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A room with a view

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There have been some nice shots of New Zealand from the ISS (International Space Station) over the years, but I can’t recall one that caught so much of our nation so well.

We’re entering the months of the year where the ISS is best seen when it orbits over the country, thanks to the tilt of the Earth exposing the ISS to more sunlight for longer. No matter how many times I’ve seen that bright light moving through our darkened skies it always fills me with a sense of beauty and longing.

If you’re interested in seeing it yourself here’s the tracking link that shows when it will be seen. You can alter the details of where you’re situated and when you click on the date of a sighting you get a skymap to show you where to look. There’s an excellent one coming up on Monday night.

And if you want something to watch instead of That Which Should Not Be Named today, you can watch a live streaming video of earth (or replays) from the ISS.

Written by Tom Hunter

October 16, 2021 at 1:54 pm

Posted in New Zealand, Space, Technology

Tagged with

Big Metal

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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

October 14, 2021 at 8:20 am


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

The 21st Century Space Race

The news on April 16 that NASA has selected the SpaceX Starship design for two missions to the Moon was stunning enough on its own, but the last few months have seen some other important events that show that space exploration, including human exploration, is starting to rapidly increase its tempo.

April was an especially busy month.

There have been two spectacular robotic missions to Mars. The third SpaceX crew mission to the ISS was launched. Another four astronauts returned in their original SpaceX Dragon craft. The Chinese have launched the first module of their new space station into orbit, sent Taikonauts to it and landed their first Mars probe.


Yes, that is a drone helicopter on Mars.

What you are looking at in these pictures is the first flying machine on another planet. This is the spacecraft, Ingenuity, a little helicopter weighing only a couple of kilograms, and these pictures are from its 4th test flight, conducted on April 29. The first was April 19.

It was only expected to fly a few missions as a pure test vehicle, starting with a simple up-and-down flight, followed by moving around the landscape, returning to where it started and so forth.

However, like many other American robots of recent years, it has proved far more durable than expected, and since it provides the ability to scout ahead of the rover Perseverance (its “mother ship” that landed on February 18) the JPL team has decided to use it for that until it eventually fails.

Planning the route that such rovers have to drive is a slow and careful process; some years ago one of the solar-powered rovers, Opportunity, got stuck in an unseen sand trap. Ingenuity is a huge help in preventing that.

That map plan was from the 9th planned flight, which was completed a couple of days ago, with the machine flying a distance of 2,051 feet (625 meters) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remaining airborne for approximately 2 minutes, 47 seconds. They’re really pushing the little beast beyond its limits:

The onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah. 

You can keep track of the flights at Robert Zimmerman’s Behind The Black blog.

However, the USA has finally been matched in the Mars Rover department when, on May 14, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft landed and on May 22 sent its Zhurong rover trundling onto the surface. With its solar panels it looks awfully similar to the Opportunity and Spirit rovers (see An Everlasting Itch For Things Remote) sent to Mars by NASA in the 2000’s. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as long as they did.

SpaceX and the ISS

On April 23rd SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS in the company’s second such mission, called Crew-2. The key mission first was that both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were reused machines. The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour, had flown the historic Demo-2 mission (their first crewed flight) and the Falcon 9 rocket had pushed the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS last year, in the first operational flight.

They crossed paths with the Crew-1 team which also consisted of four astronauts, making things rather crowded on the ISS for a few days before they returned to Earth on May 2nd. As you can see from the link, these splashdowns are rather more casual than the days of Apollo when countless US Navy ships were deployed far out in the Pacific. Here, they’re only just offshore from the Florida coast, and SpaceX kept the exact landing spot quiet this time so that they would not be surrounded by rubber-necking boaties as happened for the return of Demo-2.

Space X is contracted for four more crewed missions but will likely get more than that as the ISS is expected to be up there for a few more years: 2024 has been discussed as a shutdown date, with the Russians perhaps quitting then. However, new modules continue to be launched, the station is working well and since there’s no replacement it seems silly to abandon it even if its equipment is starting to get aged and obsolete.

As a side note, one continuing disappointment has been Boeing’s CST 100 Starliner spacecraft – pictured on the right – which was supposed to have been on the same schedule as SpaceX’s Dragon so that NASA could have a backup. Instead it’s fallen badly behind schedule but will attempt another uncrewed test flight at the end of July.

China’s space station and Russia

Another reason the USA and ESA may hang on to the ISS for longer than planned, is that on April 29, just days after its Mars probe landing, China launched the first module of its new Taingong space station, followed by three “Taikonauts” on June 20.

Since then they’ve been busy conducting spacewalks, readying everything for the next modules to be sent up. The plan is to have it finished by the end of 2022. It will be about 1/5 the size of the ISS, comparable to the old Russian Mir space station.

By the time Mir crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2001, Russia had already been hard at work for a decade with NASA on the ISS, just one part of the whole post Cold War effort by the USA to shovel money into Russian technology centres to keep their scientists and engineers in-country and not working with the likes of North Korea.

But the world has changed. Between losing the lucrative ISS passenger business to SpaceX and with their announced plan to stop using the ISS by 2024, Russia was clearly removing itself somewhat. Still, the US is proceeding into its post-ISS future with the Artemis programme to land astronauts on the Moon and establish a base there by the end of this decade and Russia could well have been expected to join that. So it came as a bit of shock in March when Russia announced an agreement with China to build a lunar base together, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). No schedule has been announced but Russia clearly feels more comfortable in China’s orbit than in the US’s.

The US Military and SpaceX

A few weeks ago the US Air Force released a 462-page report detailing how it intends to spend its $200 billion budget. Such is routine bureaucracy, but on page 305, under the heading of “Rocket Cargo” was a very interesting section:

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,

Although no company or vehicle was mentioned by name, there is only one vehicle even on the drawing boards that has that capability.

It will likely be a decade before this comes to fruition, as the USAF will want to see a lot of successful Starship cargo flights, including sub-orbital hops around the Earth, before it will start laying contracts to buy flights and possibly even order Starship variants to its specifications. In this it would be following in the wake of the Boeing 747, which was built with military as well as commercial use in mind.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 12, 2021 at 6:00 am

To rouse the spirit of the Earth, and move the rolling stars

Much of recent spaceflight has focused on the highly successful achievements of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. They’ve had incredible breakthroughs in developing reusable rockets and spacecraft, dramatically lowering launch costs and pushing ahead with cargo flights to the ISS, followed by crewed flights, and now with ambitious, even outrageous, plans for sending people to Mars.

It’s therefore easy to forget that there are other private groups involved in space, trailing behind for years now, but with possible successes coming in just the next couple of weeks.

By the end of July both a Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic spaceship will have made their first operational flights – and their respective founders, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, intend to be astronauts aboard them. Meanwhile Bezos has made it clear where he wants Blue Origin company to go, and it’s not the same place as Elon Musk and SpaceX.

Virgin Galactic – July 11

SpaceShipOne – 2004

It’s been a long, painful development road for Richard Branson’s baby to achieve his dream of regular, sub-orbital flight by a spaceplane. Way back in 2004, Burt Rutan’s craft SpaceShipOne, won the Ansari X-Prize for being the first reusable crewed spacecraft to fly to space twice within two weeks.

It was an amazing achievement and Branson immediately partnered with Rutan to build a passenger spaceplane that could do the same. At that point it seemed entirely possible that they’d get it done in just a few years, far ahead of any other private sector group. Mere scaling up being all that was required. Even today the latest craft, VSS Unity, looks startlingly similar to the original X-Prize winner.

VSS Unity – 2021
Richard Branson

However the development of the passenger craft became cursed with test failures, including rocket explosions that killed people and in 2014, the crash of the test vehicle, VSS Enterprise, that killed one of the test pilots.

More than a decade went by and at times people questioned whether it might be abandoned, even with a starry-eyed billionaire like Branson behind it.

But they seem to have finally made it, with the first commercial flight planned for July 11, and with the rather amazing news that Branson himself will be on board the first flight, “Unity 22.”, with four so-called “mission specialists” and the two pilots.

They’ll likely fly to an altitude of 90 kilometres at a speed of Mach 3 and experience about four minutes of weightlessness: a sub-orbital flight much like the X-15 tests in the 1960’s. Even the launch will be like that of an X-15, with the VSS Unity lifted by a specialist “mothership” plane to an altitude of 15km before it lights its rocket motor.

The next flights will have paying passengers at $250,000 a pop. Branson’s ambitions in space seem to extend no further than this.

Blue Origin – July 20

If Branson’s flight is successful he will beat another billionaire who has also determined to go into space at the first opportunity, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin has also seen its share of problems over the years since its founding by Bezos in 2000. Like SpaceX it has been determined to develop reusable rockets and spacecraft.

New Shepard Flight 1

While not experiencing the dramatic and lethal problems that Virgin Galactic has, and even though it has had a number of successful test launches of its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft (named after Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut), Blue Origin simply has not hit its target dates.

They’ve clearly been trying to copy SpaceX’s development approach of rapid prototyping – a quickly repeated cycle of iterative design, build, and test, with building of successive prototypes before previous ones have been fully tested.

But it hasn’t worked. Even as the New Shepard tests continued for sub-orbital flight, Blue Origin started development of a reusable orbital rocket, the New Glenn (named after John Glenn, America’s first man in orbit) and have struck problems with the new, more powerful motors needed for orbital flight.

They’ve also missed out on several billion dollars worth of commercial contracts, although they’ve announced some wins.

All this may be the reason that Bezos recently stepped down as CEO of Amazon, announcing that he was going to apply himself more to Blue Origin and one or two of his other “passions”. Given what he has so often talked about in the past I have no doubt Blue Origin will be his major area of focus.

As part of that new hands-on, Musk style, Bezos announced that he will fly on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, on July 20. The system is autonomous, needing no pilot, and in a sign of confidence – following 15 successful uncrewed test flights – he’s taking his brother with him, plus another passenger who won an auction for a seat with a bid of $28 million.

Because this flight uses a vertical rocket launcher and capsule craft, like the original Mercury-Redstone flights it will follow a similar sub-orbital path, almost certainly above the 100km Karman line that marks the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, thus making Bezos and company true astronauts, although it should be noted that the US Air Force definition of an astronaut is a person who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 km).

Bezos must be hoping that this confidence and energy will spill over into the rest of the company and enable them to start catching up with SpaceX.

But Bezos has also made it clear that he has different long-term goals for space exploration than his great rival, Musk. Those boil down to two fundamentally different approaches that have been debated for several decades.

The first approach is the traditional one. As described in hundreds of SF books, TV shows and movies, humanity should leave Earth and reach for the planets to explore and colonise them, starting with the Moon and Mars.

Some, like Robert Zubrin, have even argued for skipping the Moon and going straight for Mars.

The second approach is much more recent, basically dating from the 1970’s and whose most well known advocate was American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill.

He and others made the logical argument that, having spent so much energy escaping the Earth’s gravity well, it was insane to jump down another one. Instead, once in space why not try living there by using the resources of asteroids and the Sun’s energy to build huge, slowly spinning, cylindrical, “spacecraft” some 32km long and 8km wide.

They came to be called “O’Neill Colonies” and inside them humans could have gravity and sunlight, as well capturing huge amounts of solar energy and using the colony as a base from which they could make low-energy moves around the solar system to obtain resources.

He can be seen making the argument in this long-lost 1975 TV interview, alongside famous SF author Issac Asimov who supported it.

In SF, by contrast with planets, the idea has seen only limited exposure, in movies like the recent Interstellar (check out the scene), TV series like The Expanse (Amazon Prime natch) and Arthur C Clarke’s famous book, Rendezvous With Rama.

I first came across the concept as a child via the latter novel, but that was an alien, interplanetary spacecraft, a “Cosmic Ark” that had been discussed before. It was not until I saw an edition of a famous American counter-culture magazine, Whole Earth Catalog, that I saw the concept turned into one for humans in our solar system. I was blown away by the idea.

Given that the magazine spilled out of the hippie era and thus pushed themes of ecology, self-sufficiency, DIY, a back-to-the-land movement, and the Small Is Beautiful economics of E. F. Schumacher, it sounds like the last place where you would find in-depth analysis of space colonies, but the WEC was a wild place of ideas, as Steve Jobs noted in 2005:

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation … It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Bezos may have also encountered the idea in the same place, or perhaps he read O’Neill’s 1976 book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.

In any case it’s clear that he still holds it as an inspiration, as he outlined in a presentation for Blue Origin in 2019 and in a little more detail in 2016:

During last weekend’s Pathfinder Awards banquet at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Bezos referred to his long-term goal of having millions of people living and working in space, as well as his enabling goal of creating the “heavy lefting infrastructure” to make that happen.

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,” 

The picture at the start of this post is a vision of what one such colony could look like, re-creating old earth cities.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 8, 2021 at 6:00 am

Posted in Aerospace, Space, Technology, USA

Tagged with

Views from on High

You’ve likely all seen the famous photograph of a bunch of construction workers eating their lunch while sitting on the steel beam of a skyscraper a thousand feet in the air, the city spread out below them and nothing to stop them falling.

It’s in thousands of framing and photo shops around the world.

So here’s a photo of the guy who took that photo, Charles C. Ebbets, and how he did it. It wasn’t just construction guys who had courage.

Next up is more recent and straight out of some Bond movie plot.

Where’s the Kaboom? I was expecting an Earth-shattering Kaboom.

Luckily there are plenty of other planets in the universe, as this photo implies. There are a million stars in this one picture, taken by the DE Camera, high up in the Chilean Andes, part of the Dark Energy Survey Project.

Getting to them is the problem, one that won’t be solved by the rockets of today, which are being used for other things both beautiful and terrible. On the left are the rockets of Hamas being fired at Israel. In the centre and right of the picture are the Iron Dome missiles twisting and turning as they rise and reach out to meet them. Possibly the photo of 2021.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 22, 2021 at 12:00 pm

A Thousand Moons

Beautiful isn’t it?

As the photographer explains here:

This image of the Moon is the result of combining approximately 1000 exposures taken with my telescope during different phases to show the full depth of its mountains and craters. One of my most detailed images yet!

There’s also this compilation of forty eight different colours of the moon photographed in a time span of ten years.

I thought of these images the other day when news broke that NASA has made a very big decision regarding its planned lunar exploration:

[NASA decided] a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.

That’s a hell of a vote of confidence in SpaceX given that they’re still developing Starship, but by now they’ve got a track record I don’t think anyone should be denying. The Starship HLS (Human Landing System) will be a variation on the standard Starship model.

The thing that strikes me about this decision is that it could be the death knell of the huge Space Launch System, which NASA has been developing for over a decade now and which has still not had even one test flight compared to what Space X has done in less time.


NASA finally has at least hauled the first SLS stage from its test site in Mississippi to Florida where they’ll start assembling the whole thing for a uncrewed flight to the Moon later this year as part of the Artemis Programme.

The first crewed mission might happen in 2023.

Also, just like the good old Apollo programme fifty years ago, everything but the Orion spacecraft on top will be thrown away. Each SLS flight will cost about $2 billion. NASA and its contractors can only build one per year.

By contrast Starship and its Heavy Lifter (the BFR) are designed to be fully reusable. The two Starship flights will cost about $1.4 billion each, but following the SpaceX business model of Falcon 9, more flights would rapidly lower that cost and they’re already building one test-model Starship a month.

Both vehicles will lift about the same amount of mass to LEO (Low Earth Orbit).

This is all even sadder when you consider that the SLS is basically the same rocket as the Ares that started development under the Constellation Programme of the Bush Administration, as is the Orion spacecraft. That programme was begun in 2005 to replace the Space Shuttles, following the loss of a second Shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, and was supposed to have got to the Moon by 2020. Constellation was cancelled in 2011 when it became obvious that it wasn’t working.

Bush’s NASA administrator, an actual rocket scientist, never helped matters when he cringingly described the whole system as “Apollo on steroids”. Ugh! Not exactly the bold leap into the 21st century one would expect of NASA.

More like Apollo on Xanax.

So NASA has basically failed twice in a row. No wonder they’ve gone for SpaceX.

For these reasons the SLS has been nicknamed the Senate Launch System. Getting that NASA money spread around the states by such politicians was how LBJ set the whole thing up to protect the Apollo project, and like similar schemes that LBJ created it has survived to produce things like this that aren’t fit for purpose. But Senator Shelby (R-Ala) has announced his retirement, he was one of the biggest backers of the SLS and his seniority made him the head of the Senate Committee dealing with NASA, so he had a lot of sway. His retirement is another blow to the SLS.

Artists rendition of Starship HLS

Supposedly there will be an SLS lunar landing in 2024. Clearly NASA has now bet that Starship will be ready by then to do the same thing, even if that huge spacecraft is overkill for the task. And if it does then you could see the SLS finally cancelled. The Orion spacecraft may linger on but to what end?

Naturally, because this is America, a couple of the losing contenders have filed legal challenges to NASA’s decision. Undoubtedly they’ve plugged tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars into their design for lunar landers, but NASA clearly thought they couldn’t make it. However the contract will be on hold until the GAO (Government Accountability Office) makes a ruling on those claims.

The underlying message here may be that the days of NASA feeding private contractors cost-plus contracts is over. If they want to land on the Moon they’ll negotiate a contract with SpaceX, exactly as they do for the ISS cargo and crew services.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 3, 2021 at 6:00 am

Two crashes

Both spectacular.

First up is the Arecibo Radio Observatory, based in Puerto Rico. If you’re not familar with it from an astronomy standpoint you may recall seeing it in the Bond film, Goldeneye, and also the movie Contact. It’s a giant, fixed radio dish 300 metres wide, set into a hollow between small hills, upon which stand towers with massive steel cables attached that hold up a 900 ton receiving apparatus above the dish. Despite being fixed in the earth the dish can be “steered” to different points in the sky by moving the receiver. It was built in 1963.

A couple of months ago there was an alarming report that a couple of the steel cables had “failed” and this led the National Science Foundation (NSF) to declare that it was now unsafe to use and would be decommissioned, probably via a controlled demolition. In the meantime they set up cameras and even a drone over the structure to constantly check the cables.

However, reality was faster than the NSF and thus this happened the other day.

It’s incredible to see those massive cables snapping in an instant, watched by the drone that was flying nearby at the time, as well the tops of those towers being knocked off to tumble into the jungle below. Awesome destruction and a sad end to the observatory. As is often the case nowadays there is a larger version already operating in China!

Second up is this…

The figure at the top of the first frame is Grosjean climbing back across the barrier while his team doctor reaches out to help him. His F1 car broke in half, with the front half containing him, smashing through the steel barrier. At the 1:20 mark you can see Grosjean getting up and out of the cockpit while surrounded by flames as two men blast extinguishers on the blaze.

Car and Driver magazine has a superb article on this accident, The Tech and Training behind Why F1 Racer Grosjean Is Alive Today. It describes in detail the engineering of Formula 1 racecars that enabled the driver to survive largely unhurt. There’s also this animation of the crash, which includes a frame-by-frame look (120 FPS) from multiple angles.

The keys to his survival was that he was protected by multiple layers of defense, and although some failed the following did not:

  • The “Halo” cockpit protection system.
  • The chassis survival cell.
  • HANS (Head And Neck Support) device.
  • His helmet.
  • Fire-proof overalls.
  • The “fuel cell” (fuel tank) which retained almost all the full load. The massive fireball was merely from a few kilograms of the 100kg starting load.
  • And, finally by the rapid response of the medical car team of Alan van der Merwe and Dr. Ian Roberts. This was a bit of a fluke since they’re only this close at the start of the race, but Grosjean probably would have escaped the fire anyway as it was small (seriously – see the point above)

I was struck by these passages, as just two examples of the technology at work here:

FIA researchers will be able to study various video streams, including video produced by a high-speed camera which faces the driver and films at 400 frames per second…
Drivers wear in-ear accelerometers that are custom made for each driver to fit inside a driver’s ear canal to measure the movement of his head in a crash.

To me the key device here is the Halo mounted above the driver. Without it – even with most of the other safety systems working – he would have been decapitated. The Halo was only introduced in 2018 and some drivers complained about it affecting their field of vision. Grosjean was apparently one of them. No more objections I would say. In the live video you can actually see one of these “Halos” (labeled AlphaCentauri Fashion and with the driver’s number, 26, written on it) above the head of the driver who Grosjean crossed in front of as he lost control of his car.

If you have the time watch the documentary, Senna, a documentary about the legendary Brazilian race car driver, Ayrton Senna, who died in a famous 1994 crash which resulted in the avalanche of safety improvements that saved Grosjean’s life.

I’d heard of Senna and his death but I’m actually not much into motor sports so watching the crash was astounding to me because it looks like nothing at all. He goes off the track in a straight line and hits a concrete barrier at an angle. The car does not fly to pieces, there’s no fireball and you almost expect to see Seena climb out. Yet it killed him.

Nowadays it would not have. I’m not sure if Senna has a memorial but if he does Grosjean should leave a tribute there.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 19, 2020 at 8:55 am

Posted in Science, Space, Technology

EGS77 and Price-Whelan 1

Away from the currently dreary, depressing world of our everyday societies, science continues to discover wonderful things.

The following three items are of particular interest to me because it’s astronomy.

First up: peering into the past has discovered galaxies forming from near the beginning of time:

Using data obtained by the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a team of astronomers with the Cosmic Deep And Wide Narrowband (Cosmic DAWN) Survey were able to observe the farthest galaxy group to date. Known as EGS77, this galaxy existed when the Universe was just 680 million years old (less than 5% of the age of the Universe). Analysis of this galaxy is already revealing things about the period that followed shortly after the Big Bang.

The young universe was filled with hydrogen atoms, which so attenuate ultraviolet light that they block our view of early galaxies. EGS77 is the first galaxy group caught in the act of clearing out this cosmic fog.”

Second, next time you look up at the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds circling the Southern Celestial Pole, you should know that they’re going to crash into us, and sooner than was thought:

The outskirts of the Milky Way are home to the galaxy’s oldest stars. But astronomers have spotted something unexpected in this celestial retirement community: a flock of young stars.

More surprising still, spectral analysis suggests that the infant stars have an extragalactic origin. The stars seemingly formed not from material from the Milky Way, but from two nearby dwarf galaxies known as the Magellanic Clouds. Those galaxies are on a collision course with our own.

The researchers propose that the cluster formed as gas from the Magellanic Stream passed through the gases surrounding the Milky Way. This pass-through created a drag force that compressed the Magellanic Stream gas. This drag, along with tidal forces from the Milky Way’s gravitational tug, condensed the gas enough to trigger star formation. Over time, the stars zoomed ahead of the surrounding gas and joined the Milky Way.

Looks like the Magellanic Stream is only about half as far away from our galaxy as was thought. 90,000 light years, which is nothing in galactic terms. The collision has effectively already begun, although it may have happened before. Galaxies colliding with each other are not like two solid bodies hitting each other, as the following simulation shows:

Speaking of things getting too close, the third item is about taking another look at a famous event, Tunguska asteroid merely ‘grazed’ the Earth:

On the morning of June 30, 1908, the sky above Siberia flared so bright and hot that a witness standing dozens of kilometers from the site thought that his shirt had caught fire, said Vladimir Pariev, co-author of the new Tunguska study and a researcher with the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. 

Following the bright light, which lasted for about 1 minute, was an explosion that smashed windows and knocked people off their feet in a town more than 35 miles (60 km) away.

Forest in Siberia smashed by the Tunguska asteroid, 1908

The problem is that there was no crater, and the long accepted explanation for this was that an asteroid had disintegrated between 5 and 10km above the ground, the resulting explosive airburst causing all the damage. But after another much smaller meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, fragments of it were discovered within a week, while no such fragments from Tunguska have ever been found, and there should have been a lot of them. Now a bunch of Russian scientists have a new theory, that it was an iron meteor between 100m and 200m in size:

… the iron-rich space object could have entered Earth’s atmosphere at a very shallow angle — about 9 to 12 degrees tangential to the surface. It then would have grazed through the atmosphere, creating a shock wave at an altitude of around 6 to 10 miles (10 to 15 km) above the ground, capable of flattening trees for hundreds of kilometers and scorching the surface. But because of the meteor’s mass and momentum, it didn’t break up; it then exited the atmosphere and returned to space.

Other scientists doubt that such a shock wave would be powerful enough to do the damage seen and the footprint of the damage on the ground looks like it was an explosion from a point source. More fun with computer simulations, but it’s an intriguing theory.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 7, 2020 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Science, Space

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