Tag: Space

Called It

Not Life as We Know It

Last September, I noted that further examination of the detection of the chemical phosphine on Venus was likely not the result of the chemistry of life, and that further scientific scrutiny would show this.

Said scientific scrutiny has occurred, and while the original authors say that the presence of the chemical points to existence of life, they admit that they overstated the amounts of phosphine detected:

In September of last year, a paper announced a startling finding: evidence that a highly unstable chemical is present in the atmosphere of Venus. Since the chemical is expected to be destroyed rather quickly in the Venusian environment, its presence seems to imply that there was a steady source of the chemical, somehow feeding it into the atmosphere of the planet. Looking over the components of that atmosphere, the researchers concluded there’s no obvious way of producing it, which creates a mystery.

Since the chemical, called phosphine (PH3), had already been suggested as a possible sign of living things, speculation immediately began about the possibility of this being evidence of something alive in the clouds of Venus.


The original report had two key portions. One of them was a look at the possible chemical pathways that could be active under the conditions found in Venus’ atmosphere. This failed to come up with any ideas as to what, other than life, could be making phosphine. There still could be potential issues here, but none has surfaced so far. Instead, critiques of the original analysis have focused on the second portion of the September paper: the evidence that phosphine is in the atmosphere of Venus. This was obtained by using telescopes to look at a point in the electromagnetic spectrum where phosphine absorbs light, creating a signature of its presence.

Overall, this evidence seemed fairly robust. It was based on data from two telescopes, so hardware seemed unlikely to be a complication. The researchers processed the data using two independently developed software pipelines, suggesting the math behind the analysis was also likely to be solid. The big complication is the presence of another chemical, sulfur dioxide, that we know is in the atmosphere of Venus. Sulfur dioxide has a spectral signature line near the location of the signal created by phosphine.

But the researchers looked for other spectral signatures of sulfur dioxide, and they didn’t see any. So, they concluded it was rare or absent at the altitude where they were looking for phosphine (just above the planet’s clouds).


In this case, the calibration had some issues, and the data was reprocessed before being placed in a public archive. So, the researchers went back and redid their analysis using the updated ALMA data. While they say the signal’s still there, it’s not as prominent. Originally, the researchers had suggested that phosphine levels were in the neighborhood of 20 parts-per-billion. With the recalibrated data, this drops to somewhere between one and four parts-per-billion.

The researchers still indicate that the detection is “reasonably secure,” but the reduced levels make it easier for other sources of noise to swamp.


As mentioned above, the researchers developed two different software pipelines to process the data to search for the spectral signal of phosphine. That makes it less likely that the detection was an artifact hidden in the details of the processing. But “less likely” is not the same as “impossible.”

Two manuscripts have been posted that use yet other approaches to process the same data and look for spectral signatures. The first of these finds that the method used by the original paper artificially suppresses background noise, thus enhancing the apparent significance of any signals. When the researchers redo the analysis to handle this issue, the find the phosphine signal is still there, but it drops below the usual standards for statistical significance, since there’s more noise around it.

The second document simply tries a variety of statistical fits to the data and finds that most of them don’t produce a significant phosphine signal. So, it also concludes there’s no significant signal there.


But at least two manuscripts have appeared at the arXiv that suggest the data comes not from the cloud tops but instead from a region of the upper atmosphere called the mesosphere. The first manuscript simply explores whether the signal might actually be sulfur dioxide after all. It concludes that sulfur dioxide in the mesosphere can produce a signal that’s indistinguishable from the ones seen in the original report. For good measure, the draft also performs its own recalibration of the ALMA data and sees the phosphine signal drop to below one part-per-billion.

In the second paper, the authors use a system that models what absorption spectra will look like given different atmospheric concentrations of sulfur dioxide and phosphine. They also find that having sulfur dioxide in the mesosphere produces a signal that’s indistinguishable from the one the original research assigns to phosphine. And the conditions in the mesosphere would also suppress the other signals of sulfur dioxide that the first report had used to argue it wasn’t present.

Phosphine in the mesosphere could produce a similar signal, but the researchers calculate that the different environment there means that a typical phosphine molecule would have a half-life of one second. To produce enough phosphine to keep the mesosphere supplied, it would have to be made at a rate higher than the production of oxygen by all the photosynthetic organisms on Earth. Given that’s just a tiny bit unlikely, the authors suggest we’re just looking at sulfur dioxide.


None of these actually eliminate the possibility that phosphine is present at some level, although that level would have to be lower than the one reported by the original research. What they do collectively accomplish is indicating that there are several possible explanations for the signal seen by the authors, and all of them involve the presence of a chemical that we already know is in Venus’ atmosphere. So that has to be considered the primary explanation for what we’ve observed so far.


So, overall, this seems like a case of science operating as it really should. Even if the end result turns out to be the death of an exciting result, seeing the process work properly helps provide more confidence in those results that do survive a careful reanalysis.

This is how science is supposed to work.

I would also note that this is how science journalism doesn’t work.

Holy Shit! He’s Launching the Orbital Laser Satellites!

I am referring to Elon Musk, who is in the process of adding lasers to his massive StarLink internet satellite constellation.

I understand thatthe official line is that this a technology that involves communications capability, and no ability to do damage, but he would say that, wouldn’t he

Let’s look at the check list:

  • Trace of a vaguely German accent
  • Eccentric megalomaniac
  • Massive wealth
  • Space lasers
  • Expensive cars
  • Legions of fanatical followers
  • White Persian cat

For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, hide the Persian Cats!!!!

Of course, I know that the added lasers are to facilitate satellite to satellite communications, and that they are not a part of any weapons system ……… Yet.

But you have to admit that the Bond Villain aspects of Musk’s life are striking.

This Exceeds My Capability for Mockery

Mike Pence has announced a name for members of the US Space Force, Guardians. (Yes, I am linking to The Guardian for this story, because ……… Guardian) 

Let the mockery begin:

Members of the new US space force will be known as “guardians”, Vice-President Mike Pence announced on Friday, at a ceremony to mark the first birthday of the newest branch of the US armed forces, one of Donald Trump’s signature policy initiatives.

“It is my honour,” Pence said, “on behalf of the president of the United States, to announce that henceforth the men and women of the United States Space Force will be known as guardians.

“Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and guardians will be defending our nation for generations to come.”

On Twitter, the space force said: “The opportunity to name a force is a momentous responsibility. Guardians is a name with a long history in space operations, tracing back to the original command motto of Air Force Space Command in 1983, ‘Guardians of the High Frontier.’


Nonetheless, Pence’s announcement prompted familiar mirth on social media. As Military.com put it: “Space enthusiasts and military members were quick to point out the name Guardians evokes the Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise, about a motley crew of superheroes in space.”

With the Trump administration on its way out of power, the future of the space force seems uncertain. On Saturday, the president tweeted that the “authorisation and start up of the SPACE FORCE” would be seen as “one of the Trump administration’s great achievements”.

But as the Associated Press put it, delicately: “President-elect Joe Biden has yet to reveal his plans for the space force in the next administration.”

My suggestion for the Biden administration: Shut down the, “Space Force,” and take all the people who are not actually doing real work, generals, middle managers, etc. and muster them out of the service, because if they have been assigned to the service in that capacity, they don’t have productive purpose.

Elon Musk!!!!! Space Karen!!!!

I will never not laugh at Space Karen https://t.co/InvR5sTRMy pic.twitter.com/92vQfIyzHi

— dan hett (@danhett) November 16, 2020

Total 0wn493

Call it confirmation bias, but I think that my assesment of Elon Musk, that he is a privileged self-important stupid person’s idea of a smart person has been validated:

SpaceX boss Elon Musk was forced to miss his firm’s historic rocket launch after testing positive for Covid-19.

Four astronauts were blasted into orbit aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday night, marking the company’s first fully-fledged crewed mission to the International Space Station.

Mr Musk, who is usually present during major launches, could not attend after receiving two positive coronavirus tests and exhibiting minor symptoms of the virus.

Nasa rules forbid anyone from entering their facilities following a positive test, no matter what their position or role.


Mr Musk had previously questioned the legitimacy of the results, claiming that he had tested both positive and negative for Covid-19 on Thursday.

“Something extremely bogus is going on,” he tweeted. “Was tested for covid four times today. Two tests came back negative, two came back positive. Same machine, same test, same nurse. Rapid antigen test.”


In March, Mr Musk declared that “the coronavirus pandemic is dumb.”

Since then, nearly more than 11 million people have been infected and nearly a quarter of a million people have died from the virus in the US alone.

One Twitter user dubbed him “Space Karen” for his perceived indifference towards the pandemic, causing the term to trend across the platform.

Dr Emma Bell responded to his tweet by noting that rapid antigen tests only detect Covid-19 “when you’re absolutely riddled with it”.

She tweeted: “What’s bogus is that Space Karen didn’t read up on the test before complaining to his millions of followers.”

Now, whenever I refer to Elon Musk in the future, he will be “Space Karen”.

Dr. Emma Bell should get a Pulitzer for that.

Reading the Tea Leaves

In Space!!!!

It appears that there has been a tiny air leak in the International Space Station for months that they have been unable to identify, and they finally found it using loose tea leaves:

The International Space Station has been leaking an unusual amount of air since September 2019.

At first crew members held off on troubleshooting the issue, since the leak wasn’t major. But in August the leak rate increased, prompting astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the orbiting laboratory to try to locate its source in earnest.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, announced on Thursday that crew members had finally pinpointed the leak after devising an unusual test: They let tea leaves guide their search.

The cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin released a few leaves from a tea bag in the transfer chamber of the Zvezda Service Module, the section of the station’s Russian segment that houses a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and bathroom. Then the crew members sealed the chamber by closing its hatches and monitored the tea leaves on cameras as they floated in microgravity.

The leaves slowly floated toward a scratch in the wall near the module’s communication equipment — evidence that it was a crack through which air was escaping.

The crew has since patched the leak using Kapton tape, Roscosmos said on Monday.

Behold the power of tea.

Today in Appropriate Priorities

I’m taking on a new mission, one that keeps my feet planted here firmly on Earth and prioritizes my most important crew – my family. I’ll still be working hard with the #Starliner team and the @NASA_Astronauts on our crew. pic.twitter.com/PgdhPqwYQS

— Christopher Ferguson (@Astro_Ferg) October 7, 2020

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson has bowed out of the first manned flight of the first “Starliner” flight because it conflicts with his daughter’s wedding

 I wholeheartedly approve:

It was a defining moment for Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson when he chose dedication to family over a flight to the International Space Station.

Serving as the commander of Boeing’s first astronaut-led flight, Ferguson announced Wednesday that he has pulled himself off the crew so he can attend his daughter’s wedding next year. Ferguson posted a video on Twitter that revealed his decision to stay at home with family.


The Rugged Individualist

I am referring, of course, to Elon Musk, whose empire has been subsidized to the tune of almost $5 billion.

The actual number is likely far higher, given the indirect subsidies received, such as allowing PayPal, where he made original fortune, function like a bank without having to follow banking regulations, “Because ……… Internet.”

All of these fortunes have resulted from government subsidies, whether it’s Amazon’s early ability to evade sales taxes, Google’s military funding, etc.

The reporters at the LA Times have almost certainly missed some of the subsidies, because many, if not most, of them are indirect:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.


Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

These are not long-shot startups.  These are meticulously constructed to extract maximum subsidies.

Also, SolarCity was not a long-shot, it was a corrupt bailout of his cousins who had run the company into the ground.

But public subsidies for Musk’s companies stand out both for the amount, relative to the size of the companies, and for their dependence on them.

“Government support is a theme of all three of these companies, and without it none of them would be around,” said Mark Spiegel, a hedge fund manager for Stanphyl Capital Partners who is shorting Tesla’s stock, a bet that pays off if Tesla shares fall.

Yes, they are short sellers, but that should not mask Musk’s hypocrisy in preaching rugged individualism while meticulously constructing his companies to maximize taxpayer subsidies.

Tweet of the Day

Space exploration is being used by billionaires as a narrative management tool to sell the myth of unlimited expansionism. These guys know ecosystemic collapse is coming at us far faster than their little space dildos can happen but they need the idea of it to keep us at bay.

— Caitlin Johnstone ⏳ (@caitoz) August 7, 2020

This is a cynical view of the the oligarchs’ space activities, but there is precedent.

One need only look at all the libraries named after the 19th robber-barons.

When Ajit Pai Seizes the Moral High Ground………

Of course, when your competition is Elon Musk, it’s a low bar to clear.

Pai just called out Musk’s play for government subsidies by labeling his Starlink satellite network high latency:

The Federal Communications Commission is not convinced that SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network will be able to deliver the low latencies promised by CEO Elon Musk. As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is proposing limits on SpaceX’s ability to apply for funding from a $16 billion rural-broadband program.

While traditional satellite broadband generally suffers from latency of about 600ms, Musk says that Starlink will offer “latency below 20 milliseconds, so somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level.”

Everyone expects Starlink to offer much lower latency than traditional satellites because SpaceX satellites are being launched in low Earth orbits ranging from 540km to 570km. By contrast, geostationary satellites used for broadband orbit at about 35,000km.

“SpaceX claims that because its low-Earth orbit satellite system operates at ‘an altitude of 550 kilometers,’ it can deliver roundtrip latency at less than 50ms,” according to a public draft of Pai’s proposed rules for the $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund distribution. But the FCC plans to classify SpaceX and all other satellite operators as high-latency providers for purposes of the funding distribution, saying the providers haven’t proven they can deliver low-latency broadband.


SpaceX and other satellite operators are also being ruled ineligible for a gigabit tier. Both the latency and gigabit decisions would put SpaceX at a disadvantage. As Pai said in an announcement, his plan “prioritizes bids offering to provide even faster speeds (up to a gigabit) and lower latency by giving those bids greater weight in the auction and awarding support to the bidder offering the best combination of speed and latency in each area.”

SpaceX has made demonstrations, but they are breadboards conducted under optimum conditions.

Once Starlink is in service, and is serving customers in the real world, that decision can be revisited, but my guess is that the claims of high bandwidth and low latency will be as much of an illusion as Tesla’s claims of self driving cars being just around the corner.

Boeing is Broken

Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is facing 61 safety issues, because those stock buybacks have to come from somewhere, I guess:

Boeing faces 61 safety fixes following last year’s botched test flight of its Starliner crew capsule, NASA said Friday.

NASA has also designated December’s aborted space station mission as a serious “high-visibility close call” that could have destroyed the capsule—twice.

In releasing the outcome of a joint investigation, NASA said it still has not decided whether to require Boeing to launch the Starliner again without a crew, or go straight to putting astronauts on board.

Douglas Loverro, NASA’s human exploration and operation chief, told reporters that Boeing must first present a plan and schedule for the 61 corrective actions. Boeing expects to have a plan in NASA’s hands by the end of this month.

Boeing needs to fire every single one of its executives.

Bobble head dolls could do a better job.

Clearly, We are Preparing to Invade Endor

Smart call on the Space Force camouflage.

Never know when you’re gonna have to blend into a space jungle or hide behind a space bush.


— SarcasticRover (@SarcasticRover) January 18, 2020

I know this is hard to understand, but on the left there is a picture of camouflage and on the right there is a picture of space. Study these carefully until you can see the difference. pic.twitter.com/7HhAeHRyrm

— JRehling (@JRehling) January 18, 2020

Now we’re talking. Let’s get that sweet military contract. Do you want to underbid me this time? Or shall I underbid you? #spacefarce pic.twitter.com/7i3dQnlhsk

— HartbrakебляMcCarthy (@BumpItMcCarthy) January 18, 2020

ShopBop has been hired to design the new #SpaceForceCamo uniforms. A sneak peak: pic.twitter.com/oOnl8jmiCU

— Ken Smith (@KenSmith) January 18, 2020

This would explain why the newly constituted US Space Force will have a camouflage uniform.

The alternative, that they have discovered space jungles, is too absurd to consider.

Needless to say, Twitter is going insane over this:

The U.S. Space Force on Friday offered a first look at its utility uniforms with its service name tape, unleashing a torrent of mockery over the decision to use a camouflage pattern for a military branch associated with the dark endlessness of the universe.

“Space Force” soon began trending on Twitter — mostly not because of excitement about the uniform.

“Smart call on the Space Force camouflage,” one Twitter user wrote. “Never know when you’re gonna have to blend into a space jungle or hide behind a space bush.”

“I’m dressed better for Space Force than this and I’m wearing $10 leggings from Target,” said one woman, who shared a photo of leggings with images of cats floating in space.

Another person posted a picture of a camouflage pattern next to a completely black box. “Study these carefully until you can see the difference,” he wrote in response to the Space Force.

The reality, as it usually is, is actually a bit more prosaic.

Their new uniform is, except for the various badges, reuses the existing camouflage uniforms, because, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Why spend all that money on a new uniform?

Then again, why spend all that money on standing up the cockamamie idea of a Space Force in the first place?

Looks Like FCC and SpaceX are in for a World of Hurt

It appears that the FCC’s approval of the SpaceX Starlink satellite constellation may have made a complete dog’s breakfast out of their review and approval process:

A battle for the sky is raging, and the heavens are losing. Upcoming mega constellations of satellites, designed to blanket Earth orbit in spacecraft beaming high-speed Internet around the world, risk filling the firmament with tens of thousands of moving points of light, forever changing our view of the cosmos. Astronomers who rely on unsullied skies for their profession and members of the general public who enjoy the natural beauty of what lies above stand to lose out. The arrival of such a large number of satellites “has the potential to change our relationship, and our connection, with the universe,” says Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association. But with no binding international laws or regulations in place to protect the night sky, anyone opposing the advancement of mega constellations is surely fighting a losing battle. Right?


A new paper to be published later this year in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law argues that the Federal Communications Commission—the agency responsible for licensing the operation of these constellations in the U.S.—should have considered the impact these satellites would have on the night sky. In ignoring a key piece of federal environmental legislation, the FCC could be sued in a court of law—and lose—potentially halting further launches of mega constellations until a proper review is carried out.

“Astronomers are having these issues [and think] there’s nothing they can do legally,” says the paper’s author Ramon Ryan, a second-year law student at Vanderbilt University. “[But] there is this law, the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA, pronounced ‘Nee-pah’], which requires federal agencies to take a hard look at their actions. The FCC’s lack of review of these commercial satellite projects violates [NEPA], so in the most basic sense, it would be unlawful.”

Enacted in 1970, NEPA obligates all federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of any projects they approve. Such impacts cover a variety of issues, from the effects of casino barges on rivers to any project’s contributions to climate change—the latter has been a recent target of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks. The reviews can take multiple years, producing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of pages of paperwork. Federal agencies can circumvent NEPA, however, if they are granted a “categorical exclusion” for some or all of their activities—usually by arguing that such activities do not impact the environment and thus do not require review. The FCC has had a sweeping categorical exclusion since 1986 across almost all of its activities—including its approval of space projects—despite other agencies involved in space—most notably NASA—being required to conduct NEPA reviews.

“There are other agencies that use categorical exclusions, but I don’t think there is one that’s as broad as this,” says Kevin Bell, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit organization that works with government whistle-blowers on environmental issues. “It is a policy that was designed for another time, before large scale space exploration.”

In light of the concerns about the impacts of satellites on the night sky, Ryan says, this categorical exclusion would be unlikely to stand up in a court of law. SpaceX alone has been licensed by the FCC to launch 12,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation in the coming years, dwarfing the current number of approximately 1,500 active satellites in orbit—and the company has plans for 30,000 more. It has already launched about 180 Starlink satellites, with another 1,500 scheduled for 2020. Following the first launch of 60 satellites in May 2019, many observers were surprised by their brightness at dawn and dusk—popular times for both astronomy and simple stargazing. “That’s the time that most people enjoy the sky,” Hartley says. “These new satellites are brighter than 99 percent of [those] in orbit at the moment. And really, that’s the root of this concern.”

In its reasoning for its categorical exclusion, the FCC states that its actions “have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and are categorically excluded from environmental processing.” Ryan says that the FCC may have been wrong in this assessment, however. “The FCC has never performed a study showing why commercial satellites deserved to be classified as categorically excluded from review,” he says. “And the evidence shows that these satellites are having an environmental impact. If the FCC were sued over its noncompliance with NEPA, it would likely lose.”


A key question is whether the night sky could be argued to fall under NEPA in a federal court. According to Section 1508 of the policy, there are both direct and indirect effects that can warrant NEPA review, with the latter including “aesthetic, historic, [and] cultural” ones. Ryan says that these factors could, in a court of law, be argued to apply to the night sky. “I definitely think that the night sky would fall under [that],” he says.

Considering Elon Musk’s record of “regulatory arbatrage”, and general lack of concern for the consequences of his actions, the creation of PayPal was an exercise in evading banking regulations, the FCC should have gone over his application with a fine toothed comb.

Rover McRoverface?

They only want K-12 students to help, so talk to your younger friends, or the children of your younger friends, and get them to suggest “Rover McRoverface.”

You could also suggest “Wade” as in “Rover Wade”, if you want to see someone’s head explode:

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is beginning to take shape. Earlier this month, crews installed some of its legs and six of its wheels. Now, the vehicle needs a name, and for that, NASA is turning to students. Beginning in fall 2019, NASA will run a nationwide “Name the Rover” contest open to K-12 students in the US. The spacecraft will need a name by July 2020, when it’s expected to launch.

The contest is part of NASA’s ongoing effort to engage the public in its Moon to Mars mission, which will search for signs of microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology and pave the way for human exploration. If you’re not a K-12 student but want to get involved, NASA is also accepting applications to judge the contest submissions.

Bad Day at the Office

The SpaceX Dragon crew capsule experienced an anomaly during testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

In plain language, it blew up.

There are no repeated casualties:

An accident Saturday during an abort engine test on a Crew Dragon test vehicle at Cape Canaveral sent a reddish-orange plume into the sky visible for miles around, a setback for SpaceX and NASA as teams prepare the capsule for its first mission with astronauts.

SpaceX is testing the Crew Dragon ahead of the capsule’s first test flight with astronauts later this year, following a successful Crew Dragon demonstration mission to the International Space Station in early March.

SpaceX confirmed the accident, first reported by Florida Today, in a statement Saturday evening. No injuries were reported.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson said. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

The red plume in the photo is from the nitrogen tetroxide propellant.

World’s Largest White Elephant Takes to the Sky

I am referring, of course to the late Paul Allen’s abortive Stratolaunch program:

On Saturday morning, exactly 45 minutes after the sun began to rise over the Mojave Desert, the largest airplane ever created—and its record-breaking 385-foot wingspan—took off for the very first time. The aircraft, from the company Stratolaunch, has been eight years in the making. By 2022, the company hopes to use the twin-fuselage, six-engined, catamaran-style aircraft to launch satellite-bearing rockets into space.

“All of you have been very patient and very tolerant over the years waiting for us to get this big bird off the ground, and we finally did it,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd told reporters on a press call. The company reported the airplane hit speeds of 189mph and heights of 17,000 feet during its 150-minute test flight, before landing safely at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

“The systems on the airplane ran like a watch,” test pilot Evan Thomas told reporters. But the day’s events were bittersweet. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longtime space enthusiast who founded and funded the Stratolaunch project, passed away last October at age 65 from complications related to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “Even though he wasn’t there today, as the plane lifted gracefully from the runway, I did whisper a ‘thank you’ to Paul for allowing me to be a part of this remarkable achievement,” Floyd said.

One day soon, Stratolaunch hopes to carry 250-ton rocket ships loaded with satellites to a height of 35,000 feet—into the stratosphere. Once at cruising altitude, a rocket’s engines would ignite, carrying it and its satellite cargo the rest of the way into space. Only a select few facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, can handle rocket launches, which means tight competition for scheduling and long wait times. Airplanes can take off from many more runways, which Stratolaunch hopes will give its aircraft a competitive edge for those wishing to launch satellites into orbit.

The aircraft is a white elephant because, as I noted a few months back, Stratolaunch was designed as an airborne launcher for rockets, but Stratolaunch has abandoned its development for launchers, so there is nothing for it to launch.

There are, and never will be, “250-ton rocket ships loaded with satellites,” for it to carry.

There is talk of Stratolaunch being used to carry the Pegasus XL, but that is 25 tons, and has already been launched from an almost certainly cheaper to operate Lockheed L-1011 carrier, so I do not see how it would make any sense from an economic or a business perspective, even with Stratolaunch having the ability to launch 3 Pegasus XLs simultaneously.

Bad Day at the Office

The Brereshet space probe crashed into the moon.

There was some sort of failure, and the engine shut down on descent:

On April 11, an Israeli lander named after the Hebrew word for “Genesis” attempted to mark a new beginning for space exploration by becoming the first privately funded spacecraft to touch down on the moon. Built by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, the Beresheet lander tried to softly land within Mare Serenitatis, a vast volcanic basin on the moon’s northern near side—but as it made its descent, the spacecraft’s main engine failed. Engineers reset the spacecraft but lost communications, and the 330-pound lander ultimately crashed.

On April 12, SpaceIL released preliminary data from the last few moments of the mission, which show that despite resetting Beresheet, the spacecraft was descending at more than 300 miles an hour while it was less than 500 feet from touchdown, leading to “the inevitable collision with the lunar surface.”

This really sucks wet farts from dead pigeons.

What is DARPA’s Endgame Here?

Nuclear thermal rockets typically have around twice the Isp (basically fuel economy) of chemical rockets, on the order of 800—1000, which is a lot less than than electric propulsion, which is typically ten times that of chemical rockets, but the available thrust produced is far greater, 100-1000 kilo-newtons for nuclear thermal vs. 10-500 milli-newtons for the various electric rockets.

For longer missions, Mars and the further, it’s clear that electric propulsion is better and faster, so the only applications that I see are some sort of manned moon base, or an as yet undisclosed military mission:

DARPA plans to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system that can be assembled on orbit to expand U.S. operating presence in cislunar space, according to the Pentagon advanced research agency’s fiscal 2020 budget request.

The agency is seeking $10 million in 2020 to begin a new program, Reactor On A Rocket (ROAR), to develop a high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) propulsion system. “The program will initially develop the use of additive manufacturing approaches to print NTP fuel elements,” DARPA’s budget document says.

“In addition, the program will investigate on-orbit assembly techniques (AM) to safely assemble the individual core element subassemblies into a full demonstration system configuration, and will perform a technology demonstration,” the document says.

In a nuclear thermal rocket, propellant such as liquid hydrogen is heated to high temperature in a nuclear reactor then expanded through a rocket nozzle to produce thrust. Propulsive efficiency, or specific impulse, can be twice that of a chemical rocket.

Given the advances in electric propulsion, I do not see where nuclear thermal will have an advantage, except possibly for supplying a moon base or some as yet undisclosed military program.