Monday, February 28, 2022

Impact of Russia/Ukraine on Space Business

As most of us might expect, all of the action/reaction/counter-reaction going on surrounding Russia's invasion of the Ukraine has spilled over into things well beyond the borders of both countries.  Two stories broke on the impact on the space business.  

The first story is that Russia pulled out of the European Union's launch business in response to EU sanctions against them.  This pushes an April launch currently being prepared into limbo.

The chief of Russia's main space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, announced the decision on Twitter Saturday morning, saying his country was responding to sanctions placed on Russia by the European Union. Europe, the United States, and other nations around the world issued significant sanctions on Russia this week after the country's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The affected launch is two Galileo satellites on the "Europeanized" version of a Soyuz rocket for the EU on April 6. There's currently about a dozen Russian technicians and engineers working at the launch site in French Guiana.  

This leaves the EU in a bit of a bind. 

While the European Commissioner for Space, Thierry Breton, stoically insisted on Saturday that the Galileo or Copernicus constellations wouldn't be affected in terms of continuity or quality of service or even the further development of those systems.  The problem is the EU doesn't have a launch vehicle at their disposal for this launch in April - or for either Galileo or Copernicus satellites for the foreseeable future.  As Eric Berger at Ars Technica puts it:

Europe's small Vega rockets are not powerful enough to lift the Galileo and Copernicus satellites to their orbits. And the continent's heavy-lift vehicle, Ariane 5, is being retired in favor of the more efficient and cost-effective Ariane 6 rocket. However, all of the remaining Ariane 5 launches are spoken for, and the Ariane 6 rocket probably will not become operational until at least 2023.

So it is not clear what steps Europe might take in the interim, should it need to rapidly launch a Galileo or Copernicus satellite. The only Western company with the spare capacity for such a mission is probably the United States-based SpaceX, but Europe seems unlikely to support a competitor to its institutional launch industry.

Especially a competitor they've derided so often. 

The second news story is being widely misquoted, in the rampant, apparently click-driven way everything is, as Dmitry Rogozin (again, chief of Roscosmos, Russia's main space corporation) saying Russia was going to drive the International Space Station out of orbit and into "the US or Europe."  Rogozin's Tweets were translated into English and Tweeted by Eric Ralph.   My reading of most of the rant is that he's saying almost all of the sanctions are things that are already in place.  With regard to ISS de-orbiting, what he said was

"If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an unguided de-orbit to impact on the territory of the US or Europe?" Rogozin asked. "There's also the chance of impact of the 500-ton construction in India or China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS doesn't fly over Russia, so all the risk is yours. Are you ready for it?"

Which sounds a lot like he thinks the US is incapable of supplying a rocket that could correct the slow decay of the ISS' orbit, and thinks his modules that are docked to the ISS are indispensable.  Yes, with no orbital corrections that decay will cause the ISS to de-orbit, burn up (to some degree) and then whack somewhere on Earth, but he's not saying he's going to do it.  

In response, NASA said "The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation.  No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in-orbit and ground station operations."  They said they intend to continue to cooperate with all their international partners.

These are just two examples, and I'm sure there are more.  As I recall it, the whole reason behind partnering with Russia on the ISS was to give their rocket engineers and scientists something to do besides move to another country and get that new country's ICBM program going.  Like most government programs, I bet there isn't a soul on the planet that could tell you if that idea worked.  

A "Europeanized Soyuz" being prepared for launch at French Guiana in December 2021.  European Space Agency photo.  Due to the recent timing, I'd guess this could be the booster for the April 6 launch.  


Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Little Space News Roundup

As usual, a couple of items I found of interest this week - while looking for something interesting to share. 

United Launch Alliance's Decatur, Alabama unit, basically the home of the Space Launch System (NASA's SLS) had a historic vote in Mid-February: for the first time ever, 100% of the votes agreed to go out on strike if negotiations got to that point.  In the typical contract year, that number is more like 90%.  TV station WAFF48 carried their local story.   

Every three or four years, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 44 Union negotiates a contract with United Launch Alliance. Union members vote ahead of time with the intent to see who is willing to go on strike if they can’t reach a fair contract. Union President David Story says usually 90 percent or more vote ‘yes.’ This time every single member said yes.

He says they feel taken advantage of. “Roughly two decades we have made concessions on every contract,” said Story. “We’ve given up pension, retiree healthcare, in some classification, we’ve agreed to a $20 per hour pay cut in the last contract to stay competitive with Space X.”

Union President Story went on to say the vaccine mandates were the last straw, because the company agreed that certain people could be exempted from the mandates, then broke that agreement almost immediately firing 13 people.  Story says the union members feel the company treats them like dirt, doesn't treat them as the contracts stipulate, and workers are fed up with it. 

They went out on strike the last time they negotiated their contract in 2018.  That strike lasted two weeks.  Before that, the most recent strike had been over a decade earlier in 2005.  

RocketLab, the SmallSat launching company with big ambitions, announced they had completed their second launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, home of their first launch pad.  They later expanded to Wallops Island, Virginia for a second launch site, and this gives them a third pad.  At the moment, it looks like the pad will get its initiation tomorrow, with a launch on February 28th at 2035 UTC (3:35PM EST) of the StriX β synthetic aperture radar satellite for Synspective, a Japanese Earth-imaging company.  

Two Electron rockets on the pads at Mahia Peninsula.  RocketLab photo.  Pad B is in the foreground.

There has been talk for a few years that the small satellite launching business is heading for some sort of shakeout.  There's a lot of competition and not much money to be made carrying the small payloads that colleges and small companies develop.  RocketLab has apparently been among the leaders - if not the leader - of the smallsat launch business and also announced an expansion that may well help assure they're one of the survivors.

Last Thursday, the company announced that they are entering the satellite manufacturing business.  More precisely, the company signed an agreement that it will help to build 17 satellites for MDA Globalstar.  

Rocket Lab will lead the development of the spacecraft buses, while MDA will act as prime contractor to manufacture Globalstar’s satellites, lead the development of the payload, and perform the final satellite assembly, integration, and test. The partnership between Rocket Lab and MDA brings together two of the space industry’s most innovative satellite companies. The total initial contract value for Rocket Lab is US$143 million, with options to provide the satellite operations control center, launch dispensers, launch integration, and up to nine additional spacecraft with flexibility in timing to order such spacecraft. The satellites will integrate with and replenish Globalstar’s current constellation, ensuring service continuity. Globalstar expects to launch the satellites by the end of 2025. 

All 17 of the 500kg spacecraft will be designed and manufactured at Rocket Lab’s Long Beach production complex and headquarters, where a new high-volume spacecraft manufacturing line is being developed to support growing customer demand for Rocket Lab satellites.

Don't forget that Rocket Lab is also developing a reusable launch vehicle, the Neutron, which will be closer to the Falcon 9 in its payload capacity.  They are working several angles to keep the business thriving into the future.  



Saturday, February 26, 2022

A Ham Radio Series 31 - Very Directional, Very High Gain Antennas

There's a niche area of directional antennas that I want to touch on briefly.  The highest gain antennas are going to tend to be the ones that are extremely directional.  Remember the analogy of antenna gain coming from "squeezing the balloon" of the fields coming from the antenna?  The more the fields get squeezed, the narrower the radiated beam gets and the higher the gain goes.  

The king of antenna gain is the parabolic dish antenna.  These are the ones that are used for all of the biggest radio telescope observatories, the Deep Space Network, and even for home satellite TV dishes.  

The National Radio Astronomy Observatories Very Large Array in New Mexico - also used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  That's the NRAO VLA also used by SETI for the acronym-aware.  NRAO photo from the SETI Institute.

Regardless of size, they're all governed by the same physics.  The gain of a parabolic dish antenna in dB with respect to an isotropic antenna is given by this equation: 

where k is a constant for the efficiency, typically 0.5 to 0.6, D is the diameter in meters and the Greek letter Lambda is the wavelength in meters.  It's important to note that the units cancel out algebraically, so while the original said meters, there's really no particular reason to use meters.  Just make sure if you use feet in the diameter, you use feet in the wavelength.  Since the gain is the ratio of dish diameter to the wavelength, the bigger the dish, the higher the gain.  The higher the gain, the narrower the beam.  And just like the gain, there's a simple expression for the beamwidth

(yes, that's 70 - seventy).  So let me create an example based on an aviation weather radar antenna I used to work on.  It's diameter was 0.6 meter, with a frequency of 10.00 GHz.  Wavelength is C/f or 3*10^8/10.00*10^9, or 0.03 m (3cm).  The gain in dBi is
Since the beamwidth depends on the ratio of lambda to D, or 0.03/0.6, BeamW is 70*0.03/0.6 or 3.5 degrees. 

That requires quite a bit more precision in pointing and feeding back the direction than your typical HF or VHF antenna, and one reason dishes tend to only be used by microwave experimenters in the ham bands.  All of those dishes in the Very Large Array are computer controlled to all point at their required target - and don't forget they need to track that object across the sky just like an optical telescope.  In the case of the weather radar these numbers approximate, it was precisely driven by stepper motors so that the radar sent out a pulse and waited 8-1/3 milliseconds for the return echoes before stepping over for another pulse.

Have you seen dish antennas that aren't circular?  Many of the small antennas people get on their houses for various services are more elliptical than circular.  Those antennas produce radiation patterns that are also elliptical - they're receive better and the beamwidth is narrower in the direction that the dish is bigger.  For Satellite TV, that's OK.  The loss of gain happens in directions away from the orbit that the signal is coming from.  That part of the antenna wasn't needed.  Also note, they don't need the tracking motors because the satellites aren't moving in the sky.  They always appear to be in the same spot in the sky. 

So what's up with all this?  Why do I go down this road?  Because there are ways to do these things without parabolic dishes that I want to talk about. 

Friday, February 25, 2022

Back On Alkaline Batteries

Batteries, in the general sense, are a fairly common topic around here.  They're really at the heart of energy storage in so many parts of our lives that they can't help but come up.  

Over the years, many of us have talked about alkaline batteries, which I'd guesstimate as the most common type of battery sold; especially the extremely common double and triple A sizes.  In particular, much of the conversation has been on how the damned things leak so often and damage whatever they're sitting in.  Back in 2018, I wrote about something I read on EEVBlog

I decided to look around a bit and see if it would be worth my while to join the forum, and stumbled across a thread on leaking alkaline batteries, which we've talked about here before and got a lot of interest. 

The conclusion of the commenters is that both Duracells and Energizers leak far more than they used to, but after that it's speculation on reasons and different views on alternatives.  One of the comments that bears what research I can do (perhaps by buying some) is that the big two are competing on image and perhaps some specsmanship about capacity, while cheap batteries aren't trying to win on capacity but rather on cost.  In the fight for being able to claim better capacity, they may squeeze the room in the cell too much and leave out critical elements, such as not leaving enough space for the compounds that remove excess hydrogen that the battery produces during discharge.  It leads to the conclusion that the cheaper batteries may be better. 

Consensus is that lower tier brands like Kodak, Sunbeam, Fuji, Panasonic and Sony make good alkalines that don't leak as often, and that Panasonic's Eneloop NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) rechargeable batteries are a good substitute.  I have eight  Eneloop batteries for a couple of radios I use regularly and they do seem to be better than the non-branded NiMH batteries I've used. 

I concluded that I wasn't going to go buy a lot of Eneloop batteries but that I was pretty sure I'd bought my last Duracell package.  I should have specified my last Duracell AA or AAA batteries; I have bought C or D sized cells as well as the rectangular 9V batteries.  None of those have ever leaked.  

We have a membership in the "bulk and bundle stores" in town, which until very recently were BJ's Wholesale Club and Sam's Club.  We ended up buying AA and AAA Berkeley & Jenson batteries - BJ's house brand.  

Since that time in '18, it seemed like the story I wrote about was true; we never had one of the cheapo batteries (AA or AAA) leak.  I can put up with a shorter life as long as the batteries don't ruin what they're in.  In the last few weeks, though, we've found leaking BJ's batteries in a few different things.  Both AA and AAA.   

This is a pretty typical example of leakage, but not something of mine.  Photo credit  The important part is not all of the cells leak in a battery pack.  I've read that the negative end of the cell leaks more often than the positive, which is what this shows.  I know I've seen the other end leak as well. 

Which leads to the question and why this post.  Has anyone else done the same experiments of using cheaper batteries and not had any leaks at all?   Has anyone found batteries like Duracells or Energizers have become less likely to leak?  The site that photo credit links to links in turn to another site.  That one says the batteries leak if they're just sitting in something with very little current draw; they recommend not leaving batteries in something like a flashlight.  I've had them leaking in things that are low current drain like a digital clock, a computer mouse, and other things that are running; they're in use.  I simply can't take them out of these things. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Next Mission Extension Vehicle to Ride SpaceX to Orbit

In a sort of mixed marriage of New Space and Old Space, Northrup Grumman announced Monday that they had selected SpaceX to carry their next Mission Extension Vehicle to orbit "as soon as Spring of 2024."  Northrop Grumman subsidiary SpaceLogistics describes this satellite as its first Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), described as the company’s “next-generation satellite-servicing” spacecraft. 

To fill in a little background, in late February of 2020 - so around the start of "two weeks to flatten the people, er, curve" - Northrup Grumman's first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) docked to Intelsat 901 (IS-901) in order to provide life-extension services.  It was the first time two commercial satellites had docked in orbit and the first time that mission extension services were offered to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.  There's a bit more description at either that link or my coverage.  

In April of 2021, MEV-2 docked with another Intelsat satellite, IS-10-02, and saved it as well.  Both Intelsats were more than 10 years old, and were given at least another five years of life.

It's an interesting idea and Intelsat claimed it was a good savings for them.

Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of space, space systems engineering and operations for Intelsat, said the cost of servicing is far less than the value of five additional years of satellite service. Waiting five years will also allow Intelsat to replace the 10-02 satellite with a more modern, efficient vehicle. "For us, it's win-win," he said during a teleconference with reporters. "This extension for 10-02 is very valuable to us."

It might not be surprising that a space writer (Eric Ralph at Teslarati) sees things a bit differently. 

While SpaceLogistics’ accomplishments are thus extremely impressive, the general MEV concept and parts of its execution have some flaws. First, the ‘service’ offered appears to be extremely expensive, costing Intelsat – the first and only customer, thus far – at least $13 million per year for the five years MEV-1 will be servicing Intelsat-901. No other MEV contracts have been confirmed, which is not a major surprise. Assuming zero upfront costs for prospective customers, $65 million for an extra five years of operations represents a substantial fraction of the price of some simpler replacement satellites, many of which are now designed to operate for at least 15 years.

Who's right?  The customer, of course.  If they think it's "win-win" and are willing to pay for it, that's what's important.  Intel understand their costs better that Eric Ralph.  Perhaps more importantly, though, in response to the economics and hopefully broaden their market appeal beyond Intelsat, SpaceLogistics has developed an alternative to the Mission Robotic Vehicle that's more economical.  

To complement MRV, Northrop Grumman is also developing Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) – smaller spacecraft designed to still add at least 5-6 years of life to an aging GEO satellite. MRVs – each about 3 tons (~7000 lb) will theoretically be able to carry several MEPs (400 kg/900 lb apiece) into geostationary orbit and install the pods on several different satellites. Additionally, it appears that SpaceLogistics will sell the pods outright, presumably precluding the need for expensive recurring service contracts like those Intelsat signed for MEV life extension.

SpaceLogistics released a CGI-rendered video of the MEPs and the MRV delivering them to a satellite.  Each MRV can potentially carry 12 MEPs.  Northrop Grumman says it’s already sold one MEP – to launch with MRV-1 on that spring of '24 Falcon 9 mission – to Australian telecom provider Optus and has a full manifest for MEPs “through mid-2026.” 

In this Northrup Grumman SpaceLogistics rendering, the MRV is on the left and a satellite to be serviced is on the right.  The MRV appears to have one MEP with solar panels extended and almost completely centered in the rendering, positioned to dock with the customer's satellite.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Relativity Space Switches Emphasis Toward Reusability

The latest entry under "reusability changes everything" is startup (still to orbit) Relativity Space.  My last deeper look at them was last August, with a rendering of their Terran-R rocket, which is intended to be competitor to higher weight payloads to LEO.  CEO and co-founder Time Ellis says it's wrong to compare the Terran R to the Falcon 9; it's more like a smaller version of Starship and the Super Heavy booster.  Terran R will have nowhere near the lift capacity of Starship.

Before the Terran R exists, Relativity is working on a smallsat launcher called Terran-1. Michael Berger at Ars Technica reports they're already working on a next generation engine that will replace the nine Aeon-1 engines currently planned for the Terran-1 with a single Aeon-R.  

"We’ve always envisioned Terran 1 being a development platform," said Tim Ellis, the co-founder and chief executive of Relativity Space, in an interview with Ars.

The California-based company, which seeks to 3D-print the majority of its rocket parts, is continuing to work toward the first launch of Terran 1 this year. Powered by nine Aeon 1 rocket engines, this small rocket has a lift capacity of 1.25 metric tons to low Earth orbit. This first Terran 1 mission will not carry any customer payloads in order to focus on the rocket itself and is called "Good Luck, Have Fun." The name is a reference to what players say to one another before a video game begins, Ellis said.

Aeon-1 engine in static fire test.  Relativity Space photo.

Ellis, who has said, "we are definitely launching this year," said they have three flights of the Terran 1 scheduled.  After those three demonstration flights, Relativity plans a switch from the nine-engine configuration to just a single Aeon-R engine.  This engine, nine of which will eventually power the reusable Terran R rocket, is projected to have about 300,000 pounds of thrust, or more than 10 times that of the Aeon-1 engine.  The improved thrust will upgrade the Terran 1 giving a somewhat higher payload to the same orbit, and provide commonality with the coming Terran-R.  

By going from nine engines to one, that has to help reduce part counts which generally improves reliability.  For the Terran-1 instead of nine engines and 18 turbopumps, the upgraded version would use one engine and two turbopumps.  

Interestingly, Tim Ellis said they went down the road of a complex Terran-1 with nine LOX/methane engines because they wanted to learn how to do the hard stuff. 

Building an initial rocket with nine smaller engines was "definitely not the optimum choice in hindsight to get to orbit as simply and quickly as possible for the Terran 1 program," Ellis said. "But it’s been part of our plans to do a much larger reusable rocket for a long time. So we chose to do liquid oxygen and liquid methane engines as well as the nine-engine configuration on Terran 1 so that we could learn as a company how to do something that complex early on, before we had to go build this 20,000 kilogram payload-to-orbit vehicle."

(An early rendering of the Terran-R.  Relativity's picture.) 

Ellis said that there are no plans to abandon the Terran-1 as development of the -R version goes forward.  After a few rounds of venture capital raising, Ellis said Relativity has nearly $1 billion cash in the bank—and the large 1-million-square-foot factory it is building in Long Beach will support both vehicles.  Right now, the company has grown to 700 employees, and since that large building isn't completed they're very likely not completely staffed.

That larger, futuristic Terran R rocket will have a reusable first and second stage, which Ellis believes will allow his company to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for commercial launches. Ellis said there is a lot of interest in Terran R since it was publicly announced last year, with one customer already on board and "quite a few more" expected to close on deals during the next six months. The Terran R may make its first flight in 2024.

It seems like another example of "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" when you add in that CEO Tim Ellis and his co-founder Jordan Noone are fans of SpaceX and Elon Musk.  They founded the company five years ago, around the time SpaceX started regularly landing boosters for reuse.  They were drawn to the technology and Musk's stated desire to create settlements on Mars as a step to making mankind a multiplanetary species.  Ellis' vision is for expansion to Mars, like Elon Musk's, but sees different ways to achieve some of these things.  Getting a colony of a million settlers is a huge task and the more people working toward it, the more likely it is to succeed. 



Monday, February 21, 2022

NASA's Next Big Space Telescope

I stumbled across a story today of an instrument that I should have known about but that had undergone a name change.  It was first referred to as the WFIRST, Wide Field Infra Red Space Telescope, a long but descriptive name for its mission.  It was recently renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope by NASA; the name pays tribute to the late NASA executive and first Chief Astronomer who was one of the driving forces in getting the Hubble Space Telescope program through its hurdles.  

The telescope was named in a poll of astronomers as the next most important space telescope behind the James Webb Space Telescope.  Why?  The old name said wide field and that's the telescope's feature. 

That graphic gives the impression that the NGRST can capture 2,000 square degrees of sky in one shot, compared to 1.6 sq. degrees from the Hubble Space Telescope.  That's not quite right.  The NGRST's field of 2,000 degrees divided by the 1.6 of the HST says NGRST is 1,250 times bigger.  The NGRST website's FAQ says it's field of view is 100 times larger:

It has a primary mirror that is 2.4 meters in diameter (7.9 feet), and is the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope's primary mirror. The mirror has the same sensitivity as Hubble’s primary mirror but will only be one fifth the weight, showcasing an advancement in telescope technology. It will have the sensitivity and resolution comparable to Hubble, but with a field of view 100 times larger, combining excellent image quality with survey power.

Like the JWST, the NGRST will be sent to orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles away from earth in the direction radially away from Earth.  The mission is focused on the search for dark matter, dark energy and exoplanets, and will only carry two instruments:

The Roman Space Telescope will have two instruments, the Wide Field Instrument (WFI) and the Coronagraph Instrument (CGI) technology demonstration. The WFI provides wide field imaging and spectroscopy, with performance characteristics optimized for cosmology and exoplanet surveys. The CGI provides high contrast imaging and spectroscopy for observations of exoplanets and debris disks. The WFI is a 288-megapixel multi-band near-infrared camera, providing a sharpness of images comparable to that achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope over a 0.28 square degree field of view, 100 times larger than that of Hubble. The Coronagraphic Instrument is a high-contrast, small field of view camera and spectrometer covering visible and near-infrared wavelengths using novel starlight-suppression technology.

The  target date for launch is currently set for May of '27 and they claim to be on schedule.  It seems to be a much simpler mission from the technology standpoint than JWST was.  Where I ran into the NGRST's story was by reading on Twitter that United Launch Alliance had not bid on the contract to launch the mission.  Apparently NASA has a rule that when they select the launch vehicle for a high-value spacecraft, the launch vehicle has to be certified at the day of selection.  ULA is switching to their Vulcan rocket for payloads of this size, but the first Vulcan hasn't been built yet.  At this point, it appears the only vehicle capable of launching the telescope would be the Falcon Heavy. 

Rendering of NGRST, from NASA

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Today This Blog is 12 Years Old

That's right, it's my 12th blogiversary, although the day of the week and calendar date aren't the same.  My first post was Sunday, February 21, 2010.   Looking at that post, I'd have to say the more things change the more they stay insane.   

As always, I thank you for stopping by.  

With 11 years of material, I find I remember what seems to be an unusual amount of it, but then I also find myself reading something from long ago and enjoying it while vaguely thinking, "who wrote this?"

But that's old news.  What's going on now?  The first Falcon 9 launch since the very busy January was to have been this morning from the Kennedy Space Center with two instantaneous launch windows, the first set for 9:54 AM EST.  When I got up this morning it had already been rescheduled for 9:44 AM tomorrow morning.  This is a Starlink launch mission, called Starlink 4-8.  

There will be one more February Starlink launch, Starlink 4-11, from Vandenberg Space Force Base. It's now scheduled for 7:30-8 am PST (15:30-16:00 UTC) on Friday, February 25th.  I haven't seen a Starlink launch window described like that.  That much latitude in the launch time is quite unusual.

The tests of the cryogenic systems at Boca Chica's Starbase moved from Starship 20 to Booster B4 on Friday.  That was followed by more tests of the Chopsticks.  

You probably remember that after the last launch of last year, SpaceX almost lost the booster over the side of recovery drone Just Read The Instructions due to the rough seas.  NASA Spaceflight (.com) reporter/photographer Julia Bergeron tweeted photos of the repaired JRTI, and its Octagrabber last Tuesday.  She added:

Just Read the Instructions and A Shortfall of Gravitas swapped docks today. JRTI repairs seem to be wrapping up and the clover has returned to the garage. Both Octagrabbers were on their respective decks. JRTI (L) ASOG (R)

This was two days before ASOG left to get in position for this morning's Starlink launch (now tomorrow morning's). 

As noted, photograph by Julia Bergeron for NASA Spaceflight (dot com). This is the view that Julia was referring to when she left the key JRTI (L) ASOG (R).

Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Sort of Followup

Just under a year ago, I posted an entry in my Ham Radio Series;  #22 on using a major contest for your fun and edification.   

Since I spent today playing in and around a similar radio contest, I wanted to post a followup to that.  Let me do a brief recap first. 

Let's start with the big one: why on earth should anyone care?  Assuming you have no desire to enter the contest and try to run up a score, I see two reasons.  First and foremost is to have fun.  DX contests bring stations from all over the world onto the air to compete to be the best in the different classes or (less formally) best in their country.  They also bring a ton of guys with smaller stations who are there to work more countries for their own interest or entertainment.  For people who don't strive to work other countries, there's a persistent image of straining to hear weak stations and the farther away they are the weaker.  While it does happen, I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard people surprised at how loud and easy many of their DX contacts are. 

A more pragmatic reason is that it's good training for operating in bad, crowded conditions.  Much like disaster communications, there's a few standardized messages and you have a pretty good idea what you're going to hear - except for the important details.  

The major difference between today's contest and the one I wrote about in that article is that this one is for CW - Morse Code - operation only.  That means the CW is going to be fast.  I didn't tune around endlessly looking for stations to contact, but I'd guess the slowest sender I heard was in the range of 15 to 18 WPM. (The so-called WARC bands of 30, 17 and 12 meters are excluded from the contest, and I heard folks at lower speeds in those bands.)  Obviously, you need to know code well enough that you can use this for practice, but it doesn't hurt to listen to code that's faster than you're comfortable with.  A good thing about a contest as code practice is you can leave the radio on a guy that's sending too fast for you and know he's going to repeat his call again soon.  He'll repeat the whole exchange over and over. 

I should add that if you're trying to learn Morse code for the first time, you should be learning by sound, listening to letters that are sent too fast for you to count the dits and dahs, but spaced farther apart.  To learn five word per minute code (WPM) for a license test, for example, you'd use 15 WPM letters spaced far enough apart to make five WPM.  Whatever you do, don't do anything like the graphic meme I wrote about back in '16 when I first saw it.    

This is the description of the contest, an overview of the rules and requirements from the WA7BNM Contest Calendar (8-Day Calendar View) that shows what you need to know to play in this contest.

Just like the voice (SSB) version of the contest last March, the contest exchange is simple.  You'll give each other a signal report (it's really unusual to hear or send anything other than "599" - usually sent as "5NN") and either your state or province (if you're in Canada) or the operating power if you're in another country.  Let me modify the exchange I used last year for CW:

A contest exchange might be as short as this:

The abbreviation BK is sent as one continuous sound (dahdidididahdidah) interpreted as either "BREAK" or "BACK (to you)." The Q signals were referenced last year, too.  Need a refresher (pdf)?

I figure there might be two of you out there who would find this interesting, so there you go: a post on actually operating in a CW contest.

Friday, February 18, 2022

European Space Agency to Start a Manned Space Program?

This past Wednesday (Feb. 16), the European Space Agency held a space summit conference in Toulouse, France, to discuss its long range plans for topics such as space exploration and addressing climate change.  

Before the summit began, a group of European astronauts who have flown into space on vehicles from other countries issued a manifesto (.pdf) calling for the agency to develop its own capability for manned spaceflight rather than depending on Russian or US rockets and capsules.  The first German astronaut was Sigmund Jähn back in 1978, who flew aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the Salyut 6 space station for a week.  More relevantly, two Europeans flew on both the Crew-2 and Crew-3 missions to the International Space Station: Matthias Maurer on Crew-3 and Thomas Pesquet on Crew-2.  Relevant because both praised the Crew Dragon vehicle's smooth spaceflight as well as the reusable nature of the rocket and both were involved in the manifesto.  

Released publicly on Wednesday, the document says that European leaders must soon decide whether the continent will accelerate its efforts to remain in the "leading ranks" of spacefaring nations.

"While Europe is still at the forefront of many space endeavors, such as Earth observation, navigation, and space science, it is lagging in the increasingly strategic domains of space transportation and exploration," the manifesto states. "Europe’s Gross Domestic Product is comparable to that of the United States’, but its joint investment in space exploration does not reach even one tenth of NASA’s.  

As of now, Russia has the Soyuz crew vehicle, China has the Shenzhou spacecraft, and NASA has SpaceX's Crew Dragon. In the coming two years, India is planning to demonstrate a manned launch system to low Earth orbit.  In principle, in addition to the Crew Dragon, NASA also has Boeing's Starliner capsule - currently scheduled to fly No Earlier Than this May.  We can also add the Orion capsule that tops the Space Launch System, which is currently expected to conduct its first test flight this summer, as well.  The US could potentially have four manned launch vehicles within two years, counting Starship. 

The manifesto continues:

"If we miss this unique chance to challenge the status quo, we will have to continue procuring human space transportation from other actors, with no guarantees that our needs and values will be a priority," the manifesto states. "We will be paying customers in a position of weakness, repeating the mistakes of the past in other strategic domains, which left us dependent on external players for our energy requirements or Information Technology development. Our inaction would further impact European industrial competitiveness: European taxpayers’ money would be used to advance industrial competitors from abroad."

They picked a good time to bring this forward.  The ESA has a new new director-general, Josef Aschbacher, and he's pushing for more ambitious programs.  Since those astronauts behind the manifesto technically work for him, it's entirely possible he's using them as the great PR assets astronauts tend to be and this is all his idea. 

As always, the arguments against doing this come down to "what's in it for me" among the different member states.  Developing a manned system is expensive and time consuming; is it really the smartest use of funds?  What launch vehicle would they use?  The Ariane 6, something else already in the fleet, or do they need to develop something new?  Who would develop the capsule itself?  How long in development are we talking?  Five years?  Ten?  

The Crew-3 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon capsule a few days before the launch.  SpaceX photo.  The launcher and capsule were designed separately, not as a launcher/capsule system; neither took 10 years.   

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Update on SpaceX KSC Progress

Yesterday and today, SpaceX's Starbase at Boca Chica did cryogenic tests on Starship SN20.  I would assume that since the ship has been tested a few times, including a static fire with all six engines, that the ship wasn't the emphasis of the tests, but rather the hundreds of yards of cryogenic fuel and oxidizer lines that have been installed or moved in the last few months.  As best as we can tell without a formal announcement from SpaceX or Musk, both tests went without a hitch.  

Meanwhile, skipping over the entire Gulf of Mexico and going to the east coast of Florida, the second Starship launch facility being built onto the property around Pad 39A is progressing.  The story of the Florida Starbase actually goes back to 2019, when work was begun.  There was progress on building an early version of an Orbital Launch Mount, but around the end of '19 (bottom half of that piece) is when Starship operations shifted entirely to Texas and the facility in Cocoa (on the mainland across from the KSC) was shut down.  

The area has been difficult to observe, since it's not as open to outsiders as the area around Boca Chica. 

Since then, save for occasional long-distance aerial views, it’s been almost impossible to document progress but views from SpaceX webcasts of Falcon 9 launches out of Pad 39A have shown that the company is mostly focused on preparing foundations. However, in early February 2022, a flyover of a different SpaceX KSC facility revealed the first clear signs of preparation for pad hardware assembly.

The facility that refers to is a SpaceX property on Roberts Road, along the northern limits of the Kennedy Space Center.  

As Marcus House is a photographer who sells his work via Twitter, I'm reluctant to copy his photographs for use here, but between Marcus and Zack Golden (@CSI_Starbase) you can look at far more photographs on Twitter than I could include here.  

Another interesting place to look is at Harry Stranger on Twitter.  He reports:

SpaceX has submitted plans for Roberts Road West that includes a 320,000 sq ft (29,728  sq m) proposed building, with a 192,000 sq ft (17,837 sq m) future proposed building expansion.

Also included are two 20.4k sq ft (1895 sq m) proposed buildings.

That's 512,000 square feet - not including the two smaller buildings.  The article on Teslarati concludes with this hopeful, optimistic view:

In the last week, satellite imagery indicates that SpaceX has begun to level the unfinished portion of Roberts Road, likely paving the way for the start of foundation work in the near future. All things considered, it remains to be seen if SpaceX will truly replicate Starbase, Boca Chica at Kennedy Space Center or – much like how the company systematically upgrades its rockets – if the new Starship factory will represent a block upgrade with a wide range of improvements and refinements. Regardless, it won’t be long before Starbase East and the first of several East Coast Starship launch towers begin to take shape. 

Several East Coast Starship launch towers?   Like these?  Towers as in plural?  I can hardly wait. 

As the photo says, source is and photo by BocaChicaGal.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Another Day Got By Me

An odd mix of overcoming some hurdles getting my NanoVNA working properly with its various supporting software pieces, and fixing some junk around the house, and the next thing I know, it's too late to come up with a topic.  So... some lame attempts at humor:

I didn't get this one for several seconds:

Something I've never seen put into quite these words, but is brilliant.

From our department of Things That Don't Make Any Sense, they'll put that magic word (Keto) on anything to try to sell it.


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

I Think They Call This a Slow News Day

Slow if you're not following the political drama.  Last week, the SpaceX facility at Boca Chica stacked booster B4 and Starship S20 for the third time, long enough for Elon Musk's talk with the dramatically huge stack ("largest rocket ever built") behind him.  This screen capture is from the next morning.

Yesterday, they de-stacked them again, moving S20 down onto one of their vehicle carriers. (Video version here). 

As we always do, observers started speculating that SpaceX is finally getting ready to static fire B4, perhaps firing up all 29 engines at once rather than starting with a smaller number.  Fueling that speculation (pun intended) was that over the last few days, SpaceX has had multiple liquid methane deliveries to their storage tank farm for the first time.  That article, from yesterday, includes a link to a six week old Twitter thread by a guy who claims to have oil and gas industry experience who simply blasts the way SpaceX built their tank farms.  They seem to have fixed many of the things he pointed out as bad or forbidden practices in the industry.  The Twitter thread (by Zack Golden) is worth at least skimming if you're interested in the details. 

A road closure had been scheduled for 10AM to 10PM local (CST) time today, so I opened a tab in the background to see if I could see anything.  That road closure was cancelled during the afternoon, so no tests today.  I expect them to roll S20 away from that position before they'd light B4.  It's not as close as it looks, that's the camera forcing perspective, but it's still kind of close. Road closures are scheduled Wednesday through Friday; the first two are also 10A to 10P, while Friday's backup closure is 6A to 4P.

There has been no announcement of an expected test or set of tests or when the first might be attempted.  Having said that, it's still possible some sort of new tests could start this week.

After seeing several reports that the FAA is delaying their approval, I went to the FAA Environmental Assessment Permitting Dashboard and can verify the earliest date for the release of approval for SpaceX to launch from Boca Chica is now March 28, slipped one more month from February 28th.

I don't think the first Starship orbital launch is likely to be immediately after March 28th, but before July seems possible. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Private Manned Spaceflight Taking A More Serious Turn

If you talk to most people, the concept out there of private citizens in space is pretty much "billionaires flaunting their money and showing off."  That's the impression of the Blue Origin New Shepard suborbital flights, and I've seen at least a dozen cartoons from different artists riffing on that idea. 

On the other side, there wasn't much said about the Inspiration4 mission last fall and I've seen nobody making fun of it or even acknowledging it. This was largely a philanthropic mission, raising a quarter of a billion dollars for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and their fight against childhood cancer. That mission was largely funded by Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of Shift4, an  integrated payment processing company.  

Today, Isaacman and SpaceX announced a partnership to do this sort of thing over again; the Polaris Program.  Combined with an already-announced partnership with Axiom Space, they currently represent six manned Crew Dragon missions with the first launch No Earlier Than the fourth quarter of this year.  That mission has been named Polaris Dawn and is a Jared Isaccman-led crew. 

[T]he mission will be Crew Dragon’s second free-flyer mission after Inspiration4, meaning that the spacecraft will fly on its own for the full five-day duration. That gives SpaceX and the Polaris team far more freedom, freedom that they plan to take advantage of.

SpaceX aspires for Polaris Dawn to be the highest Earth orbit humans have traveled to since the 1960s and the furthest humans have been from the planet since the 1970s. NASA’s Apollo missions, which sent humans to the Moon, hold the all-time record, which Polaris Dawn will barely scratch the surface of. But in Earth orbit, the record – 1368 kilometers (850 mi) – was set by Gemini XI in September 1966.

The mission is to be a combination of medical research and doing new things that either just aren't done or haven't been done in decades.  One those is to test an EVA-rated spacesuit developed by SpaceX by taking a spacewalk in one. 

At approximately 500 kilometers above the Earth, the crew will attempt the first-ever commercial extravehicular activity (EVA) with SpaceX-designed extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits, upgraded from the current intravehicular (IVA) suit. Building a base on the Moon and a city on Mars will require thousands of spacesuits; the development of this suit and the execution of the EVA will be important steps toward a scalable design for spacesuits on future long-duration missions.

I remembered reading about SpaceX saying they'd do alternate spacesuits last summer, but I didn't remember the money quote.  

NASA had been working to develop a new EVA suit since 2007 and "With $420M spent and another $625M expected, suits won't be "ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest." 

2007 to 2025?  Eighteen years and over a billion dollars to develop a suit?  SpaceX's design will be ready for that "first-ever commercial EVA" by the fourth quarter when Polaris Dawn launches. 

Polaris Dawn crew, (L-R) Anna Menon, Mission Specialist & Medical Officer; Scott “Kidd” Poteet, Pilot;  Jared “Rook” Isaacman; Sarah Gillis, Mission Specialist.  Isaccman and Poteet are both executives at Shift4 as well as extremely qualified pilots; Gillis and Menon are both engineers with SpaceX on the manned spaceflight side.  More detailed biographies on the four at the bottom of the mission page

Sunday, February 13, 2022

It's Apparently Not a Falcon 9 That's Going to Hit The Moon

About three weeks ago, a report surfaced that a large chunk of space debris had been predicted to hit the moon in March, and that piece of junk had been identified as the upper stage of a Falcon 9, tracked to a mission in 2015, called DSCOVR, NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory.  

For a variety of reasons (I think) the press went gonzo over this story.  As Eric Berger at Ars Technica writes:

This story set off a firestorm of media activity. Much of this coverage criticized SpaceX for failing to properly dispose of the second stage of its Falcon 9 rocket after the launch of NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory mission, or DSCOVR, in 2015. The British tabloids, in particular, had a field day. Even the genteel European Space Agency tut-tutted, noting that it takes care to preserve enough fuel to put spent rocket stages into stable orbits around the Sun.

Why did they jump on the story?  In no particular order, the idea that a man-made object, a rocket upper stage in particular, is going to hit the moon and it will "gain one more crater" (as the European Space Agency put it) is dramatic, headline material.  On top of that, it's being considered at least to be a screw-up, and if not that at least "uncool," to have not put the upper stage into an escape orbit so it can't add that crater.  Then there's the matter that it's a SpaceX screw-up, the company in the news regularly, who just happens to be headed by not just one of those yucky, awful, billionaires, but the richest and most famous of them all.  If you're the typical, borderline communist, industrial news media, kind of person (but I repeat myself), this is a story you just can't resist.  

Along the way of the intervening weeks, science worked as it's supposed to.  The guy who made the initial observations, and originally concluded it was that Falcon 9 upper stage, had invited any of the community of astronomers who like to track such things to check his work.  He's Bill Gray at Project Pluto.  Out in the audience was an engineer from JPL named Jon Giorgini, who saw it and thought the ultimately most important thought in all of science research: "that's funny."  Now JPL doesn't track space junk, but they do track objects like the DSCOVR satellite.  He was able to look at its orbit and thought there's no way a rocket putting that satellite into that orbit should leave the rocket where this is being reported.

He wrote to Gray on Saturday morning explaining that the DSCOVR spacecraft's trajectory did not go particularly close to the Moon, and that it would therefore be a little strange if the second stage strayed close enough to strike it. This prompted Gray to dig back into his data, and identify other potential candidates. 

Gray thinks he's found what it really is now, and has posted a correction.  He has concluded it's a Chinese Long March 3C upper stage from the Chang'e 5-T1 mission launched earlier than DSCOVR: in October 2014.  

Bear in mind, this is just as much a case built on "circumstantial evidence" as thinking it was that Falcon 9 stage, but Gray says that based on his work, as well the work of the other people who supplied information, he's more comfortable with this identification than the SpaceX upper stage. 

Whichever it is, it's going to hit the far side of the moon on Mar 4 at 12:25 UTC.  Because of it being on the far side, it won't be visible from Earth, and while there are satellites on the moon that can measure seismic events like that impact, I haven't read of anyone claiming they'll be able to get pictures of video of it.  Gray points out it will be local noon when the object crashes, so it's a pity nothing is there to get good resolution pictures of it.  He posts this image of the location of impact on the far side.  At the green X. 

He also adds this entertaining note (emphasis added):

Quite a bit of data came in between 2022 Feb 5 and 9, as the object came back close to the earth and passed over the earth's night side. As expected, the object was not entirely on the predicted trajectory; as seen in the sky, the difference was roughly the size of a golf ball seen a mile away. However, it was enough to revise the prediction to land a few kilometers east and a few seconds before the above prediction, and a pixel or two to the right of the green 'X' on the map below.

I wonder if the corporate press will jump over to the story most likely being a Chinese Long March upper stage as quickly as they did when they thought it was a SpaceX rocket. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Still Looking at the Sunspot Cycle Data

Since the last solar cycle update I posted a month ago, interesting data continues to come in. The questions aren't being resolved, but the best thing I can say about it is that these guys are practicing real science.  They post their predictions and their data, essentially saying, "show me where I'm wrong" and try to improve their methods.  It's a sure sign there's no money it, compared to climate science or the Covid policy bosses.  

In that post (among others), I've mentioned Dr. Scott McIntosh, the leader of a group that has been predicting cycle 25 will be rather active.  I came across this plot two weeks later, around the end of January.  You'll note he's one of the authors of the talk this plot comes from.

It's a busy graph but the first the key feature to note is the black zigzag line, which is the observed monthly mean sunspot number.  It's based on the rather light green very jiggly line - the raw daily sunspot numbers.  After that, note the light blue band with the dark blue line it; the band is the NOAA - NASA prediction for cycle 25.  The median of the predictions in that band and shifted earlier in time six months is the dark blue line.  The red lines/band are McIntosh's.  The dark green line is the mean of every solar cycle since 1750.  It appears the observed cycle 25 sunspot numbers are looking more like the upper end of the NOAA/NASA predictions or maybe into McIntosh's.  The last few months' peak to peak variation of the black curve looks like it's quite a bit higher than the blue band.  Cycle 25 is looking pretty good.

A few days later, I ran into this plot which has a very different feel to it.  This is from Space Weather News, a site affiliated with the Suspicious 0bservers channel we talked about last week.

I jokingly refer to this as my "ham radio autobiography" because these are smoothed sunspot plots of every solar cycle since 1976, the year I got my first ham license.  You'll note that almost without exception every data point of every cycle is lower than its predecessor since 1976. 

Now look closely at the bottom left corner.  See that light gray line that's just barely above the light purple line?  It's not above it all the time; sometimes it's the same level.  That gray line is cycle 25 and the purple line is 24, the previous cycle, known to be the weakest cycle in a hundred years. 

Cycle 25 isn't looking so hot is it?  Yes, it's looking a teeny bit better than the last cycle, but that's just not saying much.  It's the second weakest cycle since 1976 and is far less active than '76's cycle 21. Remember, cycle 24 wasn't just weaker than cycles 21-23, it was the weakest since 1913. 

Finally, an interesting story in the American Radio Relay League's weekly propagation report by Tad Cook, K7RA, dated February 7th.  Tad covers a comment by Dr. Ron Turner of ANSER Research Institute in Virginia, via Dr. Turner thinks it may be too early to expect a strong Solar Cycle 25 based on the early the measurements we have so far.

"Solar Cycle 25 is doing something interesting. It is mimicking old Solar Cycle 24 (SC24).

"I took sunspot numbers from the early years of SC24 (the red dashed line) and overlaid them on SC25," says Turner. "They're an almost perfect match."

"This is significant because Solar Cycle 24 went on to become the weakest solar cycle in a century. Its hot start did not lead to a strong maximum. Turner isn't saying that Solar Cycle 25 will likewise be a dud. But, rather, "these early sunspot numbers are not enough to guarantee a strong cycle."

What's it going to be?  Clearly nobody knows.  Scott McIntosh's group's prediction is still the outlier with virtually all the other predictions closer to saying 25 will be most similar to 24, not one of the strongest, and solar activity well below the mean of every sunspot cycle since 1750.  

I'd like to see the solar activity higher than 24, and that simply doesn't seem to be asking much.  "It doesn't have to equal the strongest, just be stronger than the weakest cycle in a hundred years." 


Friday, February 11, 2022

Our Annual Pilgrimage to Orlando

I guess I shouldn't call it an annual pilgrimage since it wasn't held last year; but that was because of 'rona, like 99% of everything else cancelled last year.  This weekend is the annual Orlando hamfest.  It was our 40th annual visit to the hamfest, and like every year since I retired, we went over today rather than the most crowded day (Saturdays).  It has been cool here, but warmed into the mid '70s as the day went by; I wore a short-sleeved fishing shirt and was comfortable all day.  By the time the temperature got into that "the sun is not your friend" range, clouds came along and kept it comfortable.

As I've said before the Orlando HamCation (real name) is now commonly referred to as the second largest in the world only behind Dayton's Hamvention (which is only Dayton in name - it's held in Xenia, Ohio).  Dayton tends to be the one where major products are announced.  Dayton, though, was cancelled both in '21 and '20, so while they're expecting to hold the Hamvention this year, they're out of practice. 

We were out of practice, too.  The last time we went to Orlando, we bought our tickets by mail.  In the past, we'd get an email that the show was coming and the way to get tickets was to send an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) and a check.  We'd send it around the Christmas-New Year's week and the tickets would be here within two weeks.  This year, we went looking for the email around Christmas and it wasn't there.  A check of the website showed that there was a new procedure.  We had to order the tickets online and pick them up at a special office at the east end of the property where the 'fest was held.

I admit to being uncomfortable with the routine, but it went well.  Parking is always packed at the HamCation and we were directed to a place just about as far from that office we needed to get to as one could be and still be on the property.  Thankfully, they had guys with oversized golf carts giving people lifts everywhere and one of them gave us a lift to that office.  They had our tickets and everything went without a hitch.  

Think of this as a stock photo, except I took it a few years ago. That's the north room of the Central Florida Fairgrounds where most of the smaller businesses and individuals rent tables, and the most obvious feature is the table full of used laptops.  The tables full of used laptops were back (although in different places). 

As I've said about other years, these are turning into uninteresting things, and that's a bit sad to say.   I rush to add that my interests in radio tend toward the unconventional, so it's not really surprising that I'd find the same 40 or 50 (or more) year old radios that I see every year not particularly interesting.  If you have a shopping list of things you need, they can be great places to get that special part.  

I did pick up one thing; there's a rather popular piece of test equipment called a NanoVNA**, a clever way of making a Vector Network Analyzer at previously impossibly low prices.  A VNA was always pretty much the most essential piece of test equipment I worked with since the first time I saw one, in about '86.  I've mentioned many times before that I frequently use an antenna analyzer for working on my antennas.  There are two issues with the one I have, neither of which has been insurmountable but were leading me to think of alternatives.  First is that my analyzer is obsolete and no longer available. Software updates have continued for it, but chances are pretty good that if anything happens to it, it's irreplaceable.  Second is that it only goes to the 2 meter ham band (well slightly higher - 160 MHz, I think).  An antenna analyzer is a one-port VNA; the NanoVNA is a two-port which means you can align or test filters or other circuits with an input and output connector.  Oh, and it's rated to around 10 times the frequency of the one port.  At the moment, the new NanoVNA overcomes both drawbacks of my AIM4170 and looks like a good path forward.

Other than that little purchase, running into friends and catching up with people whom we see yearly or less often ends up being what the hamfest is mostly about.  

02-23-22 at 1115 AM EST Edit to add this:

**  A comment from AndrewG says that the asterisked link is not official, and the official website is here at NanoVNA V2 Official Site.  I will note that the analyzer I bought does not look exactly like either VNA published on that second site, the connector position is very different, so I don't even know if it applies to what I bought.  Mine looks like the one on the site originally published above. 

Since I have nothing to conclusively show me that one site is more official than the other, I've added AndrewG's link here.  This may be relevant only to NanoVNAs claiming to be Version 2 (V2), which mine doesn't claim to be.  As always, and doubly always when dealing with Chinese clones, "caveat emptor" - buyer beware.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Astra's First Florida Launch Fails

It wasn't visible from the ground, but I missed it anyway (forgot it was at 3:00 PM and went grocery shopping - d'oh!).  

The online magazine Techcrunch has the story that other sites don't have yet.    

According to the company, the rocket encountered an issue during flight that meant it didn’t get a chance to deliver any of its payloads to their target destination. That means NASA’s four CubeSats on board will be lost. Astra was awarded this contract under NASA’s Launch Services Program, and it was intended to show the efficacy of a low-cost alternative light load rocket delivery to space for small payloads.

While I missed it in real time, I later watched the launch on NASA Spaceflight's video feed (note: that video starts almost an hour before launch - you can literally grab the slider and skip the first 59 minutes of the video).   When the first stage cut out, the video downlink was two screens and one looked like it shook but didn't do what it was supposed to.  Within a couple of seconds the video changed and the announcer said the stage separation and fairing jettison went on schedule.  It still didn't look right and they lost the video slightly thereafter. 

That's about all the details available right now.

Image source:  Astra / John Kraus

As we've all said many times: space is hard; orbit is harder.  Astra has made orbit once. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Why Did Last Week's Solar Storm Take out SpaceX's Batch of Starlink Satellites?

By now, the story has gotten around that last Thursday's Starlink mission was struck by a geomagnetic or solar storm on Friday and 40 of the 49 satellites (at last update) were lost as result.  Most coverage focuses on what happened, which is fine.  To me, a better question is why did it happen.

Let me recap the what.  Yesterday's updates on the update sub-page to SpaceX's launches page has the best summary of what happened.  The essence goes like this;

Thursday's launch put the satellites into the desired orbit, with the perigee (lowest point) of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth (130 miles), and each satellite achieved controlled flight. This approach is risky for SpaceX; the satellites are there just long enough to be checked out, but they feel it's better for everyone sharing orbital space to do it this way.  Satellites that pass the checkout fire their onboard ion thrusters to raise their orbit to the desired altitude.  Any that fail their checkout are allowed to re-enter the atmosphere, burning up completely.  The unexpected part was that on Friday, the solar storm stuck. 

The storm heated the upper atmosphere, causing it to expand upward, which then caused the drag on the satellites to increase.  SpaceX reported that their onboard GPS suggested the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches.  The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively “take cover from the storm”—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars. 

The thing is, this was not a strong solar storm.  There are several ways solar storms like this are monitored, two of the most common and widely available are called the A and K indices (pdf).  They're both measurements of geomagnetic activity, taken differently and so they have different scales.  A very common way to track activity is what's referred to as the Planetary K index, abbreviated Kp. I was able to find the relevant chart in a video that I have more to say about, but first the chart:

The storm that disabled the satellites is marked by the two red bars toward the right on February 4th.  The bars are three hours wide, which helps you visualize the storm's duration.  You'll note an almost identical storm the day before, roughly 0900 to 1200 UTC on the third, which was the night before and morning of the launch. 

The point to emphasize here is that Kp for the storm maxed out at five.  The scale is 0 to 9, but solar storms that raise Kp to five are roughly once a week to once every few weeks events.  During sunspot peaks, I recall days with the Kp at eight or nine for longer periods and in that red (> 4)  color for 24 hours or more.  Further, in the video that graph is from, the narrator says he knows SpaceX has launched into storms this strong before without this kind of trouble.  Which brings us back to the question of why.  

The video is from a YouTube channel that puts together some interesting stuff under the name Suspicious 0bservers (note the zero, not "O"), run by a guy named Ben Davidson.  He's frankly hard to describe, but I think the term he'd use is that he's a catastrophist; he sees evidence for periodic or cyclic catastrophes that appear in history over and over.  Sort of the geological/astronomical equivalent of the people who see history as Kondratiev Waves, Elliot Waves or First through Fourth Turnings. 

One of the topics he talks about often is the wandering magnetic poles we're seeing and our weakening magnetic field.  That's his explanation for why this mission was affected more than others.  I have a hard time with that because while it's well established that there has been a lot of pole movement in the last 20 years, and our magnetic field has weakened, why didn't other missions have the same problem?  If similar solar storms in the last couple of years didn't lead to loss of the satellites, what (if anything) does that say about how much weaker the field has become?   Is it half as strong? 90% as strong?  Down to 1/10 as strong? 

My disappointing conclusion is that I can't answer why.  There have been roughly three dozen launches of Starlink satellites and roughly 1,900 in orbit now.  Granted the last four years have been pretty low in solar activity, but if Davidson is right about them launching in similar solar storms on prior missions, something different happened this time.  Maybe it was some perfectly wrong flicker of the magnetic field or the solar storm that hasn't been documented.  Not knowing what caused it is bound to cause heartburn in the folks deciding if they'll launch under these conditions.