnetic pickup at the very end of the neck called a NanoMag pickup.  It was sold to provide acoustic-like guitar tones, coupled with two Les Paul-type Alnico humbucker pickups.  I've used the NanoMag a few times but stick with the two conventional pickups on the body.  Like other Les Paul (also called LP-style) guitars, it has a plastic piece on the side that the jacks to connect to your amplifier mount to, and which is mounted to the body.  That jack plate has looked like this as long as I can remember. 

I don't remember when it broke, but I can't remember that plate not being broken.  One time I called Epiphone factory service about buying a replacement and they said, "nope."  "Find a guitar tech." Several times I thought about buying some 1/16" thick brass and making a replacement on the mill, but that always led to ridiculous prices for brass and I never made myself do it.  Someone that makes engraved plastic badges like they sell at hamfests could probably copy that.

Last week, the background processor in my head came up with the relatively obvious answer, "you have a plastic printer; you can use that."  The one thing I didn't want to do was take the guitar apart to try to measure every important dimension on the body.  The hardest one to get is the radius of the part of the body the plate mounts to, which looks like this.  (this is an Epiphone stock photo, not my guitar)  The jack plate is facing you, bottom right.

The original plate didn't have a radius; it's lying flat on the wood in the first picture, so I figured I'd copy that approach and figured there might be a few prototypes of this to get one that works.  Getting dimensions with a pair of calipers without taking the plate off was relatively painless.  The first prototype is on the guitar right now and a corrected Version 2.0 is ready to mount when I'm done here.  The design: 

Not visible in this display is that I'm making the plate .050 thick, a bit thinner than the .062 thickness of the original.  If the cause of the Epiphone jack plate breaking was stress from being bent to the radius of the body, this should take care of that.  Mine is noticeably more flexible than the original. 

Making a couple of versions is pretty tolerable.  According to my Slicer program, it costs about 6 cents worth of filament and takes about 25 minutes to print.  I'll let you know what I end up with.  

Friday, May 28, 2021

NASA Asks for Biggest Budget Ever in FY'22

According to a news report at Ars Technica, in the largest Federal Budget proposal ever, NASA has requested a 7% increase over their last year's budget, which appears to be the largest NASA budget I can find.  I did no corrections for inflation.

The president's budget request seeks $24.8 billion for the coming fiscal year, a nearly 7 percent increase over the $23.3 billion in funding NASA received for the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30. Congress will ultimately decide funding levels, of course, but this budget request is indicative of White House priorities.

The White House is seeking $7.9 billion for NASA's science programs, including missions to explore the Moon and other planets. This represents a nearly 9 percent increase over last year's budget for science programs.  Earth science and planetary science receiving the most significant increases.  NASA administrator Bill Nelson said, "it’s the largest budget request for NASA science ever." 

We can be sure, considering other Biden preferences, exploration intended to provide targets for climate science will be top of the pile, but they also include lunar and other planetary explorations goals, too.  This includes a 2026 (launch date) mission to retrieve samples from Mars, part of the mission that this year's Perseverance rover was intended to perform. 

(NASA Illustration of proposed Mars sample return mission)

The White House has also requested $1.195 billion for the development of a Human Landing System as part of the Artemis Program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Nelson said this level of funding would be enough to support a demonstration mission—using SpaceX's Starship vehicle—as early as 2024. The funding would also allow NASA to begin to implement a competition for future lunar landing contracts that might be won by a Blue Origin-led team or Dynetics.

There's mention in here of the way Blue Origin is lobbying congress to get a contract to back up SpaceX on the HLS.  There's resistance to this in the congress, including from the usual sources who think "every billionaire is a policy failure" (Bernie Sanders) as well as from Senator Rand Paul, who isn't of that mindset.  There are better reasons to oppose Blue Origin than simply that Jeff Bezos is a multi-billionaire.

NASA has said it supports more robust competition, but to enable this idea for the complex lunar lander program, the agency needs more funding. That battle is currently being waged in the Senate with an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act. The bill would authorize an additional $10 billion over the next four years to ensure that a second lander is developed in parallel with SpaceX's Starship vehicle. However, this amendment has been criticized by some senators, including Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul, because the likely beneficiary is Blue Origin and its owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The Endless Frontier Act didn't come up in the article the other day about Blue Origin's lobbying.  

I suppose it makes sense that in Biden's $6 trillion proposed budget, the largest US federal budget in history that NASA would be getting more money, too.  It's not all social programs. 

In reality, congress hasn't passed a "real" Federal Budget since 2009 (article from 2012 talking about it), which tells me they're not likely to pass this one, either.  Instead, we'll get some number of continuing resolutions to authorize some spending or other.  While it's encouraging that NASA is working toward a moon landing in 2024, I find it more encouraging that SpaceX is planning to send several unmanned Starships to Mars in the same year.  Even more encouraging, they're not doing it on tax money; they're doing it on their dime.  More specifically they're doing it on revenue from paying customers for launch services and for Starlink.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

SpaceX Changes Their Mind - SN15 Has Been Retired

Since the start of May, after SN15's successful test flight, we've been under the impression that SpaceX was going to re-fly SN15 "soon."   All of that apparently changed in the last several days.  First we heard that one Raptor engine had been removed, then we heard that all three Raptors had been removed.  Last night, I noticed that one of the two, new, very large cranes (the yellow Liebherr crane in the center here) had hooked up to the nose cone of SN15.  Today around midday, the crane lifted her off of the test stand and onto a multi-axle transport.  That was puzzling.  Then in the evening East Coast time, SN15 was gone. 

You can read in that blue bar on the left of the image that it says "SN15 retires to the RV Park Display Stand."  I didn't even know there was an RV Park.  But that's apparently SN15's new place; as a memorial to the fact she was the first one that "sticks the landing and keeps on standing" (to channel my inner John Cameron Swayze, Timex Salesman).

So now what?  I've seen nothing in particular that's official.  As I said a few days ago, the emphasis seems to have switched to preparing support for the first orbital flight of a Starship and Super Heavy in the third quarter.  In that picture of the launch complex, you can see two large fuel/oxidizer tanks; Ground Support Equipment (GSE) for Starship and Super Heavy missions.  Near the right edge, you can see the Orbital Launch Integration Tower (OLIT), and if you look about halfway up the metal portion, you can see some rails and hardware where base section 1 joined section 2.   Sections 3 through 5 are being assembled now in the Shipyard area, near the High Bay.  The crane on the left is the most experienced crane in the launch complex, the one we've called Bluto.  The tall, yellowish one is the Liebherr crane and the one on the right, is the most recent addition, named Kong by the people who hang out on the Lab Padre camera chats (called nerdles). 

The High Bay itself currently is housing both Starship prototype SN16 and the beginnings of stacking Booster Number 3.  BN3 is expected to be the first Super Heavy to fly, although no one knows exactly what that means (officially); will they try to land it on some sort of legs or will they try to catch it by the grid fins as Musk has proposed?  The first Starship prototype to fly to orbit is expected to be SN20, which is also currently under construction. 

If I had to guess, I think they'll fly SN16 if any improvements were made after the data from SN15 was analyzed.  Based on how long prior vehicles took, SN16 could fly by the end of June.  If SN16 isn't necessary, we may not see anything flying for a while.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

On the John Williams Quote on Hyperinflation

Hat tip to Bayou Renaissance Man for a link to an article I didn't catch, an interview with John Williams of Shadowstats about what he sees coming.  I've been following Shadowstats for far longer than I can remember but never subscribed because the rates always struck me as for a business, not an individual.  While I think very highly of their work, let me jump to the point I think most of us noticed and related to:

So, is the choice inflation or implosion?  Williams says, “That’s the choice, and I think we are going to have a combination of both of them.  I think we are eventually headed into a hyperinflationary economic collapse.   It’s not that we haven’t been in an economic collapse already, we are coming back some now. . . . The Fed has been creating money at a pace that has never been seen before.  You are basically up 75% (in money creation) year over year.  This is unprecedented.  Normally, it might be up 1% or 2% year over year.  The exploding money supply will lead to inflation.  I am not saying we are going to get to 75% inflation—yet, but you are getting up to the 4% or 5% range, and you are soon going to be seeing 10% range year over year. . . . The Fed has lost control of inflation.”


When will the worst inflation be hitting America?  Williams predicts, “I am looking down the road, and in early 2022, I am looking for something close to a hyperinflationary circumstance and effectively a collapsed economy.

One of the things that I read about hyperinflation long ago, in the first year of this blog, was a quote by Gonzalo Lira, writing on his own blog which is apparently now gone. 

If we think that hyperinflation is simply inflation on steroids—inflation-plus—inflation with balls—then it would seem to be the case that, in our current deflationary economic environment, hyperinflation is not simply a long way off, but flat-out ridiculous.

But hyperinflation is not an extension or amplification of inflation. Inflation and hyperinflation are two very distinct animals. They look the same—because in both cases, the currency loses its purchasing power—but they are not the same.

Scratch everything after, "inflation with balls" in that first sentence.  This was written in the phase of the 2008 "Great Recession" that was economic contraction, and that certainly isn't the case now. 

The important part is that last couple of sentences.  Hyperinflation isn't just bad inflation.  It looks like it, but in reality, hyperinflation is economic collapse.  It's the complete loss in confidence in the ability of the currency to maintain any semblance of value.  It's when the holder of currency believes that it will be worth less at any time in the future, so anything they need will be more expensive later - whether that's minutes or days later doesn't mean much.  

Inflation factoid, totally removed from any context for 99.9% of you.  In Central Florida, under normal circumstances, most of us would be running our air conditioning full time, probably since early May.  I just received my electric bill and was stunned to find it 42% higher than the previous month's bill.  My first thought was that it must have been a minor change in the temperature I set the thermostat to overnight, but that didn't make sense and I looked closer.  We actually used less electric power than the same billing period last year.  Why was my bill up 42% month to month?  It seems to be fuel surcharges for how much higher the utility's fuel bill went up.  

I can't stand many months of up 42% month over month as the fuel prices escalate.  I don't think they will, but as I'm fond of saying, "prediction is difficult; especially about the future."  While air conditioning is pretty close to life or death around here, thankfully we're not seeing 42% month over month in our food bills and other essentials.  If that happens, it's the collapse John Williams is talking about.

Shadowstats gives us teaser headlines of what appears in the subscriber-only version of the site.  I happened to notice this one:

Pandemic-Driven U.S. Economic Collapse Continues to Harden in a Protracted “L”-Shaped Non-Recovery

It made me wonder.  When he says L-shaped Non-Recovery, exactly which shape is he thinking of?

I should note that while I think John Williams is a reasonable guy and the website he provides is quite worth bookmarking, I'm reluctant to predict an economic collapse by the start of next year.  I've just seen so many such predictions in the last decade that just about any few months you can mention have been predicted to be the collapse.  I am, however, still trying to be prepared for a collapse at any time.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Less Men Know About How Laws and Sausages Are Made...

the better they sleep at night.  Allegedly said by Otto von Bismarck. 

A followup to the story about Blue Origin and Dynetics suing NASA over awarding the Human Landing System contract exclusively to SpaceX from Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter, Eric Ralph. 

The real headline here is from Space Policy Online, a site that tracks the legislative and developmental sides of those policies.  Bear in mind this paragraph was posted on May 19th. 

The Senate will take up the United States Innovation and Competition Act today.  That legislation incorporates the 2021 NASA Authorization Act approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last week, but one of the most controversial provisions was modified and now provides a level of protection for the contract awarded to SpaceX for the Artemis program’s Human Landing System (HLS). It also extends the deadline for NASA to comply with a requirement that it choose a second HLS contractor.

The "controversial provision" is an amendment to USIC Act (the first one mentioned) by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA).  Senator from Washington means Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin are both in her district - not to mention Jeff's other little company Amazon - so it's hardly surprising Bezos' crew would try to lobby Sen. Cantwell (or leave a horse's head in her bed).  On May 12th, Cantwell introduced an amendment that would purportedly “maintain competitiveness” by forcing NASA to select a second HLS winner in addition to SpaceX. Without irony, the authorization bill also demanded that NASA make that decision within a mere 30 days, although that was later relaxed to 60 days.   

Since NASA was essentially forced to downselect to one contractor by their budget shortfall simply telling them to add a second contractor doesn't make much sense, but it actually gets worse.  Cantwell added to legislation that NASA was Authorized to add $10 billion for choosing the second contractor.  I rush to add that she can't do that because she can't provide money to NASA.  Authorization bills set policy, they don't provide funding.  Only appropriations bills actually provide money to agencies.  In the original story, I mentioned that NASA had requested $3.3 billion in funding for this fiscal year to meet the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024.  Congress provided just $850 million.  They would have rather had more than one contractor but couldn't do it on just over 25% of what they needed. 

Additionally, while still amounting to a legal gun to NASA’s head to force it to into a contract it knows it cant afford, the modification gives NASA 60 days to award a second lander contract. Based on the agency’s own selection statement, Blue Origin’s National Team would almost certainly be the recipient in the event that the bill becomes law, forcing NASA to commit more than $9 billion – instead of $2.9 billion – to the next stage of HLS development with no guarantee that its budget will be raised accordingly.

That's right - SpaceX got the $2.9 billion contract and Sen. Cantwell is apparently trying to force NASA to give about $7 billion to Blue Origin. 

(Left is SpaceX concept art, right is photo of SN15 by BocaChicaGal for

In the debates over the USIC Act, a clause was added clarifying that NASA is not allowed to “modify, terminate, or rescind” SpaceX’s HLS contract to comply with the amendment.  Meanwhile, the protest that both Blue Origin and Dynetics filed over SpaceX getting the contract is in the hands of the General Accounting Office to examine the merits of their arguments. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Virgin Galactic's Saturday Test Flight Successful

Virgin Galactic's Saturday test flight of their suborbital passenger ship called VSS Unity apparently fulfilled all the mission's goals, according to the company website's news page.  Here's a highlight video that is shorter than the complete flight coverage, but includes some cool photography:

This is the third flight of the vehicle and the first from Spaceport America in New Mexico.  As mentioned Friday, this was a test to verify that they had resolved a self-interference problem that kept the last mission from succeeding.  According their website, VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve, and reached space, at an altitude of 55.45 miles (89.24 km) before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America.  

The purpose of this vehicle is space tourism, with suborbital flights that meet the definition of being in space.  It helps that different organizations have different definitions for the Kármán line, the official boundary of space.  

To borrow part of their PR Blurb from their website.

Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico. Space travel is a bold and adventurous endeavor, and I am incredibly proud of our talented team for making the dream of private space travel a reality. We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”

Virgin Galactic fulfilled a number of test objectives during the flight, including:

  • Carried revenue-generating scientific research experiments as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
  • Collected data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license.
  • Tested the spaceship’s upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls and validated EMI reductions.

Following the flight, and in line with normal procedures, Virgin Galactic will conduct a review of all test data gathered and thoroughly inspect the spaceship and mothership.  Once the team confirms the results, the Company plans to proceed to the next flight test milestone.

 Clearly a Virgin Galactic photo, but I reduced the size slightly to meet the Blogger requirements.



Saturday, May 22, 2021

Looking at BATFE's "Ghost Guns" Rules

Back on May 8th, when I posted about a rule drop from BATFE on the proposed rule changes, it seems that was an unofficial drop from them.  80% Lowers notified everyone by email yesterday that the NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) was just released yesterday, so I downloaded that one and compared it to what I have.  I didn't go page by page, but everything I've been looking at hasn't changed.  If you missed it, the NPRM can be found here.

I'm going to excerpt a small portion of the alleged purposes of the regulation and the section that I'm most concerned about, which is just what constitutes "readily converted," which they specifically say they want to clarify.  Excerpt from page 1 of 115.  

The Department of Justice (“Department”) proposes amending Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) regulations to provide new regulatory definitions of “firearm frame or receiver” and “frame or receiver” because the current regulations fail to capture the full meaning of those terms. The Department also proposes amending ATF’s definitions of “firearm” and “gunsmith” to clarify the meaning of those terms, and to provide definitions of terms such as “complete weapon,” “complete muffler or silencer device,” “privately made firearm,” and “readily” for purposes of clarity given advancements in firearms technology. Further, the Department proposes amendments to ATF’s regulations on marking and recordkeeping that are necessary to implement these new or amended definitions. [Bold added: SiG]

And here's where they clarify the meaning of “readily.”

Readily. A process that is fairly or reasonably efficient, quick, and easy, but not necessarily the most efficient, speedy, or easy process. Factors relevant in making this determination, with no single one controlling, include the following:
(a) Time, i.e., how long it takes to finish the process;
(b) Ease, i.e., how difficult it is to do so;
(c) Expertise, i.e., what knowledge and skills are required;
(d) Equipment, i.e., what tools are required;
(e) Availability, i.e., whether additional parts are required, and how easily they can be obtained;
(f) Expense, i.e., how much it costs;
(g) Scope, i.e., the extent to which the subject of the process must be changed to finish it; and
(h) Feasibility, i.e., whether the process would damage or destroy the subject of the process, or cause it to malfunction.

That isn't clarifying the definition, it's a list of factors they'll use to decide “readily” without giving any quantifiable definition of the word.  There is no guidance there whatsoever.  As always, their answer is "because we say it is."  Take listing (a) Time.  Is five minutes readily?  An hour?  A day?   There's a combination of time, ease, equipment and expertise that I can see as scales, such that the more of those the builder has the more readily the conversion can be completed.   

I suppose they don't want to give numbers for time because they're afraid if they say something specific people will simply avoid their limits.  Let's say the ATF defines that finishing a firearm in under eight hours of work is too little time, they see that as telling hobbyists to work slowly completing their firearm and if they were going to finish in six hours, people would know to slow down and take more time.    

There's a massive footnote spread between pages 36 and 37 that gives some hints at how various courts have interpreted “readily.”  These range from five minutes (pretty obvious) to “a two-hour restoration process using ordinary tools, including a stick weld, is within the ordinary meaning of 'readily restored'” (from the 9th Circus).  There's the famous ruling that a “machine gun that would take around an eight-hour working day in a properly equipped machine shop was readily restored to shoot” which sounds to me nothing like “readily restored.”  There's also the opposite “weapons could not be “readily restored to fire” when restoration required master gunsmith in a gun shop and $65,000 worth of equipment and tools.”

I think it's worth pointing out in any comments you make how insignificant this whole thing is.  They say (note that PMF means Privately Made Firearms, the proper term for what the zealot gun controllers call ghost guns):

In recent years, the number of PMFs recovered from crime scenes throughout the country has increased.17 From January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2020, there were approximately 23,906 suspected PMFs reported to ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes, including 325 homicides or attempted homicides, and that were attempted to be traced by ATF, broken down by year as follows: 

2016:  1,750
2017:  2,507
2018:  3,776
2019:  7,161
2020:  8,712

According to Gun Facts, in 2019 those 7,161 PMFs recovered turn out to be 1.3% of the guns used in crimes.  Perhaps 2% at most, if "outlier agencies" are included.  As always, those guns are most likely from gangs fighting each other. 

With a 115 page bill, it would take a team of experts to respond to every point.  Based on how popular my little series on my AR-15 from an 80% lower is, I thought some of you might find this worth reading. 



Friday, May 21, 2021

Blue Origin Auctioning First Seat on New Shepard

Recently, Blue Origin announced that they were going to auction off the first seat on their new program of rides for hire that would take passengers to 100 km, above the Kármán line and officially into space, and experience a period of weightlessness.  The current high bid in the auction for the first passenger seat on the New Shepard suborbital mission is $2.8 million.  Two days ago, it had just broke $2 million. 

That's for one seat, out of the six seats on the New Shepard.  That first launch is tentatively set for July 20.  Blue Origin has not said if any of the seats are already assigned, or if Jeff Bezos will be riding with the lucky bidders.  Ars Technica reports:

The unsealed online auction for this seat will continue until June 10. Then, on June 12, the company will hold a live online auction among verified bidders to finally sell the seat. The company said the winning bid amount will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.

Beyond this auction, Blue Origin has not released pricing for New Shepard flights—either for individual tickets or for an entire mission. However, a well-placed source told Ars that the per-seat price would be "well north" of $500,000 and much closer to $1 million for the first several flights.

To be honest, when I saw they were going to auction seats, I assumed they didn't really know what to charge and did an auction to get an idea of what the first few were willing to pay.  To borrow a term from sales critters, so they don't "leave any money on the table."  I have no idea what those flights cost, so no idea of what the break even cost for a seat would be.   

The current bid above $2 million speaks to the demand for suborbital spaceflight — passengers on New Shepard will experience the thrill of a rocket launch and several minutes of weightlessness—as well as the cachet of flying early in the program.

With New Shepard, Blue Origin will be charging well above the original price, $250,000, that competitor Virgin Galactic charged for seats on its suborbital space plane. This may be partly because New Shepard will go above the Kármán line of 100 km, compared to about 80 km for Virgin Galactic.

It may also be partly because Virgin Galactic's Unity spacecraft isn't flying.  Another article on Ars Technica says Virgin Galactic is troubleshooting an EMI problem (Electromagnetic Interference) that caused the control computers to halt ignition of the engines on their last test flight.  A test flight is currently scheduled for tomorrow, May 22, pending weather and the usual stuff.  It's not likely Virgin Galactic will be flying paying customers until 2022. 

Meanwhile, since the flight of SN15 and talk about re-flying it "soon," operations at SpaceX Boca Chica have been focused on building infrastructure, and building the cranes that will build that infrastructure.  A structure called the Orbital Launch Integration Tower has been the emphasis.  It is currently one tower-like structure on a large concrete base.  A second section was brought to the launch pad area today to stack on top of section one, and there are at least two more sections over near the High Bay. 

The two big cranes have been built and the second (on the right - called Kong by the Lab Padre nerds) was cranked up to that position for the first time today. 



Thursday, May 20, 2021

Hawaii Decides to Cripple Its Power Grid

Just not in those exact words.  

In 2015, Hawaii made history, becoming the first US state to mandate a full transition to renewable energy. The legislation, signed into law by Gov. David Ige, mandated that state utilities generate 100 percent of electricity sales from renewable fuels by 2045.

As a wise observer said, "Promises are easy to make.  Achieving them is another story."  But that's not exactly what this story, H/T to the Foundation for Economic Education, is about.  

Earlier this month, word broke that the state’s largest supplier of electricity, Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) was considering backing out of an enormous part of the switch to renewables, a vast storage facility (basically a huge, 185 megawatt, battery farm) called Kapolei Energy Storage.  It's being built to ensure a stable supply of electricity to the island of Oahu, which is preparing for the retirement of the AES coal plant—Hawaii’s last coal-fired power plant—and which produces 15-20 percent of the island’s electricity. The use of coal has been banned in Hawaii. 

With the renewables part of the project turning up late (it's a government project after all), it looks like Oahu could be facing a bad energy squeeze, because there's nothing to charge the battery farm once the AES coal plant is shut down.

The reality is there’s not enough wind, solar, or battery storage to replace the AES plant. Hawaiian Electric has made this quite clear in recent documents, noting that it would not be able to meet its year-two renewable target (75 percent) for “more than a decade.”

This means that to replace its soon-to-be retired coal plant, Hawaii Electric will soon be charging its giant battery … with oil. In other words, Hawaiians will be trading one fossil fuel (coal) for another, albeit one far more expensive.

According to the Utility Dive website, the Hawaii Public Utility Commission has started trying to convince Hawaiian Electric not to tear down the AES coal plant to replace it with an oil-fired plant.  James Griffin, chair of the Hawaii PUC, told utility representatives, "Your plan to me amounts to a shift from one fossil fuel to another. We're going from cigarettes to crack."  As an aside, you know what Bidenomics has done to the price of oil here on the mainland; now imagine transporting it by tanker to Hawaii.  Griffin said, “Oil prices don’t have to be much higher for this to look like the highest increase people will have experienced, and it’s not acceptable. We have to do better.”

It's almost a cliche' that government mandates always come with unintended consequences, and generally produce outcomes opposite of what their intent was.  It's like the only people who don't know that are the legislators and regulators.  The free market is always better.  The legislation mandating the state go to 100% renewables by 2045 had very specific milestones: 30% renewable electricity by 2020, 40% by 2030, 70% by 2040 before being 100% renewable by 2045.  HECO is considering those intermediate steps in light of minimizing financial damages from the changes.  They have to take out the coal-fired power plant because coal has been banned.  Building an oil-fired plant in its place is an unintended consequence. 

FEE Author John Miltimore presented this graphic of the shares of energy production in the US since 1950.  You can see that petroleum (the top band) peaked around the early 1980s and while never a huge supplier, is now clearly negligible.  Coal's share has been in decline since about 2008, and it looks like the biggest increase in generation belongs to natural gas. 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

World's Oldest Manmade Quasicrystal Discovered

The detonation of the first atomic bomb in the White Sands area near Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, produced levels of heat, pressure and radiation that had never occurred on Earth.  The levels of  temperatures and pressures were so extreme that the surrounding sand fused into a glassy mineral called trinitite - after the Trinity test that formed the new mineral.  According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a previously unknown quasicrystal has been discovered in a sample of trinitite from near the steel tower holding "the gadget" (as the bomb was known) in the air above those sands.  From the PNAS article:
This article reports the discovery of a heretofore unknown icosahedral quasicrystal created by the detonation of the first nuclear device at Alamogordo, NM, on 16 July 1945 (the Trinity test). Like all quasicrystals, the new example violates crystallographic symmetry rules that apply to ordinary (periodic) crystals. It was found in a sample of red trinitite, a combination of glass fused from natural sand and anthropogenic copper from transmission lines used during the test. The new quasicrystal is the oldest extant anthropogenic quasicrystal known, whose place and moment of origin are known from the historic records of the Trinity test. The thermodynamic/shock conditions that formed it are roughly comparable to those that formed natural quasicrystals recently found in meteorites.

The red trinitite sample that contained the quasicrystal. Photo credit: Luca Bindi and Paul J. Steinhardt.

Quasicrystals are a relatively new discovery, and many people have never heard of them.  Crystals, by definition, have a precisely symmetrical ordering of atoms in periodic patterns that repeat over and over in a 3D lattice.  They are among the finest examples of the beauty of mathematical order in the natural world.  Quasicrystals, by contrast, clearly follow mathematical rules, but each cell has a slightly different configuration of cells nearby rather than repeating in an identical pattern. It's that unique structure that gives quasicrystals their unusual properties.

A quasiperiodic two-dimensional pattern.  Photo credit: Fernando Guevara Vasquez

The story of the discovery of quasicrystals is such a good example of the arrogance of science toward alternative theories that I've touched on it twice in the history of this blog, first in 2011 and then in 2014.  The story starts with a young Israeli scientist named Daniel Shechtman examining an aluminum-manganese alloy with an electron microscope in 1982. 
Shechtman noticed an odd, aperiodic diffraction pattern: a seemingly impossible tenfold symmetry. As the story goes, he muttered to himself, "Eyn chaya kao" (Hebrew for "there can be no such creature") because it was in clear violation of the known rules of crystallography established over 150 years before.
A major break in the study of quasicrystals took place in 2008 when another scientist, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt, was examining minerals from the collection of the University of Florence.  He observed the telltale aperiodic symmetry in a meteorite that had landed in the Koryak Mountains in Russia.  Steinhardt organized an expedition to where the meteorite impacted and found more samples with the quasicrystal structure.  Steinhardt and colleagues took a sample of copper-aluminum alloy—similar in composition to the icosahedrite found in the meteorite—put it into a test chamber, and shocked it with a tantalum capsule to produce the equivalent of 200,000 atmospheres.  They were able to produce the quasicrystal pattern seen in the meteorite samples.

Between 1982 and 2008, Shechtman's career had it hard.  He spent much of his career being vilified and exiled as a crank. “I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying.” In 2011, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of quasicrystals.

The Ars Technica reporter relays that today, quasicrystals are practically commonplace, with over 100 varieties regularly synthesized in the laboratory and used in surgical instruments, LED bulbs, and nonstick frying pans (although she doesn't give any trade names that could help us remember if we've seen them).   The article contains some more highlights of the scientific advances associated with quasicrystals, which are now leading the possibility of designing or engineering quasicrystals for specific purposes. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Apparently SpaceX Has Not Forgotten How to Build Boosters

For the first time in eight months, since early September, a new Falcon 9 booster has arrived at SpaceX's Kennedy Space Center facility.  Called B1067, it was shipped to their McGregor, TX test facility for an engine test that was carried out in March.  The McGregor facility had been busy testing the core and two Falcon 9 strap-on boosters for an upcoming Falcon Heavy launch, the first since 2019.
In January 2021, some two months after arriving in Texas, the second of at least two new Falcon Heavy side boosters (B1064 and B1065) went vertical at McGregor, quickly wrapped up its static fire test campaign, and arrived at Cape Canaveral by the end of the month. Roughly a week later, Falcon Heavy Flight 4’s center core (B1066) arrived in McGregor and went vertical a few weeks after that. It’s possible that B1066 performed a static fire test that month, but the booster did unequivocally fire up on March 19th.
This is uncharacteristically busy for McGregor.  In light of how successful booster re-use has become, they produced fewer new boosters in 2020 than any year going back to 2013.
In the six months since the last debut of a new booster, SpaceX has launched Falcon 9 19 times. In fact, almost five months into 2021, SpaceX has successfully completed 15 orbital missions without the use of a single new booster – the latest indication of just how fully reusability is now integrated into the company’s operations.


B1067 has been assigned to Cargo Dragon 2's second launch (CRS-22) to the International Space Station as soon as June 3rd. 

The title of this post is a little bit of a joke.  The facility in Hawthorne, California that produces the boosters also produces the second stages and the rest of the Falcon 9 hardware.  Since those pieces aren't recovered and reused, they're not out of work, but it's probably good for them to do a booster now and then so they don't forget how to do it.

You've seen the plant.  It was in Iron Man 2 in 2010.  At the time Robert Downey Jr. was basing his portrayal of Tony Stark on Elon Musk.  Musk had a cameo in the movie and they asked if they could use the facility as a backdrop for the movie. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Rocket Lab Loses 20th Electron Mission Saturday

On Saturday, May 15th, Rocket Lab launched its 20th mission for paying customers of their Electron small satellite launcher.  The vehicle developed a failure with its second stage, seconds after it started firing.  I've queued up Rocket Lab's live video at about t-20 seconds and the second stage shutdown occured at about T+ 2:43.  The mission failure resulted in the loss of the customer's payload, two BlackSky Global satellites. 

This screen capture is from their second stage camera watching the engine and the process of shutting down is still going on but mostly complete. 
"Preliminary data reviews suggest an engine computer detected an issue shortly after stage two engine ignition, causing the computer to command a safe shutdown as it is designed to do," the company said. "The behavior had not been observed previously during Rocket Lab's extensive ground testing operations, which include multiple engine hot fires and full mission duration stage tests prior to flight."

Rocket Lab's mission control, based near the New Zealand launch site, continued to receive "good telemetry" after the second stage's Rutherford engine shut down. As a result, the company's engineers believe they have plenty of data to perform a comprehensive review into the anomaly. The US Federal Aviation Administration will assist in the investigation.
While Rocket Lab is now a well regarded launch provider in the smallsat sector, this mission failure comes less than a year and seven missions since their last failure on their 13th mission last July.  Rocket Lab is the company that routinely gives every mission a catchy name.  You can see from the screen capture above that this mission was named, “Running Out of Toes” (the tenth mission was what you'd expect, “running out of fingers”) and the 13th mission was called, “Pics or it Didn't Happen.”  Rocket Lab was able to characterize and fix last July's problem relatively quickly.  Its next mission launched just eight weeks later.  They're under the gun to do the same now.

Naturally, competitors will argue that their system is getting less reliable by saying it was 12 launches before their first major "loss of vehicle accident" and seven launches to the next one.  (That's some bad statistics right there).  The timing is bad because competitors such as Virgin Orbit and Astra are beginning to demonstrate small-satellite launch systems, and others such as Firefly, ABL Space, and Relativity Space may also launch their vehicles later this year for the first time. That means there will be more competition for small-satellite launch contracts, and customers will factor in reliability.

Add to that scenario the fact that Rocket Lab announced at the start of March that they were going to develop a larger vehicle, in the payload class of the Falcon 9, to go head to head with SpaceX.  In March, they also announced plans to become a publicly listed company on the Nasdaq via a merger agreement with Vector Acquisition Corporation.  At a time when they need to look like a solid company that aces everything it does, a failure is not a good thing to face. 

Just goes to show you the wisdom of the saying: “orbit is hard.”

While they will surely tell you the purpose of the launch is put their customers' satellites in the right orbit, they did achieve a different milestone they were trying for on this launch; they recovered their booster stage for reuse.  Not propulsive landing, like Falcon 9, and not recovery by helicopter as they talked about in 2019.  They let it splashdown in the Pacific and lifted it onto a ship.  This is the second booster they've recovered this way.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Take 2

Take 2 of it being a good day for looking up, that is.  

With not much else going on, I spent much of the day working on odds and ends around the house - those of you with older houses know that never ends - and waiting for a chance to capture anything from the airshow. There were no chances until late in the day when the Blue Angels flew again.

Both of these taken this afternoon.  Cropped from the originals with attempts to reduce digital grain (noise) and stretch the exposure a bit for more details in each picture.

Taken with a Canon T6i DSLR using a Sigma 70 to 300mm zoom held at maximum and trying to fix the focus at infinity.  I had some problems with that yesterday; when I held the camera with lens facing down, the focus would shift, ruining a bunch of pictures.  An impromptu attempt to fix that with blue painter's tape helped but probably not as much as just being aware it was happening and checking focus more often. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Good Day For Looking Up

Living here in the area that calls itself the Space Coast and being able to watch launches from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is definitely an attraction.  It's part of what keeps me here. 

This weekend is a highlight for us.  There's an airshow at the Melbourne International Airport featuring the Blue Angels.  This is the airshow I've talked about several times over the years, but those were in March instead of May.  The Blue Angels stopped coming here and were replaced by the Thunderbirds, then the show stopped being held for reasons I'm not clear on.  The airshow runs today and tomorrow, giving us two good chances to perhaps capture some interesting photographs.  We also got to watch them practice Friday afternoon.  Tonight was a SpaceX Starlink launch that is a relatively rare ride sharing mission.   Sunday is just the airshow, and Monday will have another launch, an Atlas 5 carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous satellite, or SBIRS GEO 5, for missile early-warning detection.

So since I spent the day looking up - minus the parts of the day pulling weeds and cleaning out some wasp nests - I'll share the part I enjoyed with you!

The view to my southeast at 4:10 PM.

The view to my northeast at 7:00 PM, and within a minute of Booster Engine Cutoff  (BECO), stage separation and Second Engine Start.

As SpaceX explains:
On Saturday, May 15 at 6:56 p.m. EDT, SpaceX launched 52 Starlink satellits, a Capella Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite, and Tyvak-0130 from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This was the eighth launch and landing of this Falcon 9 first stage booster, which began it's life launching the Demo 2 mission with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS, the first manned launch from the US since 2011.

EDIT 5/16 8:10PM: the times I had on both photographs were in EST not EDT.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Big Week in Starship News

In the last couple of days, three big stories have shown up about SpaceX Starship mission plans.  All three stories are on Teslarati, a pro-Tesla and SpaceX website that doesn't appear to be actually owned by them, so the stories aren't official SpaceX releases of info.  They seem to use Twitter for that.

The first story is that in a response to a direct question, Elon Musk tweeted that an unmanned Starship flight to Mars with intent to land in 2024 "is not out of the question."  Remember that Earth and Mars are in their closest approach roughly every 26 months; the current crop of probes to Mars were launched in the summer of '20, roughly mid-July through mid-August.  They arrived roughly eight months later.  The next optimum launch window will be in 2022, more like September/October.  Musk seems to be talking about having Starship and all the necessary infrastructure ready by 2024, around the end of the calendar year. 

It's worth noting that Musk is on record saying he thought they could make next year's (2022's) launch window.  Missing this schedule isn't due to simply a bit of underestimating the problem; it included starting the program over again from scratch.  Quoting Eric Ralph at Teslarati:
For SpaceX, that two-year ‘delay’ is more impressive than anything given that the company practically restarted Starship development from scratch a year after Musk set the 2022 target. In late 2018, after more than two years of work developing a Starship (then BFR) built out of carbon fiber composites, the CEO revealed that the company was going to completely redesign the rocket to use steel for all major structures.

Two and a half years after that decision, SpaceX has built a vast Starship factory capable of building at least one ship per month, cumulatively fired dozens of full-scale Raptor engines for more than 30,000+ seconds, flown eight full-scale prototypes, and recovered the first full-size Starship in one piece after a high-altitude launch and bellyflop-style descent and landing.
Skipping yesterday's story temporarily, the headline today is that "SpaceX begins work on Starship orbital propellant transfer test for NASA."  Back in October 2020, NASA awarded 15 different companies more than $370 million for research and development projects related to managing cryogenic propellant in space, lunar surface operations, and autonomous landing technology. More than two-thirds of that funding went to four real in-space demonstrations of cryogenic propellant management and storage from Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX, and little-known startup Eta Space.  Of that $370 million total award, SpaceX's portion was $53 million.

On orbit refueling is the most important technical infrastructure that SpaceX is going to need to travel to Mars.  Because of that, I suspect that the "begins work" portion of that headline is probably only true in the sense that they've begun using an account linked to that NASA award, for accounting purposes only.  My guess is that the actual work on how to do refueling has been in some stage of research for quite a while.

I've seen this diagram several times and I can't picture the fuel flow between the Starships.  There's no hardware there to connect them.  SpaceX illustration.
Ultimately, US Federal Procurement Database entries show that NASA ultimately procured $50.4 million for SpaceX’s propellant transfer demonstration, began disbursing funds ($15.1M) on May 4th, 2021, and expects SpaceX to complete work by the end of 2022. It’s unclear if NASA expects SpaceX to recover the Starship involved in the test.
This week's story that would ordinarily be the lede is that SpaceX has revealed the first concrete details about Starship and Super Heavy’s first orbital flight test.  The details are in a mandatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission to authorize them to communicate with the vehicles during the mission.  The filing itself is here, and downloads as a .pdf.  Telemetry radio frequencies are listed.  The document includes milestones, by second, into the flight. 

Starship Orbital Launch Attempt details per FCC exhibit:
– Liftoff from the Boca Chica SpaceX facility, Texas
– Staging 170 seconds into flight
– Booster touchdown in the Gulf 20 miles downrange at 495 seconds (8min 15secs)
– Second Stage Shutdown 521 seconds
– Starship will perform a soft landing 62 miles northwest of Kauai

The time of the Starship soft landing is around 90 minutes after launch, which sounds like a single orbit.  It's not clear if they intend to have a recovery drone NW of Kauai, Hawaii or if they're going to just splashdown into the Pacific.  Eric Ralph at Teslarati believes both the Super Heavy booster and Starship prototypes will be dumped in the water.

The "third quarter" launch date apparently refers to the third calendar quarter, not the third quarter of the Federal fiscal year.  That means their window opens July 1st and extends through September 30th.  Super Heavy Booster Number 3 has started stacking and is far enough ahead of what they're calling BN 2.1 that the latter must be a test tank or something out of the main flow.  Still, they've never done any of the launch pad testing: cryogenic tests, static fires, nothing on a Super Heavy booster.  They've never stacked a Starship on a Super Heavy booster.  I expect this mission will be toward the end of the quarter.

Finally, I note that SN15 has been put back on a test launch stand today.  The major effort in the area is construction of a large crane, visible here - the red crane on the right and the horizontal yellow arm being attached to it. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

It's Jimma Carter 2.0

The news came out today that inflation is up again, month over month, year over year.  The official line is that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) surged ...
The annual CPI figure surged to 4.2%, the most since 2008 though a figure distorted by the comparison to the pandemic-depressed index in April 2020. This phenomenon -- known as the base effect -- will skew the May figure as well, likely muddling the ongoing inflation debate.
Ignoring the reference to the comparison being to the very flat year of the Kung Flu last year, the problem with that 4.2% year over year inflation number is that it's a lie.  If you shop for food you know it's a lie.  In a couple of things I've tracked, I've seen prices up 30% since last year.  Even the numbers we reported last week show much more than a 4.2% rise in most things.  If you have to fill your car once a week to go to work, you know it's a lie.  It's an idea that has been on this blog as long as I've been here.  The officially reported CPI doesn't include food or energy because, "they're too volatile" - as if we can skip buying food or fuel because it's inconvenient.  They're two of the most important costs of living, yet the official numbers don't include them.  

The website Shadowstats has been routinely re-calculating the inflation numbers using the ways they were calculated in the Jimmy Carter years (until 1980) as well as the way inflation was calculated in 1990.  They say the inflation is almost three times that 4.2% value being reported.
Year-to-Year April 2021 ShadowStats Alternate CPI (1980 Base) Inflation jumped to a thirteen-year high of 12.1%, up from 10.4% in March 2021, 9.4% in February 2021 and against 9.1% in January 2021. [emphasis in original - SiG]
Shadowstats has a page with plots of Consumer Inflation based on 1980 and 1990.  You'll note that the inflation rate has stayed in the vicinity of 10% since 2001.  There are some periods where the inflation rate drops as low as 5% (the 2008 'Great Recession') but it has stayed remarkably close to 10%. 

This is all remarkably like the Jimmy Carter era; this week's addition of lines of cars at gas stations, with the stations out of gas or restricting purchases is very reminiscent of the '70s for me. Then we look at the middle East, the emboldenment of Iran, the attacks by Hamas on Jerusalem (paid for with the money Biden sent Iran) and it really resembles the Carter era.  We don't have an embassy in Tehran for them to raid and capture now, so at least we have that going for us. 

Maybe that's what that famous picture was about last week.  Maybe Carter2 was visiting Carter1 for some advice on how to screw up the world more thoroughly.

This is not my picture. But you knew that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Useful Little Tool Off the 3D Printer

Since I posted my last 3D Printer post about printing internal threads,  I made some changes in the way I'm doing things.  I've switched the CAD software I've been using from the Cura Slicer over to the Prusa slicer.  Both are freeware, and I had been getting recommendations to look into the Prusa slicer because it has more features.  Prusa is one of the big names in the field and sells printers that are very well regarded, either as completed printers or kits.  They're based in the European Union, but have dealers in the US. 

I came to the conclusion that the difficulty with the printed internal threads was caused by my design, not the slicer settings, and scaling things to the right size off the printer. When you run a tap through metal, you get some additional room around the threads from the design of the tap and the drill bit you use; tables of the drill size to use before threading have a tight fit, 75% thread, and a looser, 50% thread.  In my CAD program, I made a solid cylinder then moved a model of a screw thread into the center and subtracted everything contained in union of the two parts. Yes, it produced a thread, but it was exactly the same size as the model, so no room in any direction from the threads. It felt tight because it was. I need to think of a way to do that, but it started out as a "I wonder if I could..." project.

Following a path like a ping pong ball in a clothes drier, I ended up with a project that would be useful around the shop and fitted into some things I've been thinking of doing.  An adapter that would allow me to both test and use batteries from my Ryobi tools - all the 18V One Plus line, not their 40V line.  I found the design on Thingiverse, downloaded it and went through my process of turning it into a Gcode file to print.  On Thingiverse, designer nafis used an almost Ryobi green colored filament. 

In case it's not obvious, this is two pieces; the green printed portion and a plastic piece with metal terminals in it.  That's a Ryobi replacement part, part # 300001044, which I bought from a seller on eBay.  The terminals are a rather tight press fit into the printed part.

The print turned out less than perfect but good enough. 

The flaw is that one corner area of the cap lifted off the bed, and the cap isn't flat, like it should be.  In this use, that absolutely doesn't matter.  Here it is as it's being used and you can see the taper on the cap better. 

What do I do with this?  Aside from checking the battery capacities every now and then, when I look at the batteries I think of energy for when the grid is down, like after a hurricane.  I'd love to be able to get at that energy and the first step is getting onto those terminals.  In the case of trying to run something that runs of the 120V wall outlet, they make a product to do that for you.  I may well replace my aging 35AH AGM (sealed lead acid) battery with a handful of these tool batteries. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

SpaceX Breaks the 10-Launch "Barrier"

Sunday Morning at 2:42 EDT, SpaceX launched their 27th Starlink mission atop booster B1051, completing the 10th mission of one Falcon 9 booster, a number which has been an aspirational goal for the fleet.  The flight appeared completely nominal in all regards, with B1051 and the upper stage staying on the center line of their planned path, followed by deployment of the 60 Starlink satellites. And this:

SpaceX's live webcast, screen capture, from a looping animation on Twitter posted by SpaceX corporate.  The landed booster looking down from the interstage area at the recovery drone ship's deck on the left, and a view of the booster through the smoke cloud left by the engines. 

The number of ten flights was probably just pulled out of the air (PFA), as a number of launches without major refurbishment.  SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsman as said essentially the same.

It goes without saying that this is another world record because nobody else is launching recoverable, liquid-fueled, orbital boosters.  In an interesting aside, Eric Ralph at Teslarati lets us in on some industry chatter. 
For the entirety of SpaceX’s operational life, its only two real competitors have – and continue to be – US conglomerate United Launch Alliance (ULA) and European conglomerate Arianespace. Almost like clockwork, both extremely conservative groups – comprised of numerous traditional, entrenched aerospace and military contractors – have gone through a similar cycle of belittlement and dismissal, denial, goalpost-moving, disbelief, and resignation as SpaceX announced plans for reusability, began real-world attempts, and gradually worked out the kinks.

As it became clear that SpaceX would succeed in its efforts to vertically launch and land Falcon 9 boosters and ULA and Arianespace had to move their goalposts from “it’ll never work,” both generally settled on largely arbitrary claims that even if SpaceX could land rockets, reuse would never be economical. ULA went even further than Arianespace with an explicit claim – derived from armchair analysis built on opaque, unspecified assumptions – that SpaceX’s approach to Falcon reuse would “require ten [booster] uses to be profitable.” [PDF]

There's a story that ULA had been analyzing an alternative approach to reuse since 2015.  It seems like an expensive, complex arrangement and it would only save the engine.  It was to be called, “SMART (Sensible Modular, Autonomous Return Technology) Reuse” and was intended for its next-generation Vulcan rocket, still working toward its first launch probably in '22.  Unlike SpaceX returning the entire first stage to a semi-autonomous drone ship, ULA would develop an extremely complex engine section that would detach from Vulcan in mid-air, deploy an experimental inflatable heat shield, and be grabbed out of the sky with a helicopter.  ULA’s original schedule for SMART reuse would would debut no sooner than the mid '20s.

A Spanish-language site featured this montage of B1051's first nine flights.   

Sunday, May 9, 2021

A Ham Radio Series 26 – RF Noise and Coping With It

The concept of overcoming noise is the thread that unifies all of communications theory classes.  Virtually everything is in terms of achieving desired Signal to Noise Ratios (SNRs), and things like showing how much information can be transmitted at a given SNR.  Just as the concept of noise is ever present in theory classes, noise is present everywhere.  It should come as no surprise then that when we tune the radio bands we hear nothing but noise (in the absence of signals on the air).  

Various radio services have developed their own ways of dealing with the noise; the business band radio world, the police radios, VHF Marine radios and a ton of others use FM.  FM is a constant carrier mode; whenever someone is transmitting, the radio puts out the same power.  When the received signal is stronger than anything else coming in the antenna, FM has a capture effect that suppresses the interference, and the circuits aren't as effected by amplitude noise, so that noise is less of a problem.  That allows the receiver to use a squelch system that turns on the audio when the carrier appears and turns it off when the carrier isn’t there.  That has led to the ability to squelch the audio of other people on the channel whom you might not want to listen do, but open the squelch for people you do want to talk to, via Continuous Tone Coded Squelch Systems (CTCSS).

If you listen to the AM broadcast band (yes, it’s still there) or tune the shortwave spectrum, you hear broadband noise.  In general, you’re hearing “white” noise, called that because it contains an unshaped band of noise frequencies all at the same amplitude.  It’s called white noise is by analogy to white light, which is all the colors (which are different frequencies) combined.  White noise sounds like a hiss and if you tune through unused parts of the spectrum with a receiver with no squelch or audio muting, it’s all you hear.  Many people call this static, but the most common term hams use is QRN; one of the many Q-signals that hams have developed for sending in Morse code. 

In Communications Theory, it’s referred to as AWGN, Additive White Gaussian Noise, in case you come across that term.

Identifying Noise

If plain white noise was all you heard, you’d really have few problems.  White noise has been studied to death and it’s a rare (very bare bones) receiver that doesn’t have a noise blanker and often a noise reducer (NB and NR), although their effectiveness can vary.  The real world is full of noise sources of all sorts.  Ignition systems in passing cars produce a ticking or clicking sound, impulse noise, when every spark plug fires.  Switching power supplies, which are built into every LED bulb and many “wall wart” chargers for phones and other things, produce a broad spectrum of single tone-like spikes through the HF spectrum (some work at higher frequencies).  Distant lightning strikes cause impulse noise.  Electric fences make noise.  Many power tools and household appliances make noise; welders make especially bad noise.  Grow lights, fluorescent lights, appliances like air conditioners or refrigerators, solar panel systems (the DC-AC inverters), aquarium heaters, electric light dimmers and more.

I’ve noticed in my (relatively limited) time on the 80 meter band that I hear thunderstorms when cold fronts are a couple of days away as well as when they’re almost here.  From here, when there’s a cold front over the southeast US, from say Louisiana stretching over Alabama and northern Georgia to North and South Carolina, I hear those storms.  Then I don’t hear them as the front gets closer, but then hear them again when the front is close.  80 and 40 meters are worse than higher bands for storm noise.  The ability to hear storms both near and far is a bug, not a feature and makes those bands much less usable during the summer months.

This is just barely scratching the surface, and it might give the mistaken impression that these sources sound like each other.  That’s only in the broadest sense. 

One of the advantages of the modern Software Defined Radios, or radios enhanced by the addition of some DSP and software features, is that you can see the disturbances on a graphical display.  In the late ‘90s through the ‘00s, the amateur radio manufacturers started to add spectrum displays that allowed you to see the band you were operating on.  This led to people noticing odd noise patterns on screen that corresponded to noises they were hearing.  Sites like this one tried to create catalogs of what was seen and what it was coming from.  The ARRL has a very good page of pages on RF interference, noise and one similar to that first link but more encyclopedic.  Small SDRs like the RTL-SDR can be used as spectrum analyzer to help find noise issues. This pair of spectrum plots from the NK7Z site shows an 80 meter noise problem when present (left) and absent.  He's not hearing that low signal on the right while that noise is there, especially if it moves in frequency (as many types of noise do).

Coping with noise

Noise blankers are generally circuits that remove noise spikes like ignition noise rather than more broadband noise like white noise.  Sources like ignition noise, distant lightning strikes, electric fences, and a ton of other things.

Because white noise is random and full spectrum, it can be reduced by simply averaging the audio.  Over the time periods of most modulation, the noise changes many times while the audio doesn’t.  You might see this referred to as correlation filtering in Digital Signal Processing; the algorithm keeps correlated samples like voice and throws out uncorrelated sounds like noise.

Tracking down the source of noise problems can be rough, but there are many example stories you can find online.  If you have a rotatable antenna, you can sometimes tell which direction the noise is coming from, but if it’s not coming from something like a utility box you can report, that’s unlikely to do you much good.  If you point the antenna toward a neighbor and realize you’re hearing them welding or working on a street rod, you’ll probably have to work around that, using the radio when they’re not working.  Sorry, but I know of no way to get rid of all of that noise.

In the best case, you can find it’s coming from something in your house, or that you have control over.  Noise from most electrical things can be dealt with by some combination of putting the wiring through ferrite cores or wrapping the wiring around a larger ferrite toroid and possibly capacitors to ground.  In other words, filtering.  Sometimes it requires a few filters to suppress the noise sufficiently.

If you have the ability to reposition your antenna, that’s always a good thing to try.  Say you stretch out a random wire in your yard and you regularly hear a lot of noise, see if you can move that end so that’s not pointing in the same direction.  Pointing it 90 degrees away should make a big difference if that’s where the noise comes from.  A particularly bad place for an antenna is in your attic or very close to it because attics frequently have a power lines in them and they can carry noise from elsewhere.  Sometimes small position changes can make all the difference.  I realize that applies to lots of people who can’t put up an outside antenna due to a landlord’s approval or a Home Owner’s Association.  A truth that no HOAs or city zoning boards seem to understand is that an antenna causes less hazard to people and their electronics when the antenna is mounted higher and therefore farther from those things.

If your rig is anything other than the lowest entry-level HF radios, it probably has an adjustable Noise Blanker and Noise Reducer function.  Even my $25 RTL-SDR has that, in the SDR# (SDR Sharp) software that runs it.  Many people ask about leaving NR and NB on all the time.  In general, that’s not a problem.  I think Noise Reduction is less likely to be a problem.  It’s possible that leaving a hardware-based NB on all the time can actually create more noise if you set it too high.  This is an excellent video showing the effects of both of the NB and NR in action on a relatively high-end ham transceiver, the Icom IC-7610.  There are similar demonstrations with the IC-7300 which is more of an entry-level transceiver and is said to have the same software.

The more modern radios will also have things like an automatic DSP filter intended to eliminate the sound of someone tuning up, but will also work on noise sources that produce a fixed frequency (heterodyne) tone.  These operate opposite to the way the Noise Reducers work; they’re correlation cancelers not enhancers.  They’re fine on SSB voice and some can eliminate several stations tuning up at the same time.  On CW, they have to be tuned a bit more manually, since if they eliminated all of the single carriers, they’d eliminate the station you’re talking to, as well.