Tuesday, October 31, 2023

First Big Test for NASA's Lucy Satellite Wednesday Afternoon ET

Just over two years ago, October 16 of 2021, NASA's Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter launched on its 12 year mission to the main asteroid belt before traveling to the L4 and L5 points; those gravitationally stable Lagrange points behind and ahead of Jupiter in its orbit where the Trojan asteroids are found. 

This plot, from the Southwest Research Institute shows a rather complicated looking mission trajectory for Lucy, but it oversimplifies the real path. Notice the text at the top that says, "Frame rotating with Jupiter?"  That means they created this view by fixing Jupiter's position, but during the 12 years of the mission, Jupiter and both groups of Trojan asteroids will complete a little more than one full orbit around the sun.  Assuming this is all rotating clockwise around a point near the sun (if not in the sun), in a fraction of those years, the L4 Trojans will be where the L5 are shown, the L5 Trojans will be in lower left hand side of the orbit, Earth will have completed a few complete orbits and everything else will also have rotated around that center point.

Not to get too distracted by the orbital mechanics, but on October 16 of '22, the one year anniversary of Lucy's launch, it completed a gravity assist maneuver, gaining speed in a flyby of Earth.  For just over a year, Lucy has been making a beeline for an intermediate target, and will be there Wednesday at 12:54 PM EDT, or 1654 UTC.  The mission will come to within 265 miles (425 km) of the small main belt asteroid Dinkinesh.

About an hour before the encounter, the spacecraft will begin attempting to lock on to the small asteroid so that its instruments are oriented toward it. This will allow for the best possible position to take data from Dinkinesh as Lucy speeds by at 10,000 mph (4,470 meters per second).

During this maneuver, Lucy's main antenna will be pointed away from Earth, so it will not be in communication with its operators at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. After the flyby, Lucy will reorient itself to reestablish communications with Earth through the Deep Space Network. Imagery and other data will be relayed back to Earth for several subsequent days.

On Oct. 28, the team sent the spacecraft what is known as the final knowledge update, a package of data with the most up to date information about the relative positions of the spacecraft and asteroid. This dataset is precise enough to guide the spacecraft for nearly all the half a million miles (800,000 km) that separated Lucy and Dinkinesh on Saturday the 28th

The ground team is quick to point out that when Lucy first tries to lock its terminal tracking system on the diminutive asteroid it may not be able to because of the asteroid's small size.  The system is not expected to “lock-on” to the asteroid until just a few minutes before closest approach. This system will autonomously reorient the spacecraft to keep the small asteroid within the field of view of the science instruments as the spacecraft zooms by at around 10,000 mph (4.5 m/s). This will be the first use of this terminal tracking system, and this flyby was designed to test the system in real spaceflight conditions.

Dinkinesh, which is nearly a kilometer across at its widest point, was discovered in 1999. It was unnamed when the Lucy mission targeted it for its first flyby as a test of the tracking system, en route to the Jovian trojan asteroids later this decade. So, Lucy mission scientists proposed the name Dinkinesh, the Ethiopian name for the Lucy fossils.

The name was approved earlier this year by the International Astronomical Union.

Before Lucy gets to either of the two swarms of Trojan asteroids, it will fly by another main belt asteroid in 2025 called Donaldjohanson for additional in-flight tests of the spacecraft systems and procedures.

Artist's concept rendering of Lucy flying by an asteroid.  Image credit NASA. 

You may recall that shortly after the mission began, they experienced a failure of those solar panels to deploy and latch open properly.  I had mentally filed away that the problem was solved, the arrays were properly deployed, latched and all that.  That's wrong.  The array they were having problems with never fully deployed properly, but was operating at about 90% of the planned power output.  While catching up on the mission to prepare this, I found that this January they said:

NASA’s Lucy mission team has decided to suspend further solar array deployment activities. The team determined that operating the mission with the solar array in the current unlatched state carries an acceptable level of risk and further deployment activities are unlikely to be beneficial at this time. The spacecraft continues to make progress along its planned trajectory.

UPDATE 11/1/2023 2145 EDT:  The word from NASA's Lucy mission blog is that "Lucy spacecraft has phoned home after its encounter with the small main belt asteroid, Dinkinesh. Based on the information received, the team has determined that the spacecraft is in good health and the team has commanded the spacecraft to start downlinking the data collected during the encounter."  They estimate it will take "up to a week" to download all the data.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Your Halloween Photo from Jupiter

NASA's Juno spacecraft snapped a wonderful picture from the high northern latitudes of Jupiter back on September 7th, a region called Jet N7.  

The photo was taken during Juno's 54th close flyby of Jupiter, from an altitude of about 4,800 miles (7,700 kilometers) and a latitude around 69 degrees north. The area photographed lies along Jupiter's terminator — the dividing line between the day and night sides of the planet — which is why the planet appears to fade into the dark background of space, NASA officials wrote in an image description.   

NASA released the spooky photo on Oct. 25, just in time to celebrate Halloween. The space agency compared the haunted view to a Cubist portrait, honoring the painter Pablo Picasso in the process.

"We present the @NASASolarSystem image to you on Oct. 25 — what would have been Picasso's 142nd birthday," NASA said in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Obviously looks like some sort of face, but like lying on your back in the grass and watching clouds overhead, if any intelligence is involved in creating the face, it's in the viewer, not the clouds.  Much like the "Face on Mars" or the claims of evidence for life discovered on the red planet that fills my YouTube feed.   

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Blue Origin Shows Off Moon Lander Mock-up

Blue Origin has unveiled a full-sized mock-up of the Blue Moon lander that will be a test platform for the lander it says will be ready to fly to the Moon within the next three years.  

In social media posts Oct. 27, the company showed images of the Blue Moon Mark 1 mockup, located at an engine manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Alabama. The lander is designed to deliver three tons of cargo to the lunar surface.

The first flight of Blue Moon Mark 1 will be what the company calls the “Pathfinder Mission,” designated MK1-SN001. “MK1-SN001 proves out critical systems, including the BE-7 engine, cryogenic fluid power and propulsions systems, avionics, continuous downlink communications, and precision landing,” the company stated on its website.

The first Blue Moon Mark 1 will be an uncrewed cargo designed for a single mission.  It's designed to deliver up to 3 metric tons of cargo anywhere on the lunar surface.  3000 kg is roughly 6600 pounds, here on the heavy end of a trip to the moon.  The company is developing the Mark 1 as a predecessor to the larger Mark 2 lander, which will ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface under contract to NASA. The agency selected Blue Origin as its second human-rated lunar lander contractor in May, alongside SpaceX.

“We’re building our landers, both our Mark 1 and our Mark 2, to enable global landing capability on the Moon, day or night," said John Couluris, senior vice president of lunar transportation at Blue Origin.

Under their $3.4 billion Human Landing System (HLS) contract with NASA, Blue's lunar lander will transport astronauts between the Gateway in lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon, and then back to the Gateway on the Artemis V mission. Their first mission is officially scheduled for no sooner than 2029, but is likely to slip into the 2030s.  

The first lunar landing mission, Artemis III, no sooner than 2025, and the second lunar landing, no sooner than 2026 are well before the Blue Moon Mark 2.  Those two will be using SpaceX's Human Landing System (HLS) version of the Starship. If HLS is ahead of Blue Origin's lunar lander, it's arguably not by much.  Starship has yet to make orbit, although its one failed Integrated Flight Test is one more than Blue Origin's New Glenn has attempted. Before HLS can fly to the moon, "penciled in" for NEXT YEAR, SpaceX will have to get refueling on orbit working reliably.

Blue Origin's HLS architecture is similar to that of SpaceX in that it also requires refueling in space. But Blue Moon uses liquid hydrogen as a fuel, while SpaceX's Starship burns liquid methane. Blue Origin will also launch its landers aboard the company's New Glenn rocket, which is not expected to launch until late next year at the earliest. For each human-rated lander mission, Blue Origin needs three New Glenn launches—one to send the lander to an orbit around the Moon, then two more launches to carry parts for a Lockheed Martin-built refueling tug to fill the lander's tanks in lunar orbit.

I believe it takes two Starship launches full of fuel, to fill the Starship refueling station that stays on orbit and will be used to fuel HLS.  Two trips to fuel one because some fuel is needed to get the Starship to orbit.

There's much that needs to be done to get to the moon with the indirect system being used.  Blue Origin's use of liquid hydrogen brings with it several problems.  Hydrogen has been known as a good fuel for decades, but no one has solved how to keep it cryogenic for long periods.  Its shelf life in space has historically been measured in hours, not days, weeks, or months. Blue Origin has agreements with NASA to develop cryogenic fluid management and fluid transfer technology.  That strikes me as inventing the wheel as a step to saying you'll be making cars in a few years. 

Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson pose in front of the mock-up of Blue Moon Mark 1.  Image credit: NASA. 

NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems development Jim Free said the focus for Artemis 3 should not be on SpaceX's HLS alone, citing work needed on Orion, which will fly with a docking ring for the first time on that mission, the Artemis/SLS system itself, and the new spacesuits being developed by Axiom Space.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

How to Become a Famous Scientist - Just Use This One Simple Trick

I write about junk science fairly often.  There seem to be two main reasons for that.  First, it's one of my favorite topics, but behind that is the fact that there would be far less to write about if it weren't for the fact that we appear to be in the Golden Age of Junk Science.  There is far more junk science than at any point in my lifetime - or maybe I just notice it more, but don't think about that.  

Examples?  A recent example that leapt off the page at me and gathered a lot of attention is Harvard researchers have announced that eating red meat just twice a week causes diabetes.  But SiG, I hear you thinking, that's not what that headline says.  It says "may."  Yes, but junk science always uses those "hedge your bets words" like could, might, may, should and so on.  That way they never can be held accountable for misleading the world.  "We never said it would cause diabetes, we said it may.  We didn't say what the percentage chance was because we need more funding to find that out.  (Ooo! They win twice in that disclaimer!) 

Like virtually all of the food correlations you read about, they depend on Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQs) which are notoriously unreliable.  Legendarily unreliable in fact.  FFQs have survey questions like, "list what you had for lunch in March of '22" (usually multiple choice) 

But that's not all. An honest assessor of papers like this, Dr. Zoë Harcombe, Ph.D. in Public Nutrition, did a must-read analysis of the study, but we don't always get that.  A few money quotes:

  • This makes no sense. Diabetes is essentially the inability to handle glucose. Meat contains no glucose. Carbohydrates contain glucose. My immediate thought was – don’t blame the burger for what the bun, fries and fizzy drink did. 
  • The definition of red meat included sandwiches and lasagna.  Lasagna is red meat?  It's only red from the tomato sauce covering it.  You just can't see that because of noodles covering it.
  • As if FFQs aren't bad enough, the serving sizes have changed since the original Food Frequency Questionnaires
  • Total red meat was claimed to have a higher risk than both processed red meat and unprocessed red meat. Total red meat is the sum of the other two. It can’t be worse than both.
  • The relative risk numbers grabbed the headlines; the absolute risk differences were a fraction of one per cent.

Since we don't get a column like Zoë's for every study, the takeaway message about studies like this is that "correlation doesn't mean causation."  All they can possibly find is correlation.  Second to that is to know that the lobbying group with largest impact on society has got to be the vegan lobby.  It’s good to realize that it's just the latest paper from the Harvard correlation study factory.  All their papers promote plants and condemn animal foods.  And all of it, every one I've ever seen, is junk.

The easiest place to find correlations is in climate research.  Have you seen a story about climate change doing something or other and thought, "climate change; is there nothing it can't do?"  Think correlations, not causation.  For example, Watts Up With That published a story this week that says climate change is causing more allergies.  

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) ran a segment during its local morning edition titled, “Climate change is contributing to an extended allergy season.”

The author's point is that it could be true, might even be a cause and effect relationship, but it's a negative consequence to something that's good for the world in general.  Some people will need to get more treatments, but that's not everyone (I'm one - I've had allergies since my teenage years).  By and large, allergies are treatable. 

Since correlation sells, I want to drop a simple idea that I haven't seen anywhere else.  Let's believe for the moment that global temperatures are increasing, and ignore the big questions that raises.  That means that anything else that can be found to be increasing in the time period in which temperatures are rising will be found to be directly correlated to climate change.  Conversely, anything that was found to be decreasing in time is inversely correlated to climate change.  Perhaps you could say climate change was endangering species.  Never mind.  That's been done.

In the first piece, instead of saying eating red meat causes diabetes, you can just as accurately say climate change causes diabetes.  The two things have increased in the world in the same time period.  Climate change causes microplastics in the Pacific ocean.  Without doing the research, I bet if you went back to the 1950s, let alone the late 1800s temperature reference period, you wouldn't find the word microplastics or even the concept.  Today, it's hard to go a week without seeing a microplastics story. 

Think of it!  No more need to waste time compiling fake data; if they're both increasing, one caused the other.  Food Frequency Questionnaires? Fuggedaboutit. Just ask the AI to fill it out or make it up completely.  You know people have been getting bigger and more obese in America.  It's going up, it may not go up exactly at the same slope as temperature (pictured below and far from constant) but it correlates with global temperatures so just say that climate change is causing people to get bigger and more obese.  Or red meat consumption. Your choice. If you find data that says vegetable consumption has gone up - ever notice "fruits and vegetables" has become one word, fruitsanvegetables? - you can conclude climate change caused it. You could conclude fruitsanvegetables consumption caused Americans to get bigger and fatter, but that'll get you cancelled.

University of Alabama Huntsville measure of the lower atmosphere temperature from 1979 to last month.  From Watts Up With That

Friday, October 27, 2023

Intuitive Machines Delays their Lunar Lander Mission

Intuitive Machines' IM-1 lunar lander mission has slipped from NET (No Earlier Than) November 16 until NET January 12.  A mission slipping out a couple of months is hardly news, especially a first mission from a startup.  The reason, though, is a bit unusual.  But let me start at the beginning, at an announcement from this past Tuesday, Oct 24. 

In a statement issued after the markets closed, the company said its IM-1 mission is now scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in a “multi-day” window that opens Jan. 12 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The mission had been scheduled to launch in a six-day window that opened Nov. 16.  [Note: more detailed description of the mission at that link, or the article here based on it. - SiG]

The issue has nothing to do with the lander itself.  It's due to how busy the launch facilities are.  The mission is flying on a Falcon 9, and they're almost as frequent and dependable as the municipal bus lines around here.  

The company did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay. However, executives warned at a media event Oct. 3 that “pad congestion” at LC-39A could delay their launch. The mission has to launch from that pad, rather than nearby Space Launch Complex 40, because only LC-39A is equipped to fuel the lander with methane and liquid oxygen propellants on the pad shortly before liftoff.

That pad is used for Falcon 9 crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station as well as Falcon Heavy launches. The pad is scheduled to host the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-29 cargo mission Nov. 5 followed by a Falcon Heavy mission for the Space Force in late November. Converting the pad between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches can take up to three weeks.

Most of you are aware that SpaceX has been duplicating facilities from LC-39A that are necessary for Dragon launches (both crew and cargo variants) at SLC-40.  While they seem to work faster than anyone else in the business, they're also interrupted more than anyone else in the business with their aggressive launch schedules and that project isn't done just yet.  To be complete, I'm not certain the ability to load propellants like they need is going to be available at SLC-40 either.  

There has been an undercurrent showing up in various news sources that the pace of launches all across the US is stretching launch capabilities everywhere: Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, Virginia, all of it.  Last Saturday, Oct. 21, a SpaceX launch broke last year's all time record number of launches in one calendar year from the Cape, with 10 Saturdays left in the year (1/1/24 is on a Monday).

The Nova-C lander built by Intuitive Machines seen during a media day Oct. 3 for the upcoming IM-1 mission. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

ULA Announces Christmas Eve target for Vulcan Centaur first launch 

While SpaceX has targeted approximately 20 more launches just from Cape Canaveral for calendar '23, dates aren't sure enough for us to say that's it for the year and we're looking at well over 90 launches for the year.  If everything listed at NextSpaceflight.com were to launch, I think they'd get more like 110 launches.

 ULA announced this week that the first Vulcan Centaur launch has been set for Christmas Eve.  

In an interview with CNBC used to announce the launch date, Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, said the date is driven by the requirements of Peregrine. “We’re going to a part of the moon where they need very carefully controlled lighting conditions and they also have to stay in radio communication with the Deep Space Network,” he said. “When you put the two together, we get just a few days every month.”

It "just so happens" the first days they feel they can try for are December 24, 25 & 26.  There are more days in January, and judging by the phase of the moon probably around January 22, 23 & 24.  (The last day of both three day sets is the day before the full moon.)  The "Peregrine" that Bruno refers to is that this first Vulcan mission will be carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the moon.  There has been a race to be the first NASA CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) mission to land on the moon and Intuitive Machines moving from November to January appears to hand that opportunity back to Astrobotic's Peregrine.

EDIT 2202 EDT 10/27:  Thanks to first comment from Beans pointing out that I opened with a nonsense sentence that moved it from January 16 to January 12, not November 16 to Jan. 12.  That was a couple of sentences later. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

NASA's Next Flying Instrument in Space Might Be Very Different

I've written quite a bit about the Ingenuity helicopter now on Mars, including how the success of the little flying drone was impacting future missions.  Thanks to Space.com, I've come across a "next generation" flying drone, called Dragonfly, being worked on for a future mission to Saturn's moon Titan that might be flying in the not too distant future.  It's very different from Ingenuity.

One of the big problems in the design of Ingenuity was that Mars' atmosphere is very thin.  One source I've seen said flying on Mars is equivalent to flying at 100,000 feet here on Earth.  Ingenuity has never flown above 66 feet on Mars. By contrast, Titan, while smaller than Mars, has an atmosphere that's denser than ours, with a surface pressure 50 percent higher.  The combination of having lower surface gravity and denser atmosphere seems to make the task of flying on Mars easier.    

A section from a Space.com infographic on Titan.  Like many infographics, it's too "tall" to reproduce here. 

Dragonfly is going to differ from Ingenuity in an important way.  While the article doesn't describe it in any detail, it refers to the drone being a nuclear-powered, car-sized, eight propeller drone and provides this conceptual rendering of it. 

(Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

Testing is now underway on NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft, a nuclear-powered, car-sized aerial drone that will look for potential precursors to life on Saturn's moon, Titan. But before Dragonfly can take to the sky, NASA has to make sure it can withstand the moon's unique environment.


The lander will traverse Titan's nitrogen-rich atmosphere using four dual-coaxial rotors, but to ensure that these rotors can perform under such conditions, the Dragonfly team has conducted numerous tests at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, including operating the drone's rotors in an wind tunnel that can simulate the atmospheric conditions on Saturn's largest moon.

Dragonfly's main goal is to study the complex chemistry on Titan, the only moon or even planet known to have liquid on its surface.  Not water, but liquid ethane and methane falls like rain, forming lakes.  Equipped with cameras, sensors, and samplers, Dragonfly will investigate areas of Titan known to contain organic materials like those two and possible others.  Special interest is on regions where organic chemicals might have encountered liquid water beneath the moon's icy surface in the past.

Four Dragonfly test campaigns have [been] conducted: Two in a 14-by-22 foot subsonic tunnel, and another two at a 16-foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT). The subsonic tunnel is used to validate fluid dynamic models developed by mission scientists, while the variable-density heavy gas capability of the TDT is used to validate computer models in simulated atmospheric conditions Dragonfly will likely encounter on Titan.

The most recent testing, held in June, involved a half-scale Dragonfly model with hundreds of test runs, said Bernadine Juliano, APL's test lead for the project. 

"We tested conditions across the expected flight envelope at a variety of wind speeds, rotor speeds, and flight angles to assess the aerodynamic performance of the vehicle," Juliano said. "We completed more than 700 total runs, encompassing over 4,000 individual data points. All test objectives were successfully accomplished and the data will help increase confidence in our simulation models on Earth before extrapolating to Titan conditions."

Sounds like encouraging news. There was no mention of a mission name or date, and the few searches I tried didn't turn up anything. Since there's a long lead time for deep space missions like this, I'll SWAG that it will be in the 2030s.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Aces Longest Flight in 18 months

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, originally intended for five flights in early '21, has kept going.  Ingenuity is in that rare state where every flight is a record of some sort, even if only just the flight number.  Last week's flight, number 63, was particularly noteworthy.  

The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity conducted its 63rd Mars flight on Thursday (Oct. 19), covering 1,901 feet (579 meters) of ground in the process.

That was "its longest distance since Flight 25," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity's mission, said via X (formerly Twitter) on Monday (Oct. 23).

Flight 25, which occurred on April 8, 2022, covered 2,310 feet (704 m). That's the miniature helicopter's single-flight distance record, followed by 2,051 feet (625 m) on Flight 9 in July 2021, making flight 63 third place in ranking the flight distances. 

Flight stats taken from screen captures of JPL's Flight Log page.  

You'll note the duration was 142.6 seconds, height was 39 feet and speed was 14.1 mph.  The records in those categories are 169.5 seconds, 66 feet and 22.4 mph according to the flight log.  A rather long way of saying the only record was being the 63rd flight, but nothing else about it was record-setting. And that's just fine. 

Photo from Ingenuity on flight 63, in Jezero Crater.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

After Ingenuity's first five flights, aimed at proving it could actually fly in Mars' thin atmosphere, the little ship was given a mission. The 4 pound chopper is working as a scout for the life-hunting, sample-collecting, Perseverance rover mission.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

As Voyagers 1 and 2 turn 46, a software patch

Voyager 2 launched on August 20, with Voyager 1 following 16 days later on September 5, 1977, which means the two probes turned 46 just over a month ago.  Put another way, they entered the 46th year of their four year missions.  

Forty-six years in deep space have taken their toll on NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft. Their antiquated computers sometimes do puzzling things, their thrusters are wearing out, and their fuel lines are becoming clogged. Around half of their science instruments no longer return data, and their power levels are declining.

All that said, they are the farthest any objects from Earth mankind has gotten.  The backwards order of their launch with Voyager 2 starting out 16 days ahead of Voyager 1, and so being farther from Earth, was reversed early in the mission when Voyager 1 was given a shorter, more direct path to Jupiter and then Saturn while Voyager 2 was sent on path that would allow it to visit all four "gas giant" outer planets and the first human visits to Uranus and Neptune.  

Today, Voyager 1 is farthest from Earth, not quite 22-1/2 light hours from Earth, over 15 billion miles.  Voyager 2 is "just" 18.7 light hours.  This is only far compared to our day to day lives; the nearest stars are 4.3 light years away, closer to 37,700 light hours.  It will take the Voyager 1 over 77,000 years to get that far.  

Still, the lean team of engineers and scientists working on the Voyager program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are taking steps to eke out every bit of life from the only two spacecraft flying in interstellar space, the vast volume of dilute gas outside the influence of the Sun's solar wind.

"These are measures that we're trying to take to extend the life of the mission," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at JPL, in an interview with Ars.

Voyager's instruments are studying cosmic rays, the magnetic field, and the plasma environment in interstellar space. They're not taking pictures anymore. Both probes have traveled beyond the heliopause, where the flow of particles emanating from the Sun runs into the interstellar medium.

"These two spacecraft are still operating, still returning uniquely valuable science data, and every extra day we get data back is a blessing," Dodd said.

We know that spacecraft designers love redundancy - backup systems for everything.  Both Voyagers are out of backups and running "single-string."  Power is decreasing at about 4 Watts per year as their Radioisotope Thermal Generators' fuel is decaying with age.  Much of the two satellites has been turned off already.  Will they make it to 50 years?  For 46 years they've been one little piece of space rock or meteor away from death.  Same as today.  It's the slow decay of various parts that's the problem.  

Over the weekend, ground controllers at JPL planned to uplink a software patch to Voyager 2. It's a test before the ground team sends the same patch to Voyager 1 to resolve a problem with one of its onboard computers. This problem first cropped up in 2022, when engineers noticed the computer responsible for orienting the Voyager 1 spacecraft was sending down garbled status reports despite otherwise operating normally. It turns out the computer somehow entered an incorrect mode, according to NASA.

Managers wanted to try the patch on Voyager 2 before transmitting it to Voyager 1, which is flying farther from Earth, deeper into interstellar space. That makes observations of the environment around Voyager 1 more valuable to scientists.

During the SW development, the engineers developed a different way to use the spacecrafts' thrusters.  The thrusters fire occasionally to keep the high gain antenna pointed back at Earth and the buildup of hydrazine residue in the fuel lines is becoming problematic.  Engineers beamed up fresh commands to the spacecraft in the last few weeks to allow the probes to rotate slightly further in each direction before firing the thrusters.  This means the engines will make fewer but longer burns.  The issue there is the longer burns might make the residue problem worse,.

With these steps, engineers expect the propellant inlet tubes won't become completely blocked for at least five more years, and "possibly much longer," NASA said. There are other things engineers could try to further extend the lifetime of the thrusters.

“This far into the mission, the engineering team is being faced with a lot of challenges for which we just don’t have a playbook,” said Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist at JPL, in a statement. “But they continue to come up with creative solutions.”

The major subsystems of the Voyagers.  NASA/JPL-Caltech image.

The power decrease with aging has been planned for all along since it's a very predictable aging curve.  That aspect of aging is stable.  Earlier this year, engineers bypassed a voltage regulator on Voyager 2 to allow the spacecraft to draw on more power (there's always power loss in a voltage regulator). This means they expect that ground controllers won't have to shut off one of Voyager 2's five remaining science instruments until 2026, after previously expecting to deactivate one of the instruments this year. Dodd said ground teams will do the same with Voyager 1, which only has four active instruments, and therefore uses less power.

If you only look at the power situation, the Voyagers should make it until 2030, and maybe slightly longer, before the decay of the plutonium power source forces NASA to switch off all their science instruments.

"The transmitter takes about 200 watts of power, so once we get down to that level of power, that will be the end of the mission," Dodd said.

Even when they stop working, NASA's Voyagers will continue on to the stars.

"A lot of things could break before we run out of power," she told Ars. "Just like this thruster issue sort of popped up, there are a lot of other issues that could pop up and cause a mission to fail."

I've said before that I think of the Voyagers as the crowning accomplishment of NASA and among the coolest things ever done in human history.  I hope they make it to 50 years in 2027.  

Closing words to Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager. 

"They've overcome lots of issues, and the engineers have been very clever in overcoming those issues," Dodd said. "I think the focus now is let's get to 50 and have the biggest party we can."

Monday, October 23, 2023

Never Before Seen Anomalies in Solar Cycles in the 1600s

Records of aurora observations found in royal chronicles from Korea show that during the 'Maunder Minimum' between 1645 and 1715, the sun's solar cycles were much shorter than we see today.  During that period, recognized as among the coldest periods in the global temperature records and frequently called "the Little Ice Age", the solar cycles were eight years long, three years shorter than they are today (both numbers are averages - it's the difference that matters).   

An annotated section of the historical Korean texts that mentions auroras occurring during the Maunder Minimum. (Image credit: Yan et al. 2023)  

While difficult to read, by enlarging and rotating the original graphic from Space.com in my photo editor (Corel PSP, 2022), we can read (first rotated left 90 degrees) "Emperor Shunzi, third year, second lunar month, 23rd day [Apr 1646]".  The left side is longer and has to be read by rotating the above image right 90 degrees, "There were vapors like fire light in the S direction at night in the first watch and the second watch."

The reference to "vapors like fire light" is thought to refer to the appearance of auroras in the Western Pacific Anomaly, an area above Korea that produces regular red auroras despite being far from the magnetic poles. Unlike other auroras at the time, these light shows persisted despite a decrease in solar activity because the Earth's magnetic field is thinner in this region, which makes them a great proxy for solar cycle progression, the researchers wrote.

The Maunder Minimum, sometimes referred to as the Grand Solar Minimum, was a period of greatly reduced solar activity between 1645 and 1715 when sunspots "effectively disappeared," Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado who was not involved in the recent research, told Live Science in an email.

In the new study, published Oct. 3 in the journal AGU Advances, researchers analyzed historic auroral records from Korea and found that solar cycles during the Maunder Minimum were only eight years long on average — three years shorter than modern cycles.

The aurora records were part of three separate books, or chronicles, written on behalf of Korean kings that contained detailed daily reports of royal business, state affairs, weather and astronomical phenomena that occurred within the Korean peninsula between 918 and 1910, according to the 2021 study that first described them.

The circled area includes the Maunder minimum, and shows solar activity as small variations in the solar irradiance.  (Image credit: NASA/University of Colorado'/LASP Interactive Solar Irradiance Datacenter)  Note that total solar irradiance includes broad-spectrum daylight, and beyond into both infrared and ultraviolet.  It won't be exactly like plots of smoothed sunspot numbers or the 10.7 cm solar flux, but it will resemble them.

There is no current theoretical explanation for how things like the Maunder minimum happen, and this observation of the solar cycles being three years shorter is new information.  Perhaps it can help Dr. McIntosh and other solar physicists to develop models.  We've talked lots about solar cycles and particularly the predictions for this cycle (25) on this blog, and even the cycle before that, which was starting in the early days of this blog.  There have been many people predicting we might be heading toward another grand solar minimum, but cycle 25 has been stronger than the consensus predictions and Dr. McIntosh was one of the first to predict that.  It also appears to be peaking earlier than the predictions.  Could that be an early indication of the cycles getting shorter? 

All humanity can do is observe.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sometimes the Shop is a Silly Place

You know that saying, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?"  It's sorta like that.  When you have a machine that's accurate to thousandths at the worst, everything looks like a project for it.

At some point a couple of months ago, my favorite spatula broke.  This is not an exotic, gourmet chef kind of item, it's a silicone rubber, flexible blade on a plastic handle.  It just worked perfectly for ice cream making, something I do every four days.  The handle goes into the silicone blade to hold it in place; there's what looks like a rectangular opening in the silicone blade and a rectangular piece of plastic that goes into it.  It's kind of like woodworkers would do to make a blind mortise and tenon joint.  Does the tenon-like piece on the handle have barbs or something on it that holds the soft blade?  Maybe, but I don't really know because I never got to see it apart.  Instead, the harder (and more brittle) plastic snapped off where it went into the soft handle.  

Sure I bought a replacement, but I couldn't find one in the local store that felt like the one that broke.  The broken one was better, hands down.  I tried gluing the two halves together.  That broke again within a couple of weeks.  

The two parts sat on a counter where I saw them every time I walked by.  Every time I looked at them, the background processor in my brain thought of how to fix it.  Without telling me.

I suddenly had the idea to create a joint by putting something like dowels in one piece and drill matching holes in the other.  I measured the plastic piece sticking out of the silicone rubber at .630 wide and .180 thick.  I did some edge finding with my laser edge finder and made an XY coordinate reference system.  With the hard plastic broken off in the soft silicone piece being 0.18" thick, plain old wooden dowels wouldn't work.  All of mine are twice that in diameter.  I looked at toothpicks and they were too small, like 1/16".  Then I remembered I have a box of 1/8" dowel pins.  Instant tenons for 39 cents.  

 Setting this up so I could drill two parallel holes straight into the plastic, holding the position to within "a few" thousandths was a bit of a pain.  The two blocks with three holes on each end are called 1-2-3 blocks, because those are the side lengths: 2" wide, 3" tall and 1" thick.  Behind the pin on the right is a triangle sticking up.  That was a piece of scrap aluminum to help clamp the silicone rubber and keep it from moving in the vise. I should have cut it off, but it honestly didn't get in the way.

The handle was worse to deal with.  It was too long to put in this position to drill and far too curvy to get it to hold still while tightening the vise.  I had to clamp it to the side of the vise with a woodworking clamp and position it all by hand.  All to drill two holes in the handle that would allow me to glue the pins in both halves. It's not centered, but the handle holds the blade.

This was before I glued it.  I drilled the holes in the handle .003" oversized and got a generous amount of glue in there.

The overall view is this:

(That clamp in the background, wooden handle on the right, is how I held the handle to the left side of the vise.)  While I'd be completely unsurprised to find that the parts are created in CAD and CNC used to make the mold, this is the only CNC-repaired spatula in existence.  At least that I know of.  Now where did I leave that number for the Spatula Hall of Fame...?  

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Small Space News Story Roundup 23

Very little going on - we should have another Falcon 9 launch tonight at 10:17 local (EDT).  The previous launch was this morning at about 4:00 AM ET from the left coast; Vandenberg. The local news is saying tonight's launch will be a record 58th launch from Cape Canaveral and the KSC.  All but four of those have been SpaceX launches.  It's SpaceX's 76th mission of the year.

Russians dropping plan to update the pad Yuri Gagarin launched from

Because they lack the funding to modernize their most historic launch pad, Russia now instead plans to turn the pad they call "Gagarin's Start" into a museum.  This pad hosted the world's first human spaceflight in 1961, when the Vostok 1 mission carrying Yuri Gagarin blasted into orbit. Between 1961 and 2019, this workhorse pad accommodated a remarkable 520 launches, more than any other site in the world. 

The final launch from the site took place in September 2019, with the Soyuz MS-15 mission carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri to the International Space Station.

After the launch of Al Mansouri, the Russian Roscosmos agency had created an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to help fund the project, but that fell apart like so much after Russia invaded the Ukraine.  

Roscosmos said Kazakh officials will lead the project to create the museum, as the site is the state property of Kazakhstan. It is hoped by Kazakh officials that the addition of the museum will increase the viability of Baikonur as a tourism site.

A Soyuz FG rocket launches from Gagarin's Start in Kazakhstan.  Image credit: NASA

Small launch companies struggle to compete with SpaceX's Transporter missions

Why are their prices so low?  SpaceX launches these Transporter missions regularly and charges $5000 per kilogram or  $2272/lb.  Prices are reported to be going up to $5500/kg ($2500/lb) and those reports say they'll be raising prices regularly.  If their costs are going up under the insane inflation, why wouldn't they pass that along?

“They definitely control and have a dominant position in the market,” said Curt Blake, former chief executive of launch services company Spaceflight, who now leads the commercial space group at law firm Wilson Sonsini, of SpaceX. “I think the real question is pricing, and what is their cost, and why so low, so dramatically low?”

“I don’t think they had to go that low to have a commanding share of the market,” Blake said, estimating SpaceX could have gained significant business at prices of $10,000 to $12,000 per kilogram. “That had to have a hugely chilling effect on any other money flowing into startup launch companies.

Somehow, I'd bet that the colleges and small companies that want to put those small sats into orbit aren't complaining about the price being too low.  This is what a free market does; a guy has a better idea, makes it work and gets the business.  The customers won in that market disruption, too.

Say it with me again, "reusability changes everything."  

NASA convenes board to investigate rescuing the Mars Sample Return mission 

A month ago, NASA received a report from an independent review board saying that the Mars Sample Return Mission was unworkable in its current form and wasn't feasible on the schedule and costs they were working under.  They recommended the issues be studied and NASA has announced they've started.  

Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science, said at an Oct. 20 meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), an advisory committee, that the agency has convened a team to address the recommendations made by an independent review board (IRB) in September.
“We want to make sure that we’re taking into consideration the findings and recommendations so that we can structure this program to be successful and do so within a balanced budget,” Connelly said.

The Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board (MSR IRB) Response Team, or MIRT (an acronym of acronyms!) is expected to work until March and will then offer their revised Mars Sample Return mission architecture. 

A complication along the way is that the Sample Return mission is more or less a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency. Budget issues are complicated and messy enough with just NASA; adding a second government agency, especially one as complex as the ESA is bound to be an obstacle. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

SpaceX Keeps Moving

On Wednesday the 18th, SpaceX advanced testing of "the odd one out" of the fleet of Starships, Ship 26.  It has been on a test stand not far from the launch pad and going through various proof tests, things like cryogenic fuel loading and, pressure testing and all, culminating Wednesday in a test that ignited one engine for a short test.  

In case you haven't been watching this ship in development, you can see Ship 26 isn't like the others we've seen.  No thermal tiles, no "flings" - those combination aero flaps and wings that are used to steer the ship after its hypervelocity atmospheric reentry aren't needed because no thermal tiles means 26 will never reenter.  If it ever goes into orbit, it will be destroyed on the way down.   

While I've never seen anything officially stating this, I've believed from the start that 26 is going to be the ship that goes to orbit to work on developing on-orbit refueling, and if it's not 26, it's going to look like her in not having thermal tiles and aero surfaces. 

Ship 26 rolled to the test area in Boca Chica for testing on September 7th, so she has been there for over a month.  Today, they advanced to a full duration static fire. (a 1min 34 second video with several views of the test).

NASASpaceflight.com video.

The only thing about this that's a bit strange is that it appears to be only one engine, judging by watching it a 1/4 speed - and the screen capture still-photo that NASASpaceflight uses above.  Which raises the question of whether or not ship 26 is supposed to have more than one engine.  It just has to make orbit and then make occasional small moves.  It won't reenter so it doesn't need the sea level raptors.  If another Starship gets to 26 on orbit and transfers all its fuel, does it need more than one vacuum Raptor engine to reach orbit?  The normal set of three?  

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Remember the Vega Launch from Earlier this Month?

European Spaceflight is reporting this week that two of the cubesats in the payload of Vega mission VV23 failed to be deployed and most likely burned up in the atmosphere with the rocket’s upper stage.

The Vega VV23 flight was launched on October 9 at 01:36 UTC from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. The rocket carried the THEOS-2 and FORMOSAT-7R/TRITON satellites as its primary payloads and ten smaller satellites as secondary payloads.

Following a successful launch, Arianespace published a press release confirming that the two primary payloads and eight of the ten secondary payloads had been deployed. However, the launch services provider added that “the separation of the last 2 cubesats is still to be confirmed.”

In an email sent by Arianespace to the affected teams that European Spaceflight has seen, the ESA explained that the ESTCube-2 and ANSER-Leader cubesats likely failed to separate from their respective deployers.  They noted that there was no feedback from the switches on the deployers and that by itself, it could mean the satellites weren't deployed or that the monitoring switch itself was bad.  They followed that by noting that NORAD tracked 10 objects after the deployment while there should have been 12 and that neither of the two teams could contact their cubesats, which nullifies that first statement that the monitoring switch could be the problem.

ESTcube-2 was built by the Estonian Student Satellite Foundation and was supposed to test an innovative plasma brake that could be used for end-of-life satellite disposal.

ANSER-Leader is one of three ANSER satellites that were launched aboard the VEGA VV23 flight for the Spanish National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA) along with ANSER-Follower 1 and ANSER-Follower 2.

The Spanish INTA agency said that losing ANSER-Leader wasn't a major impact to the missions, saying that all three satellites are “fully equipped and programmed to communicate with the ground directly.” “Any of them can take over the role of the leader if in the near future it is decided to operate in this “only one node communicating with the ground” way.” The spokesperson also confirmed that “at this point, we are nominally operating the remaining two [satellites].”

The launch of the VV23 mission.  Image Credit, ESA/CNES/Arianespace 

And just for fun, this is post #4700 to this blog. At the current rate of things, 5000 is around 9-1/2 to 10 months from now. Thanks to all y'all who drop by, as we say.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

NASA Looking to Cut Funding for Space Telescopes

The vast majority of people have heard of at least one of the big telescopes in space: the Hubble Space Telescope.  Fewer have heard of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory although both are big contributors to our knowledge about what's out there.  

Both of them, though, are old and showing their ages.  Hubble was launched in 1990, although it wasn't fully functional until several years later when the corrective optics were added to compensate for the defects in the primary mirror.  Chandra was launched in 1999.  They're also the two most expensive NASA astrophysics missions to operate after the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA requested $93.3 million for Hubble and $68.7 million for Chandra in its fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, in line with past years’ budgets. Combined, they represent a little more than 10% of the fiscal year 2024 budget request for NASA astrophysics.

In an Oct. 13 presentation to the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said he was studying unspecified cuts in the operating budgets of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope to preserve funding for other priorities in the division.

This is a result of Fiscal Year 24 budgets being capped (for non-defense discretionary spending) at 2023 levels and are only expected to allow a 1% increase for 2025.  This puts Clampin in the position of deciding which missions to support at the desired levels and which to cap.  Since these older observatories are in what's considered "extended operations," they're a natural place to start. 

“Chandra has a number of issues right now. It’s becoming increasing difficult to operate,” he said. Insulation on the spacecraft’s exterior is degrading, warming the spacecraft and making operations increasing difficult.

“While Hubble doesn’t have those issues,” he added, “it has been operating for a long time and it is a large piece of the astrophysics budget.”

NASA has a procedure they follow called a “senior review” for satellites like these that are operating beyond their primary mission lifetimes but still pretty much doing good science.  Clampin said he was planning two “mini senior reviews” for both telescopes, probably in May 2024 after the release of the fiscal year 2025 budget proposal.  Both instruments went through a senior review in 2022 and were essentially exempted from being cut. 

“Hubble and Chandra occupy the top tier given their immense, broad impact on astronomy,” the final report of the 2022 senior review stated. “Both missions are operating at extremely high efficiency, and although they are increasingly showing signs of age, both are likely to continue to generate world-class science throughout the next half decade, operating in concert with JWST as it begins its flagship role.”

Clampin said any savings from Chandra and Hubble would go to other astrophysics priorities. “What we are trying to do, though, is protect future missions and developing missions and international partnerships,” he said. That includes the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, smaller Explorer-class astrophysics missions, and NASA’s role on missions led by other nations, such as ESA’s LISA gravitational-wave observatory and the Israeli Ultrasat ultraviolet observatory.

He said he also wanted to protect early work on the Habitable Worlds Observatory, the next flagship astrophysics mission after Roman slated to launch in the 2040s.

As of this report, all of this is preliminary information for the FY '24 budget and no decisions have been made on how much to cut from which instruments. 

Stock photo of the Hubble Space Telescope on orbit.  NASA image.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Shocking News: The FAA Isn't Getting All Their Work Done

Who would have thought the FAA wouldn't be able to work on everything they need to get done?  I mean, besides everyone?

That's the message behind a story that SpaceX is urging FAA to double their licensing staff, citing a constant need to adjust priorities between projects, like Falcon 9 launches interfering with Starship licensing, or Starship affecting Dragon launches.  

In a remarkably frank discussion this week, several senior SpaceX officials spoke with Ars Technica on background about how working with the Federal Aviation Administration has slowed down the company's progress not just on development of the Starship program, but on innovations with the Falcon 9 and Dragon programs as well.

The SpaceX officials said they want to be clear that the FAA is doing a reasonably good job with the resources it has, and that everyone supports the mission of safe spaceflight. However, they said, the FAA needs significantly more people working in its licensing department and should be encouraged to prioritize missions of national importance.

The SpaceX officials went on to describe how their different programs have to compete with each other for the FAA's attention.  This has significantly slowed down the Starship program and put development of a Human Landing System for NASA's Artemis program at risk.  

The discussion with Ars was convened by SpaceX in advance of a hearing on Wednesday before the US Subcommittee on Space and Science, at which William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, will be one of the people testifying. SpaceX hopes that Congress will provide guidance to the FAA on how to operate more efficiently.

An unnamed SpaceX official put their goal for attending like this. “Maybe the committee can give them the big picture goals of what they want to accomplish for the US, and then maybe the FAA can be a little more innovative in how they interpret some of the rules and regulations. Their mission is to enable safe spaceflight. We cannot give up on the safety side, but could there be a little bit more emphasis on the enable side?”

SpaceX put more payloads in space than any other launch provider in the world last year and it was 62 launches.  This year, they're on track to increase that by 50%, up to around 90 launches, and they've stated a goal of increasing by 50% again next year, up to around 135 launches.  Their motivation for increasing the FAA's throughput is obvious, but they're not the only launch provider and we keep hearing that the US launch infrastructure is proving inadequate.  

Don't forget there are United Launch Alliance's Atlas Vs still flying, and their new Vulcan rockets set for next year. There's Blue Origin's New Glenn that may make it next year, and lots of other, smaller rockets flying with new ones coming online. Then there's the increased flight rate by Virgin Galactic, the return to flight by Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital tourism rocket, and the potential for high-altitude balloon flights. 

“Next year could be a pretty dynamic time with lots of providers in spaceflight," another SpaceX official said. "Our concern is even today Falcon and Dragon are sometimes competing for FAA resources with Starship, and the FAA can’t handle those three activities together. So let alone what's coming next year, or maybe even later this year, we just don't think the FAA is staffed ready to support that.”

At the meeting Gerstenmaier will recommend that the FAA double the staff in the licensing division of its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is known as AST. In addition, the FAA should be given "accelerated hiring authority" to draw from the best pool of candidates.

The SpaceX officials said they are losing time due to the review processes for Starship. The rocket for the vehicle's second flight has been ready to go for a little while now, and it likely will be waiting for two more weeks at least to complete regulatory review. The company is concerned that similarly lengthy reviews will delay the myriad future test flights needed to demonstrate Starship's viability, refueling capability, and ability to safely land on the Moon. While the Artemis III mission to land on the Moon is not being delayed day-for-day as a result, the regulatory issues are having an impact.

“Licensing at this point for Starship is a critical path item for the Artemis program, and for our execution," one of the SpaceX officials said. "Certainly looking forward into next year, we really need to operate that program at a higher cadence of flights. Six to eight month turns, that's not great for the program.”

SpaceX said this week that Starship is stacked and ready to fly its second test flight. Image credit: SpaceX

For what it's worth, while I like SpaceX's approach and what they're trying to do, I think that trying to reinvent a bureaucracy is unlikely to work.  As I've rambled about before, the easiest word for a bureaucrat to say is “no” because there's rarely any drawback to saying it.  A bureaucrat knows that if they approve something and a Bad Result happens, they stand a very good chance of being in a chair in front of an investigation and going through an entirely unpleasant day.  If they say no, the lack of something good happening rarely carries the same consequences.

Monday, October 16, 2023

NASA's IG Trying to Get Them Focused on Reality

Focused on the Reality of the costs of SLS, that is.  Back in June we talked about a report from NASA's Inspector General Paul Martin saying that the Space Launch System or SLS was too expensive. The thing is, NASA knows this.  Back in '19 NASA put up a Request For Information (RFI) to the industry essentially saying "propose a way to cut the costs of SLS by 50% and we'll use it until 2050."  Judging by never seeing another word about this, one would conclude the response was underwhelming.  Or worse.

As I often point out, it's not that bad, it's worse.  In a new story on Ars Technica about an October 12th report from IG Martin, we learn:

Broadly speaking, NASA's cost-reduction plan is to transfer responsibility for production of the rocket to a new company co-owned by Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which are key contractors for the rocket. This company, "Deep Space Transport," would then build the rockets and sell them to NASA. The space agency has said that this services-based model could reduce the cost of the rocket by as much as 50 percent.

However, in a damning new report, NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, says that is not going to happen. Rather, Martin writes, the cost of building the rocket is actually likely to increase.

Martin continues, "Our analysis shows a single SLS Block 1B will cost at least $2.5 billion to produce—not including Systems Engineering and Integration costs—and NASA’s aspirational goal to achieve a cost savings of 50 percent is highly unrealistic." 

Author Eric Berger goes on to report the $146 million per engine cost for one of the RS-25 engines on the SLS core vehicle isn't much less than what NASA is paying for an entire mission on the Falcon Heavy rocket—$178 million for the Europa Clipper spacecraft.  There are four of those engines on an SLS core, $584 million per launch, so the cost of two engines, half of an SLS, is dramatically more than the Falcon Heavy mission. 

That's not an SLS mission, that's not even a fully built SLS.  That's two engines versus an entire heavy lift mission. 

That's our tax money, of course, what should we do with it?  

The IG report isn't optimistic that NASA's attempts to will save money.  To begin with, 

"Given the enormous costs of the Artemis campaign, it is crucial that NASA achieve some significant measure of its affordability goals," Martin wrote in the new report. "Failure to do so will significantly hinder the sustainability of NASA’s deep space human exploration efforts."

He goes item by item and concludes that costs going down is wishful thinking.  I'll go ahead and say it's delusional; that's my word not IG Martin's word.

The agency has not committed to move to fixed-price contracting and has allowed Boeing to incorporate limited rights data into the design of the core stage. In other words, no one else can build the SLS rocket, so if the space agency wants to continue to buy them, it must do so from Boeing and Northrop.

Historically, NASA faced a similar problem with Space Shuttles.  

In the mid-1990s NASA transferred the Space Shuttle production from agency management to a commercial services contract, citing the goal of saving money. Boeing and Lockheed Martin created a new company, United Space Alliance, to provide Shuttle services on a sole-source basis to NASA, like what will be done with the SLS rocket.

Did costs go down?  Nope.  In review, IG Martin says Space Shuttle operations costs increased approximately 38%  

The only possibility on the horizon that might result in lowering prices is shifting to private vehicles.  

"The Agency may soon have more affordable commercial options to carry humans to the Moon and beyond," the report states. "In our judgment, the Agency should continue to monitor the commercial development of heavy-lift space flight systems and begin discussions of whether it makes financial and strategic sense to consider these options as part of the Agency’s longer-term plans to support its ambitious space exploration goals."

The problem there is political, and all government agencies like NASA are political bodies, above all else.  SLS was entirely political, a Congressionally-mandated way to ensure jobs continued after the shuttle program was shuttered.  Not to mention that current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was one of the senators who pushed the program through in 2010.  Despite the hard numbers showing NASA's move toward commercial space and fixed price contracts saved money, there are those in NASA and congress that argue for the cost-plus contracts of SLS and most other big programs. 

It just seems to me that cost-plus contracts should be used for things that have never been done before, and a "new" rocket like SLS doesn't fit that.  Especially since something like the $146 million RS-25, the Space Shuttle Main Engines, is as close to total reuse as one can get.  Those should be firm, fixed-price contracts at a price commensurate with their cost to the shuttle program the last time they were bought, with some adjustment for inflation, obsolete parts and other necessities.  Otherwise, cost-plus contracts seem to simply be a way to grease the skids for money flowing around and ending up in politicians' pockets.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Spelling is Important

Over the river and through the woods... Wait.  Scratch that 

Over the river and up the road ... is how I get to Patrick Space Force Base.  Which was known as Patrick Air Force Base up until the US Space Force was started in December, 2019.  

Patrick is built on what we call the barrier island, a relatively narrow strip of (mostly) sand that runs parallel to the mainland of Florida.  The best known road over most of its length is US Highway A1A and for a couple of miles, Patrick Space Force Base is separated from a narrow strip of Atlantic beach by A1A. 

Just over two miles north of where the last causeway south of Patrick SFB meets A1A, on that strip of beach is a little place called Hangar's Beach, named for the large number of aircraft hangars across the street from that beach.  Sometime in the history of Patrick Air Force Base, someone created a sign for that beach, showing its association with the US Air Force.  It's on the left in the photo that follows.  Sometime recently, someone else created a sign that reflected it was now a beach associated with the US Space Force, and it's on the right in the photo that follows. 

This photo started out as two pictures forwarded by a friend that I combined into one side by side montage. 

Hangars Beach, as I mentioned, was named after the large number of aircraft hangars on the air force base.  Hangers Beach must be named after a large number of clothes hangers somewhere.   

Spelling is important.  But at least it's not as bad as this one: