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  1. “Currently, aerosol remote sensing can retrieve the total aerosol optical depth, with some ability to discriminate between fine particles and more massive ones, but it can’t tell the difference between sea salt and sulphates, dust or soot.”

    MISR aerosol products include “non-spherical fraction”, which is close to the dust fraction in regions where dust is likely and single scattering albedo information, which is a decent indicator for soot.

    Like most other satellite products, these aren’t perfect, but they are tested and their quality statements are available. Obviously, adding polarization will help retrieve these properties, but I just want to make it known that these products are out there.

    Comment by Jeff Pierce — 25 Feb 2009 @ 11:46 AM

  2. All of these events have served to remind me at least, that although the space age is 50 years old, we are a long way from the point where we can take our ability to launch and control off-planet machines for granted.

    Not only does the American public and their elected representatives, senators and ‘leaders’ take space and rocketry for granted, events like these are the result of a decades long neglect of these scientific and engineering problems, which were easily solvable.

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 25 Feb 2009 @ 12:10 PM

  3. Off-topic for this entry, but look what the cat has dragged in: a report from Japan’s ” castigating climate models as “astrology”, etc.

    “Japanese scientists have made a dramatic break with the UN and Western-backed hypothesis of climate change in a new report from its Energy Commission.

    Three of the five researchers disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.

    One of the five contributors compares computer climate modelling to ancient astrology. Others castigate the paucity of the US ground temperature data set used to support the hypothesis, and declare that the unambiguous warming trend from the mid-part of the 20th Century has ceased.

    The report by Japan Society of Energy and Resources (JSER) is astonishing rebuke to international pressure, and a vote of confidence in Japan’s native marine and astronomical research. Publicly-funded science in the West uniformly backs the hypothesis that industrial influence is primarily responsible for climate change, although fissures have appeared recently. Only one of the five top Japanese scientists commissioned here concurs with the man-made global warming hypothesis.”

    Translation commissioned by (no surprise!) The Register. DenialChow can be more fully sampled here:

    All snark aside, there are some remarkable assertions made in this article, with some seemingly based on unfamiliarity with the sort of models discussed at this site. Any comments from RC? Best to get on it early, because within a short time we’ll see this report cited in George Will’s Washington Post column.

    Comment by Doug Bostrom — 25 Feb 2009 @ 12:26 PM

  4. Gavin, can you comment on why Triana/The Deep Space Climate Observatory remains in storage? Do the space-based climate change folks think this is worth a mission? Will the OCO be relaunched and if so will it take a $400m bite out of something else like the DESDynI which would help measure ice sheets and sea levels? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions…

    Comment by DrCarbon — 25 Feb 2009 @ 12:27 PM

  5. Gavin,

    Thank you for taking this otherwise sad occasion of the OCO failure and turning out thoughts to reevaluate the big picture of the cost/benefit for different approaches measuring global GHG’s. Your points are well taken. Maybe it is time to re-think satellites?

    Satellite data have always been appealing because of the enormous spatial coverage and the 24/7 operation. But they are expensive, and as we have learned this week, not 100% reliable. From its start the satellite age has ushered in alluring data streams that were once inconceivable in size, often outstripping our ability to analyze. For greenhouse gases, there is also some controversy about what is actually being measured by the satellite, and whether it is the proper resolution tool to be using to understand carbon cycle sources and sinks. Clearly it is an important tool and should be part of the measurement solution, but perhaps now is a critical time to realize that it only one of the tools, and as we have recently learned, satellites are a lot of eggs in one basket.

    On the other hand, the value of ground based and airborne GHG measurements will always play a critical role in understanding the science of global change. There is strength in a diversified Earth based approach that offers direct measurements in the biosphere, and that in addition provide essential calibration for satellite measurements. As we move towards various mitigation schemes on GHG reduction, local ground based measurements will be essential for monitoring and assessing the success of reduction or carbon sequestration efforts. As an aside from the science, I don’t know the numbers, but in today’s struggling economy, we might want to also consider what affect either approach has on employing people in meaningful ways to help solve our global problems?

    Comment by Bruce Vaughn — 25 Feb 2009 @ 12:32 PM

  6. Nothing about climate change is easy, which is exactly why we need the best and brightest working on these problems. Getting the best and brightest means funding the field. Climatology must work faster and smarter just to keep up with Mother Nature, let alone predict what she will do with our CO2. OCO was about working smarter and faster.

    I do not think that OCO ever got the priority treatment at NASA that it deserved. That was a result of funding priorities set by a Republican Congress and the Bush Administration for NASA during the construction of the OCO.

    We stand on the shoulders on giants, so it is part of the scientific tradition and ethic to give credit were credit is due. Thus, the failure of OCO belongs to the Bush Administration, and not to all the good people that worked on it at the technical level.

    Comment by Aaron Lewis — 25 Feb 2009 @ 12:35 PM

  7. #5 Aaron
    From the New York Times 2/25/09
    “Agency officials said yesterday that it appears the fairing, a nose cone that shields the satellite as it travels through Earth’s atmosphere, did not detach from the satellite the way it was supposed to.”

    Can you explain how the nose cone fairing detachment failure was the fault of “the Bush administration”?
    Why did just this fairing fail and not the whole rocket or every rocket over the last 8 years?

    In terms of funding, Nasa’s budget increased from $13.4 billion in 2000 to over $17.3 billion in 2008.
    Let us know how much more money Nasa would have needed to get this nose to detach properly.

    Comment by William — 25 Feb 2009 @ 1:44 PM

  8. The space age is only fifty years old and nearing its end, too. The Space Shuttle will go into mothballs circa 2010 and NASA is spinning its wheels trying to reinvent pre-Shuttle technology and failing. This is the sort of failure which suggests that humans could only reach the moon using 1960’s era technology and therefore the peak of human space occurred in the Apollo program.

    Space science is extremely expensive, prohibitively expensive when humans are sent into space, and it is unlikely that the United States, bankrupt and insolvent, can afford the expense very much longer. Formerly people imagined another nation taking America’s place at the forefront of space exploration, but the Chinese are in as bad or worse shape than the Americans.

    Given resource constraints (Peak Oil) and the increase impacts of pollution (climate related disasters in the form of droughts and hurricanes), I think it safe to predict that technological civilization’s days are numbered. Not that any further catastrophes are needed … there in an infrastructure problem which amounts to our civilization crumbling away right under our feet, the cost of fixing this problem alone would break are already broken budget.

    One thing which I found quite interesting to do while travelling about is paying attention to the condition of the roads, sidewalks, seawalls and buildings. A casual examination of such structures reveals that our civilization entered its decline phase a while ago, interrupted only briefly and incompletely by the bubble economies of the previous two decades. It takes a lot of money and resources to maintain civilization, and these are two things which our civilization lacks.

    Comment by David Mathews — 25 Feb 2009 @ 2:02 PM

  9. Can you explain how the nose cone fairing detachment failure was the fault of “the Bush administration”?

    Because they dictated the payload launch on a vehicle widely regarded as the most expensive per kilo rocket ever flown, with the worst record of any other vehicle.

    Why did just this fairing fail and not the whole rocket or every rocket over the last 8 years?

    Because most of those other rockets are liquid fueled, and fabricated, assembled and launched by professionals.

    Let us know how much more money Nasa would have needed to get this nose to detach properly.

    Another 500 million for a COTS-D competition. It would probably help a lot if they cancelled [edit-lets avoid the politics here] ridiculous Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), the Exploration System Architecture (ESAS) and resulting Ares I, Ares V, Orion capsule, etc, which has already wasted away 10 billion dollars, and are widely regarded as complete failures, even worse than the OSC Taurus,

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 25 Feb 2009 @ 2:22 PM

  10. RE : The solution to climate change.
    ( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen )
    The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
    Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project.
    It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
    I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectance of humans.
    yours sincerely
    Dennis Baker

    Comment by Dennis Baker — 25 Feb 2009 @ 2:38 PM

  11. Doug Bostrom (#3): Inhofe cited this report in this morning’s EPW climate hearing. Boxer quickly pointed out that the JSER was more of an industry organization than a scientific organization.

    Comment by Marcus — 25 Feb 2009 @ 2:42 PM

  12. Ah yes, the importance of satellites…

    It would be easy to imagine a civilization based on coal and oil with a population of six billion and climbing, but with pre-1950 technology. With no digital computers to calculate climate models, those people wouldn’t have had a prayer of predicting global warming with any confidence before it slapped them down. And if they did have computers they still would have been at a loss: computer models can produce only rough, scarcely credible outputs unless they get the kind of global data that only satellites can provide (“garbage in, garbage out”). Modelers also require satellite data to check their results and give some confidence that they’re in the right ballpark.

    So we are really, really lucky that we have been able to get a reasonably good idea of climate change in time to do something about it. That is, if we choose to take advantage of our good luck…

    Comment by Spencer — 25 Feb 2009 @ 2:45 PM

  13. Boxer quickly pointed out that the JSER was more of an industry organization than a scientific organization.

    Wow – that’s being on top of things, good prepping by her staff.

    Comment by dhogaza — 25 Feb 2009 @ 3:20 PM

  14. Aaron, you think NASA said don’t work so hard on this. It’s only a quarter of a billion dollars and I heard Bush is not that interested, they said…you think? Thomas (2), I think you’re too hard on NASA. 1,146,678, take or leave, things can go wrong with any launch that can ruin it. They weren’t all just foolin’ around these past decades.

    ps missed Thomas’ later post. Maybe he’s not blaming NASA technicians but rather NASA’s appointing Bush as Launch Manager, evidently. Still NASA’s fault: they should never change Launch Managers one month before launch! My! My! My!

    Gavin, this is a real kick in the head. My commiserations.

    Comment by Rod B — 25 Feb 2009 @ 4:00 PM

  15. Marcus (#11): This sort of thing always makes me wonder about whether the companies behind all these “industry organisations” are going to be liable to be sued in the future by people affected by climate change, or whether they have learnt from the tobacco companies and will manage to avoid liability.

    Comment by Stuart — 25 Feb 2009 @ 4:24 PM

  16. See also:

    Instability of the present LEO satellite populations

    Orbital Debris Program Office, NASA Johnson Space Center, NASA, 2101 NASA Parkway, Houston, TX 77058, USA


    Several studies conducted during 1991–2001 demonstrated, with some assumed launch rates, the future unintended growth potential of the Earth satellite population, resulting from random, accidental collisions among resident space objects. In some low Earth orbit (LEO) altitude regimes where the number density of satellites is above a critical spatial density, the production rate of new breakup debris due to collisions would exceed the loss of objects due to orbital decay.

    A new study has been conducted in the Orbital Debris Program Office at the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, using higher fidelity models to evaluate the current debris environment. The study assumed no satellites were launched after December 2005. A total of 150 Monte Carlo runs were carried out and analyzed. Each Monte Carlo run simulated the current debris environment and projected it 200 years into the future. The results indicate that the LEO debris environment has reached a point such that even if no further space launches were conducted, the Earth satellite population would remain relatively constant for only the next 50 years or so. Beyond that, the debris population would begin to increase noticeably, due to the production of collisional debris. Detailed analysis shows that this growth is primarily driven by high collision activities around 900–1000 km altitude – the region which has a very high concentration of debris at present.

    In reality, the satellite population growth in LEO will undoubtedly be worse than this study indicates, since spacecraft and their orbital stages will continue to be launched into space. Postmission disposal of vehicles (e.g., limiting postmission orbital lifetimes to less than 25 years) will help, but will be insufficient to constrain the Earth satellite population. To better preserve the near-Earth environment for future space activities, it might be necessary to remove existing large and massive objects from regions where high collision activities are expected.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 25 Feb 2009 @ 4:46 PM

  17. I certainly hope NASA and the US government change their future priorities in space.

    Manned missions are only good for making more manned missions possible – a luxury ill suited to our current situation.

    Missions with teh potential to improve our understanding of climate should be getting top priority, followed by those like the Webb telescope which should produce some very good new pure science.

    As for the Shuttle, the ISS, Mars, etc I think we should leave them be until we have dealt with more urgent matters.

    Comment by Milan — 25 Feb 2009 @ 4:49 PM

  18. #16 Hank:

    A talented author could weave an excellent SF scenario wherein we are threatened by a large extraterrestrial body and we’re unable to do anything about it because we literally can’t fly through the cloud of rubbish we’ve put in orbit.

    Comment by Doug Bostrom — 25 Feb 2009 @ 5:43 PM

  19. I’d really like to see some discussion about putting up a sensor on a satellite that can localize Methane emissions (in addition to the CO2 sensors) – so we’ll know if the methane (permafrost or clathrates) starts cooking off faster than we anticipate, by how much and where they’re doing it.

    Since it takes forever for a satellite to come together and get up there we’re looking at 5 years from now or so. Up to this point, its been eerily silent about something like this being put on a satellite.

    Comment by Sasparilla — 25 Feb 2009 @ 5:57 PM

  20. Without commenting on the current state of NASA’s budget and / or quality-control, I agree with Gavin that launching satellites is inherently difficult and that the overall success rate is impressive. In the early 20th century someone “proved” that rockets could never manage to get anything into orbit because the chemical energy per unit mass of the fuel is less than the energy per unit mass of an orbiting body. Obviously there was a flaw somewhere in the argument, but it does show that rocket launches, if not absolutely impossible, are next to impossible! The rockets are basically bombs waiting to explode at the slightest mistake.

    Comment by Curt Covey — 25 Feb 2009 @ 6:15 PM

  21. Manned missions are only good for making more manned missions possible – a luxury ill suited to our current situation.

    Science first. Write your congresscritters.

    And remember the planning for the mars manned fantasy, staging through a moon base, came through DOD. Ask yourself why.

    Comment by dhogaza — 25 Feb 2009 @ 6:30 PM

  22. Gavin, do you think this will serve to accelerate the ASCENDS mission? Or was that going to be dependent on results and experiences from the OCO?

    Comment by Jim Bouldin — 25 Feb 2009 @ 6:38 PM

  23. OCO was a relatively cheap proof-of-concept mission and so it might someday get another day in the sun

    If OCO is an example of relative cheapness at $240,000,000 I’m wondering what you’d consider expensive?

    Comment by Joe Hunkins — 25 Feb 2009 @ 6:53 PM

  24. If we don’t get the Shuttle out to the Hubble, it won’t get fixed. We need hands as well as tools in space.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 25 Feb 2009 @ 7:13 PM

  25. This just reminds me of how beneficial it WOULD have been, if we’d built the ISS to spec; as it’s design originally called for it to have a kind of ‘Space Garage’ in which satelites and probes could be assembled.
    Not only could we be building LARGE, Highly Complex Probes and Satellites; as they would not have to ‘fit’ inside the nose-cone of a Rocket; probes like the Gallileo would not have been such a dismal disappointment (which it was, only because the folded up Antenna failed to deploy properly).
    Sir Arthur C. Clarke called the ISS a “Flying pile of Junk” – change that ‘Junk’ to ‘Pork’, and you’ll know how I feel about it!

    Comment by James Staples — 25 Feb 2009 @ 7:19 PM

  26. 1) Space debris.
    If you don’t own a copy of Ed Tufte’s “Envisioning Information” (1990, the third book), borrow one and look at p48-49, which has visualizations of the debris cloud. Maybe someone can point to on online resource like that.

    2) Framework for satellites & climate.

    Maybe RC folks can do another post, or point at a reference on satellites – I’d love to see a nice terse list of:

    a) Climate-relevant satellite missions expected over the next few years, when they launch, and briefly what they are expected to do.

    b) Since this was about wishes, maybe some indication of priority/wishlist, including things wished-for that aren’t on the near-term launch list.

    I’m trying to understand the extent to which climate researchers are getting what they want or not, and what’s missing, and which sources or uncertainty get reduced or data holes filled. Of course that not everyone would agree and there must be fierce fights over which instruments go up when, but any overview would help.

    Comment by John Mashey — 25 Feb 2009 @ 11:18 PM

  27. “It’s wrong to wish on space hardware”

    Maybe I’m a bit thick but I don’t see a relationship between the title and your informative article?

    Comment by Alan of Oz — 26 Feb 2009 @ 3:22 AM

  28. Doug Bostrom:

    Off-topic for this entry, but look what the cat has dragged in: a report from Japan’s [JSER] castigating climate models as “astrology”, etc.

    The Register article totally ignored the rebuttals by IPCC scientist Seita Emori. Also, Kusano never actually said that climate modelling is like ancient astrology; he only said that celestial mechanics started as a branch of astrology (and is now a perfectly good first-class citizen of science!). The original Japanese text is here.


    Comment by bi -- IJI — 26 Feb 2009 @ 6:45 AM

  29. In the early 20th century someone “proved” that rockets could never manage to get anything into orbit because the chemical energy per unit mass of the fuel is less than the energy per unit mass of an orbiting body.

    Well gosh golly darn.

    May I introduce you to the 21st Century?

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 26 Feb 2009 @ 8:27 AM

  30. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about spaceflight and satellites here. First, this was not a NASA rocket. It was a Taurus, built and launched by Orbital Sciences. What happened is that the explosive bolts that are supposed to fire and jetison the fairing did not fire. As such the satellite had a bunch of extra mass attached and the rocket could not provide enough velocity to achieve orbit. While the Taurus does not have an admirable track record, there have been several other similar incidents within the past decade. It may be something as simple as an improperly wired harness, and as such it is premature to blame the launch vehicle. It’s just flat stupid to blame NASA, though, since the satellite is no longer in the agency’s control once it in the rocket. Moral: There’s a reason why rocket scientists are supposed to be smart.

    As to human spaceflight, anyone who knows me knows I am not a big fan. However, NASA has gotten zero support from the public for its science mission. This has led many, including the former Administrator, to conclude that increasing the exploration budget was the only way to keep the Agency from dying the death of a thousand budget cuts. No serious person makes any contention that manned exploration serves any scientific purpose–other than maybe helping us learn how to keep humans alive in a place they have no business being. Every astronaut that flies (and their gear) means about 500 kg of instruments that don’t. Manned flight does inspire, though, in a way that science and unmanned exploration do not. A lot of the engineers that I know became engineers because of the space program. Now, smart kids become lawyers or MBAs precisely because they can do the math and apply it to their own future earnings. The astronauts say “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.” I can’t refute them.
    William refers above to the nearly $4 billion increase in NASA’s budget. However, all of that and more has gone to manned flight. The science budget has actually decreased (at least up to the passage of the stimulus). James Staples alludes to the possibility of the ISS as an assembly facility for satellites. This was always just propaganda–never a real possibility. You still have to orbit all the material, and maintaining adequate clean-room status on the ISS isn’t feasible. As to failures–well, 95% of NASA missions are successful. Sometimes, as with Galileo, they even succeed when portions of them fail. Galileo taught us more about Jupiter and its moons than everything we’d ever learned before.
    Space flight is tough. Mass, power and budget constraints mean that there are bound to be single-point failures. To paraphrase Ben Franklin–for want of an explosive bold, the satellite was lost.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 26 Feb 2009 @ 9:27 AM

  31. dhogaza: “And remember the planning for the mars manned fantasy, staging through a moon base, came through DOD. Ask yourself why.”

    I asked myself why, and I’m stumped, actually. Do you have a theory?

    Comment by kevin — 26 Feb 2009 @ 9:46 AM

  32. I was very saddened to read about this. (Do you think the Republicans who don’t want to learn about GW left a wrench in the works somewhere?) Hope it gets going again sometime. If we could only tell everyone, “Stop fighting so we can divert some war money to this important program. The enemy is us.”

    At least this failure doesn’t make a lot of difference in our need to mitigate and the vast bulk of the mitigation strategies we must implement. So by the time we get another satellite up there, the CO2 emissions should be cut in half at least :) So let’s get too it.

    RE the Challenger disaster years back, I vaguely remember a sociology text using it as an example of problems with groupthink. And I remember reading in the newspaper that PowerPoint may have played a role — things being presented in too simplistic and bulletted a way.

    Comment by Lynn Vincentnathan — 26 Feb 2009 @ 11:03 AM

  33. Kevin, because the goal is to build a permanent facility on the moon, a manned mission to mars is just a smokescreen. If you want to go to mars, you don’t need to build a permanent facility on the moon.

    As to why DOD might think the US should be the first to build such a facility, it doesn’t require all that much imagination to figure out, does it???

    Comment by dhogaza — 26 Feb 2009 @ 11:47 AM

  34. Kevin and dhogoza, One obvious benefit accruing to DOD from the expansion of the manned program would be development of a heavy-lift capable launch vehicle.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 26 Feb 2009 @ 12:01 PM

  35. re: #32 Lynn
    Powerpoint: see Tufte’s 4th book, “Envisioning Information”, chapter “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within”, pp.162-168.

    [I actually think Powerpoint is useful, but then I used to fight with marketeers all the time for showing really-dense slides rather than 3-bullet-item ones.]

    re: #30 Ray where does one get explosive bolds? :-)

    Comment by John Mashey — 26 Feb 2009 @ 2:16 PM

  36. Thanks Ray for the overview, but I hope that NASA holds a transparent and public inquiry into what went wrong – if it really was something as simple as a mis-wired harness, then that’s a problem – similar to the crash-landing of that Mars probe. You would think that multiple people would have checked that as part of the pre-launch inspection – and so maybe the real problem here is excessive outsourcing on the part of NASA, leading to communication problems – it’s happened before.

    Regarding NASA’s budget increase: it’s a little more complicated. As noted, “In terms of funding, Nasa’s budget increased from $13.4 billion in 2000 to over $17.3 billion in 2008.” Maybe this had something to do with it: HP Wins $5.6 Billion Contract With NASA, May 2007.

    What NASA really needs is a new administrator who will consider some changes, such as:

    1. Put “monitoring the Earth” back up on the list of primary NASA goals. It would be best if that was the largest area of the budget, which is currently occupied by the international space station, for which ~43 billion was set aside by Congress c. 2001, plus additional costs added in 2007. In any case, the human space flight program has grown while all others shrunk – which is why it took 9 years to get the OCO launched:

    (AAAS 2007) Despite the emergency dollars, for most NASA programs the theme continues to be doing more with less. Although NASA’s R&D funding would climb $871 million or 7.7 percent to $12.2 billion in the Senate appropriation, putting the agency near the head of the class among the top R&D funding agencies, the entire increase and more would go to Constellation Systems, the NASA effort to develop the next generation of human space vehicles. Constellation Systems funding would soar $1.2 billion or 72 percent to $3.0 billion, leaving all other NASA R&D programs collectively with falling funding.

    However, it is nice to see that the shuttle has been abandoned – apparently, the major reason behind the shuttle was that a pilot could fly it on landing, which was more dignified and photogenic – even though that raised the risk of accidents at launch and re-entry. Instead, why not focus the human space program on space planes? – they’re piloted, and cheap, and serve the same purpose. You can build experimental space habitats on the ground, as well.

    2. Develop more in-house expertise – at the very least, insist that any “handoff” is accompanied by a team of NASA technicians and engineers who will double-check the whole process.

    3. Review the entire “public-private partnership” contracting program at NASA, especially with respect to transparency. It’s amazing that at NASA research labs, employees must file lengthy requisitions for small purchases (and wait weeks or months to have them filled), while at the same time billions are handed over in bulk to large firms with little oversight – that is one thing that needs to change.

    Anyway, as long as we are wishing, how about two more:

    A) A National Climate Service to deal with climate data and prepare regional climate forecasts, as the National Weather Service does with short-term weather data and forecasts.

    B) U.S. membership in the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has something like 75 nations signed up – much along the lines of the IPCC.

    Both of those ideas have some political momentum right now, as does restructuring at NASA.

    There’s no reason that the satellite can’t be rebuilt and relaunched, by the way – compare the costs to those of the space station and the rest of the human flight program.

    Comment by Ike Solem — 26 Feb 2009 @ 2:46 PM

  37. “Explosive bolds”–part of the “Wingding” font, I think.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 26 Feb 2009 @ 3:08 PM

  38. There’s no reason that the satellite can’t be rebuilt and relaunched, by the way – compare the costs to those of the space station and the rest of the human flight program.

    You don’t seem to understand the depth and complexity of the deficiencies in US strategic launch architecture. There are well designed and reliable launch vehicles and gigantic and modern launch vehicle factories sitting idle. There was no good reason to commit this valuable and critical environmental mission payload to the vehicle selected. This failure was entirely predictable.

    The thing is cobbled together ICBM stages, it’s almost embarrassing. America can do much better than this. NASA and the DOD needs to better fund and fast track the first and second generation COTS vehicles already in motion and use the ones they have, the Delta IV and Atlas V, and if they’d put the moon money into reasonably designed next generation reusable with great growth potential, they’d soon have their commercial heavy lift, and could have a reasonable space program. The path America is on in science and space is still entirely wrong, unsustainable and unaffordable, and Mr. Obama has not directly addressed this issue as yet, which is disappointing.

    Quite honestly, the powers that be do not actually want a fully commercialized launch vehicle sector, and are merely paying lip service to them and their customers.

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 26 Feb 2009 @ 3:20 PM

  39. I’m delighted to see the US government is going to place NASA’s priorities on environmental research, but apparently some people (like Gene Cernan) are really upset with the shift. And the failure to launch the OCO had definitely shed bad light to the agency even more:

    Comment by TDoc — 26 Feb 2009 @ 3:32 PM

  40. I gotta leave a comment if only for the recaptcha, but this is off topic —

    Dano, you are sorely needed over at Dot Earth. Trolls on steroids are materializing from their parallel universe.

    Also, my sympathies to the scientists who were working on the climate satellite project.

    recaptcha fonics: day’s Bernin

    Comment by Tenney Naumer — 26 Feb 2009 @ 5:50 PM

  41. Regarding the demise of the Space Shuttle, I have the same concerns as do others regarding the cost and complexity of the system.

    On the other hand, could we or would we have launched a replacement (3 so far and still counting, actually) for Hubble, if we’d not had a shuttle? Certainly the savings from the shuttle program would have paid for Hubble replacements, but I wonder if human nature would see to it that any replacements were orbited? Would we instead have seen a number of highly productive observation plans interrupted or terminated, along with attached scientific careers? Probably.

    It’ll be another few years before work accomplished by the first Hubble service mission could be accomplished by robots or even for that matter tele-operated prosthetics; the upcoming mission is decades beyond our robotic abilities. Meanwhile, I don’t think Ares has remotely the capabilities required for on-orbit service missions of the Hubble variety.

    Ditching the shuttle means that any on-orbit human presence will necessarily be concentrated at the ISS, the orbit of which is chosen for a melange of reasons, many of those having nothing to do with utility for data gathering.

    It’s a fallacy to say there’s no point in orbiting humans, unless we assume that we have no plans on fixing anything orbited and instead faithfully replace via relaunch whatever experiments or services break prematurely in orbit.

    What’s really aggravating is how we’ve poured enough money down various ratholes in the past few years to have lofted an entire fleet of shuttles, shuttle follow-ons, or whatever we might have chosen. This discussion should not even be happening.

    Comment by Doug Bostrom — 26 Feb 2009 @ 5:50 PM

  42. TDoc, we have maybe a few thousand years if we’re careful before we have to start expecting an extinction level event on earth within that timeframe.

    On current trajectory, we may have a few decades to start to do something drastically different environmentally.

    Concentrating on a short term goal that helps make the best “do something” determination seems like a sensible idea to me.

    Comment by Mark — 26 Feb 2009 @ 6:07 PM

  43. Ike and T. L. Elfritz, First, the requisite disclaimer: my opinions are my own and do not reflect anything to do with any US agency or department. There, I feel relieved.

    The problems with NASA go well beyond any administrator or launch vehicle or other hardware. It has been a long time since the Agency had a coherent mission. Every once in a while, a politician will try to win some votes by exercising the “Vision Thing”–hence Martian Madness and Lunar Lunacy. The long-term lack of leadership and mission have led to a balkanization and empire building, with a lot of “career bureaucrats” who see the Agency as a place to carve out empires. For Congress, it’s a conduit for corporate welfare–now just try to pull expertise in house under those conditions.

    And bureaucracy? The procurement process is just the start of it. Let’s just say: Human resources now procures “Talent” for the agency. Training is now called “Talent Cultivation”. And last year, the entire agency took a 75% hit to its travel budget just because some loon in Congress didn’t like how some loons at HQ used their travel budget. Where else would that happen, I ask you?

    And yet despite this, the overwhelming majority of NASA missions succeed, and they do so because there are dedicated civil servants and contractors for whom this isn’t just a job. Frankly, I don’t know another way to make these birds work–but if you want to give us more money, we’ll sure take it!

    Thomas, I think the “reusable” launch vehicle is pretty much dead for now. The shuttle has left a very bitter taste in peoples’ mouths–and not just due to safety problems. It was also amazingly expensive. The philosophy now is reuse where it makes sense–electronics, etc., but reusing structures that have to decelerate from 7 km/s to 0 while falling 300 km has proved to be a daunting problem.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 26 Feb 2009 @ 7:15 PM

  44. #30
    “It’s just flat stupid to blame NASA, though, since the satellite is no longer in the agency’s control once it in the rocket.”

    But feel free to continue to blame George Bush for this, and any future failures on either launching a satellite designed to find some looming catastrophe you’re hoping to find, or the damned thing’s inability to actually find it.

    Comment by Harry — 26 Feb 2009 @ 9:25 PM

  45. Thomas, I think the “reusable” launch vehicle is pretty much dead for now.

    I guess that explains why Elon Musk plans to recover his booster stages. It would be nice if you took an active interest in the details of that which you have opinions.

    The shuttle might fly next month. In dollars per kilo, the shuttle beats the Taurus by an order of magnitude. Recent developments in conventional launch vehicle costs have rendered the shuttle system competitive. Only the presumed lower costs of commercial launch vehicle entries still in development will render the shuttle obsolete, and even those costs are escalating. The SSMEs, if properly amortized over fill life cycle costs, are phenomenally competitive to modern disposable launch vehicle engines. The only metric preventing them from beating the costs of expendables is flight rate.

    Opinions are cheap, the numbers speak for themselves.

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 26 Feb 2009 @ 10:11 PM

  46. Nice Billy Bragg reference.

    Comment by Al — 27 Feb 2009 @ 2:00 AM

  47. Thomas Elfritz, your assertion that the space shuttle is cost effective is surprising given that each launch runs about a billion dollars and the payload is less than 23000 kg, and that the vehicle has only a LEO delivery capability. That works out to nearly $45k per kilo–not exactly cheap. Your cost also doesn’t consider the loss of 2 vehicles with their crews and the damage that did to NASA’s prestiege and funding. Again, these are not my opinions. The agency has decided that 100% resuability or even 70% resuability isn’t cost effective. Were it up to me, we wouldn’t be flying manned missions at all.
    What you fail to take into account is that NASA is an agency in a fishbowl, but having no cabinet level representation, few true friends in Congress, no clear mission and no really strong public support. This is a limiting factor when it comes to considering strategy based solely on technical merit. The numbers that speak to risk-averse politicians and the public tend to be different from cost per kg and lift capacity.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 27 Feb 2009 @ 7:57 AM

  48. Problem is, Al, I wish I wish I didn’t care.

    I currently have no children and no real desire for procreation and continuation of my line. I could live fat and happy like larry and leave a huge possibly lethal mess to someone else’s kids.

    If I didn’t care.

    Then again, if I didn’t care, there would have been several grisly murders over the past two decades. Those food tubes did nothing for me except get in my way and if I didn’t care for the ones left behind without them, the entire world would have been marginally better off without them. But then their significant other or their mum and dad didn’t do anything to me and I cared for their feelings and refrained from murder most horrid (and fun).

    If only I didn’t care…

    Comment by Mark — 27 Feb 2009 @ 7:57 AM

  49. #44 but that still fits the known facts better than “climatologists sabotaged it so their lies could not be uncovered”.

    Comment by Mark — 27 Feb 2009 @ 7:59 AM

  50. There are of course many reasons to dislike solid rocket motors. They destroy the ozone layer, they pollute the ground water, the have low ISP and they are less reliable than other forms of propulsion. The thought you could launch these small missions however on a Delta 4, Atlas 5 or shuttle is pretty funny though. The cost of these vehicles and the these vehicles payload weight make them overkill for this type of mission. NASA would never of green lighted OCO at all had it needed to rely on these expensive launch vehicles. Even sadder for those involved was that the failure came not at with the rocket motor but a part of the launch vehicle used many times before.

    Comment by John — 27 Feb 2009 @ 10:29 AM

  51. Why has nobody mentioned Ibuki here yet? Launched a couple of weeks ago; finest Japanese engineering launched from Tanegashima by an H-2A. CO2 and methane sensing, by reasonably high-accuracy spectroscopy at 750-800nm, 1550-1750nm, 1900-2100nm on about a 100km grid.

    Comment by Tom Womack — 27 Feb 2009 @ 10:44 AM

  52. Your cost also doesn’t consider the loss of 2 vehicles with their crews and the damage that did to NASA’s prestiege and funding.

    What loss of funding? There funding has been rising, and they’ve never been funded properly in the first place.

    Launch costs are one thing, launch ‘value’ is another. The shuttle allowed us, and allows us to service the Hubble space telescope, which thus makes in invaluable, and your costs quoted are related to modern low flight rates, not indicative of what the system is capable of. Clearly the shuttle needs to be retired, but there is nothing stopping America from producing a modern reusable unmanned high flight rate launch vehicle with the remaining engines, or entirely new engines, nothing but apathy, indifference and outright laziness and ignorance. This has been going on for decades now, and shows no signs of abating. You simply do not understand space science and its methods, and are unwilling to spend the money and get the education necessary to do it right.

    People die on the highways and in aircraft every day. People like you are holding America back, not propelling it forward. Since I have nothing good to say about people like you, and I am in possession of launch vehicle flight numbers and costs for a variety of launch vehicles gathered over decades, I shall withdraw from this thread. I’m not about to spend my time regurgitating numbers to nonbelievers, when I have other far more important things to do. As far as I’m concerned you can pray your way into space, I am seriously washing my hands of this entire affair.

    When left to your own devices, the results that people like you produce are entirely predictable and inevitable.

    If this last few weeks hasn’t given you the heads up on the education and space environment crisis which now far exceeds the post-Sputnik crisis in its severity, then you just aren’t going to get it, and nothing I say is going to change your minds. They are fixed : upon trivialities.

    I hear India has a fine polar launch vehicle.

    Comment by Thomas Lee Elifritz — 27 Feb 2009 @ 10:52 AM

  53. Gavin,

    Nir Shaviv recently published an article in which he claims to have demonstrated that the heat flux in and out of the ocean is greater by a factor of from 5 to 7 than variations in total solar irradiance can explain. The article, ( does not identify the magnification mechanism, but based on Shaviv’s previous work it is likely that he leans toward variations in cosmic ray flux.

    Will you comment on this work?

    [Response: I’ll take a look. Things to look for would be whether volcanic signals are properly accounted for, how much variability is puportedly explained, whether the supposedly-solar heat flux consistent with the low values of solar-related temperature change in the surface ocean, and whether this is going to be robust to recent revisions in ocean heat content. Did he use Domingues et al (2008) for instance? From the abstract, the changes seem implausibly large. – gavin]

    Comment by snorbert zangox — 27 Feb 2009 @ 3:36 PM

  54. Good news:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 27 Feb 2009 @ 4:13 PM

  55. Thomas Elfritz, I’m sorry, but I don’t see how a reusable launch vehicle will help us confront the threat of a N. Korean ICBM. I also do not see how you make a reusable launch vehicle both simple enough to be reliable and economical. The trade studies have been done to death–are you saying NASA cooked them? If a reusable vehicle were more economical and reliable, don’t you think NASA would go that route?
    As to Hubble, given that a servicing mission costs a third of the cost of the Telescope, I don’t see much advantage.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 27 Feb 2009 @ 8:52 PM

  56. Ray Ladbury: Who is the real food tube A person who is intelligent and does nothing,
    Or the conservative, that can silence you by their own distraction.
    But then I read William Kristol’s Thursday op-ed, which argued Republicans need to “find reasons to obstruct and delay” Obama’s agenda. I guess that’s why I call it the conservative stagnation.
    Conservatives have no strategy for averting catastrophe. Indeed, they have chosen to tie the fate of their entire stagnation to humanity’s self-destruction (see “Anti-science conservatives must be stopped“). It is now taken for granted that one must get 60 votes for every piece of legislation because t is taken for granted that conservatives will filibuster anything Democrats tried to do, including trying to pass legislation aimed at preventing the unimaginable horror of 5.5° to 7°C warming and 850 ppm.

    Comment by Kipp Alpert — 27 Feb 2009 @ 9:52 PM

  57. In 54 Hank Roberts gave a link to the following….

    The Omnibus Appropriations Bill 1105, just passed yesterday by the US Congress contains the following fateful statement on page 141: “The bill provides $9,000,000 for NASA to refurbish and ensure flight and operational readiness of DSCOVR earth science instruments.”

    Not sure that DSCOVR will be everything that it is cracked up to be… I know William Connolley has expressed some doubts in the past.

    Please see:

    I don’t really know how useful DSCOVR would be. There seems to be general agreement that Gore dreamt it up as a giant space webcam, but that it got more sensible as time went on. Whether its worth launching and maintaining is another matter. After all, the tagline at DSB is The scientific evidence is clear, global warming is happening, our continued burning of fossil fuels (i.e. oil, gas and coal) is to blame and we should be very concerned about the consequences. which is fair enough, so why do we need to spend more on detecting it :-?

    DSCOVR / Triana / Goresat
    Posted on: September 13, 2007 4:38 AM, by William M. Connolley

    But I have to admit that I am excited. Something I wanted to bring up once Obama won the election — but didn’t want to “jinx” — if you know what I mean. Anyway, I’m smiling. I might have go out and celebrate with a drink. I think I will make it a breve.

    Comment by Timothy Chase — 27 Feb 2009 @ 10:36 PM

  58. Ray Ladbury: Who is the real food tube. A person who is intelligent and does nothing,
    Or the conservative, that can silence you by their own distraction.
    But then I read William Kristol’s Thursday op-ed, which argued Republicans need to “find reasons to obstruct and delay” Obama’s agenda. I guess that’s why I call it the conservative stagnation.
    Conservatives have no strategy for averting catastrophe. Indeed, they have chosen to tie the fate of their entire stagnation to humanity’s self-destruction (see “Anti-science conservatives must be stopped“). It is now taken for granted that one must get 60 votes for every piece of legislation because t is taken for granted that conservatives will filibuster anything Democrats tried to do, including trying to pass legislation aimed at preventing the unimaginable horror of 5.5° to 7°C warming and 850 ppm.

    Comment by Kipp Alpert — 28 Feb 2009 @ 12:01 AM

  59. > Translation commissioned by (no surprise!) The Register.

    More specifically, Andrew Orlowski. Unfortunately for Mr. Orlowski, he insists on framing the Climate Change debate in terms of politics. Thus he falls into the same trap as the overwhelming majority of his media colleagues by failing to discuss scientific facts and data.

    Having read the El Reg article yesterday, the translated portion published there reads more like a press release than a scientific paper.

    Comment by Beast Of Bodmin — 28 Feb 2009 @ 12:19 AM

  60. Let’s not forget what Bush or Cheney canceled. One can just Google “bush cancels climate satellite” (OK just for balance you can try “bush promotes climate satellite”)

    Lots of citations came up:

    Even the BBC noticed
    Nasa’s climate science ‘in moth-balls’
    “Closing those gaps would create a level of certainty that is far less challengeable,” said Dr Kennel.
    “The danger is that an already cloudy debate will become more cloudy for lack of data.”

    The Bush Whitehouse continues to stonewall around the critically important Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

    June 9, 2006 “NASA is canceling or delaying a number of satellites designed to give scientists critical information on the Earth’s changing climate and environment”

    “Almost every planned earth studying mission, all that have some contribution to understanding global warming, has been affected. The $100 million Deep Space Climate Observatory , already built, was canceled earlier this year.”

    “An unnamed source within NASA intimately familiar with the mothballed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission spoke to Desmog Blog on the condition of anonymity.

    The story is incredible.

    The big question has always been: who would want to kill a $100 million fully completed climate satellite that has sat in a box since the 2000 presidential election – even though dozens of leading scientists have demanded it be launched?

    “Apparently Cheney was the hatchet man”, said the source. “Bush tried the keep his hands clean so he didn’t have direct involvement. It almost reminds me of the way Nixon used to operate…He assigned Cheney to be the hatchet man job on DSCOVR… Bush’s fingerprints weren’t on it but Cheney’s were… That’s what we heard through the grapevine.”

    We should hold on to history.

    Comment by Richard Pauli — 28 Feb 2009 @ 2:42 AM

  61. Hank, that’s the best news I’ve seen in a long time. I swear Dick Cheney must work for the Devil. That one man has done so much damage to the world around him, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do at the Last Judgment.

    Captcha: “Empire $700”

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 28 Feb 2009 @ 6:57 AM

  62. 8 David says, “The Space Shuttle will go into mothballs circa 2010 and NASA is spinning its wheels trying to reinvent pre-Shuttle technology and failing.”

    The Space Shuttle is the absolute worst possible lifting device. Every pound brought back to Earth is a wasted pound lifted, and the shuttle maximizes returned mass.

    The solution is simple: Mt Chimborazo is uniquely gualified to become a spaceport. Run a train/accellerator up to its peak and fling single stage to orbit rockets into space. The rocket bodies can be used as building blocks and the rockets surely will have use, so nearly all mass lifted is usable.

    So I disagree with your conclusion. The space age will begin once someone in power gets a clue and builds a simple and sane system.

    Comment by RichardC — 28 Feb 2009 @ 11:13 AM

  63. Barton Paul Levenson wrote in 60:

    Hank, that’s the best news I’ve seen in a long time.

    Hard to imagine: we are going to be seeing both DSCOVR and LHC operational — at the same time. I must admit it is difficult to be cynical in a world in which that can happen.

    Comment by Timothy Chase — 28 Feb 2009 @ 1:04 PM

  64. > DSCOVR

    And if there really is going to be a live Whole Earth video feed from the satellite, as originally intended, our TV-free household is going to acquire a nice big flat-screen video display.

    It’s not just a climate satellite, it’s an economic stimulus.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 28 Feb 2009 @ 2:30 PM

  65. RichardC, While I agree that the problem with the shuttle is its complexity, a certain degree of reusability makes sense. There’s a reason why space exploration is considered difficult. It is.

    Remember the words of H. L. Mencken: “Explanations exist: they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every problem — neat, plausible and wrong. “

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 28 Feb 2009 @ 2:33 PM

  66. Not connected to the post but I’m curios can title like this could be in your Faculty of Science home page ?

    “From the press: The physicist Nir Shaviv against Al Gore and the Green Movements”

    ( Nothing new in the hebrew article )

    Comment by Eyal Morag — 28 Feb 2009 @ 3:34 PM

  67. I wish I could say that I were confident about DSCOVR, but until I see in at L1 and beaming back data that are subsequently published, I will have my doubts. We haven’t won the war against the War on Science. We haven’t even secured victory in this battle yet. Don’t let up. Don’t relax your guard. Don’t even trust, but still verify. There’s no better illustration of the hostility to climate science than this sordid tale. It needs to be followed to the end.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 28 Feb 2009 @ 4:02 PM

  68. I second the opinion of #19. In fact, it would be really nice to be able to look at other IR bands as well to monitor for localized outputs and seasonal changes in other greenhouse gases. Not sure how much that would add to the cost and complexity of the instrument, or whether the major cost is simply getting it up there.

    Comment by Al S. — 28 Feb 2009 @ 7:29 PM

  69. 65 Ray I absolutely agree that reusability is grand. My point is that reusability in orbit is far more valuable than reusability on planet. Nearly all of lift cost is associated with lifting fuel and vehicle, not cargo. The system I envision would reduce thrust and fuel requirements by perhaps 90% while converting vehicle to cargo.

    Rockets don’t scale well, and small rockets are both reliable and useful for reuse in space. Rockets are a bad way to lift from 0kph at 0 altitude. Instead, use Earth-based power systems to get through the thickest atmosphere and the deepest gravity well and to the highest possible speed.

    Small rockets, low fuel loads, ~100% reusability at the highest altitude, minimal mass returning from orbit. With such a system, the cost of lift would drop to commercial levels.

    And I like you Mencken quote, though some would translate it to, “Think inside the box.”

    Comment by RichardC — 1 Mar 2009 @ 11:16 AM

  70. I’d love to see serious analysis of the idea of using a launch track up a mountainside. Has anyone done a design study anywhere? I’d guess Rutan might have, before settling on the carrier aircraft.

    I’ve wondered whether we have a design hangover from the military model (remembering that the Interstate Highway system was originally designed around the requirements for rapid dispersal of launch vehicles). For 1950s-era nuclear war planning, large fixed launching sites were much less favored than transportable vertical-launched rockets.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 1 Mar 2009 @ 2:20 PM

  71. Launching a rocket up a railroad track on a mountainside makes no sense at all, since friction against the rails, whether rolling or sliding, will decrease what would otherwise be higher performance. A rail launch from a mountainside involves using gravity to let the thing roll downhill quickly and then level it out at the last moment. The idea isn’t new; it was first extensively analyzed in the 1950s.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 2 Mar 2009 @ 4:51 AM

  72. 71 Barton notes, “Launching a rocket up a railroad track on a mountainside makes no sense at all, since friction against the rails”

    That’s one reason modern high-speed railway systems use maglev.

    Comment by RichardC — 3 Mar 2009 @ 4:52 PM

  73. Is anybody planning to attend this conference in San Francisco?

    First International Greenhouse Gas Measurement Symposium

    Comment by Al S. — 4 Mar 2009 @ 1:25 AM

  74. RicahrdC, 72, the problem is that you have to traverse a lot of the atmosphere and your rocket power is going not to get you UP but to get you going ALONG.

    Energetically rather silly.

    Comment by Mark — 4 Mar 2009 @ 3:59 AM

  75. I have a friend who’s working on a satellite that measures something about gravity. I forget what it does exactly — Dad was the rocket scientist in the family.

    Anyway, after OCO failed to launch she talked about the money her team was hoping would be freed up for their satellite, which is apparently staying in orbit longer than expected due to reduced LEO atmospheric drag courtesy of the Gore Minimum.

    I suspect there are others in the satellite community who wish for certain missions to fail ;)

    (reCaptcha sez: “Belle silvousplait.”)

    Comment by FurryCatHerder — 4 Mar 2009 @ 8:03 AM

  76. Richard C., While I agree that it makes sense to launch from advantageous locations–e.g. at the equator, to take advantage of Earth’s rotational energy–mountaintops are probably not an ideal launch site. They are cold and windy for one thing–not ideal characteristics for a launch. Even the equator has undesirable characteristics–most notably high humidity. Face it. Space flight is difficult. We do things the way we do them at least partly because it makes sense. BTW, I agree on reuseability in orbit, but any reuse takes a degree of refurbishment, and material for that has to come from Earth.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 4 Mar 2009 @ 8:15 AM

  77. 74 Mark, 19,000ft at the equator gets one through the densest HALF of the atmosphere, which at least doubles the speed which can be achieved “prior” to liftoff. One visualization is to build a low-or-zero-g assembly garage in space and shoot small loads into orbit with an artillery/rocket system. Small loads shot from a 24-30″ gun, but with launches hourly. Large guns and small rockets are cheap; rockets that can lift to orbit unassisted are expensive and less reliable. I’m thinking cargo-only, with space-planes carrying passengers.

    76 Ray, I agree there is a huge tradeoff in problems. I’m advocating a switch which would allow for significant mass to be lifted yearly. Once mass is lifted, construction and rebuilding can evolve in space. It seems to be a more feasible technique that building a lunar colony (where material could be mined), especially since 1/6g precludes constructing many products – with 0g a permanent presence could possibly have product worth shipping back to Earth. How else can we expand the amount of mass lifted per year? Tens of thousands per kg is just too expensive.

    Comment by RichardC — 4 Mar 2009 @ 2:41 PM

  78. I’d suggest reading up on the existing large body of writing about the idea first, rather than reinventing the idea here. It’s not news, and there’s a surprising amount of information online.
    Just one example:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 4 Mar 2009 @ 4:01 PM

  79. Richard, 77, do you want to have to walk up 38,000 steps to get to work in the morning?

    You still have to actually LIFT up to 19,000ft. Then motor along through an atmosphere (whilst doing so if you’re just shooting up the side of the mountain). This is more air to move aside than if you shot straight up. And you STILL have to get the mass that shoots you through the air at a slant up there with it.

    Comment by Mark — 4 Mar 2009 @ 4:14 PM

  80. Richard C., I’m afraid I’m a pessimist when it comes to realizing significant savings in launch costs any time soon. They’ve been trying to do so for 50 years–it just isn’t an easy nut to crack. The space garage idea doesn’t make sense to me–in order to assemble the satellite in space you still have to lift the material to Low-Earth Orbit, and that’s most of the work in any case. (BTW: Once in orbit, if you were going to launch stuff, a rail gun would probably be the way to go.) Moreover, the problems with humidity and other schmutz on the ISS illustrate it is not a good environment for assembling precision hardware. It’s barely suitable for keeping 4 guys alive. It is an inherently tough problem. Hell, we might solve fusion before we make spaceflight cheap.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 4 Mar 2009 @ 8:59 PM

  81. ok Richard, I will pretend you’re serious in your mountain rail launch suggestion and work out a few basic figures. My assumptions are for a system designed to launch a 2 ton payload to a 200km equatorial orbit.

    Let’s start with the absolute minimum delta-v to launch something from Earth to LEO. It requires a velocity increment of at least 9.1km/s before you even consider gravity losses and atmospheric drag. Now, launching from the Equator will help, and save up to 500m/s. The few kilometers above sea level might help with atmospheric drag, but is negligible in terms of direct height advantage. A conservative estimate of additional delta-v to cancel out drag and gravity loss is 1km/s, which leaves us with a total necessary velocity increment of 9.6km/s

    Since you suggested using a single stage from the top of the mountain, let’s figure out what that stage can give us. Let’s assume you use the highest performance fuels, with a specific impulse of over 400 seconds. Assuming a propellant mass ratio of 20 (which means 95% of the launch mass is fuel, and the other 5% is tanking, payload, avionics, aerodynamic shell, etc), we might be able to deliver 1% of the launch mass as payload. This rocket would provide a theoretical delta-v of 12km/s, but because of nozzle constraints, power needed for turbopumps, and other inefficiencies, would probably be limited to 7km/s. So a 200 ton rocket would be able to speed up 2 tons of payload by 7km/s. That leaves a minimum increment of 2.6 km/s needed from your rail launcher.

    To accelerate a payload to 2.6km/s (mach 8), and not have it experience more than 10g acceleration, would require a track length of 35 kilometers, and it would have to be very straight, and at the correct angle to the surface of the Earth. So, even if it ends at the top of the mountain, the origin of this rail track would have to be deep underground, which brings back the atmospheric drag problem.

    Imagine the cost of building a 35km inclined railway that can provide constant acceleration of a multi-ton payload to hypersonic speeds. I’m sure $1 trillion would be an underestimate. Current maglev projects costing billions don’t go 1/20th that speed, don’t carry hundreds of tons, and don’t accelerate at anything near 10g. It makes spending a few million on a first stage, and shrinking the second stage look like the much cheaper option. This is why no government or company has ever considered this type of single-stage to orbit for anything more than a conceptual study.

    Also, addressing your comment about launching things with guns; substitute “gun” for “rail” into the numbers I just wrote, and you suddenly have the problem of your payload getting crushed with over 400g acceleration (if the barrel was to be under a kilometer long), and incredible atmospheric drag since it’s going 2.6km/s at the launch point.

    The reason why all orbital launches have been from multi-stage conventional rockets is that with our technology, they’re simply the only safe and cost-effective way to put stuff into orbit.

    Comment by Clive — 5 Mar 2009 @ 1:21 PM

  82. 78 Hank, thanks for the link

    79 Mark, the facilities would still be near sea level with a 20,000ft system.

    80 Ray, does the garage need an atmosphere? Modular construction might be feasible with suits, especially since shape isn’t terribly important for machines which never hit atmosphere. As long as they plug together, it works.

    81 Clive, good numbers with which to begin a discussion. My thoughts were in a middle ground of accelleration, say 40g, and a payload of a few hundred pounds. Those specs avoid the worst of the issues you bring up. A tube drilled into Mt Chimborazo, mostly evacuated, is a good initial visualization.

    Comment by RichardC — 5 Mar 2009 @ 2:16 PM

  83. RichardC, I think air-breathing engines have far more potential than the rail-assisted launch that you are proposing. The Pegasus rocket is based on that idea. I can more easily imagine a dedicated scramjet propelled launch assist vehicle than a rail on the side of a mountain.

    Clive, your estimate of 1% payload is a bit pessimistic. Conventional rockets already offer a LEO capacity that is 2-3 times higher. And they have to start at sea level and 0 km/s.

    Comment by Anne van der Bom — 8 Mar 2009 @ 5:14 AM

  84. Saddam’s super big bertha, hill side mounted, would have been theoretically able to propel a quite sizeable object over a very long distance.

    Comment by Sekerob — 8 Mar 2009 @ 10:55 AM

  85. re: 84. Put it into orbit?


    Comment by Mark — 8 Mar 2009 @ 4:01 PM

  86. Richard, #82.


    6500m, 400m/s^2 and ignoring any losses through air friction (yeah, right) gives me 2.3km/s.

    What’s the escape velocity of earth? 11km/s.

    Comment by Mark — 8 Mar 2009 @ 4:06 PM

  87. > theoretically

    Maybe. Number claims here:
    “… an artillery “supergun” capable of firing a 1,300-pound projectile six hundred miles.”

    Seriously, many versions of this sort of thing been looked at extensively — the alternative, using a carrier aircraft seems to have won out.

    Electromagnetic Railgun Launchers: Direct Launch Feasibility
    AIAA Journal 1982, 0001-1452 vol.20 no.7 (978-985) (paywalled)

    Vol 8, No. 2, March-April 1992

    Talks about the problems controlling a gun-type, maglev, beamed-power etc. then suggests using a ramjet launched up a long tube full of gaseous fuel-and-oxidizer. They consider several approaches, but they conclude

    “… The auxiliary vehicle scenario is found to be competitive regarding payload, and requires a much simpler projectile, but has the disadvantage of requiring the auxiliary vehicle.”

    Since that was written at least three auxiliary-vehicle approaches I can think of have been proven using aircraft. And new Zeppelins are flying; perhaps those will finally become practical heavy cargo lifters.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 8 Mar 2009 @ 4:32 PM

  88. New group pulling together satellite data:

    Hat tip to Reuters:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 9 Mar 2009 @ 12:59 PM

  89. It still appears that DSCOVR may be set to be repurposed to study the solar wind rather than earth climate and the earth’s radiation budget:

    “The total cost of the instruments, the science, and the support that will be necessary is about 10 or 15 percent of the total cost (of the mission),” Valero said. “The lost opportunity for science and the waste of taxpayers’ money are unconscionable.”

    The current DSCOVR study was commissioned under the Bush administration, and Valero is appealing to senior government officials in an attempt to salvage the mission’s Earth science goals.

    “All that needs to be done is to launch the satellite as it is now,” Valero said. “Everything is on there. The solar instruments are on. The Earth science instruments are already bolted on the satellite. If they don’t start working and spending money to remove things, that would be wonderful.”

    Mothballed satellite sits in warehouse, waits for new life
    Posted: March 2, 2009

    Comment by Timothy Chase — 9 Mar 2009 @ 10:15 PM

  90. They’d be _nuts_ if they leave off the camera.

    Look at the movies of the Sun. Fascinating. But dead.

    Look at what the ISS crew spends their time doing — watching the Earth.

    Look at the live video — poor as it is — from NASA.

    And yet we’re not even using THAT platform to show people what they’re paying for.

    May 23, 2002 …

    NASA Ignores ISS Remote Sensing & Photo Capabilities
    By Leonard David
    Senior Space Writer
    posted: 07:00 am ET
    23 May 2002

    The International Space Station (ISS) sports an extraordinary optical quality window – the best ever flown on a piloted spacecraft. Missing at NASA, however, is clarity of vision regarding full use of this unique porthole on the world.

    The optical-quality window in the U.S. Destiny Laboratory became part of the orbiting outpost in February 2001. Since that time, ISS crews have become snap happy, picking their shots of Earth using digital still cameras, 35-mm and 70-mm cameras, and making use of a range of lenses.

    The eye-catching result? The first three resident space station crews clicked nearly 13,500 pictures of our planet. In the process, a new standard has been set for Earth photography. An analysis of the images found that objects less than 20 feet (6 meters) across on Earth can be resolved using cameras onboard the high-flying ISS.

    Clearly, scientists can use the ISS as a platform from which to study the workings of our world, regularly monitoring very small features and change around the globe.

    Despite the promise of ISS Earth imagery from on high, little is being done within NASA itself to push for expansive use of the optical window or the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) program that is slated to be launched next year.

    One irony is that the JSC Earth imagery database, itself, is under budgetary attack, recently zeroed out by the space shuttle and space station programs.

    Moreover, according to sources — both inside and outside NASA — the space agency’s own Office of Earth Science has shown little interest in ISS optical window and WORF utilization. …


    Dammit. What will it take — do we have to sell the franchise to Disney and charge by the hour, for the view everyone who’s seen it says is endlessly fascinating and beautiful?

    Common heritage of mankind my ass. They want nothing to be free.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 9 Mar 2009 @ 10:57 PM

  91. Longtime reader, first-time poster. Just wanted to say how happy it makes me to read a science blog that quotes Billy Bragg.

    Great piece, btw.

    Comment by Josh — 10 Mar 2009 @ 10:20 AM

  92. (I thought I submitted this last week, but apparently it failed.)

    Re: #51 (Tom Womack):

    Information about GOSAT/Ibuki is at .

    JAXA’s successful launch is commendable. (Though the launch is outsourced to the rocket maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, JAXA is still involved.) Seemingly
    it works well in getting data (though, for sure, we have to wait until the project scientists verify them).

    Though I do regret the failure of OCO, I also have a little feeling of "We have made a revenge" or "At last we have got a better hand" as a Japanese citizen and also a person who was affiliated with the former NASDA for some time. Before the merger in 2003 to form JAXA, there were a few consecutive events of failures of rocket launching by NASDA. One of them was a meteorological satellite MTSAT-1 (the current one is MTSAT-1R, R for Replacement). I do not think that Japan Meterological Agency blamed NASDA about the situation that JMA had to borrow a spare satellite GOES-9 from NOAA. (After all, there was a spare, though a tired one, thanks to the USA’s previous efforts.) But many of mass media did so much, depicting as if the failures represented how reliable NASDA
    was (ignoring its earlier successful launches including that of TRMM, to insiders’ chagrin). NASDA had to be slimmed down before the merger. (Disclaimer: I belonged to a division that was ripped off from NASDA then.) The public pressure was one of the splashes of the notion then prevailed: "A smaller goverment is always better". Maybe the sequences of failures and successes are just a matter of flucturation within a small sample. But maybe there are some improvements in quality of their jobs in recent years, and I hope so.

    Comment by Kooiti Masuda — 10 Mar 2009 @ 10:21 PM

  93. Kooiti, When a satellite fails, it is the entire international science community that suffers. Launch costs rise, data are lost, and the denialists thrive in the resulting vacuum of knowledge. I am glad for all the success JAXA has, and I hope that soon NASA will be able to supplement them.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 11 Mar 2009 @ 9:17 AM

  94. PS, for those who like this sort of thing, NASA has a link for ongoing live video from the space station; see the right sidebar on this page and down a few lines. (contents vary)

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 11 Mar 2009 @ 1:04 PM

  95. Extreme misrepresentation, please correct.

    Do you believe that the extremely snipped (censored) version of my post (46) represents what I said?

    I would like you to add the full post to the website or apologise for the extreme misrepresentation.

    As is mentioned on another blog on your site:
    -Correct mistakes. Again, it should go without saying that maintaining integrity requires that errors of fact be corrected as soon as possible.

    -Avoid using language that can easily be misquoted. This is hard.
    I will learn that – and to represent my full views within the first four words.

    [Response: Huh? Comment 46 is from someone completely different from you and was not edited in the slightest. I suggest using a more unique nom-de-blog in order to avoid such mistakes in the future. – gavin]

    Comment by AL — 17 Mar 2009 @ 6:04 PM

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