RealClimate logo

It’s wrong to wish on space hardware

Filed under: — gavin @ 25 February 2009

A number of satellite related issues have come up this weekend: The NSIDC reminded us that satellite sensors are (like all kinds of data) not perfectly reliable and do not last forever. Two satellites collided by accident last week, littering the orbit with dangerous amounts of debris. In San Diego this weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting with some of the Apollo astronauts and some of the scientists involved in Cassini and the Mars Phoenix missions. And yesterday morning we heard that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission launch failed to insert the satellite into orbit, and it is presumably measuring carbon dioxide somewhere at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Coincidentally, when it came up on the news, I was in a meeting with one of the scientists who had been working on setting up a climate model to assimilate the OCO data in order to pin down the carbon sinks.

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. Getting into space was, and remains, a tremendous challenge. This makes the successes we’ve had all the more incredible, and a testament to the hard work the engineers and scientists do over many years before a launch to give the missions the best chance of success.

For the climate-related satellites/instruments – SSM/I for the sea ice, OCO for high-precision CO2 concentrations – there is some redundancy with other existing missions. The JAXA AMSR-E sensor can still be used for sea ice extent (and indeed, SSM/I is still sending enough data back to construct 3 day mean pictures). For CO2, the substitutes are slightly orthogonal – the Japanese Ibuki satellite launched last month will measure CO2 but with a very different footprint than OCO would have used, and the AIRS instrument on Aqua has recently been used to produce a timeseries of mid-troposphere CO2 concentrations since 2004. Nonetheless, both of these other missions should provide some of the information that was anticipated from OCO – though not at the spatial resolution envisaged.

It’s worth discussing a little what OCO was going to be useful for. It wasn’t because we don’t know the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and how much it’s increasing – that is actually pretty well characterised by the current station network (around 386 ppm growing at ~2ppm/year). However, the variations about the mean (tens of ppm) have a lot of extra information about the carbon cycle that are only coarsely resolved. The measurements would have been from nearer the surface than the AIRS data, and so closer to the sources and sinks. You would have been able to see point sources quite clearly and this would have been a good check on the national inventories of fossil fuel use, and may have been useful at constraining the rather uncertain deforestation contribution to the anthropogenic carbon dioxide sources. More importantly, the OCO data combined with inverse modelling might have helped with constraining the terrestrial sinks. We know they exist from residual calculations (what’s left over from knowing how much we are adding, and seeing how much is in the air and what is in the ocean), and they’ve mainly been associated with boreal ecosystems from the inverse modelling done so far, but there are quite large uncertainties (see 7.3.2 and fig 7.7 in AR4 Chp. 7). The Ibuki and AIRS data will help with this same issue, but OCO data would have been somewhat orthogonal.

Another important consequence perhaps, is that the upcoming Glory mission may be further delayed since it is slated to use the same launch vehicle as the one that malfunctioned for OCO. Glory has had a troubled past, surviving a number of bouts with near-cancellation, but was basically all set to go in June. This is a big deal because Glory will carry one new instrument (an aerosol polarimeter) that has the unique ability (among sensors flying today) to distinguish between aerosol types in the atmosphere. 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. This has been a huge problem for aerosol modellers since it is hard to evaluate simulations of each individual aerosol type (and which consequently are all over the place (AEROCOM)). A polarimeter detects the changes in polarisation associated with the aerosols which differs greatly between the different types. The second instrument on Glory is a total irradiance monitor (TIM) which is needed to prevent a gap from forming in the satellite observations of the sun should the current (6 year old) TIM on the SORCE satellite start to falter.

Ironically, space on satellites is at a huge premium. There are always dozens of possible candidate instruments that could be flown and ensuring that the right mix of monitoring and experimental measurements get made is very hard. For instance, the group behind the polarimeter on Glory were trying to find space on a suitable satellite for years before the Glory mission was resurrected.

All this to say, that while the OCO failure will be devastating for the teams that worked on the mission, the relatively high chances of a complete failure are part of the price to be paid for working on satellite missions. Fortunately, OCO was a relatively cheap proof-of-concept mission and so it might someday get another day in the sun.

(*For the reference in the title, see here).

95 Responses to “It’s wrong to wish on space hardware”

  1. 51
    Tom Womack says:

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 53
    snorbert zangox says:


    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]

  4. 54
  5. 55
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  6. 56
    Kipp Alpert says:

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 58
    Kipp Alpert says:

    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.

  9. 59
    Beast Of Bodmin says:

    > 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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”

  12. 62
    RichardC says:

    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.

  13. 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.

  14. 64
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 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.

  15. 65
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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. “

  16. 66
    Eyal Morag says:

    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 )

  17. 67
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  18. 68
    Al S. says:

    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.

  19. 69
    RichardC says:

    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.”

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    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.

  21. 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.

  22. 72
    RichardC says:

    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.

  23. 73
    Al S. says:

    Is anybody planning to attend this conference in San Francisco?

    First International Greenhouse Gas Measurement Symposium

  24. 74
    Mark says:

    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.

  25. 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.”)

  26. 76
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  27. 77
    RichardC says:

    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.

  28. 78
    Hank Roberts says:

    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:

  29. 79
    Mark says:

    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.

  30. 80
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  31. 81
    Clive says:

    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.

  32. 82
    RichardC says:

    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.

  33. 83
    Anne van der Bom says:

    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.

  34. 84
    Sekerob says:

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

  35. 85
    Mark says:

    re: 84. Put it into orbit?


  36. 86
    Mark says:

    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.

  37. 87
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 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.

  38. 88
  39. 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

  40. 90
    Hank Roberts says:

    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.

  41. 91
    Josh says:

    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.

  42. 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.

  43. 93
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  44. 94
    Hank Roberts says:

    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)

  45. 95
    AL says:

    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]