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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Space Launch System, a reality check

In the past few days I've seen several discussions (based, so far as I can tell, much more on politics than any real science) about how the new NASA Space Launch System (crewed spaceflight to the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond) should be abandoned, either in favor of the old Constellation/Ares program or Elon Musk's SpaceX program. Some of the arguments put forward have been patently absurd, so I made a quick graphic here to illustrate why.

So, the Ares I (Bush administration) program was abandoned because Ares I was grossly over budget, years behind schedule and had absolutely nothing to show for any of this. The very large R&D budget had all been spent on the R, with nothing left over for D. The later-to-be-developed Ares IV and Ares V rockets showed more promise, but were scrubbed along with the Ares I.

The SLS (Obama administration) Block I, like Ares IV and V, is based partly on "legacy" Space Shuttle hardware. But in order to meet the congressional mandate of having this off the launchpad by 2017, NASA heavily relied also on legacy hardware from the Saturn V. No new hardware means no R&D; SLS Block I is, amazingly, actually a bit ahead of schedule. The SLS Block II spacecraft, which rely in turn on SLS Block I technology, are essentially the Ares IV and Ares V. See illustration for comparison.

Arguing that Ares is a better platform than SLS is akin to arguing that Muhammed Ali was a better boxer than Cassius Clay.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has been fantastically successful so far at launching uncrewed cargo vessels to the International Space Station in low earth orbit, and by 2017 the Dragon Rider spacecraft will be taking crews to the ISS as well. But the Dragon program is basically a redux of the old NASA Gemini program. Which is excellent, and inspired even, but the transition from Gemini to Apollo was one of the most expensive undertakings in human history. Musk could sell a thousand Teslas a day and not be able to build something capable of taking humans to Mars. It is not possible to simply "scale-up" from an earth-orbital spacecraft to an interplanetary (or even translunar) one; the Soviets tried this with disastrous results. Musk has discussed the possibility of developing a rocket to Mars, and I believe he has the know-how to do it. But it's not on the drawing boards yet, it doesn't even exist as a power-point presentation, and I have yet to hear a plausible answer to the question of how he would pay for it.

So, for better or worse, SLS and the Orion spacecraft are America's space program right now, and there isn't a credible replacement for them in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day of Remembrance

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or ever eagle flew — And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

High Flight — John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Apollo 1

27 January 1967

Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom

Challenger STS-51L

28 January 1986

Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee. Ronald McNair, Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka

Columbia STS-107

1 February 2003

Kalpana Chawla, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon, David M. Brown, William C. McCool, and Michael P. Anderson

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ice Hockey

The European Space Agency is planning a mission to try to actually deflect an asteroid from its trajectory. This could be really important to us if we ever found a large asteroid to be on a collision course with earth. Good on them.

Asteroid deflection mission seeks smashing ideas

15 January 2013

A space rock several hundred metres across is heading towards our planet and the last-ditch attempt to avert a disaster – an untested mission to deflect it – fails. This fictional scene of films and novels could well be a reality one day. But what can space agencies do to ensure it works?

ESA is appealing for research ideas to help guide the development of a US–European asteroid deflection mission now under study.

Concepts are being sought for both ground- and space-based investigations, seeking improved understanding of the physics of very high-speed collisions involving both man-made and natural objects in space.

ESA’s call will help to guide future studies linked to the Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission – AIDA.

This innovative but low-budget transatlantic partnership involves the joint operations of two small spacecraft sent to intercept a binary asteroid.

The first Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, designed by the US Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will collide with the smaller of the two asteroids.

Meanwhile, ESA’s Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) craft will survey these bodies in detail, before and after the collision.

The impact should change the pace at which the objects spin around each other, observable from Earth. But AIM’s close-up view will ‘ground-truth’ such observations.

“The advantage is that the spacecraft are simple and independent,” says Andy Cheng of Johns Hopkins, leading the AIDA project on the US side. “They can both complete their primary investigation without the other one.”

But by working in tandem, the quality and quantity of results will increase greatly, explains Andrés Gálvez, ESA AIDA study manager: “Both missions become better when put together – getting much more out of the overall investment.

“And the vast amounts of data coming from the joint mission should help to validate various theories, such as our impact modelling.”

Last week the 325 m Apophis asteroid passed close to Earth, and in mid-February the recently discovered 2012 DA14 space rock will pass closer than many satellites.

ESA is seeking to assess the impact hazard from Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) through its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme.

“AIDA offers a promising platform for the test and demonstration of different deflection methods,” adds Detlef Koschny, managing SSA’s NEO effort. “It is therefore important to ask the users early on what they’d like to do with a mission like this.”

For some time, ESA and its international partners have been studying missions to investigate asteroid deflection techniques.

The most popular concept involves a ‘hypervelocity impact’ – a collision at multiple kilometres per second, at such high speed that materials do not just shatter car-crash-style but are vaporised, turning even metal and solid rock into the hot soup of charged particles called plasma.

Such impact testing would help assess if asteroid deflection could be accomplished.

Increased knowledge of hypervelocity impacts would also have wider uses. Planetary scientists would gain fresh insight into our Solar System’s violent early history, including clues to the origin of life and the magnitude of extinction events.

And in practical terms, growing levels of orbital debris increases the risk of highly destructive hypervelocity impacts with critical satellite infrastructure or humans working in orbit. Studying this kind of impact will help to quantify the hazard and inspire protection techniques.

The AIDA Call for Experiment Ideas is being released on 1 February at For further information, see

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Flustercluck, part deux

The oil rig Kulluk is now aground on Sitkalidak Island, just off of Kodiak AK. Here's a map. Not sure where on the island it's aground.


(CNN) -- A Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling barge remained grounded Tuesday on an island off southern Alaska amid a fierce winter storm that hindered recovery efforts, Coast Guard and Alaskan authorities reported.

The Shell-owned rig Kulluk was being towed to Seattle when it began encountering trouble Sunday, the Coast Guard said. One tug needed help after its engines failed; a replacement had to cut the rig loose Monday night during a storm that whipped up 24-foot waves in the Gulf of Alaska.

The 266-foot rig ran aground off Sitkalidak Island, about 200 miles south of Anchorage, on Monday night. A joint command was set up to head off any possible environmental damage, but crews had not been able to confirm the Kulluk's condition Tuesday morning, those authorities reported.

The Kulluk had 139,000 gallons (4,400 barrels) of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid on board; no leaks had been detected early Tuesday.

Weather conditions were expected to improve through the rest of the week, with seas subsiding from 24 feet Tuesday to 11 feet by Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Susan Childs, Shell's incident commander, said more than 250 people were working on the response. The rig grounded in an area of Ocean Bay, where water depth is 32 feet to 48 feet, according to a release from the response team.

The Kulluk is part of Shell's controversial effort to drill for oil in the remote Arctic, a project that caused widespread concern among environmentalists and was held up after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It finished drilling operations in October, and its 18-person crew was evacuated Saturday.

The rig was being used to drill in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's North Slope. Shell says it's working at far less depth and lower pressures than the BP well that erupted off Louisiana, killing 11 men aboard and unleashing an undersea gusher that took three months to cap.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates more than 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be recoverable by drilling. And the shrinking of the region's sea ice -- which hit record lows in 2012 -- has created new opportunities for energy exploration in the region.

Climate researchers say that a decrease in sea ice is a symptom of a warming climate, caused largely by the combustion of carbon-rich fossil fuels. The science is politically controversial but generally accepted as fact by most scientists.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Outside of the maritime community, this hasn't been getting very much press. It is a mess. ===========================================================

ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS 30 December 2012 2100ast

An unmanned mobile oil drilling rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell is adrift -- again -- south of Kodiak Island after it lost towlines Sunday afternoon from two vessels trying to hold it in place against what have been pummeling winds and high seas, according to incident management leaders.

A team of 250 people from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell, and one of its contractors was hunkered down Sunday, mainly in Midtown Anchorage's Frontier Building, trying to resolve the ongoing crisis with the Shell-owned drilling rig, the Kulluk.

Before the latest turn for the worse, representatives of the Coast Guard, Shell and the state Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters in a briefing early Sunday afternoon that the situation was critical, but under control.

Then tow lines from the Aiviq and a second support vessel, the Nanuq "separated," the joint command team said in a statement sent out at about 4:30 p.m. The setback happened sometime after 1 p.m., just as commanders were briefing news media on what appeared at that point to be a successful response after a series of failures. They didn't yet know the towlines had broken free, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, who is part of the unified incident command team.

A third vessel, the tug Alert, which is usually stationed in Prince William Sound as part of an emergency response system, has arrived on the scene. And a fourth Shell-contracted support ship, the Guardsman, is on location.

"The crew is evaluating all options for reconnecting with the Kulluk," the command team said. Tow lines are still attached to the Kulluk and conceivably could be reattached to the nearby ships, Smith said.

But with its crew evacuated for safety reasons, there's no one on board to tend the winches or maneuver equipment, Sean Churchfield, Shell's incident commander and the company's operations manager for Alaska, told reporters earlier on Sunday.

All decisions, including the evacuation, are being made by the group as a whole, said Capt. Paul Mehler, the Coast Guard's Anchorage-based commander.

The Gulf of Alaska storm has been fierce, with near-hurricane winds on Saturday night, Mehler said. Only a small lull is predicted for Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The forecast for Sunday night was 28-foot seas and winds in the range of 50 mph or more, about what it was on Saturday, said meteorologist Bob Clay. Seas and winds are expected to diminish Monday morning, then pick back up later in the day as another storm moves in, he said.

With no towlines securing it in place, the crew-less Kulluk is drifting about 20 miles south of Sitkinak Island, part of the Trinity Islands, south of Kodiak. Smith said early Sunday evening that he had not yet been briefed on how many hours it would take the Kulluk to reach shore if it continues adrift. A number of variables, including currents and wind speed, would affect when and where it hit, if it came to that, he noted. He said he would provide the information when he gets it.

The incident team also must find a safe harbor for the Aiviq, as well as the Kulluk, to undergo inspections and possible repairs before heading south to Everett, Wash., where the Kulluk had been headed for off-season maintenance before the troubles began.

The $290 million, 266-foot diameter Kulluk is a conical-shaped mobile rig that began drilling a single exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this year. But it cannot propel itself, and a series of failures involving the rig began on Thursday during a stormy Gulf of Alaska crossing.

The 360-foot, $200 million Aiviq is a new ship commissioned by Shell for its Arctic work and built and owned by Louisiana-based maritime company Edison Chouest Offshore.

The Kulluk lost its towline from the Aiviq on Thursday. A second tow line was attached for a time, but then early Friday all four engines on the Aiviq failed. The Coast Guard sent the Alex Haley, a 282-foot cutter. It delivered a towline to the Aiviq, which was still attached to the Kulluk, but the sheer mass of the ship and the drilling rig, combined with 40 mph winds and building 35-foot seas, broke the connection and the line became tangled in the cutter's propeller and damaged it. The Alex Haley turned back to Kodiak for repair, but now is back at the Kulluk scene.

The towline mishaps and the engine failures are under investigation, Churchfield said.

On Saturday, the Kulluk's 18-person crew was safely evacuated to Kodiak in two Coast Guard helicopters. The Aiviq's engines were repaired with new fuel injectors, and the Nanuq, also under contract to Shell, put a towline on the Kulluk, for a time. The Aiviq then was running off two engines at a time, as a precaution, officials said Sunday.

Initial reports suggested that contaminated fuel might have caused the engines to malfunction, but that hasn't been confirmed through fuel analysis, Churchfield said.

"I don't really want to speculate as to the causes of the propulsion failure on the Aiviq," he said. "We are looking for the solutions and we will have a full investigation. At this stage I don't have any firm information to pass onto you."

However, the fuel now being used is from a different tank than that in use when the engines failed, said Shell's Smith.

The plan to use just a single ship to tow the Kulluk was reasonable, given the Aiviq's features, said the Coast Guard's Mehler.

"This type of operation is very normal. With the vessel the size of the Aiviq, with the capabilities of the Aiviq, with four engines, it was above and beyond what would be required to be able to tow, even in very extreme conditions," the commander said.

Shell did not have to get Coast Guard approval of its towing plan, because the maritime operation was so routine. But the oil company did consult with the agency as the vessels began their journey, Mehler said.

At the start of Shell's 2012 drilling season, the Aiviq towed the Kulluk from a shipyard in Washington state to Dutch Harbor and then to the Beaufort Sea, where two tugs took over to handle it, Churchfield said.

Two crew members on the Aiviq suffered minor injuries at some point, but both are back at work, Churchfield said.

No oil has been spilled during the incident, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Shell has had a difficult experience as it tries to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It couldn't drill to oil-rich zones because its novel oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing. Its other drilling rig, a converted log carrier called the Noble Discoverer, recently was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment. Mehler ordered it held in Seward while the most serious issues were addressed. While the ship now is free to leave for Seattle, it remains docked in Seward because it is waiting for escort vessels now working on the Kulluk situation, Smith said.

In 1980, in a situation eerily similar to what is happening now, 18 crew members were evacuated off a jack-up drilling rig named the Dan Prince as rough seas in the North Pacific 650 miles south of Kodiak threatened to destroy the unit, according to news reports at the time. Heavy seas prevented crews from attaching a tow line. The rig then sank, according to an online listing of rig disasters.

Read more here:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mayan Zombie Fiscal Apocalypse

Ok, not really. But it is one hell of a storm brewing tonight.

From the National Weather Service, this is for the eastern entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (in the vicinity of the "Romeo" VTS buoy, for those who care about such).



Overnight: E wind 33 to 36 kt becoming W. Winds could gust as high as 55 kt. Rain. Wind waves 6 ft building to 10 ft.

Monday: W wind 39 to 44 kt, with gusts as high as 65 kt. Rain, mainly before 10am. Wind waves around 10 ft.