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Archive for the ‘Aerospace’ Category

A string of bright pearls in heaven

By a sheer fluke I was outside on the deck last night just after 10pm when I saw not one bright moving light in the sky but an entire string of them, rising in the North West and passing almost directly over head before vanishing to the SouthEast. There may be another such pass tonight (Jan 30) at around 9pm.

I knew what it was of course. SpaceX has been launching their Starlink satellites for a couple of years now and I’d wondered when I’d get the chance to see such a sight. It happens only in the first couple of days after a launch before the satellites climb to their working orbits around 330km altitude and vanish from sight.

It actually made the NZ news, very briefly of course, since few people are interested, and I see they had to throw the word “UFO” into the headline as extra click-bait, even though the article immediately explains what’s going on.

The picture supplied in the Herald does not do justice to the spectacle; we’re so used to seeing satellites that it takes something bright like the ISS to catch our attention, and to see a string of bright moving lights stretching from horizon to horizon does. Each launch releases about sixty of the machines, each weighing about 250kg. They look like a flat panel with a solar “sail” sticking out the side to supply power. The clever little beasties can even adjust their orbits autonomously, which they have to do to work with each other.

Musk’s idea is to blanket the Earth with these things to allow high-speed Internet access with nothing more than a specialised satellite dish, eliminating the need for fibre-optic cables or Microwave towers. Download speeds of 60Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second) are already available, with 150Mbps expected in the future. You can be a Beta user here in NZ.

Of course to do this requires thousands of the things to orbit the Earth. Starlink currently has about 1700 and in the future it will be tens of thousands. The technology of sending and receiving information to such rapidly moving objects is complex but in principle no different than a cellphone switching between towers as you drive along in a car.

Astronomers are concerned about such vast numbers of the things screwing up their observations of the heavens so Starlink is working to try and darken the machines, even though they vanish from sight in their orbits anyhow.

Others are concerned about the “space junk” problem. It was already bad enough with thousands of things whizzing around at tens of thousands of km/h, ranging in size from bolts and specs of paint and foil to dead satellites (and ones blown up in anti-satellite tests). Adding tens of thousands of 1/4 tonne machines sounds like a recipe for a disaster. But orbital space is big and in the low orbits used there’s not much else, plus the fact that being so low means that failed Spacelink satellites burn up quickly. As with the rest of SpaceX, Musk is aiming for mass production of a standard design, so such turnover is accepted as part of the business model, as opposed to the huge, expensive geosynchronous, telecoms satellites that take years to build and replace. Spacelink is currently building six per day.

On that front I saw an interesting article showing how the cost of getting into space has dropped since the dawn of the space age, with SpaceX having had a massive impact.

Every time I see that Shuttle cost I’m reminded of how the concept of “reusability”, like other ideas, can actually be counter-productive: look at the cost/kg versus that of the “throwaway” Saturn V that sent men to the Moon. As I pointed out a couple of years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing:

When the Shuttle program itself ended in 2011 the NASA Administrator set a team of accountants to work up the lifetime cost, adjusting for inflation. They found that each Shuttle flight ended up costing more than each Apollo flight. In other words, rather than flopping around in LEO for three decades, the USA could have continued to send two teams to explore the moon each year, every year, from 1973 to 2003, for less money. Even that ignores the possibilities that would have been enabled by the ever-reducing costs of production line Saturn V’s. The Russians still use fifty year old designs for their rockets.

Looking at SpaceX, that number is what the Space Shuttle program was supposed to achieve: it may be ambitious but looking at his progress to date I would not bet against Musk on this issue.

Finally as a fun note is this piece of silliness for spaceflight.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 30, 2022 at 6:00 pm

Insane in the membrane

I was glad to hear that he’s never going to fly that high again.

I was also glad to see how much he enjoyed and appreciated the world laid out before his feet. Even if Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed it more beautifully in words long ago I can’t help wondering whether he would have taken even greater flights of fancy after touching the world via such a bare-bones contraption compared to the conventional planes which enclosed him. Certainly I thought of these lines as he passed through the layers of light cloud:

And now a wonder seized him. Dazzled by that brightness, he had to keep his eyes closed for some seconds. He had never dreamt the night-clouds could dazzle thus. But the full moon and all the constellations were changing them to light.

In a flash, the very instant he had risen clear, the pilot found a peace that passed his understanding. Not a ripple tilted the plane, but like a ship that has crossed the bar, it moved within a tranquil anchorage. In an unknown secret corner of the sky it floated, as in a harbour of the Happy Isles. Below him still the storm was fashioning another world, thridded with squalls and cloudbursts and lightnings, but turning to the stars a face of crystal snow.

Now all grew luminous, his hands, his clothes, the wings, and Fabien thought that he was in a limbo of strange magic; for the light did not come down from the stars but welled up from below, from all that snowy whiteness.

I also wonder if, when this young man once again touched Earth, he thought of this line:

“She wrapped herself around me and enlightened me. I should never have fled. I should have guessed at the tenderness behind her poor ruses.”

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Written by Tom Hunter

January 8, 2022 at 2:59 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Technology, USA

Caught in the act

It’s quite amazing what Google Earth photos have captured over the years, even objects moving as fast and as stealthily as this one.

Location found here and you can zoom out to see where this is. I presume it’s not on a combat mission.

He’ll be heading for Whiteman Air Force Base, about 35km south of this point and the main base for these babies.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 31, 2021 at 9:18 am

Posted in Aerospace, USA

Astronomy’s $10 billion Christmas Present

Although it’s still in the process of unwrapping itself.

A few hours ago, on America’s Christmas Morning, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched by a European Space Agency (ESA) rocket, an Ariane 5, from the ESA site in French Guiana. About half and hour later it detached from the upper stage, as shown in the video below.

Rocket launches are always fairly tense, but at maximum when you’ve got a one-of-a-kind bird like this. The original plan had the telescope being launched by 2007 and costing a billion dollars, but for once I won’t throw shade at NASA about these factors because this telescope simply cannot be allowed to fail as it will be stationed about one million miles from Earth and therefore unfixable if anything goes wrong.

By contrast the Hubble Space Telescope orbits Earth about 300 miles up and was designed to be serviced by the Space Shuttles. A good thing too as when it was first launched in 1990 its images were blurred and NASA was horrified to find that its giant mirror had been improperly polished. A problem that basic in the very heart of the machine seemed like a show-stopper, but they finally fixed it in 1993 by fitting it with the equivalent of reading glasses.

It has since become one of the greatest science machines of all time, but astronomers were already planning its successor, built to see the first stars and galaxies that emerged from dust and gas of the early universe, only a few millions of years after the Big Bang. The Hubble can see back to within a billion years of that event. As a result the Webb telescope is sometimes fondly referred to by astronomers as the ‘First Light machine’.

Knowing that Hubble might not last more than twenty years and guessing that Webb would take a long time (although they never imagined it would be this long, and Hubble is still working – just) work on Webb began even before Hubble was launched – and given how Webb had to work, a repeat of the Hubble problem was not acceptable; the machine “is not allowed to fail”. As a result much of the last decade has been spent simply testing the hell out of it:

[Tests] involved lowering the telescope’s temperature to the minus 390 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 217 degrees Celsius) in which it will operate, and in a vacuum similar to that of space.

“The cryo-vacuum tests for Webb were long and gruelling,” [Project scientist] Kimble said. “It would take weeks just to cool everything down safely and then warm up again safely at the end of the test. And in the middle, when you are cold and stable, that’s when you do your detailed testing.”

And there’s a lot that can still go wrong. It has a lot of moving parts that must work to enable it to unfold in space like a giant origami sculpture:

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking move will be the unfurling of the sunshield, which is scheduled to occur in the first week after launch. The sunshield system has 140 release mechanisms, 70 hinge assemblies, 400 pulleys, 90 cables and eight deployment motors, all of which need to perform correctly to get the five thin membranes extended

The mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which is made of beryllium and coated with a thin layer of gold.

That second link covers the engineering challenges and has a video of how it’s all supposed to unfold. The sun shade has five layers, spaced apart for maximum thermal cooling to allow the telescope instruments to be as cold as possible, which they have to be to detect faint infrared light from the oldest objects in the universe. That’s also the reason it has to be stationed so far from Earth. Hubble has IR detectors now, but was never designed for the job and so is too warm itself and too close to our warm planet, to be able to see the faintest (and oldest) objects in the sky:

[Webb] will orbit the sun, while simultaneously making small circles around the so-called Lagrange point 2 (L2)… At L2, the gravitational pulls of the sun and of Earth keep the spacecraft aligned with the two big bodies. 

It will take Webb about a month to fly to that point, unfolding all the way. Since they’re made of metal the mirror’s segments can actually be warped slightly by small electric motors mounted behind each one; all part of the process of turning those 18 mirrors into one mirror 6m wide.

If all goes according to plan, the telescope will detect cosmic objects 10 billion times fainter than the dimmest star you can see in the night sky without a telescope. That’s 10 to 100 times fainter than anything Hubble can pick up, NASA officials said. And Webb’s vision will be so sharp that it can see details the size of a penny from 24 miles (40 km) away, they added.

Fingers crossed but so far it’s all good. Check out those two links, Engineering Webb and Launching Webb for more details and videos about how it works and what it will do.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 26, 2021 at 2:07 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Europe, Science, Space, Technology, USA

Tagged with ,

NASA is dead

So I’m sitting on the upper deck this morning, looking at a clear blue sky, and there it is: a waning half Moon, as clear as crystal in the sky, and I sigh and wonder how much longer I have to wait to see a part of my childhood relived with men standing on the surface of Lunar.

And then I see this from space buff Robert Zimmerman, NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25.

Plus this bonus, courtesy of the latest Inspector General Report (pdf)

We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV (p 4).

I knew things were bad with NASA’s Artemis program.

But not this bad.

… although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost (p. 4 of the report (pdf)).

Perhaps they intend to hand the work over to Nigerian princes?

The cost of the Apollo program was about $156 billion in 2019 dollars, $172 billion if you add in the preceding Gemini program, which you should because it was essential to Apollo’s success. Taking into account all the test and operational flights in both programs, plus four flights of surplus Apollo gear from cancelled Moon missions that was used for the Skylab program, I figure that at about $5.6 billion per flight.

Except that this was for an effort starting from scratch that did the job in less than ten years.

By contrast Artemis has come only to this point after seventeen years of developing the system, starting with its predecessor, the Constellation Program in 2005, which was little different. That’s one of the killer aspects of this failure; it was built on previous developments that should have saved time and money. The Aries V rocket became the SLS, which itself extends rocketry used for the Space Shuttle since the 1980’s; the Orion spacecraft is the same, plus new spacesuits (the report points to them for delaying the landing to 2025), and changes to the launchpad, LC-39B, first developed for Apollo more than half a century ago. As Robert Zimmerman says of the schedule:

NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

The final kick in the guts is that the IG report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

This crap is already having flow-on effects, although they will be positive if the objective is the human exploration of the Solar System. Scientists have already been given the green light by Congress that one space probe, the Europa Clipper (to study a very important moon of Jupiter, Europa) , can launch on a commercial rocket, after years of insisting it had to be launched on the SLS, a sign that Congress has finally (and quietly) realised the terrible truth. Zimmerman has tracked down another obscure “White Paper” where scientists effectively told NASA that its way of doing things can’t work any longer in the face of SpaceX:

With Starship, missions to the Moon and Mars will no longer be very constrained in terms of weight. Nor will launch schedules be slow and far between. Rather than plan a few billion dollar NASA unmanned missions taking a decade to plan and launch, using Starship NASA could have many planetary missions launching fast and for relatively little cost, with far greater capabilities.

The scientists recognize this, and wrote their paper in an effort to make NASA’s hide-bound management recognize it as well.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the scientists will eventually bypass NASA entirely. Because of the lowered cost provided by Starship, they will find other funding sources, many private, to finance planetary missions. Those other sources will also be much more capable than NASA for reacting quickly to Starship’s fast timetable and gigantic capabilities.

Why bust your gut over sending a 1 tonne rover to Mars every couple of years when you can dump a dozen on the planet in one go? The Earth-based logistics of building and supporting them is another question, but scientists would likely regard this as a happy problem.

One last note that’s not about NASA but a SpaceX competitor, Blue Origin. Their proposal to NASA for a lunar landing vehicle was rejected (along with others) in favour of a modified SpaceX Starship vehicle, so they lodged a complaint with the Government Audit Office (GAO). When they lost that appeal they took it to the US Court of Federal Claims, who announced their decision a couple of weeks ago:

The Court finds that Blue Origin does not have standing because it did not have a substantial chance of award but for the alleged evaluation errors. Its proposal was priced well above NASA’s available funding and was itself noncompliant. Blue Origin argues that it would have submitted an alternative proposal, but the Court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record. The Court also finds that several of Blue Origin’s objections are waived.

Even if Blue Origin had standing and its objections were not waived, the Court finds that it would lose on the merits. Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law. NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals, and NASA’s conduct throughout the procurement process was not contrary to law.

Ouch. It doesn’t get worse than that. The synopsis is that Blue Origin submitted a weak, overpriced bid, and when it lost on the merits, whinged and said it would have done something different if only had it known. What bullshit.

Still, the silver lining of this failure is that it may spur Bezos to STFU and start building the space capabilities he’s been taking about for a decade.

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See also my 2020 post, Wanderers. Here’s the video.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

Tagged with , , ,

Big Metal

One of the most basic things you learn in economics is the classic supply-and-demand graph, showing how the two things interact to produce the delicate balance that establishes the price of something, be it strawberries or cell phones.

What they don’t tell you is how useless that graph is in the practice of predicting what the price will be when demand or supply (or both) change. Behind that calculation sit super-computers and richly detailed software models, but the best they produce is a range, sometimes so broad as to be practically useless..

All one can say for certain is that supply exceeds demand the price will drop, and the greater it exceeds demand the greater the price drop will be. The supply does not even have to be in the marketplace to have an impact. For example, below is a graph of US prices for LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) over the last twenty years.

There are price spikes all the time, driven by all sorts of factors. But you’ll notice that there was a steady rise up 2005, followed by a steady drop to the present day. That’s the impact of the practice of fracking and horizontal drilling in gas fields, a technology that had been developing for decades but which only took off in the mid-2000’s. Fracking showed that the USA had vastly greater reserves of gas than had been predicted only a few years earlier. In fact, previous forecasts were that the nation would have to start importing LNG, which resulted in several giant terminals being built around the coast to unload the stuff from ships. Within a few short years that had been turned around, literally. The reserves “discovered” were so vast they amounted to hundreds of years of use and the terminals were re-configured to export the stuff.

Meanwhile the impact on the price was not just to greatly reduce it but to do so as far out into the future as could be seen, and another impact was that electrical generation companies switched large numbers of coal-fired power plants to being gas-fired. That, in turn, resulted in the USA reducing its CO2 emissions on such a scale that by 2020 it was beating the reduction targets of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, (which its Senate had rejected), and the 2009 Waxham-Markey bill (which never passed).

So if you like reducing GHG’s (Greenhouse Gases), hug a fracker and thank them.

It’s not so easy to pull the same stunt with other commodities. Metals in particular, since it’s hard to see any revolution in mining them – although there will be steady, incremental improvements, and the planet has been well searched over the centuries for sources.

But there is one potential source that could change things in the 21st century:

Astronomers have now identified two metal-rich asteroids in orbit near the Earth, with one having a precious metal content that likely exceeds the Earth’s entire reserves.

Asteroid 1986 DA is estimated to be about 1.7 miles across, based on radar data obtained during a close Earth fly-by in 2019. The second asteroid, 2016 ED85, appears to have a similar content from spectroscopy, but no radar data has as yet been obtained of it, so much less is known.

figure 13 from the paper, illustrates the amount of precious metals available in asteroid 1986 DA, compared to the world’s entire reserves (FE=iron, Ni=nickel, Co=cobalt, Cu=copper, PGM=platinum group metals, Au=gold). From this single metal asteroid a mining operation could literally double the metal that had been previously mined on Earth.

Sure, but the technology to mine those metals and transport them to Earth does not yet exist, although there have been plenty of ideas over the decades, and the basics are understood.

But even when it’s developed there’s going to be a question of cost versus revenue, which brings us right back to that supply-and-demand graph. What would happen to the price of all these metals if such a source could be mined and added to the world’s reserves? The paradox is that the price might fall so low as to make the whole effort uneconomic.

The authors of that paper actually do try to account for this price drop, but the simple fact is that it’s as much of a guess as predicting the price of strawberries when that market is flooded. You know it’ll go down but to precisely what value?

We estimated that the amounts of Fe, Ni, Co, and the PGM present in 1986 DA could exceed the reserves worldwide. Moreover, if 1986 DA is mined and the metals marketed over 50 yr, the annual value of precious metals for this object would be ∼$233 billion.

In any case, it may well be that the metals never get to Earth because heavy industry slowly moves off the planet and there will be human colonies established in space that will need the metals right there. Getting them from asteroids certainly makes more economic sense than digging them out of the Moon or another planet. That seems to be what Jeff Bezos is thinking as he pushes forward with his Blue Origin rocket company (To rouse the spirit of the Earth, and move the rolling stars):

In Bezos’ view, dramatically reducing the cost of access to space is a key step toward those goals.

“Then we get to see Gerard O’Neill’s ideas start to come to life…

“I predict that in the next few hundred years, all heavy industry will move off planet. It will be just way more convenient to do it in space, where you have better access to resources, better access to 24/7 solar power,” 

Written by Tom Hunter

November 1, 2021 at 6:53 am

The beauty of laminar flow

It is beautiful isn’t it? Even if it does look a bit like a flying egg.

That’s a new plane called the Celera 500L, made by a tiny US aerospace company called Otto Aviation.

With a cruising speed of 460mph at 50,000 feet and a range of 4,500 nautical miles it could be quite a challenge for other planes used for business trips and/or small-scale commercial passenger flights. Incredibly it’s doing all this with no more than a lightweight V-12 diesel engine.

It’s still undergoing flight testing but so far it’s been impressive:

For this test hop, Tryggvason plans to cruise at a sedate pace—maybe 250 miles per hour—while Len Fox, flying chase in a sleek twin-engine Piper Navajo, collects infrared images of the Celera. Tryggvason is loping along, barely using half the power at his disposal. So he’s surprised to hear Fox’s voice on the radio, sounding perturbed.

“Can you slow down some?” Fox says. “I can’t keep up with you.”

Tryggvason is a former Space Shuttle astronaut. You can read all about at Air & Space Magazine, but here are some important points:

Shaped like an elongated egg with wings and a stubby propeller hanging off the tail, the 500L is designed to leverage the benefits of laminar flow—an aerodynamic advantage that increases efficiency in flight by minimizing drag—to an extent never before seen in a production airplane.

Laminar flow has been around as a concept for a long time and its advantages are well known. The famous P-51 fighter plane used laminar flow in the design of its wings, as have other planes since then, but the Celera 500 applies it to every aspect of the plane. The problem comes with implementing it in practice:

Laminar flow structures don’t scale well—to the size of an airliner fuselage, for example. And the surfaces themselves have to be shaped to extremely fine tolerances. The precision required means that metal isn’t an ideal construction material. In flight, small impediments—ice on the wings or even dead bugs on the leading edge—can be enough to cause the flow to turn turbulent.

Which is why aerodynamic experts have rejected it for the most part. One strike that may be held against this plane is that its creator, Bill Otto, isn’t even an aeronautical engineer, although he’s worked a lifetime on the avionics of missiles and planes, and on a torpedo for the Navy that used laminar flow and achieved huge reductions in drag (and hence an increase in range and/or speed), but which was rejected for those practical, in-service reasons noted above.

For Otto, ignorance of these problems was bliss. All he knew was the science, and when he ran the numbers, they suggested that an airplane designed around wings, a fuselage, and an empennage that maximized laminar flow could be a game changer.

A warning note is given by the history of some other similar efforts like the Beech Starship and this comment from

But on one point, almost everybody agrees: The airplane sounds too good to be true. “I want to believe, but it sounds like a tall order,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group. “Getting something airborne is the easy part. But getting something certified is a long process that inevitably results in changes, which, of course, can impair ambitious performance goals.”

We well see. I’m pro anything that’s beautiful, although the A-10 Warthog is an exception.

Written by Tom Hunter

October 31, 2021 at 10:35 am

To boldly go where many others have gone before

Well, by now a few hundred people anyway.

Space that is. The final frontier and all that.

Tomorrow in the USA, dreams will enter reality when probably the most famous spaceship commander – Captain James T. Kirk – will fly into space.

More precisely, the actor who portrayed him, William Shatner, will fly into space. For all of fifteen minutes of a fully automated, sub-orbital flight on the Blue Origin spacecraft and rocket.

Shatner will establish a couple of records. He’ll be the first actor to fly into space and the oldest person to do so at 90 years of age.

Of course this is all a publicity stunt for Blue Origin, which has badly lagged the likes of SpaceX in developing spacecraft and rockets, despite having the wealth and management nous of one of the planet’s richest men, Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, behind it.

But it’s still fun to think that the guy who played one of the most famous SF characters in history, starting in the 1960’s, will actually go into the realm where he has played out so many fictional stories.

Good luck Captain.

Just one aside: James Lilek’s long-time blog, The Bleat, has some fun with this story:

What if he doesn’t come back?

Oh perish the thought, you say, but it’s possible. First of all, there’s the dark comic angle: a warning light goes off, the ship bucks, and you know everyone will instinctively look at him for guidance.

I would.

But Shatner dying in space would be an utterly unique end to a career that no one could’ve predicted back in the late 60s.

No, actually, they could have. When the show went off the air we were still on track to keep exploring, right? A space station soon, a moon base by the late 80s. Why, of course it would have been plausible for Shatner to die in a moon-shuttle accident in 2021.

If I were Shatner, and I was toting up the odds, I’d think: what if? Could happen. Will there by time to say something? If so, what?

There are several things he could say on the last transmission.

Live long and prosper?

Written by Tom Hunter

October 13, 2021 at 7:06 am

Stacked

While his competitors continue to fumble around with much delayed, modest successes like getting spaceships into sub-orbital flights, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation continues to power ahead with stuff that’s at least a decade in front of them, not to mention national space agencies like China’s and NASA.

Following the successful atmospheric test flight of Starship SN15 – after a few catastrophic landings for earlier models – the next test ship, SN16, was simply scrapped while work moved ahead on a sub-orbital / orbital test vehicle.

This is entirely in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative development process of rapid design-build-test prototyping.

Only a few days ago, it was observed that the Super Heavy Booster (formerly called the BFR), the 1st stage of the Starship system, had been moved to its launchpad in Texas.

But just the other day, it was seen that an actual Starship sub-orbital/orbital model, SN20, was lifted into place atop the SHB:

How big is this thing?

Bigger than the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. It’s also more than twice as powerful, punching out some 7200 tons of thrust compared to the Saturn V’s 3500 tons. One of the basic design decisions that still concerns me about the SHB is that it uses 29 Raptor engines to get this thrust, compared to the five J-1 engines of the Saturn. The more things you have, the more that can go wrong, even if computer control systems are many times better than in the 1960’s.

The Starship was later pulled off the SHB, effectively yet another test of how they will mate the things together and improvements that can be made to the process. With SpaceX it’s all about continuous process improvement, like any factory.

It gets even crazier. That launch tower in the pictures is also a capture tower; the idea is that the SHB will land vertically right beside the tower after each launch, and the tower will then latch on to it, ready for maintenance checks and refueling for the next launch. Personally I’d build two such towers at a minimum for redundancy, especially if a high flight rate is desired, and Musk is aiming for three launches a day.

However, it’s still testing time and this combo won’t be launched for a few months yet, but hopefully before the end of 2021. In that test flight both vehicles will simply be destroyed by allowing them to fall into the ocean, but in the case of Starship, not before it’s made at least one orbit of the Earth. Starship will land in the Northern Pacific Ocean, while the SHB will attempt a “soft-landing” (meaning a vertical landing with engines on) into the Gulf of Mexico, yet another example of squeezing every drop of learning possible from everything they do.

Incidentally, the decision by NASA to select Starship for lunar landings later this decade (see A Thousand Moons) – a decision challenged by Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin – has been confirmed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) after a review of several months. It’s not a surprise. Starship may only be partway through its testing process, let alone having a lunar-capable vehicle developed, but it’s still far ahead of Blue Origin and company, who still have only draft plans.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2021 at 12:33 pm

The undergraduate NRO

A couple of decades ago I read a SF story that had – as basically a throwaway commentary – a section on the future of private-sector Earth Observation satellites and national military security.

The concept was that in this future the planet was surrounded by so many such satellites generating vast quantities of imagery, that millions of people had taken up the hobby of scanning through the stuff looking for things that interested them, and that this included large numbers of people who simply loved looking to see what national militaries were up to around the globe.

The upshot was that in this future, national military forces found themselves more hemmed in than they had been in the days of military spying by the likes of the National Reconnaissance Office and their famous series of “KeyHole” spy satellites (plus whatever they have today).

That future is here now.

News recently broke that the Chinese were building new ICBM launch sites, adding to their nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades. While that was important news I just assumed that it had been discovered via the usual means of spy satellites and other intelligence gathering.

Not exactly:

The silos were spotted by Decker Eveleth, an undergrad at Reed College. He spent weeks poking around on satellite imagery until he happened upon the silos’ distinctive inflatable dome coverings. (Which, in turn, has led some people to describe them as “bouncy houses of death.”)

The reason he had something to “poke around” in was exactly as that old SF story described:

Planet Labs, however, created a new kind of small, low-cost imaging satellite and put up so many of them that it can take multiple pictures of every spot on Earth, every day. In this case, Planet had years’ worth of pictures of the area in question, and Eveleth was ready, willing and able to scour them pixel-by-pixel.

Moroever, once he had spotted this, he was able to get more detail:

Eveleth contacted Planet to see if they could use a larger breed of their satellites to take even higher-resolution pictures of the area with the domes. Planet could.

Lewis and Eveleth were able to log in to Planet’s service and see not just the domes but also trenches, for communications cables, leading out from underground facilities where the military likely has its launch operations. 

Naturally the Chinese denied the story, claiming it was a wind farm, until further evidence from Lewis and others shut down that propaganda. The US State Department said such a development was “concerning”. That comment made me wonder if they, the NRO and the US military and government already knew about this – given their spying capabilities and general interest in monitoring China’s military, you’d think they would – but had chosen to say nothing?

There’s more detail at the link, including a reference to New Zealand’s very own Rocket Lab company and the micro-satellite launches it has been doing. That last, in turn, brought me to this article; Rocket Lab launches secret payload from New Zealand:

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

That is just the latest of several such launches, which probably makes the Mahia peninsula a military target, as Paul Buchanan pointed out a couple of years ago in very interesting article on that subject, Launching Into Trouble?:

If the contract to deliver military payloads is solely and exclusively with the US, then Rocket Lab has painted a target on Launch Complex 1 in the event that the US becomes embroiled in a large-scale conflict with a major power. Even if it allows nations other than the US to launch military payloads on Electron boosters, Rocket Lab has made the Mahia Peninsula a target whether or not weapons satellites are launched from there. After all, the main use of smallsats is for surveillance, tracking, mapping and telecommunications, all of which are essential for the successful prosecution of contemporary wars. So even if smallsats launched from the Mahia Peninsula do not carry weapons on them, the site becomes a potential target.

In fact he questioned whether this was even legal under the Space Laws written up to allow RocketLabs to operate in the first place (New Zealand had no such laws because…. well, we’re NZ).

The question is whether there is a legal basis to permit or prohibit foreign military satellites, especially weaponised satellites, being launched from NZ soil with NZ technologies. I am unsure if that is the case one way or another and have heard of no parliamentary or ministerial discussion of the matter.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 20, 2021 at 12:52 pm