SpaceX does it again

Another Falcon9 successfully landed on a moving barge this morning.

In order to make the economics work, these birds do a ballistic reentry, essentially falling out of the sky and making a corrective landing burn at the last possible minute. Since this Falcon was delivering a Japanese communications satellite to high orbit, the lifter fell a lot further than the last one did, ending up going twice as fast and requiring a 12-G final burn before touching down softly on the recovery vessel Of Course I Still Love You.

Congratulations to Elon Musk and the SpaceX team, who are among the many people who don’t read this blog.

SpaceX lands at sea

A little late with the news, but anyway the SpaceX’s Falcon-9 has successfully landed on the drone barge “Of Course I Still Love You”. The landing deck is 170 by 300 feet long, and the Falcon’s legs stand 60 feet apart. As you can see by the whitecaps, the sea was very rough with high altitude crosswinds of 50 mph and low altitude winds of 25 mph.

For true space geeks, the beautifully produced full 18 minute video:

Orbital ATK Cygnus 6 space truck

The unmanned Cygnus cargo mission OA-6 went up Saturday on a Russian/American Atlas V, successfully delivering a new 3d printer to the International Space station. The ISS crew snagged the Cygnus today with their robotic arm.

Interesting side note on this mission, before Cygnus 6 plunges to its fiery reentry doom it’s going to test artificial gecko feet and be used for a fire-in-space experiment.

VTOL Rocket Roundup

The Experimental Delta Clipper (DC-X) of the 1990s was canceled before it ever made it into space.

The Rotary Rocket Company’s incredibly innovative Roton was designed to land with helicopter blades instead of a parachute or a landing rocket. After the collapse of the small telecommunications satellite market in 1999 the company went out of business without ever building their unique spinning aerospike main engine; without a clear mission, investors were unwilling to fund the various exotic technologies that the company was successfully pioneering.

In 2013 SpaceX’s series of “grasshopper tests” picked up where the DC-X left off.

But SpaceX’s plan to land their Falcon 9 lifter on a seagoing barge has not yet succeeded.

And bringing us up to date, Blue Origin landed the New Shepard on the 23rd. I love the final replay of the landing sequence!


Mercifully, the whole thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. When I do still catch the odd glimpse, it’s peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of the eye. There was that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. — William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum

The photoessay This Used to Be the Future reminded me of a childhood spent reading yellowed 1940s science fiction.

1958 General Motors Firebird III

Geminids on 12/13/14

The number sequence only works in the stupid US date format, though. Anywhere sane it’s 2014-12-13.

Here on the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the USA, the Geminid meteor shower should start to be visible just after dark, and best viewing will be between about 10:00pm and moonrise which will be around midnight, when up to 120 an hour may be visible. The Geminids are bright, often producing fireballs, and while 65% are white, about 25% are yellow, and about 10% are blue, red, or green.

Nukes and America’s Energy Future

Even if ground-based nuclear power was economically viable in the USA (which it it isn’t, despite massive subsidies) I don’t think our socio-economic system is set up to handle nuclear power. It seems unlikely to me that an adequate level of quality technical administration can be maintained in the post-Reagan business environment; our corporations will inevitably cut costs and staffing until an accident occurs. And that kind of feedback loop does not match up well with pollutants that have lethal doses measured in parts per million and half-life measured in thousands of years.

Fermentation products, particularly methane (aka “Natural Gas”) and alcohols from cellulose (currently not in large-scale production, but China’s already building out the infrastructure) are a far better choice than nuclear. We’ve already got the infrastructure and distribution media for it, and it’s infinitely sustainable and carbon-neutral. Scientifically, it’s a no-brainer; it even leads theoretically to future global temperature management schemes based on vegetative sequestration and release of carbon.

Nuclear power generation works great in space, and we should use it there. On earth we already have clean methane burning appliances available in the Home Depot and Sears, and we already have containment technology that works and restricts accidents to manageable proportions. The biggest real obstacle is that sustainable fuels displace profits from the currently dominant political and economic powers, namely the Texas Oil Barons and their dirty energy lobby. If you build a giant algae vat in Death Valley that generates clean methane or alcohol from waste agricultural products incredibly cheaply, you will directly take income from Esso and Texaco. If you build a nuke plant, there’s no problem, because the dirty energy lobby also owns the means of nuclear power plant construction and operation, and I’m sure they’d much prefer walled nuke plants patrolled by Erik Prince’s armed goons to huge empty plains spotted with oil derricks.

Harpoon it, Philae!

Artist concept of Rosetta's Philae lander touching down

Edit 2014-11-14: From this blog post, a somewhat speculative plot of the bouncy landing, showing how close Philae might have come to tumbling off Churyumov-Gerasimenko and into space.

The Philae probe bouncing on landing

It’s believed that Philae bounced twice – the first bounce took about two hours, and the second one 7 minutes. As expected, the comet’s lack of mass and consequent lack of gravity has been a big challenge. At this point, it’s believed that the lander may be lying on its side, making a harpooning attempt out of the question. The drilling maneuver currently being carried out may push the lander upright, or out of the little sunlight it’s been getting, or even entirely off the comet, but there’s no way to tell just yet….

Busy weekend at ISS

Elon Musk’s Dragon spacecraft left the International Space Station Saturday after delivering 5000 lb of cargo, and in the wee hours of this morning a Russian Progress unmanned cargo lifter undocked with a full load of garbage, freeing up some parking spaces (video replay on NASA TV at noon today). The Progress will stay nearby for a while to assist with some engineering experiments, and is eventually destined to burn up on reentry on Oct 19th.

Around 2:00pm EDT there will be a course adjustment to dodge some incoming debris left over the 2003 launch of a Cosmos communications satellite.

An Orbital Sciences Cygnus, named in honor of Deke Slayton, is scheduled to launch on an Antares from Wallops tonight. This will be the first Antares launch to use a Castor 30XL upper stage; the payload will include the Planetary Resources Arkyd-3 test satellite and nearly 3 tons of supplies. Coverage starts at 4:00pm EDT on NASA TV, launch at 5:45.

Hawking radiation precludes singularity formation?

Laura Mersini-Houghton at the University of North Carolina and Harald Pfeiffer of the University of Toronto have published a paper suggesting that as a collapsing star emits Hawking radiation, it must also shed mass at a rate that would necessarily prevent it from achieving the density necessary to form a singularity. This doesn’t mean they are claiming black holes don’t exist, they’re saying that if Hawking radiation is real (and so far it’s entirely theoretical) a black hole singularity cannot be formed by the implosion of a star.

Of course if a mass is high enough to create an information paradox, would we ever be able to tell if that mass is a point singularity or not? I don’t know, but the non-mathematical parts of the paper are surprisingly readable.

Redstone Rockets

I enjoy reading John Bullard’s History of the Redstone Missile System, although most people are likely to find it pretty dry. I found it linked from Jim Ryan’s marvelously informative site, which is a memoir of his Army experiences manning the Army’s Redstone missiles from 1958 to 1962. It’s a wonderful site to visit if you’re a hardcore rocket buff or cold war historian, although perhaps not much fun for those who couldn’t keep themselves awake in history class.

I think sites like Jim’s are the best thing about the World Wide Web. Computer professionals didn’t need the WWWeb to communicate with each other and organizations didn’t need the Web to move data – those needs were already met by the Internet itself, underlying the Web. But the Web lets people like Jim reach out to the whole world, not just computer gurus, with information that would never otherwise be available to many of the people most interested in it.