Tag: Space

Not a Surprise

Less than 6 months after the death of it’s founder, and primary funder, software billionaire Paul Allen, Stratolaunch has ended its booster and rocket development process.

This is not a surprise.

It was, at it’s core a rich man’s hobby, and with Allen gone, I am sure that the company will be far more resource limited than before:

Air launch space company Stratolaunch has abandoned development of a family of dedicated launchers and PGA rocket engines destined for deployment from the company’s very large carrier aircraft currently poised for first flight at Mojave, California.

The shocking move comes just weeks after Stratolaunch achieved the first long duration runs on its ”PGA” rocket engine’s preburner in tests at NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi — and only three months after the death of Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen. Described by Stratolaunch leaders as “the world’s most efficient hydrogen engine”, the PGA was expected to begin full-scale testing in 2020 and was to power a family of launchers unveiled by the company.

Although Stratolaunch has given no explanation for the abrupt cancellation of the ambitious project, development costs are thought to have risen steeply as testing accelerated. The company says only that “we are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle. We are immensely proud of what we have accomplished and look forward to first flight in 2019.”

My prediction, and my record on predictions is crappy, is that there will be a few launches, but that it won’t manage to be a meaningful player in the commercial launch space.

Finally, Some Good News

Watch NASA Staff Lose their Sh%$ Completely (about 2:55)

NASA’s InSight probe nailed the landing on Mars:

NASA has not botched a Mars landing since December 1999, when the Polar Lander fell silent following its powered descent to Planum Australe. Then came the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix lander and, in 2012, the bellwether Curiosity rover, which discovered organic materials and habitable environments on Mars.

Still, NASA downplayed the chances of InSight surviving atmospheric entry, descent and landing (EDL) on the wide, flat plains of Mars’ Elysium Planitia, located 4.5 deg. N. Lat. and 135.9 deg. E. Long., about 340 mi. (550 km) away from where Curiosity is exploring Gale Crater.

With an 8.1-min. time delay for radio signals from Earth to reach Mars 91 million mi. away, flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) here had little to do but watch and wait as InSight shed its cruise stage and dived into the Martian atmosphere at 11:47 a.m. PST (2:47 p.m. EST) on Nov. 26, with the probe still traveling at more than 12,000 mph.

A tense 6.5 min. followed as InSight, built by Lockheed Martin, traveled the final 77 mi. to the surface of Mars. Its ablative heat shield, composed primarily of crushed cork, reached temperatures as high as 2,700F—hot enough to melt steel—as friction from Mars’ atmosphere bled the spacecraft of kinetic energy, gradually trimming its speed to 295 mph.

At 11:51 a.m. PST, a mortar fired to release InSight’s 39-ft.-dia. supersonic parachute, which inflated with a force of 12,500 lb./ft.2, leaving the probe free to shed its heat shield, deploy three shock-absorbing landing legs and activate a ground-facing radar system to relay altitude and descent rates to the onboard flight computer.

Finally, a dozen Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-107N retrorockets, each capable of providing 68 lb. of force, pulsed to steer InSight clear of its discarded backshell and parachute and slow its speed to 5.5 mph for a soft landing on Mars at 11:54 a.m. PST. “This never gets old,” JPL chief engineer Rob Manning said during NASA’s landing webcast.

Unfortunately, no Mohawk guy, but a good time was had by all.


Some professors at Harvard are suggesting that the ‘Oumuamua interstellar object might be some form of space craft:

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (AKA ‘Oumuamua).

In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!).

A new study by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken it a step further, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may actually be a light sail of extra-terrestrial origin.

The study – “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?”, which recently appeared online – was conducted by Shmuel Bialy and Prof. Abraham Loeb. Whereas Bialy is a postdoctoral researcher at the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), Prof. Loeb is the director of the ITC, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, and the head chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.

The object has been accelerating away from the sun, which might be caused by out-gassing, but there was no out-gassing on the way in, and the object’s rotation has not changed, which would normally happen with out-gassing.

Unfortunately, we will never know for sure.

Wicked Bad Day at the Office

Look to the left

The moment it goes pear shaped

We now have video of the Soyuz failure, and it was booster separation that caused the mishap:

On Thursday, Russian space officials held a news conference to lay out their findings into an October 11 accident that involved the launch of a Soyuz FG rocket and its spacecraft. The crew of NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin escaped safely, but the rocket was destroyed.

The problem, the officials said, boiled down to a “bent” sensor on one of the rocket’s four boosters that failed to properly signal stage separation. This caused one of the booster stages to improperly separate from the rocket, which can be seen in the video released by the space agency. This booster then struck the core of the rocket, causing a significant jolt and triggering one of the Soyuz spacecraft’s automatic escape systems.

According to the officials, the sensor rod was bent by a little more than 6 degrees, and this happened during assembly of the rocket. The Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, has classified this as a handling error. To fix the process, Soyuz rockets already assembled for launch with their booster packs will be disassembled and reassembled to assure that similar mistakes have not occurred.

It should be noted that, by the standards of man-rated boosters, the Soyuz is quite safe, and the escape system functioned as it should have.

Still, a bummer for the astronauts/cosmonauts and ground crew, no doubt.

Teaching an Old Plane New Tricks

Two versions of the MiG-31, one carrying the Kinzhal missile, top, and the other carrying what might be an updated version of the Kontact for anti-satellite use. Credit: Piotr Butowski

Specifically, the MiG 31 Foxhound, which looks to be leveraging its high speed and high altitude performance to perform as a satellite launcher and ASAT platform:

The Mikoyan MiG-31 interceptor has found a second life—in fact, more than one. Not only has the aircraft known to NATO as the Foxhound been extensively upgraded, but it has also taken on new tasks: as an air-launcher for the Kinzhal ground-strike system and as an aerospace missile system to deliver small satellites to orbit or fight enemy satellites.

In September, at the Russian aviation industry’s test center in Zhukovsky near Moscow, an experimental MiG-31, No. 81, performed its first flight with an extremely large unknown missile suspended on the centerline pylon. The first high-speed taxiing of this coupling was done several months earlier.

The current program is supposed to be a follow-on of the 30P6 Kontakt (Contact) satellite intercept program of 1984-95, under which the MiG-31D aircraft using the Fakel 79M6 missile was made, and the improved MiG-31DM with the Fakel 95M6 missile was being designed.


The advantage of an airborne anti-satellite system over a ground-based one is longer range: The MiG-31 can deliver a missile over a distance of up to 1,000 km (621 mi.) before launch. The characteristics of the current system remain unknown. But they are probably similar to those of the previous Kontakt system, which was intended to destroy nonmaneuvering or maneuvering satellites in low orbits.

The 79M6 missile, weighing 4,550 kg (10,000 lb.), was launched by a MiG-31D flying at a speed of Mach 2.55 and altitude of 22 km. Its target was at an altitude of 120-600 km, depending on the distance. The missile flight time was 100-380 sec. The satellite was to be destroyed by a direct hit or detonation of a small, 20-kg explosive charge. The target was designated for the MiG-31 by the ground-based 45Zh6 Krona (Crown) system, consisting of a large decameter and centimeter-wavelength electronic-scanning radar and optical-laser locator and rangefinder. The Krona system was overhauled and upgraded in 2009-10.


The Russians have offered several systems for launching commercial satellites using the MiG-31 platform, but none of the designs has materialized. In 2001, Russia Aircraft Corp. (RSK) MiG MiG unveiled the MiG-31S project, a platform for two vehicles developed by the Astra Research Centre at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI): the Micron rocket and Aerospace Rally System (ARS) rocket plane. The Micron was to be able to launch a 200-kg satellite to an altitude of 100 km, or 50 kg to 300 km. The ARS was to be a three-seat vehicle for suborbital flights (to an altitude of 130 km), intended for astronaut training in weightlessness conditions (up to 3 min.), research of the upper layers of the atmosphere and tourist and advertising flights.

This is contrasted with the US aviation forces, where the closest they come to reusing old airframes is converting them to target drones.

This is a Wicked Bad Day at the Office

I am not sure what a good day at the office is like in Kazakhstan, but I am pretty sure that it does not involve the rocket that you are riding on blowing up:

A Soyuz capsule carrying a U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut completed an emergency landing in Russia on Oct. 11 about 40 min. after the first ballistic abort in the history of the International Space Station (ISS) program.

First reports indicate astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in “good condition” and in contact with search-and-rescue teams sent to recover them, NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean said.

The booster anomaly was identified about 3 min., 15 sec. after liftoff at 4:40 a.m. Eastern time, triggering a ballistic re-entry of the capsule and subjecting the crew to higher-than-normal G forces.

“It is a known mode of descent that crewmembers have gone through before,” Dean said.

The booster anomaly has not been identified or described.


Soyuz used its launch abort system for the first time in September 1983 after a Soyuz T rocket caught fire on the launch pad seconds before liftoff. The capsule’s launch escape system pulled the crew away from the rocket seconds before the vehicle exploded.

The narration in the video below is not completely accurate. It’s someone (probably) in Houston reading from a script.

What is notable is that the “Koralev Cross” which occurs on booster separation, seemed rather odd, so the problem might be something to do with booster separation.

It appears that the escape tower had been jettisoned before the failure, and so the propulsion system for the capsule was used to separate from the booster.

Today in Weird

Source if the leak

The leak in the space station was some screw-up with a drill who tried to hide his mistake:

Last week, a pressure leak occurred on the International Space Station. It was slow and posed no immediate threat to the crew, with the atmosphere leaving the station at a rate such that depressurization of the station would have taken 14 days.

Eventually, US and Russian crew members traced the leak to a 2mm breach in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle that had flown to the space station in June. The module had carried Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, and NASA’s Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor.

The crew on the station was in no danger, and, over the course of several hours, Russian engineers devised a fix that involved epoxy. A preliminary analysis concluded that the vehicle is safe for return to Earth (the orbital module detaches from the small Soyuz capsule before entry into Earth’s atmosphere).

The drama might have ended there, as it was initially presumed that the breach had been caused by a tiny bit of orbital debris. However, recent Russian news reports have shown that the problem was, in fact, a manufacturing defect. It remains unclear whether the hole was an accidental error or intentional. There is evidence that a technician saw the drilling mistake and covered the hole with glue, which prevented the problem from being detected during a vacuum test.

“We are able to narrow down the cause to a technological mistake of a technician. We can see the mark where the drill bit slid along the surface of the hull,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, told RIA Novosti. (A translation of the Russian articles in this story was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell). “We want to find out the full name of who is at fault—and we will.”


In this case, the technician used glue instead of epoxy. As the Soyuz hull is made from an aluminum alloy, it could have been properly repaired on Earth by welding, had the technician reported the mistake.

The Soyuz manufacturing issue represents another significant problem for the Russian space agency’s suppliers and its quality control processes. Already, the manufacturer of Proton rockets, Khrunichev, has had several serious problems that have led to launch failures. Rogozin was recently installed as the leader of Roscosmos to try to clean up corruption and address these kinds of issues.

Seriously, this sh%$ is rocket science, and everyone screws up.  You own it, and the Russians know how to use a TiG welder just as well as anyone else, and the fix along with post weld inspections, should not have taken more than a couple of hours.

Bondo is not an option in space.

One Way to Deal With Limited Launcher Capacity

Israel is working to sharpen its eyes in space, enlisting Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to improve the optical and radar payloads of the spy satellites serving the nation’s intelligence community.

The company is developing a new generation of satellites for even more complex missions, using nanosatellite production and electric propulsion concepts.


In addition to the imagery, Doron says the low weight and a unique set of reaction wheels in IAI’s satellites enable them to capture more usable images of an area of interest in every pass. Special reaction wheels also enable Israeli satellites to carry a smaller amount of hydrazine gas, usually used to enable the satellite’s maneuvers in space and to keep it at the designed altitude.

An ion thruster or drive is a form of electric propulsion used for spacecraft. It creates thrust by accelerating positive ions with electricity for satellites with optical and synthetic aperture payloads. The resolution will be improved, and the way the images are processed on the ground also will be enhanced with very advanced ground stations.

Reaction wheels are basically gyroscopes, and it means that there is no propellant expired to change orientation.

They are also looking at adding electric propulsion for orbital maneuverability:

To further prolong the life of full-size Israeli satellites, the division is evaluating the use of electric propulsion to replace the use of hydrazine. The system will use xenon gas to operate on thrusters, he says. According to Doron, the use of xenon will enable the satellite to orbit the Earth at a lower altitude but give it enough power to correct any loss of altitude that will be caused by greater friction with the atmosphere.

An ion thruster or drive is a form of electric propulsion used for spacecraft. It creates thrust by accelerating positive ions with electricity for satellites with optical and synthetic aperture payloads. The resolution will be improved, and the way the images are processed on the ground also will be enhanced with very advanced ground stations.

An ion drive provides much less thrust than a rocket or a thruster, but it’s ISP (basically fuel economy) is far greater, with about 250 seconds for a thruster, and 3000 seconds for an ion thruster, which means a lot more delta-V with a lot less propellant, which means greater maneuverability and greater time on station.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Russia will not be renewing its contract to deliver US astronauts to the International Space Satation:

Russia’s contract to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz rockets will end in April, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told reporters on Friday.

The expiration piles additional pressure on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to restore its capability to shuttle U.S. crew members back and forth to the orbiting lab. The space agency is contracting with Boeing Co. and SpaceX to develop new vehicles to transport astronauts, but the work has been plagued by delays.

NASA has relied on Russia since retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 ended U.S.-controlled access to the space station. Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration have touted the commercial program’s importance to ending that reliance, especially as diplomatic relations between the nations have deteriorated.

A Soyuz flight planned for April 2019 “will complete the fulfillment of our obligations under a contract with NASA related to the delivery of U.S. astronauts to the ISS and their return from the station,” Borisov said at the Energia Rocket and Space Corp., reported by TASS, Russia’s official news agency.

“Please give me a lift, you evil bastard,” is probably the least effective way to hitchhike into space ever.

Another Magical Space Drive Bites the Dust

The “EM Drive” is alleged to provide reactionless thrust.

Someone finally set up a sensitive and repeatable test protocol, and they measured thrust.

A small fly in the ointment though, the thrust occurred without regard of how the motor was facing.

It appears that the thrust came from the current flowing to the motor, with the magnetic field of the earth acting as a stator, and no thrust came from the motor itself, but the current was pushing against the magnetic field of the earth:

It was bound to happen eventually. A group of researchers that may actually be competent and well-funded is investigating alternative thrust concepts. This includes our favorite, the WTF-thruster EM-drive, as well as something called a Mach-Effect thruster. The results, presented at Space Propulsion 2018, are pretty much as expected: a big fat meh.

The key motivation behind all of this is that rocket technology largely sucks for getting people around the Solar System. And it sucks even worse as soon as you consider the problem of interstellar travel. The result is that good people spend a lot of time eliminating even the most far-fetched ideas. The EM-drive is a case in point. It’s basically a truncated hollow copper cone that you feed electromagnetic radiation into. The radiation bounces around in the cone. And, by some physics-defying magic, unicorns materialize to push you through space.


The key problem seemed to be that the main proponents of crazy space thrusters may actually be pretty bad at doing experiments. All in all, I would have moved on, but others are more thorough than I am.

Let the adults have a go

A group of German scientists has now gotten a reasonable amount of money under the rubric of testing all the things. Basically, because the various space agencies have whispered that no idea is too silly to ignore, we need an effective way to quickly test all the stupid space stuff on the Internet. The Germans are currently building something that is designed to do all that testing. It is an awesome bit of equipment.

First, everything is done in vacuum. And, not just the poor vacuum that you might get by attaching a Hoover to a leaky box—they can get down to a respectable billionth of atmospheric pressure. This is not world-class vacuum, but it is certainly overkill for testing the various WTF-thrusters.

Inside the vacuum, the researchers use a torsion balance attached to a calibrated spring to measure thrust. They’ve got the whole thing automated, so they can level the balance, change the tension of the spring, run calibrations on the torsion bar (they have two methods of calibration), and do tests without ever opening the box. They can even rotate the thruster during the test. Being automated, they can repeat the same measurement under the same conditions multiple times and take the average. The current system is sensitive to around 10nN (nano-Newtons) of force.


Testing all the things

Instead of getting ahold of someone else’s EM drive, or Mach-effect device, the researchers created their own, along with the driving electronics. Let’s start with the EM drive.

The researchers used precision machining and polishing to obtain a microwave cavity that was much better than those previously published. If anything was going to work, this would be the one. The researchers built up a very nice driving circuit that was capable of supplying 50W of power to the cavity. However, the amplifier mountings still needed to be worked on. So, to keep thermal management problems under control, they limited themselves to a couple of Watts in the current tests.

The researchers also inserted an enormous attenuator. This meant that they could, without physically changing the setup, switch on all the electronics and have the amplifiers working at full noise, and all the power would either go to the EM drive or be absorbed in the attenuator. That gives them much more freedom to determine if the thrust was coming from the drive or not.


WTF-thruster is a magnetic WTF-thruster

And the winner is… Physics, without much doubt. Even with a power of just a couple of Watts, the EM-drive generates thrust in the expected direction (e.g., the torsion bar twists in the right direction). If you reverse the direction of the thruster, the balance swings back the other way: the thrust is reversed. Unfortunately, the EM drive also generates the thrust when the thruster is directed so that it cannot produce a torque on the balance (e.g., the null test also produces thrust). And likewise, that “thrust” reverses when you reverse the direction of the thruster.

The best part is that the results are the same when the attenuator is put into the circuit. In this case, there is basically no radiation in the microwave cavity, yet the WTF-thruster thrusts on.

So, where does the force come from? The Earth’s magnetic field, most likely. The cables that carry the current to the microwave amplifier run along the arm of the torsion bar. Although the cable is shielded, it is not perfect (because the researchers did not have enough mu metal). The current in the cable experiences a force due to the Earth’s magnetic field that is precisely perpendicular to the torsion bar. And, depending on the orientation of the thruster, the direction of the current will reverse and the force will reverse. The researchers made some calculations, based on the location of the experiment and the amplifier current, and got a torque that agreed quite well with the measured torque.

This is, of course, not the final word. But it is an excellent cautionary tale. The thrust that the researchers measured with just a couple of Watts of power was the same as that measured previously with 50W of power. And that was all due to a shielding problem. When the amplifiers are properly mounted and the shielding is in place, it will be even more difficult to detect the thrust, because the effects of noise will grow as well. I expect a flood of null results in the next year.

They also did similarly precise tests on something called, “Mach Effect Thrusters,” with similarly dismal results.

Score one for physics.

There may be some ways to cheat the laws of physics, thought Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott has always been dubious of such things, as have I.

If you think that you have a breakthrough in basic physics on the macro level,* check your experimental design and methodology.

You’ve probably f%$#ed something up.

*Note that one does get seemingly “magical” results from some quantum mechanical effects, but these actually reflect the theory, they are just weird, they don’t actually violate the laws of physics they follow it.

I’m With NASA on This

NASA has said that it is profoundly uncomfortable with man rating the SpaceX booster, because one of its core technologies, super-cooled propellants, would require that fuel be loaded when the astronauts are already in the capsule.

I agree.  Cooling LOX and kerosine well below their boiling point prior to loading does increase the total mass of fuel in the tank, but, because of thermal issues, this requires very fast loading immediately before launch, and as such is a menace:

When Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX were looking to make their Falcon 9 rocket even more powerful, they came up with a creative idea — keep the propellant at super-cold temperatures to shrink its size, allowing them to pack more of it into the tanks.

But the approach comes with a major risk, according to some safety experts. At those extreme temperatures, the propellant would need to be loaded just before takeoff — while astronauts are aboard. An accident, or a spark, during this maneuver, known as “load-and-go,” could set off an explosion.

The proposal has raised alarms for members of Congress and NASA safety advisers as the agency and SpaceX prepare to launch humans into orbit as early as this year. One watchdog group labeled load-and-go a “potential safety risk.” A NASA advisory group warned in a letter that the method was “contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years.”

Concerns at NASA over the astronauts’ safety hit a high point when, in September 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blew up while it was being fueled ahead of an engine test. No one was hurt, but the payload, a multimillion-dollar satellite, was lost. The question on many people’s minds at NASA instantly became: What if astronauts were on board?

The fueling issue is emerging as a point of tension between the safety-obsessed space agency and the maverick company run by Musk, a tech entrepreneur who is well known for his flair for the dramatic and for pushing boundaries of rocket science.

he concerns from some at NASA are shared by others. John Mulholland, who oversees Boeing’s contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station and once worked on the space shuttle, said load-and-go fueling was rejected by NASA in the past because “we never could get comfortable with the safety risks that you would take with that approach. When you’re loading densified propellants, it is not an inherently stable situation.

(emphasis mine)

Think about Autopilot.

Also notice the next bit:

SpaceX supporters say tradition and old ways of thinking can be the enemy of innovation and thwart efforts to open the frontier of space.

Greg Autry, a business professor at the University of Southern California, said the load-and-go procedures were a heated issue when he served on Trump’s NASA transition team.

Note that Musk, and the rest of the “eBay Mafia”, made their fortunes by exploiting an area of regulatory forbearance, which allowed them to operate without the (expensive) consumer protections that banks were required.

And note that Greg Autry, is a f%$#ing Business Professor talking about literal rocket science.

Launching unmanned payloads is not as much of an issue, because if Musk attempts to launch something unreliable, the insurance industry will price it into their premiums.

This is not possible with a life on the line.

I would note that even with the NASA safety standard of 1 in every 270 flights with a death, it means that you have a 50% chance of death after 186 flights, and this is what the dotcom and the business types find to be an insufficiently risk-taking culture.

Seriously, this is not ordering shoes online.

A Star Mangled Spanner

It appears that Scientists have managed to adapt 3D metal printing to zero gravity, and have produced a small wrench.

This is actually tougher than it sounds, since the powdered metals used can be explosive in the right (wrong?) proportions, and there is no gravity to hold them down.

This did not actually go into space, they produced the parts on a “vomit comet” flying a parabolic course.

Credit where credit is due, the pun comes from Arthur C. Clarke.

Why Yes, I Do Feel Like Wile E. Coyote

I’m not particularly worried about the impending reentry of the Tiangong-1 space station, but it does conjure up the Chuck Jones Warner Brothers classic animated Road Runner shorts:

I love clicks as much as the next online journalist. I love that there is an uncertain thing happening, with infinite angles to write about and to scare people with. But as the Chinese Tiangong-1 satellite nears its final descent to Earth this weekend, I need to remind you: It’s not a big deal.

The chance of any casualties here is vanishingly small.

I should have sent a magnetized hard hat to Mitch McConnell though.

Taking, “Move Fast and Break Things,” Too Far

Well, it looks like the, “Laws for are for losers,” crowd in Silicon Valley have taken their reckless disregard for our safety and that of the world into space:

On 12 January, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket blasted off from India’s eastern coast. While its primary cargo was a large Indian mapping satellite, dozens of secondary CubeSats from other countries traveled along with it. Seattle-based Planetary Resources supplied a spacecraft that will test prospecting tools for future asteroid miners, Canadian company Telesat launched a broadband communications satellite, and a British Earth-observation mission called Carbonite will capture high-definition video of the planet’s surface.

Also on board were four small satellites that probably should not have been there. SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 were briefly described by the Indian space agency ISRO as “two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices from the United States. No operator was specified, and only ISRO publicly noted that they successfully reached orbit the same day.

IEEE Spectrum can reveal that the SpaceBees are almost certainly the first spacecraft from a Silicon Valley startup called Swarm Technologies, currently still in stealth mode. Swarm was founded in 2016 by one engineer who developed a spacecraft concept for Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple. The SpaceBees were built as technology demonstrators for a new space-based Internet of Things communications network.

Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.

The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds. The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

(emphasis mine)

This is nuts, and it happens because tech in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, have become criminogenic cultures.

To stop this, we need to start aggressively jailing people who do sh%$ like this.

What’s more, we need to aggressively target the VCs who fund this sort of behavior.

Willful blindness doesn’t cut it.

Stopped Clock, NASA Edition

Donald Trump is proposing privatizing the international space station:

The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a kind of orbiting real estate venture run not by the government, but by private industry.

The White House plans to stop funding the station after 2024, ending direct federal support of the orbiting laboratory. But it does not intend to abandon the orbiting laboratory altogether and is working on a transition plan that could turn the station over to the private sector, according to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post.

I actually agree with move.

In scientific terms, the ISS is complete pants.  It has consumed massive resources for next to no scientific value.

Of course, there really isn’t a commercial justification for this either:  Anything that you want to set up tto take advantage of micro-gravity would be cheaper to do without people.

It’s basically a white elephant.

Headline of the Day

Hopeful Martians Emerge From 8-Month Experiment To Find Earth Horrific As Ever


This is an actual news story.

The headline is opinion, but I do understand the sentiment:

Before Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other space enthusiasts can ship humans to Mars as easily as an Amazon Prime delivery, we need to figure out they’ll fare on a foreign planet. Luckily, NASA and the University of Hawaii have been all over this, funding several successful iterations of an experiment called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), in which a crew of “astronauts” live in Mars-like conditions in a dome on a Hawaiian volcano. On Sunday, the fifth Hi-SEAS endeavor ended, meaning a crew of six “astronauts” have left the comfort of a literal bubble to greet the fresh hell that is Earth right now.

I do understand the urge to stay in a cave.  I have on occasion had an urge to go live in a cave.

Well, This is a Bit of a Riddle

Photos and video: USAF

Specifically, the USAF is operating the X-37 unmanned reusable space plane, and it just completed 2 years in orbit, which is kind of a long time for a technology demonstrator:

Top-secret military spaceplanes certainly know how to make an entrance.

The U.S. military’s X-37B, an uncrewed spacecraft that looks like a miniature version of the retired space shuttles, returned to Earth over the weekend after spending nearly two years in low-Earth orbit. It sent shockwaves rippling through the air as it entered the atmosphere over Florida, producing a sonic boom loud enough to jolt people awake across the state. The Air Force, which operates the X-37B, tweeted about its return minutes later, and soon posted a flurry of images and videos of the spaceplane online. “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B,” said Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, the commander of the Air Force’s Space Wing.

To which many observers said, wait, what?

The news that the military had a space shuttle quietly orbiting Earth for more than 700 days came as a surprise to some. Why didn’t we know about this thing, the reaction seemed to go. The reaction illustrated the distinct line between the country’s civilian and military activities in space, and how much the general public knows about each. People know plenty about the civilian side—the missions to other planets, the SpaceX launches, astronauts’ cool Instagram pictures from the space station. But secret military spaceplanes? You usually need a sonic boom to hear about that.

What the hell was was this doing up there so long?

It would be simpler and cheaper to do performance testing on propulsion in a small non-returnable package.

The only thing that I can think it would be doing would be deploying and retrieving some sort of payload, but there should be no need for that:  Any surveillance data would be transmitted digitally these days, and if you were testing something like orbital targeting, it would be simpler, and less easily observed, if you simply deorbited the payload at the end of the test.

The only thing that would explain the duration of the mission is some sort of biological payload, but that would be something that NASA, and not the Air Force, should be doing.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I Was Waiting for this Tech to Hit Commercial Use

We have finally seen a the first non-US commercial satellite with all electric propulsion delivered to a customer:

Eutelsat’s new 172B satellite marks a new step in the operator’s push toward widespread use of electric propulsion. Company executives believe all conditions are gradually being met to make such power both a reliable and economical option. There is more than one launcher available for this size spacecraft, a trade-off has been found between efficiency and transfer time to orbit, and an Ariane 6 feature will further reduce time to market.

Mainly thanks to electric propulsion, the weight of 172B has been limited to 3.5 metric tons (7,700 lb.) instead of 6 tons for a more conventional satellite. For that weight class, the lower position under Ariane 5’s fairing had long been the only option for launch, Eutelsat’s chief technology officer Yohann Leroy, notes. Other options that were technically feasible were not economical. Satellite operators are leery about relying on a single launcher, Leroy emphasizes, and that reluctance had stalled the advent of electric propulsion. “SpaceX’s Falcon 9 changed the game,” he says.

As a second launcher became available for the new weight class in commercial communications geostationary satellites, Eutelsat forged ahead, and in 2015 a Falcon 9 launched Eutelsat 115 West B, the operator’s first satellite using electric power for both station-keeping and orbit-raising.

The Eutelsat 115 West B was built by Boeing. But the France-based operator no longer has to depend on the U.S. industry. Thales Alenia Space and Airbus now also offer all-electric platforms, thus increasing the number of supplier options.

In 2014, Eutelsat ordered 172B from Airbus. The satellite uses Airbus’s upgraded Eurostar 3000 EOR (electric-orbit-raising) platform. “It is the first fully electric satellite not developed in the U.S.; it is a first for us and the European industry,” says Nicolas Chamussy, head of space systems at Airbus Defense and Space. Airbus was hoping to source the thrusters from Safran, in an attempt to have an entirely European spacecraft. Autonomy in space technology is a goal shared by the European Commission and the Continent’s industry.


Energy use onboard 172B is optimized thanks to two robot arms—two thrusters can be found at the end of each arm. Thrust can thus be precisely vectored. The axis of the thrust always goes through the satellite’s center of gravity, Arnaud de Rosnay, Airbus Defense and Space’s director for communications satellites, explains. Moreover, the arms help remove heat from the electronics hardware inside the spacecraft.

Assuming that VASIMR technology can reach a commercially acceptable state, it could provide relatively high thrust at lower efficiencies for orbital transfer, and lower thrust, and higher efficiency for station keeping, which would allow for both the advantages of Ion and Hall effect thrusters.

In either case, this promises to reduce the cost of satellites, because, much like ground round, you pay for launches by the pound.