Science

Rocket Report: NASA chief hits back at Boeing, Falcon 9’s extended coast

Cartoon rocket superimposed over real rocket launch.

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.

Welcome to Edition 2.26 of the Rocket Report! We’ve got a feature-length report today, stuffed like a stocking full of stories about launch from around the world. This is our final issue before a holiday break, but we’ll be back with all the news that’s fit to lift on January 9.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.


Rocket Lab to build second New Zealand pad. Mere days after completing a new launch site in Virginia, Rocket Lab announced this week that it has started work on a second pad at its original launch site in New Zealand. This Pad B at Launch Complex 1 is scheduled to become operational by late 2020, SpaceNews reports.

Weekly launches? … Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said the decision to build the second pad was driven by an anticipated increase in its launch rate. After six launches of its Electron rocket in 2019, the company anticipates launching once a month in 2020 and eventually higher cadences. “The additional pad really gives us the capacity to get down to one launch every week, which is what we’ve always been driving to,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Air Force plans active smallsat launch campaign in 2020. The small-launch division of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is preparing to launch nine missions in 2020, just about doubling the number of launches conducted in 2019, according to SpaceNews. “It will be a busy year,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the small launch and targets division, which is part of SMC’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate.

Five this year … In 2019, five missions were carried out by the small-launch directorate: STP-2 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the Ascent Abort-2 flight test of the launch abort system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft from a modified Peacekeeper missile, STP-27RD aboard a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle, an MDA intercept flight test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and (most recently) a flight test of a prototype conventionally configured ground-launched ballistic missile in support of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Vector files for bankruptcy protection. Four months after laying off nearly the entirety of its 150-person staff, the micro-launch company filed for bankruptcy on December 13, SpaceNews reports. Vector had been one of the leading companies in the small-launch-vehicle market until August, when the company said that a “significant change in financing” led it to pause operations.

Funding falls through … The publication said the August layoffs were triggered when one of the company’s major investors, venture fund Sequoia, withdrew its support due to concerns about how the company was managed. That came as Vector was working on a new funding round, and Sequoia’s decision had a domino effect, causing other investors to back out. (submitted by Ildatch and Ken the Bin)

India’s PSLV makes its 50th launch. Earlier this month, the 50th flight of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully delivered 10 spacecraft from five nations into orbit. This mission was also the 75th overall launch from India’s primary spaceport at Sriharikota, Spaceflight Now reports.

Two failures … The PSLV’s first mission lifted off from Sriharikota on September 20, 1993, but failed to reach orbit after encountering a problem during separation of the rocket’s second and third stages. The PSLV’s only other launch failure occurred August 31, 2017, when the rocket’s payload shroud did not jettison, preventing the rocket from placing an Indian navigation satellite into orbit. The rocket has become a workhorse in the small-satellite launch industry.

Exos Aerospace identifies cause of launch failure. Exos has found the cause of the October launch failure of its Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with Guidance (aka SARGE rocket), according to the company’s co-founder. John Quinn, Exos Aerospace’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told Space.com that a composite part just below the nose cone failed, causing the cone to slide down into the rocket. The booster then flew nearly horizontally, beyond any hope of recovery.

Sticking with it … “What’s really interesting is, the component that failed was one that we replaced,” Quinn said. The replacement was made based on data gathered during the company’s third launch, which was successful. But engineers saw some moderate signs of stress in the composite part, so they decided to put in a new piece for the fourth launch. The company is already targeting another launch date for the first quarter of 2020, depending on the progress of the redesign and certain external matters, such as the renewal of its government launch license. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

New Shepard conducts 12th test flight. On December 11, Blue Origin launched its suborbital New Shepard rocket and crew capsule on an uncrewed test flight from the company’s launch and landing facility in West Texas. This was the 12th total test flight of the New Shepard launch system, and the third such flight in the year 2019, NASASpaceFlight.com reports.

Human flights in 2020? … This mission is expected to be one of the last uncrewed flights scheduled to occur before Blue Origin gets ready to fly human passengers on the New Shepard vehicle, with the first crewed launch most likely occurring sometime next year. The company has yet to begin selling tickets or even set a price for the 10-minute, out-of-this-world experience. Maybe that changes next year. Maybe not. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Trump ally buys Stratolaunch. Geek Wire reports that the new owner of Stratolaunch, the space venture started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is Steve Feinberg, a secretive billionaire with close ties to President Donald Trump. In October, Stratolaunch announced that it had transitioned ownership from Allen’s holding company, Vulcan Inc., but it did not identify who had bought the company.

Jean Floyd says for now … Private-equity firms typically replace existing managers as a prelude to realigning businesses they buy, which can involve firing, automation and offshoring. However, it appears that Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s president and CEO since 2015, remains in his role for now. Last week, Floyd tweeted that Stratolaunch had grown from 13 to 87 employees over the past two months. He also reported that the company’s new mission was “to be the world’s leading provider of high-speed flight-test services.” Maybe in 2020 we’ll see what that means.

Copper-titanium alloys show promise. The current titanium alloys often used in additive manufacturing typically cool and bond together into crystals that make them prone to cracking. However, a new report in the journal Nature suggests that a titanium-copper alloy may solve these problems and allow for the stronger material to be used more widely.

Building a stronger booster? … “We report on the development of titanium–copper alloys that have a high constitutional super-cooling capacity as a result of partitioning of the alloying element during solidification, which can override the negative effect of a high thermal gradient in the laser-melted region during additive manufacturing,” authors write in the journal. They say this could have applications in the aerospace and biomedical industries. This work remains at the laboratory level for now, but it could have long-term implications for spaceflight. (submitted by rochefort)

Nearly 1 in 4 adults in the US will be severely obese by 2030, study suggests

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Photovoltaic… enzymes?

Dramatization of the author whenever a paper about photovoltaic technology and biochemistry drops.

Enlarge / Dramatization of the author whenever a paper about photovoltaic technology and biochemistry drops.
Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty Images

One of the annoying things that happens when you track developing science is that you keep seeing interesting results on a topic, but none of them quite reaches the significance to justify a news story. This week, another paper that fit the description came to my attention. Again, these particular results weren’t especially exciting, but I’ve decided it gives me an excuse to introduce you to an interesting and potentially significant area of chemistry.

The area of research that keeps grabbing my attention is a fusion of photovoltaic technology and biochemistry. Photovoltaics are useful because they provide a way to conveniently liberate some electrons. And a lot of enzymes work because they do interesting things with electrons they obtain from other molecules. So, in theory, it should be possible to use a photovoltaic device to supply an enzyme what it needs to catalyze useful reactions. And, in many cases, reality matches up nicely with theory.

The new paper focuses on using photovoltaic nanoparticles to drive an enzyme that uses carbon dioxide, incorporating it into a larger molecule. But the researchers behind it also discover the process doesn’t work especially efficiently, and they make some progress toward figuring out why.

Photovoltaic chemistry

All chemical reactions involve rearranging the locations of electrons; electron transfer reactions, however, specifically involve changing the charge states of molecules, oxidizing some and reducing others. While enzymes catalyze a lot of bond rearranging reactions, many of the reactions central to metabolism involve electron transfers. There are entire electron transfer chains involved in breaking down sugars and others that are central to photosynthesis.

(The electrons involved in these reactions often come from metals, which is why so many of these enzymes have iron or some other metal incorporated as a co-factor.)

Many of these enzymes do things that we would be very interested in doing on an industrial scale. They form interesting molecules, make key intermediates in drugs, turn nitrogen gas into fertilizer, or even potentially pull carbon dioxide from the air, incorporating it into useful chemicals. So, it would be great if we could pull these enzymes out of the complex maze of biochemical pathways they’re embedded in and use them separated from all the complexities of the cell.

Unfortunately, that’s far, far easier said than done. Many of these enzymes take starting materials that only exist transiently within the cell. Others rely on chemicals or co-factors that are hard to produce or expensive; without those, they don’t have any way to get the electrons they need to do anything useful.

Photovoltaics offer an alternative to all this messy biochemistry. If the starting chemicals of a reaction are easy to obtain, a little bit of light and a photovoltaic will supply the electrons that are needed. By using photovoltaic nanoparticles, it’s also possible to tune the energy of the electrons to the needs of the enzyme. And it works. Photovoltaic-driven enzymes have made hydrogen from acidic solutions, converted nitrogen gas to ammonia, and pulled one of the oxygens off carbon dioxide.

While these were valuable demonstrations, we haven’t learned a lot about what’s going on at a biochemical level when an enzyme interacts with a photovoltaic material. As a result, it’s hard to know in advance which enzymes will play nice with them. And, if the process isn’t working as well as we’d like, there’s no obvious way to improve things.

Ohio gas well blowout leaked more than many countries do in a year

Helicopter footage of the well from the day after the explosion.

Enlarge / Helicopter footage of the well from the day after the explosion.

In February 2018, an accident at a gas well in Ohio, near the West Virginia border, didn’t make as much national news as it should have. An explosion at the well caused a blowout, with billowing black smoke and gushing natural gas spewing into the air. It didn’t generate as much interest as the three-and-a-half-month-long leak from a California underground gas storage facility in 2015, but a new study published this week shows it was almost as bad.

The study, led by Sudhanshu Pandey at the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, utilized measurements from ESA’s new Sentinel-5P satellite. Although it wasn’t quite officially operational at the time of the accident, the researchers were able to grab data. Unfortunately, although the leak went on for 20 days, there was too much cloud cover to use the data on all but two of those days.

The data, however, is quite good, as this satellite can deliver methane measurements at much higher resolution (about 7 kilometer) than others. The researchers were able to compare against days before the leak and also to compare the levels from upwind and downwind of the leaking well. They also used a simulation including the weather conditions on those days, calculating what the methane plume would look like for different rates of release.

The top image shows a simulation of methane concentrations downwind of the well, while bottom right shows the measurements made by the Sentinel-5P satellite. Bottom left overlays the simulation on those same grid cells for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Enlarge / The top image shows a simulation of methane concentrations downwind of the well, while bottom right shows the measurements made by the Sentinel-5P satellite. Bottom left overlays the simulation on those same grid cells for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Pandey et al/PNAS

They estimated the rate of methane release at 120 (±32) metric tons per hour. If you don’t know gas well methane leakage rates off the top of your head, that’s a lot. Estimated leakage rates from entire natural gas fields in the US—like the Haynesville Shale straddling the Texas/Louisiana border or the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah—come in lower than that.

To calculate a total for the entire 20-day release, the researchers use that as their average. That probably underestimates it, though, as the measurement comes two weeks in. You would expect the emissions to start higher and drop as the pressure declines. Using these numbers, the total release is 60,000 (±15,000) tons. The 2015 accident in California—the second biggest recorded methane leak ever in the US—released about 97,000 tons.

[embedded content]
Police footage of the aftermath.

Or, for another kind of context, the researchers point out that this Ohio well released more methane in 20 days than the oil and gas activities in most nations around Europe do in an entire year—save only the UK, Germany, and Italy.

The Ohio incident highlights an important fact about methane leakage from the oil and gas industry: it is dominated by a small number of malfunctioning sites often termed “superemitters.” That has made it challenging to accurately calculate the total leakage from the industry. (And to compare the climate impact of natural gas vs. coal power plants.)

Some researchers have tried to visit many sites, measuring leakage rates around each type of equipment to estimate average behavior. Other teams have tried a less targeted approach, flying overhead in aircraft and attempting to measure the overall behavior (and separate it from other sources of methane). That has generally led to larger estimates of leakage than the on-the-ground approach, in part because it’s easier to catch the superemitters.

The researchers say this case illustrates the value of the new Sentinel-5P satellite. Rather than having to know something is malfunctioning, or hoping that the occasional measurement catches a representative day, the satellite may reveal superemitters simply because it’s always watching.

PNAS, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1908712116 (About DOIs).

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Starliner set for its historic debut flight on Friday morning

Nearly a decade has passed since NASA first awarded funds to Boeing for the design of a crewed spaceflight capsule, and on Friday we should finally see the Starliner vehicle take flight for its first orbital test.

Officials from Boeing, United Launch Alliance, and NASA all said Tuesday that the Starliner capsule and its Atlas V rocket are ready for launch, scheduled for 6:36am ET (11:36 UTC) Friday from Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. According to meteorologists, there is an 80 percent chance of favorable launch weather.

“When you see an integrated vehicle like this on the pad, it all becomes real,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s manager for the commercial crew program for much of the last decade.

This seven-day orbital test flight—provided Starliner launches on Friday it will dock at the International Space Station on Saturday, and then land back on Earth on Dec. 28th—is essentially a shakedown test for the vehicle before astronauts fly inside of it. A mannequin nicknamed “Rosie” will ride along to gather in situ data for what astronauts will be exposed to.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work, and this is really setting up to be an incredible week,” said John Mulholland, who manages the Starliner program for Boeing.

The capsule will launch on an Atlas V rocket, which is among the most trusted boosters in the world. This configuration of the Atlas rocket will use two side-mounted rocket boosters, and for the first time the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage will employ two, rather than one RL-10 rocket engines. This will provide a smoother, and flatter launch trajectory and subject Starliner to lower gravitational forces, Mulholland said.

Sets up a big 2020

Officials were careful during a news conference on Tuesday to not set a date for a crewed flight test, in which NASA astronauts Michael Fincke and Nicole Mann will fly with Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson to the station. That will depend upon the success of Friday’s test flight, but if all goes well should happen during the first half of 2020, Mulholland said.

After funding several development efforts in the early 2010s, NASA down-selected to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to finalize design and development of their commercial crew vehicles. All told, the agency has paid Boeing $4.8 billion, and SpaceX $3.1 billion for Starliner and the Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively.

In March, the Dragon vehicle successfully performed an uncrewed flight test to the space station, but the company had a significant setback in April when the same vehicle exploded during a static fire test of its launch escape system. SpaceX and NASA have since diagnosed and fixed that problem, and a critical in-flight abort test is likely to occur in January.

That test, and Boeing’s uncrewed flight test, represent the final stages of the commercial crew development program. Sometime in 2020, nine years after the final space shuttle mission from Florida, humans should again launch into orbit from the United States.

Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann

This “essential piece of computing history” just sold for $43,750

This Jacquard-driven loom, circa 1850, is considered an early predecessor of the first computers.

Enlarge / This Jacquard-driven loom, circa 1850, is considered an early predecessor of the first computers.

Charles Babbage is widely recognized as a pioneer of the programable computer due to his ingenious designs for steam-driven calculating machines in the 19th century. But Babbage drew inspiration from a number of earlier inventions, including a device invented in 1804 by French weaver and merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard. The device attached to a weaving loom and used printed punch cards to “program” intricate patterns in the woven fabric. One of these devices, circa 1850, just sold for $43,750 at Sotheby’s annual History of Science and Technology auction.

“Technically, the term ‘Jacquard loom’ is a misnomer,” said Cassandra Hatton, a senior specialist with Sotheby’s. “There’s no such thing as a Jacquard loom—there’s a Jacquard mechanism that hooks onto a loom.” It’s sometimes called a Jacquard-driven loom for that reason.

There were a handful of earlier attempts to automate the weaving process, most notably Basile Bouchon’s 1725 invention of a loom attachment using a broad strip of punched paper and a row of hooks to manipulate the threads. Jacquard brought his own innovations to the concept.

Per Sotheby’s auction website:

Jacquard… conceived of developing a semi-automatic tone-selection device, which would be integrated onto the loom, resulting in quicker production and more intricate patterns. Jacquard’s punch-card system worked much in the same way as a fax machine: each punch in the card directed a black or a white thread into the headstock of the loom, pinpointing the desired thread into place.

The invention was not popular with loom operators, many of whom lost their jobs and took to smashing Jacquard looms in protest.

The mechanism just sold at auction belonged to one of Hatton’s former clients, now deceased. The collector had been trying to establish a museum on the history of computing, grounding his vision in the early attempts to mechanize computation by Jacquard, Babbage, and others. The loom “was his pride and joy,” said Hatton. “He bought the original mechanism and then commissioned somebody to make the loom and a second [mechanism] so he could use it. So the loom is fully operational.”

The piece comes with a large box of accessories, including the original 19th-century punch cards—everything one would need to operate the machine.

Jacquard’s machine was capable of programming patterns with such precision, it was even used in 1886 to create a prayer book woven entirely in silk, using black and gray thread. Only around 50 copies were made. The Sotheby’s auction didn’t offer any rare prayer books this year, but there was a portrait of Jacquard—woven in silk on a Jacquard loom—with a mini-loom and punch card on his desk, as well as another woven silk portrait showing several men in front of a loom holding the aforementioned portrait (so very meta). Those portraits sold for $10,625 and $11,875, respectively.

Sacklers siphoned nearly $11 billion from Purdue amid opioid crisis

Closeup of hands with a hammer and chisel removing letters from a wall.

Enlarge / A Tufts employee removes letters from signage featuring the Sackler family name in Boston on Dec. 5, 2019. Tufts University stripped the Sackler name from buildings and programs after months-long conversations and a report that censured the school for its relationship with the family behind OxyContin, an opioid blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide. The Sackler family gave Tufts $15 million over nearly 40 years and got its name prominently displayed throughout the university’s Boston health sciences campus.

As the epidemic of opioid abuse and overdoses ravaged the United States—claiming hundreds of thousands of lives—the Sackler family withdrew more than $10 billion from its company, OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma. That’s according to a new 350-page audit commissioned by Purdue as part of the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring.

The revelation is likely to fuel arguments from some states that say the Sacklers should offer up more cash to settle the more than 2,800 lawsuits accusing them and Purdue of helping to spark the opioid crisis. The plaintiffs in those cases—mostly states and local governments—collectively allege that Purdue and the Sacklers used aggressive and misleading marketing to push their highly addictive painkillers onto doctors and patients.

In a proposed $10-$12 billion settlement, the family has offered at least $3 billion of its own fortune. The family also said it would give up ownership of Purdue, which will transform itself into a public-benefit trust.

While some of the states have tentatively agreed to the deal, 24 states say that the offer isn’t good enough—and that the information in the new audit proves it.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement:

The fact that the Sackler family removed more than $10 billion when Purdue’s OxyContin was directly causing countless addictions, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and tearing apart millions of families is further reason that we must see detailed financial records showing how much the Sacklers profited from the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic… We need full transparency into their total assets and must know whether they sheltered them in an effort to protect against creditors and victims.

The audit doesn’t reveal the family’s total worth or where all the Purdue money ended up. But what it does reveal doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the Sacklers.

Follow the money

Most strikingly, the audit shows that the family dramatically ramped up its withdrawals as the opioid epidemic raged. Between 1995 and 2007, the family withdrew just $1.3 billion from Purdue. But from 2008 to 2017, the family’s withdrawals totaled $10.7 billion, peaking at $1.7 billion in 2009, as The New York Times points out.

In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court to misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about the addictiveness and abuse-potential of OxyContin.

The boost in withdrawals and its timing appear to support the argument from some states that the Sacklers were trying to shield OxyContin profits from the avalanche of litigation they saw coming. As NPR notes, a briefing filed in court and signed by 25 attorneys general read:

The Sacklers knew that the profits were not safe inside Purdue. Richard Sackler warned, in a confidential memo, that the company posed a “dangerous concentration of risk.” Purdue’s CFO stated that a single lawsuit by a state attorney general could “jeopardize Purdue’s long-term viability.” So the Sacklers pulled the money out of the company and took it for themselves. The Sacklers have directed Purdue to pay their family as much as $13 billion.

Where the money ended up is still unclear. As the NYT points out, money was often directed to trusts in places considered tax havens, such as Luxembourg or the British Virgin Islands. The audit also outlined the complex way in which the family sometimes moved money around. In some cases, Purdue money moved through a series of companies, including Rosebay Medical and Beacon Co., holding companies controlled by the family. In 2017, a set of a dozen transactions moved money through several companies before finally directing it to a Japanese division of Mundipharma, the Sacklers’ global pharmaceutical company. The audit does not provide an explanation for the transfers.