Thursday, November 30, 2023

Are You in the Far North of the US?

If you're in the northern tier of the US, you might want to keep an eye out for possible aurora displays tonight (late on 11/30 into 12/1) and into tomorrow night (12/1 into 12/2).  According to reporting from NOAA, a cannibal CME is going to impact Earth on December 1.  As I write this it's already December 1 by Universal Time (UTC) and there's no sign of anything by the planetary K index, which is currently 0.33.  More on that later. 

A CANNIBAL CME IS COMING: NOAA models confirm that a Cannibal CME will strike our planet on Dec. 1st. Cannibal CMEs form when a fast CME sweeps up a slower CME ahead of it. The combination contains intense, tangled magnetic fields that can do a good job sparking auroras when they reach Earth. If a Cannibal CME strikes Earth on Dec. 1st, as predicted, geomagnetic storm levels could reach category G3 (Strong). Aurora alerts: SMS Text described it with a bit more detail.   

The rapid Earth-bound CME left the sun on Nov. 29 during a powerful M9.8-class solar flare eruption. But it isn't alone. The speedy plasma outburst will merge with several slower upstream CMEs that left the sun a day earlier (Nov. 28), creating a "Cannibal CME" that will likely trigger a strong geomagnetic storm akin to a Nov. 5 event that supercharged auroras and STEVE around the world.

Since I've personally farted more energy than an M9.8 class flare, I have hard time thinking of a flare that isn't X-class as "powerful," although M9.8 is only 0.2 units lower than an X1.0 flare.  I don't think of X1 flares as particularly powerful, either.

About the timing, though, NOAA also posts video created by a model that shows the progress of the CME.  I ran the video and hit the stop button at the time when it appears to hit maximum impact to Earth.  It appears to be around 12:00 UTC or 7:00 AM EST tomorrow.  The peak plasma density, though, is earlier: 7:00 UTC or 2:00 AM EST.  The west coast and western states may well be better-placed for this CME impact than farther east.

NOAA is forecasting a geomagnetic storm which could reach G3 category, classified as a "strong" storm, that could cause radio blackouts throughout the HF radio spectrum on the sunlit side of the Earth for hours at a time.  

All sites covering the possible storm point out that we had a G3 storm back on November 5th, accompanied by gorgeous aurora displays.  We don't get to see auroras this far south unless the geomagnetic storm is just below TEOTWAWKI levels, but my memory of that G3 storm will be forever linked to what I wrote about a week later, having radio contact with ("working") Hawaii on the 50 MHz band.  Which is just slightly below what used to be TV VHF channel 2 in the days before digital HDTV.  (Kids, ask your parents or grandparents)

What will this CME impact do?  We have even less data and experience to base forecasts on with space weather that we have everyday rain/sun type weather.  That said, here's the NOAA forecast.  All I can say is the closer you are to the green or red areas you are, the better your chances of seeing something.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Firefly Runs First Test of Antares Replacement Engine

I've mentioned a few times around here (like here) that Northrop Grumman's booster, called Antares, has gone obsolete and will be unable to fly anymore.  This is the rocket that carried their Cygnus cargo vessel to the ISS.  The booster went obsolete because it relied on Russian engines just like the Atlas V.  The solution is that they're going to replace the Antares with a new launch vehicle called the Antares 330, which is being developed by Firefly Aerospace. 

Yesterday, we learned that Firefly had done the first test firing of the new engine that's going to be the power behind Antares 330, the Miranda.  The Miranda is also going to power Firefly's own Medium Lift Vehicle, or MLV.  

Firefly announced Nov. 28 that it conducted the test of its Miranda engine at the company’s Texas test site. A company spokesperson said the test, performed at 65% power, was designed to validate the engine’s startup sequence.

The company plans to work its way up to a full-duration test in the coming months, running the engine for 206 seconds. Miranda uses liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, generating 230,000 pounds-force of thrust.

Firefly Aerospace's Miranda rocket engine hot fire test (Credit Firefly Aerospace) 

You probably know the kerosene propellant by the more common name of RP-1 (Rocket Propellant 1).  The combination of LOX and RP-1 is what powers the Merlin-1 engines of the Falcon 9.  In both vehicles, the engine is ignited by TEA and TEB (triethylaluminium-triethylborane) which produces the quick green flash captured in the photo above. I've seen occasional glimpses of that green flash at ignition of Falcon 9 launches.

The MLV (and Antares 330) will utilize 7 Miranda engines on the first stage and will be capable of producing 1.6 million pounds of thrust and the ability to deliver up to 10,000 kg of payload to the International Space Station on the Antares 330.

The MLV will be capable of sending up to 16,000 kg low Earth orbit as it will utilize the Miranda vacuum engine whereas the Antares 330 will use a Castor 30XL solid-fueled rocket motor for its first launches before an eventual transition to the Miranda vacuum engine.

In an interview earlier this month, Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly, said the schedule for the first MLV launch was driven by having the vehicle eligible for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase Three program in time to on-ramp to that program’s “lane one” for emerging launch vehicles. “We want to fly that mission in late ’25 so that we put ourselves in a position to qualify for the ’26 manifests in lane one,” he said. “So far, so good. We’re on track.” 

Weber went on to say:

“The incredible progress on our Miranda engines – designed, built, and tested in-house in just over a year – is another example of Firefly setting a new standard in the industry, building on the legacy of Firefly’s rapidly developed Reaver and Lightning engines, Miranda is the fastest propulsion system we’ve built and tested to date. This achievement reflects our rapid, iterative culture and our vertically integrated approach that allows us to quickly scale up the flight-proven engine architecture from our small launch vehicle, Alpha, to our Medium Launch Vehicle.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Meanwhile, At the Vulcan-Centaur Preparations

Preparations for the Christmas Eve first flight of Vulcan Centaur are underway with no apparent major obstacles, so with 26 days left it appears to have a good chance of making it.  

The Centaur V upper stage for the inaugural United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket arrived from the factory at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station launch site on Nov. 13 and was integrated atop the booster on Nov. 19. 

Centaur V being hoisted atop the inaugural Vulcan rocket. Photo by United Launch Alliance 

The first Centaur V is topping the first Vulcan booster, for a launch scheduled for 1:49AM EST on Sunday, December 24, the first of two certification missions of Vulcan Centaur before it can begin to lift national security missions.  I can't speak for everyone, but I usually think of 1:49AM on Sunday as late Saturday night.  I guess the point is this "Christmas Eve" launch isn't "The Night Before Christmas"; it's the morning of the day before the night before.  The mission, called Cert-1, is carrying Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander for their first attempt to land on the Moon.  

“We have worked diligently to develop this evolutionary rocket and certify the first vehicle for flight,” said Mark Peller, ULA vice president of Vulcan Development. “This next generation launch vehicle incorporates new technology at all levels, powered by American ingenuity to meet our nation’s need for expanding space missions.”

The Cert-1 Centaur V will execute three firings of its dual RL10 engines to achieve three distinctly different orbits: a low Earth orbit, a highly elliptical orbit for lunar transfer and an interplanetary solar orbit into deep space.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the assembled rocket will undergo combined testing of sub-systems and components before rolling to Space Launch Complex-41 to undergo a Wet Dress Rehearsal to practice the countdown to launch.

Monday, November 27, 2023

NASA Beginning Work on Next Gen Mars Helicopter

NASA's headline for the story is cause for pause.  On the JPL's Mars exploration web page, they say, "NASA Uses Two Worlds to Test Future Mars Helicopter Designs."  Just a bit on the provocative side. 

Provocative but burying the lede a little.  I don't need to point out that the Ingenuity helicopter has been a rousing success; originally intended to test some concepts and make five test flights, the helicopter has flown 66 times and is ready for more.  That has led to extending the concepts to other missions and Next Generation helicopters, which leads to redesigning parts and systems of a deep space helicopter. That, in turn, requires testing new design approaches and the one they talk about the most in this JPL post is enlarging the helicopters' rotors.  

For the first time in history, two planets have been home to testing future aircraft designs. On this world, a new rotor that could be used with next-generation Mars helicopters was recently tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, spinning at near-supersonic speeds (0.95 Mach). Meanwhile, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has achieved new altitude and airspeed records on the Red Planet in the name of experimental flight testing.

"Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds," said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager and manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters. "Here on Earth, you have all the instrumentation and hands-on immediacy you could hope for while testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have the real off-world conditions you could never truly re-create here on Earth." That includes a whisper-thin atmosphere and significantly less gravity than on Earth.

I'll embed the short (1:12) video they have on their web site, but it's probably best just to look at it with the video stopped. Unsurprisingly, when the rotors are spinning, the blades aren't visible, so you'll get the clearest view of the twin rotors with the video stopped at either the beginning or the end, right around the 1:00 minute mark.  

Testing Next-Generation Mars Helicopter Rotors: A dual rotor system for the next generation of Mars helicopters is tested in the 25-Foot Space Simulator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sept.15. Longer and stronger than those used on the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the carbon-fiber blades reached near-supersonic speeds during testing. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The blades being tested in the video are 1.3 meters in diameter, nearly 51 inches. That's just about four inches larger than Ingenuity's rotors with greater strength and a different design. NASA thinks these blades could enable bigger, more capable Mars helicopters. The challenge is that as the blade tips approach supersonic speeds, vibration-causing turbulence can quickly get out of hand.

"We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone," said Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL. "These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly."

At around the same time, and about 100 million miles (161 million kilometers) away, Ingenuity was being commanded to try things the Mars Helicopter team never imagined they would get to do.

During the past nine months, JPL controllers have doubled Ingenuity's max airspeed and altitude, increased their rate of vertical and horizontal acceleration, and even learned to land slower.  The helicopter was designed to touch down on the surface at a relatively quick 2.2 mph.  That was so its onboard sensors could easily confirm touchdown and shut down the rotors before it could bounce back up. A helicopter that lands more slowly could be designed with lighter landing gear. So three flights (57-59) tested landing at 25% slower speeds with no difficulties. 

The chamber the rotors have been tested in is about as famous as a thermal/vacuum test chamber can be, having tested such probes as the Surveyor lunar landers in the 1960s, Voyager and Cassini.  While it can approach the vacuum of deep space, it can't reduce gravity to test things like the landings.  That's where it's valuable to be able to test some things with Ingenuity out on the "the Fourth Rock from the sun."

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Another Weekend Taking Care of Broken Down Stuff

This time it was something I've spent weeks, if not a full month, trying to determine the optimum way to fix things.  Our cell phones.  

I know that topic will turn off some number of people, but that's what I've spent most of my time working on.  (Spare time?)

Both Mrs. Graybeard and I have been using iPhones since the iPhone 3 back in the '08-'09 time frame (as if we keep notes on this sort of thing).  The last time I replaced a phone was in June of '17, and I bought an older model, what Apple called the 6S, rather than the "latest, coolest".  That makes my phone 6-1/2 years old, and was obsolete when I bought it. We bought Mrs. Graybeard's 6S around this time of year, so it's closer to just six years old. 

In the last few months, mine has been showing signs of the battery failing, in particular the increasing charge times and the tendency for the last few percent of charge to take as long the first 80%.  I have a few chargers; the ubiquitous white cubes they sold with the phones, as well as one that will double the 1A (5W) that those provide.  It's only reasonable to charge it on that one.

Compared to Mrs. Graybeard's mine seems wonderful.  She has to leave hers on the charger almost constantly and it self-discharges exceptionally fast. She'll charge it to 100%, go to bed and in the morning it's less than 50% charged.  Mine can be charged every other day.

The first big decision is whether to replace battery or the phone.  I replaced my battery when it was three years old.  A battery is far cheaper than a phone, but the first hard to answer question is how long the old phone lasts with the new battery.  Other hard to answer questions are things like how long they'll support the obsolete hardware.

Within the last few weeks, I found a page at Apple that helps you decide which phone might be right for you.  I have no desire to go for the latest, most expensive phone, and that page reinforces the idea that the differences between them are pretty small for the price increases.  I found that with the exception of the newest model, the 15, the next three down, the 14, 13 and 12, are remarkably similar.  It didn't take me long to decide the peak of the "bang per buck" curve was probably the 13.

Screen capture. 

All three phones have three versions called the Pro Max, Pro and the baseline version.  This graphic shows the baseline versions. The main difference between them is the camera is updated in the Pro Max and Pro and both seem to have the same camera upgrade.  To me that's a "Don't Care" because I already have a good camera.

This being Black Friday weekend, I got an ad from AT&T that would offer me an iPhone 14 for $5/month if I agree to a three year contract.  That's $180 for a phone Apple says is $700.  Saturday, we went up to our local AT&T store to ask about buying that special deal as a lump sum and keeping our current pay-by-the-month setup.  The sales guy was honest enough to tell us the whole purpose of the discount price is to get you to sign a three year contract.  He said there was no way to get a phone there for a lump sum payment.

He said if we really want to do that, go buy an unlocked phone elsewhere and bring it in.  So we went home, bought them on Best Buy online and then picked them up about 90 minutes later.  After dinner, we swapped the SIM cards from old to new phones and then arm wrestled the new phones basically all evening. At one point something was telling us I had her phone number and she had mine.  A couple of rounds of resetting everything to the virgin state ended up with us swapping the SIM cards and then they acted normally; both of our phone numbers were what they've always been. Which sounds more reasonable if I don't mention we had already swapped them once and it hadn't change the numbers.  I think it may be necessary to go up to the store for a replacement SIM card, although I understand they have an electronic way of doing that - called an E-SIM.

So now we both have new iPhone 13s, same memory and all.  Everything seemed to port transparently. One less thing to worry about how to fix or replace, but which needs more study than what it replaced. 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Europe's Ariane 6 Passes Critical Test

While we were celebrating Thanksgiving day here in the states, the European Space Agency's launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana hosted a critical test for the Ariane 6 rocket, which has been on the ropes with a series of delays.  The test was a full duration static firing of the first stage, seven minutes, keeping it on track for a first flight in 2024.

"This milestone rehearsal comes after years of designing, planning, preparing, building and hard work from some of the finest space engineers in Europe," Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), said in a statement. "We are back on track towards rescuing Europe’s autonomous access to space. Well done to all involved!"

A test article of Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket conducts a hot-fire test with its core-stage engine on Nov. 23, 2023.  ESA image credit.

Of course, the Ariane 6 is Europe's next-generation heavy-lift rocket, to replace the Ariane 5 that has been retired.  The rocket consists of a core stage, powered by a single Vulcain 2.1, as well as an upper stage that sports a smaller Vinci engine, which is being scheduled to undergo a test firing next month at the Lampoldshausen test center, part of Germany's space agency.  In addition to the Vulcain 2.1 core engine, the Ariane 6 is also outfitted with either two or four solid rocket boosters, to increase its thrust at liftoff.



Friday, November 24, 2023

I've got a lotta catching up to do

He's got at least a 15 year head start on me.  

Mick, has the head start, that is, not the turtle.  Mick, you know, gets paid to look good.  Work out, body training, voice training, you name it.  Mitch only gets paid to hand over our tax money to the Powers That Be.  Big difference. 

Spent pretty much the entire day to get our source of Thanksgiving leftovers ready for the week. 

Basically, it's the same as I've done before.  I smoked a turkey using a method I found on Serious Eats; a combination of spatchcocking the turkey together with a dry brine and then smoking in my Weber kettle grill.  Except this time, with being away for almost 12 hours yesterday, I didn't do the dry brine because the Serious Eats recipe recommends a minimum of "overnight" with the salt mixture on the skin, and says two days is better.  I just rubbed the turkey with olive oil and then put on a little seasoning.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving 2023

The day kind of got away from me, but it was a "slow news day" anyway, at least in the space and tech stuff I like to talk about.  We had a SpaceX Starlink launch last night but in the interval between the first announced launch time of 11:01 PM local and when it actually went at 2:47 AM, I crashed and slept through it.  I just watched the replay this morning. 

The circumstances of the day and the short week are light years better than last year, so we'll be on the road for the day tomorrow as we have done pretty much annually.  Last year was the only time I can think of when extenuating circumstances kept us home.  It's five hours of driving but the old car is generally comfortable

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all.  May all of you enjoy a wonderful day with your families and friends.  Or by yourself, if that's your day.  Thanks to the EMTs, Nurses, Doctors, LEOs, Firefighters and others who work Thanksgiving so we can have the day off.  Thanks to the military men and women who keep the barbarians from the gates and give us the chance to relax.  For now, eat, drink, and be merry. Who knows what the next year brings? 

Just the thing to have for all those Black Friday deals!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Meanwhile, On the Psyche Mission

We haven't heard much about the Psyche mission to the asteroid by the same name since its launch in early October.   As usual, not seeing headlines about a deep space mission follows the old axiom of "no news is good news" and the probe is steadily flying away from Earth.  There won't be much to say about it because the probe isn't going to reach the asteroid itself for six years.  

It's not like the crew working on the satellite goes home and into hibernation until 2029, though.  Last week, on the 14th, an interesting test of a system to experiment with communication by lasers was carried out successfully.  Psyche is currently around 10 million miles from Earth, or 40 times the average, 250,000 mile, Earth-moon distance.  This isn't difficult radio communications for the deep space network, but without the right instruments on both ends, there's no way to test it with a laser.  Laser communications tests have stopped at the moon.

The moment marked the first successful test of NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system, a next-generation comms link that sends information not by radio waves but instead by laser light. It's part of a series of tests NASA is doing to speed up communications in deep space, on different missions.

"Achieving first light is a tremendous achievement. The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC," Abi Biswas, the system's project technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in an agency statement

"And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange 'bits of light' from and to deep space," Biswas added. video here.

The test began at JPL's Table Mountain Facility in California. There, in the hills outside Los Angeles, engineers switched on an uplink beacon, a near-infrared laser pointed at Psyche. About 50 seconds later when the light reached the probe, an optical transceiver on Psyche received the laser and replied with its own laser signal back to the Mount Palomar Observatory, near San Diego. 

Just as here on the ground, we go to lasers because of they operate on higher frequencies than radios.  All electromagnetic radiation, whether what we see as light or detect as radio has the property that the bandwidth they can support goes up as the frequency goes higher.  Higher bandwidth generally means faster data transmission rates, which is their goal.  

There's a ton of things I'd like to know about this that the source doesn't say a single word about, basically related to how it works.  What frequency?  How wide is optical beam width at 10 million miles?  Does the laser illuminate all of the Earth?  In other words, what kind of pointing accuracy is needed?  Is some sort of tracking needed?    

While stumbling around on NASA's Psyche website, I found this picture of the spacecraft on some sort of carrier, apparently all folded up for some unknown reason.  The red highlighted instrument with the gold foil cap is the DSOC instrument.  Their caption says this was in a clean room on June 26, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida so this is probably long after the testing was completed. Image credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Since everything about an optical system's resolution, image size and in this case, how far the beam diverges over millions of miles is determined by its aperture - how big the first element is - a starting point is that gold foil cap seems to be around 12" diameter.  Let the calculations begin!  

A small update to the Starship IFT 2 data.

A YouTube channel called Astronomy live was showing off video he took from the Florida Keys over the weekend (linked in the comments on Sunday's post).  He said he was working on the video with editing software that could keep the ship centered and easier to look at.  That video was finished and released Monday afternoon, here.  While the video from the weekend was over an hour long, this one is just over three minutes long and it's easy to see some of things he laboriously pointed out, such as the remaining upper portion of the Ship 25 rotating around its long axis, are very noticeable in that video.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Doing My Annual Black Friday Post Early This Year

At the risk of being too repetitive and unoriginal, I'm sick of Black Friday already and it hasn't really gotten here yet.   Except that I've been getting email ads with Black Friday in the subject since at least July.  Maybe since June. 

Yeah, I know.  "Old man yells at cloud" for all the good it's gonna do.  

What they've done, instead of making shoppers (at least, this shopper) think that some special sales are going on, is to convince us that there's no such thing as Black Friday anymore.  As I've said before, when every day is Black Friday, no day can be Black Friday - in the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.  It has just become another way of saying "SALE" in every retail place that pushes it. 

Black Friday was supposedly called that because it was the day where businesses turned their annual ledgers from red ink to black ink, but in the last few years it seems to have morphed into something else.  It has been reported for years that the big deals aren't necessarily really deals at all (2014 study), or that some companies raise their prices in the weeks (months?) before the day so that what would have been a normal, small discount from MSRP suddenly seems like a deal.  It's being reported (2016) that more and more people are carrying their smartphone into the stores to price check things, compare price and availability at other stores, or get coupons.  I confess: I've done it and not just this time of year.  

Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  Of course, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving itself, Friday seems like it loses some drawing power.  Regardless, every year there's some incident where people get violent (2016) over something stupid.  

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

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

To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  If people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year," and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in someone's Post Toasties by telling them they didn't get the best price ever. 

Jeez, I've been using this cartoon for a long time.  It says "Joe Heller 2010" in the top left corner! 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

What Became of Starship S25?

While it's just over 36 hours since the test flight 2 launch Saturday morning as I write, and it's a weekend night which means official news is going to be few and far between.  I suspect that like many of you, I've been trying to find anything that looks to be realistic and reasonably coherent about the details of what is known about test flight 2.  

Some of what's presented here will be reposts of things I've posted before.  The first is this: among the first questions people started asking was if the new water deluge system saved the orbital launch pad.  By mid-afternoon Saturday, Elon Musk was saying they had driven out to the launch pad and there was no damage worth mentioning. Tweeted here.  Jack Beyer, Content Manager and photographer for NASA Spaceflight  tweeted essentially the same thing, adding something like, "now that's a rapidly reusable launch pad!"  

The loss of the booster after it's actual flight performance, which was insanely better than the first flight test, gets talked about a lot.  I think minimizing the booster's performance over that is mistaken.  It's important to recognize that SpaceX had never before successfully ignited all 33 Raptor engines at once on a Super Heavy booster stage.  All 33 lit and stayed lit for the entire duration, while producing the largest mach diamond ever seen (it is the largest vehicle ever launched, after all).

The interesting thing about the hot staging that I didn't see talk of until this afternoon shows up in this SpaceX video.  You can watch the three sea-level Raptors carefully, the innermost three, and see that when you can first see all three, 11 seconds on the clock, they're all pointed as far away from center as they get. By the 14 second mark they're all pointed on axis, to maximize thrust, which is no longer pointed at the top of the booster.  I created this image from video frame captures to show what I mean. 

You can clearly see the three flames are much farther apart on the left, at about 11 seconds, than on the right, which was closer to 14 seconds.  That seems intended to minimize the amount of time the engines are blasting the top of the booster.  The booster was lost several seconds after this.

Something that I've seen little mention of is analysis of just what happened to Ship 25.  A video I saw on Saturday implied that it must have been down range quite some distance, and since we had a good idea of its altitude, they had derived that it must have been in Atlantic, after having flown over the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. Astronomer Jonathon McDowell posted this to X Saturday morning ET.  A NOAA weather radar detected the debris from Ship 25 falling along its trajectory into the Atlantic.

The longitude and latitude markers along the edges of the picture allow me to pin point this location on a hurricane tracking map.  At the bottom left of the picture, there's a land area with what appears to be light rain, or possibly clutter, over its eastern side.  That land mass is Puerto Rico.

There is talk about a picture that shows the nose of Ship25 from the top down to the bottom of the first two flaps, that somehow survived whatever happened, but I haven't found that picture.  Yet.  Hopefully, SpaceX downloaded telemetry that allows them to reconstruct the story. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Starship's IFT-2 Went Almost as Well as it Could Have

My perspective on the test flight is that it didn't make every milestone I was watching for or cared about, but it did pretty darned well.  

To begin with, the pad improvements seemed to prevent anything bad from happening - in particular, no chunks of concrete flew up into the engines destroying some and causing a fuel leak that eventually would kill the vehicle.  

All 33 engines ignited and ran for the entire required amount of time.  Hot staging worked; the engines were cut in groups until only three remained running, Starship 25's six Raptor engines lit; first the outer ring of three vacuum raptors, and then the inner three sea level Raptors lit as Booster 9 was dropping away.

Booster 9's destruction as it dropped away strikes me as unimportant - in the short term it's a "don't care."  My example is the Falcon 9 as they were working on getting it to land successfully.  The way I understand their cost model is that once the paying customer's payload was on the way, the booster was garbage so they were going to experiment on the piece of garbage as if it was something they found on the side of a road.  If they want to just throw a booster away, they'd do what every other launch company in the world does; drop it and "fuggedaboutit."  They were going to throw this one away but they were going to play with it first.  They started to play with it and it turned out less than ideally.  Don't care.  

Look at that array of 33 engines, all of them lit and firing, all of their exhaust trails looking to be the same color.  In other views you can see the Mach diamonds in the exhaust better than this shot.  John Kraus photo from X.

As is often the case, Scott Manley on YouTube posts a video in which he has taken a preliminary dive into the behavior of the booster.  His conclusion is that the booster's engines were interrupted by the flip and burn back maneuver the booster was doing.  Picture a long, skinny tank being rotated end over end; at some point, inertia can have the fuel at the top of the tank, and unable to flow into the engines.  It helps to know that often, with stages that coast between burns while on orbit, they use thrusters of some sort, or some other power to start the stage moving.  The inertia gets the fuel to the bottom of the tank, where it needs to be.  The tanks on the Super Heavy booster still have tons of LOX and Liquid CH4 in them and the abrupt rotations might well have forced engines to run without one or both fluids.  

The moment of staging - at the bottom of the booster, you can see a triangle caused by the three engines left running.  The bright spot at the top of the booster/bottom of the ship is the hot staging taking place.  The "psychedelic color" cloud is the exhaust plume around the two.  Image credit: SpaceX.

Unfortunately, Manley doesn't have as much to say about the Starship's failure.  Starship made it into space; in videos that he goes through the data coming down from Ship25 freezes and stays at a pair of values for a while.  The speed is 24,124 km/hr or just under 15,000 mph while LEO orbital velocity is generally given in the vicinity of 17,000 mph.  Altitude was 148 km, or 91.96 miles.  Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic sell seats on tourist rides to space that don't go that high or that fast.  Starship seems to have been around 15% short of orbital velocity, but this was billed as a suborbital flight so they'd better be short of orbital velocity.  I don't know what their targets were.

Starship seems to have also undergone a spontaneous explosion.  Excuse me, it underwent a RUD, to borrow Elon's old joke everyone has been using today.  I'll start using my own redneck version of that, IDBU - It Done Blowed Up - pronounced id-boo.  Scott shows a few seconds of evidence in his video that imply something went wrong that caused Starship to consume excess LOX. 

I view the Starship anomaly more seriously than the booster not being reusable.  Of course, they weren't going to reuse this ship after this flight; it was going to belly flop in to the Pacific north of Hawaii, but I'm automatically suspicious because while there were test flights of Starships before, none of them went this high.  Is the problem something related to flying in this range?  Doesn't seem possible.

I've already seen mentions of the next test, IFT 3, being NET February '24.  Three months instead of seven?  I'm not sure the FAA could evacuate their buildings in three months if they were burning down. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Reason Flight Test 2 is so Important

Whether Starship IFT-2 flies on Saturday morning or is held another few days or a week isn't really important.  What's important is that it needs to be a successful test.  The booster needs to burn for the full required time, the hot-staging needs to work, Starship needs to achieve its intended trajectory and it needs to splash down in the Pacific as intended.  

Why?  Simply that for the HLS or Human Landing System version of Starship to work is going to take nearly 20 successful missions and that says launches have to be routine.  

In a presentation at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee Nov. 17, Lakiesha Hawkins, assistant deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office, said the company will have to perform Starship launches from both its current pad in Texas and one it is constructing at the Kennedy Space Center in order send a lander to the moon for Artemis 3.

SpaceX’s concept of operations for the Starship lunar lander it is developing for the Human Landing System (HLS) program requires multiple launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. One launch will place a propellant depot into orbit, followed by multiple other launches of tanker versions of Starship, transferring methane and liquid oxygen propellants into the depot. That will be followed by the lander version of Starship, which will rendezvous with the depot and fill its tanks before going to the moon.

Much like Starship itself, there are simulations of what it takes to do the sort of operation this entails but - here's the key point - it has never been done before by anyone.  SpaceX has shown Concept Of Operations documents for the Human Landing System (HLS) program that talk about multiple launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. One launch will place a propellant depot into orbit.  There have been reports or speculation that was the purpose for Ship 26 which had no thermal tiles or "flings" (control surfaces) - they're not needed if doesn't come back down - but S26 now appears to be obsoleted and in the "rocket garden" at Boca Chica.  Whatever that propellant depot looks like, the launch will require multiple other launches of tanker versions of Starship which transfer methane and liquid oxygen propellants into the depot. That will be followed by the HLS version of Starship, which will rendezvous with the depot and fill its tanks before going to the moon.

Again, while a large number of people can cite concerns about things like fuel evaporation and leakage on orbit, nobody has hard test data they're dropping on NASA.  

Exactly how many launches will be required has been a point of debate since Starship’s selection by NASA for the first HLS award in 2021. Neither NASA nor SpaceX have given firm numbers recently. A paper about the HLS program presented at the 2023 International Astronautical Congress by NASA, for example, mentioned only “a series of reusable tanker Starship variants” that would be launched to fill the depot before the Starship lander is launched, without giving a number.

Assistant deputy associate administrator Hawkins has said, “It’s in the high teens in the number of launches.  In order to be able to meet the schedule that is required, as well as managing boiloff and so forth of the fuel, there’s going to need to be a rapid succession of launches of fuel.” 

For additional perspective, the Government Accountability Office, in its rejection of protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics of the Starship HLS award in 2021, noted that SpaceX required 16 launches overall for a Starship lunar lander mission.  Elon Musk disagreed, calling the need for 16 launches “extremely unlikely” in an August 2021 Twitter (before it was X) post. He said a “max of 8” tanker launches should be needed to fuel the Starship lander, adding it could be as few as four.  

Between four and 20 launches?  They'd better be more like Falcon 9's cadence of one every three days than the seven months between the first flight test and this one.  Seven months delay times 20 launches isn't a nice number.  One month between each of 20 launches isn't that nice, either.

Illustration from the NASA presentation at the 2023 International Astronautical Congress linked above.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Moving Toward the First Vulcan Centaur Launch

On Monday, the Centaur upper stage for the first flight of United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket arrived at Cape Canaveral for integration.   

During a media roundtable on Wednesday afternoon, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance, Tory Bruno, said, “The path to flight one is clear" for Vulcan. The last major piece of hardware for the rocket, the Centaur V upper stage, arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday. All of the qualification testing necessary for the first flight, including for the upper stage, is complete.

In the coming days, Bruno said the Centaur upper stage would be integrated with the Vulcan first stage. Then, the combined vehicle will be rolled to the launch site for a fueling test known as a wet dress rehearsal in December. However, the rocket's main engines, BE-4s provided by Blue Origin, will not be fired. That's because the first stage already completed this hot fire test successfully in June.

Bruno said ULA still had some margin in its schedule leading up to the December 24th launch of the flight they're calling Certification-1.  The launch time is set by the Earth/Moon geometry as No Earlier Than 1:49 am ET on Sunday the 24th.  For half of the country's lower 48 that's still Saturday night, December 23rd.  Bruno went on to say that if the weather is poor, the company also has launch opportunities on December 25 and 26 before the closure of the launch window this year.  The window reopens at the same lunar phases in January for another three days.  

The first stage for flight Certification-1 sits on pad 41 on Cape Canaveral SFS.  Image credit: ULA

Those of you who have been keeping up with the progress of the Vulcan are familiar with the details that Vulcan has been in development for over a decade and was supposed to have flown by 2020.  A large factor in the delay to this point has been the development and delivery of the Blue Origin BE-4 engines.  Going to those engines was primarily because congress mandated that US launch companies were no longer allowed to buy Russian engines.  

The latest delay was caused by the Centaur V upper stage itself when it exploded during a test at the end of March

As the delays have mounted, ULA has faced increasing pressure from the US Space Force to begin flying Vulcan, as it is slated to fly about two dozen national security missions in the next five years. Before it can do that, however, Vulcan must complete two certification flights and provide data to the military. The first of these is the Astrobotic flight, and the second mission will launch Sierra Space's Dream Chaser spacecraft. During Wednesday's teleconference, Bruno declined to set a specific target for that flight, mentioning only that it probably will take place during the first half of next year.

Bruno did mention that ULA has booked 70 Vulcan launches, about half military missions and half commercial flights. The primary customer for the commercial launches is Amazon, which is eager to begin putting its Project Kuiper broadband Internet satellites into low-Earth orbit.  To even approach that amount of launches, ULA is focusing on achieving two launches per month by the end of 2025.  This is far more than either half of the ULA alliance, Lockheed Martin or Boeing, has ever launched in their histories. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

It's On For Real! - but Not Friday

As hinted at or expected for the last several days, the news broke this afternoon that the Federal Aviation Administration had granted the launch license for Starship Integrated Flight Test 2. SpaceX's "Launches" website shows a two hour launch window opening at 8:00 AM EST (7:00 AM on site or 1300 UTC).  The FAA's TFR (Temporary Flight Restrictions) website shows the launch window ending at 10:39 EST.  This was posted a couple of days ago, and today they posted a TFR for Saturday for the same times.  I have to assume SpaceX knows if they would stretch that launch window from two hours to 2:39. 

Screen capture from SpaceX's launches

The announcement was in the afternoon, EST, and while I didn't see the exact time (I was working in the ham station) by about 4:30 they had begun the process of stacking Ship 25 on Booster 9 and it seemed to go fairly quickly.  It seemed to be stacked by sundown in Boca Chica, so on the order of one to 1-1/2 hours.   

This test is a big deal; not just for SpaceX but for the entire space industry.  Last words to Stephen Clark at Ars Technica:

SpaceX's Starship rocket is a central element for NASA's Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade. NASA has contracts worth more than $4 billion to use a human-rated deep space derivative of the Starship upper stage for crew landings at the Moon's south pole. There's a lot to do before Starship can do this, including in-orbit fuel transfers and the development of life support systems.

US military leaders have also expressed interest in Starship's ability to haul more than 100 tons of payload into orbit, significantly more lift capacity than any other rocket. SpaceX officials told Ars last month the FAA should be encouraged to prioritize missions of national importance.

But the first step is demonstrating Starship can reliably fly to space. That's what SpaceX will attempt to do Friday.

I would have phrased that slightly differently; that's what SpaceX will begin to attempt to do Friday.  It takes more than one good flight to demonstrate flying reliably. 

EDITED Thursday Nov. 16, 5:00 PM ET:  During testing a problem was discovered that required destacking Ship 25 for repairs.  Launch is set for Saturday the 18th, same time (7:00 AM CST)  the post title was also edited.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Is the Sale of United Launch Alliance Imminent?

Ultimately a sale isn't imminent because regardless of the management's decisions the sale has to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, which will probably introduce glacial delays, but Eric Berger at Ars Technica has a piece up today that says two sources have told him Boeing and Lockheed Martin are "close to selecting a buyer for United Launch Alliance."  

The jointly owned rocket company, which was founded in 2006 and for a time had a monopoly on US government launch contracts, has been up for sale most of this year.

The sources say three buyers have emerged for the Colorado-based launch company. These include a private equity fund, the Jeff Bezos-owned space company Blue Origin, and a well-capitalized aerospace firm that is interested in increasing its space portfolio.

The possibility of it being a private equity firm isn't surprising, nor is it unprecedented.  The term "private equity" firm doesn't necessarily mean a Black Rock or other big name like that, although Ars doesn't mention the name of the firm.  Typically, they buy the company, help finance the launch company's restructuring, and then resell it.  

The surprise, if there is one, is that Blue Origin is among the three possible buyers. Berger looks at it a bit differently than I do because of having been more closely plugged into the right sources.

Blue Origin is also not a great surprise. The space company owned by Jeff Bezos has been rumored to be among the potential buyers for a while. Although there is some overlap between their launch plans, acquiring United Launch Alliance would give Bezos an orbital rocket and the guaranteed government contracts he covets. It would also benefit Amazon's need to launch its Project Kuiper satellites.

Ars is not naming the third company saying they were unable to verify the information from the inside sources.  ULA themselves deferred any questions about this to the two companies that own the joint venture, Lockheed and Boeing.  Who steadfastly refused to say anything.  

The ULA merger was formed by pushing from US security agencies in 2006, and that was to ensure a steady supply of Delta and Atlas launch vehicles for government payloads.  With guaranteed military launch contracts and large annual subsidies from the US Department of Defense to maintain "launch readiness," essentially subsidies for being there, they've always been a profit maker for both halves of the Alliance.

If any company is the embodiment of "old space" or "Space 1.0," though, it's ULA.  And as anyone who watches the shear number of launches climbing steadily over the last few years will tell you. Space 2.0 is on the verge of "eating their lunch."

In recent years, ULA's launch dominance has first been challenged and then supplanted by the rise of SpaceX and its less expensive and highly reliable Falcon 9 rocket. Bruno, who became ULA's chief executive in 2016, has slashed employee headcount and taken other steps to control costs, such as closing infrequently used launch pads.

However, Bruno's most important initiative has been the development of the large Vulcan rocket, which is intended to be more cost-competitive with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles while also ending ULA's dependence on Russian-made rocket engines. The Vulcan launcher uses the BE-4 rocket engine manufactured by Blue Origin.

Their approach to reusability echoes the European Space Agencies in essentially saying "why spend that much money to develop a reusable booster?" Instead, they've talked about ejecting the engines out of a booster and recovering those - they're the most expensive part of the booster, after all.  

They think they can recover the engines using their “SMART (Sensible Modular, Autonomous Return Technology) Reuse” approach and get 2/3 of the benefit of landing the booster for much less developmental budget.

Of course, they're not going to do that now.  That's in a few years, after Vulcan is flying reliably and they get around to trying to get engine recovery to work.

Vulcan rolling into the launch complex for testing earlier this year.  Image credit: United Launch Alliance.

As we've talked about a few times, the first launch of Vulcan Centaur is currently set for NET Christmas Eve, now just under six weeks out.  Speculation is that if they agree to a sale, it probably doesn't have to wait until after that flight for ULA to announce it, although such an announcement would put a nice exclamation point on a successful flight.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Why the Cartoon Names for a Serious Mission?

I was reading an otherwise serious story about nuclear power in space missions and was struck by a couple of odd things.  Otherwise serious missions with cartoon names.  

Let me start at the beginning.  The story is that the US Air Force Research Lab has awarded defense contractor Lockheed Martin a $33.7 million contract to develop a space qualified nuclear power source.  More specifically, this is to be part of the Joint Emergent Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear (JETSON) effort to "mature high-power nuclear electric power and propulsion technologies and spacecraft design."

Wait.  JETSON?  As in George Jetson?  OK...

JETSON aims to launch a fission reactor that will be started up once in space. The reactor will generate heat, which is then transferred to Stirling power converters to produce electricity. This can then be used to power spacecraft payloads or electric thrusters for propulsion.

Using a reactor to generate heat... to run Stirling engines, er, power converters to produce electricity?  That sounds like that program called KRUSTY (Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology) that we talked about five years ago?  As in Krusty the Clown?   

Despite the cartoon names, this is a real mission with a serious looking "artist's concept" rendering.

Los Alamos National Laboratory's concept of a space nuclear reactor system to produce high-power electricity. (Image credit: LANL) 

"Nuclear fission development for space applications is key to introducing technologies that could dramatically change how we move and explore in the vastness of space," Barry Miles, JETSON program manager and principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement.

"From high-power electrical subsystem and electric propulsion to nuclear thermal propulsion or fission surface power, Lockheed Martin is focused on developing these systems with our important government agencies and industry partners," Miles added.

Lockheed will work with Space Nuclear Power Corp (SpaceNukes) and BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT), both of which have expertise in nuclear power and reactor design.  The contract is to get from the preliminary design review (PDR) stage, with the option to go to critical design review (CDR) level.  The source article doesn't describe how this will proceed. 

This contract was apparently part of a trio announced back on September 29 but is just now getting talked about in sources I reference daily.  The three contracts were related to JETSON.  Intuitive Machines received a $9.4 million contract to design a spacecraft concept utilizing a compact radioisotope power system - and yes, that's the same Intuitive Machines that is preparing to launch their lunar lander mission NET January 12.  The other contract was to Westinghouse Government Services, based in South Carolina, to continue research into utilizing high-power nuclear fission systems in spacecraft. 

You might recall Lockheed Martin receiving a contract back in July that's along a similar direction, to build and develop a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) engine.  

Lockheed Martin and BWX technologies under DARPA’s DRACO (the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program and in partnership with NASA will build the nuclear thermal rocket. NASA and DARPA are committing up to $499 million towards this program.

To editorialize just a little: it's about time.  The future is undoubtedly nuclear and totally different propulsion from the chemical explosions we use now.  As I said back in 2011, go outside on a clear, dark night.  Wait until your eyes are used to the dark and look up.  Everything you see that is shining by its own light is nuclear powered.  Everything you see shining in reflected sunlight (the moon, the planets), all of that is lit by nuclear power.  Now look toward your house or a nearby city.  Everything you see is lit by chemical bonds being broken and re-established.  As someone put it, "everything God powers is nuclear; everything man powers is fire."  Pretty much true.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Ham Radio Series 40 - Ham Radio in the Information Age

If you're one of the many who think of ham radio only in terms of communications after a SHTF event, you can skip this.  It has to do with features that aren't likely to be available in those days, but is more for people who "play on the radio" now, to varying degrees.

"Playing" maybe not in the sense of chatting on the local VHF/UHF repeaters on the way to and from work, but more for people who pursue the Summits On The Air (SOTA) or the Parks On The Air (POTA), two of the more active and more popular special event or special operation activities around today.  Or maybe folks operating QRP (low power) or perhaps chasing some operating achievement, like Worked All States (WAS) or the thousands of other pieces of "Wallpaper" one can strive for.  

Among the most popular pieces of wallpaper that people pursue is one from the American Radio Relay League, called the DX Century Club, and the first level of that award is for proof of successful two way contact with 100 of the league's recognized countries.  One of my first few posts in the blog history was about getting one of those pieces of wallpaper that I called my Lifetime Achievement Award in ham radio, proof of contact with (always referred to as "working") at least 100 recognized countries on five ham radio bands - what's called 5BDXCC.  Now, 13 years later, I've added another three bands up to 8BDXCC and I'm more than halfway to my ninth band. 

When you're striving for these awards for a certain number of confirmed contacts, whether SOTA, POTA, WAS, or whatever, you need to be aware of who's on the air and which entities you need.  A classic information problem.  Back in the second half of the 1970s when I was getting started, sometimes a group of guys would put up a 2m repeater and tell each other what they were hearing.  Broadcasting wouldn't be legal, so they wouldn't (usually!) say "Hey everybody, I hear Albania on 7.020 MHz CW, listening up 2;" they'd call each other and act like they were just keeping in touch.  More like, "W4ABC this is W4CDE.  I hear ZA1TTM on 7.020.  Do you hear him?" 

This was before home computers existed, well, maybe in the very earliest days of them, so no BBSes and decades before the Internet.  Now with the vast majority of us carrying a computer with us that would have been unimaginably powerful in the late '70s, it's natural to use them to our advantage.  The old standby that "the three most important things are to listen, listen and listen" is still there, but what if you didn't have do all that listening with your butt in your chair in front of the radio?  What if you could be notified that someone near you was hearing the station you'd like to work without actually having them call you on the phone, but send an alert to your phone?  Or what if you could pipe audio from your receiver to another place in the house?  That way, your butt only needs to be in that chair when you're trying to work that station. To take it a logical step farther, let's say you're trying for some particular state or other identifier that only happens rarely or that you've never heard.  You could turn the radio on but you could just be notified while you're doing some other thing that needs to be done.  Minimize your BIC (Butt In Chair) time in front of the radio.

Let me give an example that happened to me in the last week.  There's an application (also available as a website) called HamAlert.  Totally free to use.  HamAlert allows you to set various triggers that define when the program will send you a notice.  You can set it up to send a text message to your phone or the app itself on your phone.  The latest wallpaper I'm working toward is centered on the six meter ham band and the only trigger I've defined is for the last two states I need for WAS, Alaska and Hawaii.  The way the alert works is their software combs many of websites where this sort of contact gets reported, and you tell it what condition you want to be notified of when it happens.  In my case, I chose to be notified if anyone in Florida reports hearing either state. 

Screen capture of my only working trigger.

A week ago, while reading the Sunday comics online, I heard an unusual tone from my phone and when I looked down, I saw a report from HamAlert about a guy in Miami hearing Hawaii.  I don't have the specifics on the guy who reported it, but Miami is around 175 miles south of me.  It seemed unlikely I'd be able to hear the Hawaiian but I went back to the radio, turned it on and there he was.  He was using FT8 mode, which I use regularly, and while he wasn't the only station I heard on the band, there might have been two or three other stations I could hear, all in Florida.  I got the Hawaiian on my second or third call.  Today, I found that he confirmed by ARRL's online QSL method LOTW (Logbook Of The World).  I had sent him a paper card and Self Addressed Stamped Envelope last week. 

In my roughly 20 years playing on 6m, I've never even heard Hawaii, and I wouldn't have gone into the shack without that alert.  This is a multifaceted topic and far too much for a single blog post, so I plan to do "the next few" posts on quiet days on this subject.  I'm not extremely far down this road myself; I've done more in the last two months than before. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Looks Like It's On

Looks like it's on like Donkey Kong for next Friday - as of the latest, best guess. 

Screen capture from Next Spaceflight.

I'm not going to swear up and down that this is going to happen; 24 hours ago the date was Wednesday the 15th, so things can and will move that around.  In particular, a web search to determine if the Fish and Wildlife Service has completed their environmental review doesn't turn up any reports that they have, while some reports say that they haven't.  Which means SpaceX is still waiting for their launch license.  In fact, they destacked the B9S25 combination today.  It's true that the ship can be restacked quickly if need be, but yesterday virtually everyone was thinking they're done with preps and we won't see them unstacked again. 

And now for something completely different

Just because the oddity caught my eye, there were two stories on in the part of the site dedicated to observing. 

First was that there's a newly discovered comet reaching peak brightness (Nov. 10 - it's just a question of how slowly it dims).  The comet, C/2023 H2 (or Comet Lemmon), is in the summer constellation of Hercules but peak brightness isn't going to knock your socks off.  Hercules is low in the western sky around sundown, depending on where you are, of course.

According to In the Sky from New York City, comet C/2023 H2 (Lemmon) will become visible at around 5:49 p.m. EST (2249 GMT). At this time, the comet will be 50 degrees over the horizon to the west as the sky darkens (the width of your fist at arm's length equals about ten degrees). After this, comet C/2023 H2 (Lemmon) will remain visible until around 10:29 p.m. EST (0339 GMT on Nov. 11), when it sinks to the horizon. 

While at peak brightness, the comet will shine at roughly magnitude 5.5.  The term "naked eye" is used for objects brighter than magnitude 6.0, but 6.0 isn't visible unless you have a rather dark sky.  Which means you're observing miles from the nearest city.  At least an hour away.

The second story was about the tool bag that NASA Astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O'Hara lost during their spacewalk back on November 2nd.  The tool bag is orbiting the Earth, passing overhead a little in front of the ISS and should be visible if you look for it.  Sources say it's about one minute ahead of the ISS and that time will stretch out as the atmosphere starts to reduce its altitude.

The tool bag is now orbiting our planet just ahead of the ISS with a visual magnitude of around 6, according to EarthSky.

That makes the tool bag more likely to be a binocular object than naked eye, and binoculars will be needed pretty much anywhere that isn't rural dark sky.  

The strategy is to observe the trajectory of the ISS, and to scan the sky in the area just ahead of the space station.

As the small object gradually loses height, it should appear between two and four minutes ahead of the ISS during the next few days.

What's the connection?  Why did I notice?  Both the comet and the tool bag are virtually the same brightness.  Both will require binoculars unless you're in really dark skies.  One is totally natural while the other is man-made - and woman-dropped.  

Yes, I went there.  Didn't everybody go there 10 days ago when they lost it?  EarthSky points out this isn't the first time a tool bag has been Lost In Space.  That time was a woman as well.  

And this isn’t the first time a NASA astronaut has lost a tool bag. On November 18, 2008, astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper was performing a similar repair at the International Space Station when she inadvertently lost a tool bag.

Which isn't to say that guys don't drop tools and lose them overboard.  I'd just guess that all I ever read about guys losing is 10mm wrenches or sockets so since it wasn't a guy, the bag probably include one of those.