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Rocket Report: Starship going offshore, Blue Origin may launch humans in April



Enlarge / Rocket Lab’s first mission of 2021 was named “Another One Leaves The Crust.”

Rocket Lab

Welcome to Edition 3.30 of the Rocket Report! This week we’re celebrating another private company—Virgin Orbit—has reaching orbit for the first time. Seeing the company’s rocket drop from an aircraft last weekend and ascend into orbit on just its second attempt was darn impressive.

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

Virgin Orbit goes orbital. On Sunday afternoon, Virgin Orbit joined the rare club of companies that have privately developed a rocket and successfully launched it into orbit. Moreover, with its LauncherOne rocket dropped from a 747 aircraft, the California-based company has become the first to reach orbit with an air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket.

Just its second launch attempt … The flight, which included multiple firings of LauncherOne’s upper-stage engine and successful deployment of several small satellites for NASA, caps a development program that has spanned about eight years and myriad technical challenges. Ars reported on some of the novel problems that arise with a liquid-fueled rocket launched horizontally. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

Blue Origin may launch humans in April. Following the company’s New Shepard-14 flight on January 14, it plans one more uncrewed mission before flying passengers, CNBC reports. The next test flight, NS-15, could come as soon as late February, followed by a crewed flight six weeks later, sometime in April.

Schedule remains tentative … The company declined to comment on New Shepard’s schedule, with a Blue Origin spokesperson saying that the schedule reporting “was speculative and not confirmed.” However, this is consistent with what we have heard about the company’s plans, that another successful flight would set up human tests. This leaves open the exciting possibility of commercial astronaut flights before the end of 2021. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Rocket Lab starts 2021 launch campaign. Rocket Lab successfully launched a communications satellite for German company OHB Group on Wednesday, in the first Electron mission of the year, SpaceNews reports. Rocket Lab had scrubbed the original launch attempt for the “Another One Leaves the Crust” mission four days earlier due to “strange data” from a sensor.

Is it actually a Chinese satellite? … As the publication notes, there was some uncertainty about the true nature of the payload. OHB described the GMS-T payload as a “50 kg class” satellite placed in an orbit 1,200 kilometers high and as a “prototype spacecraft for a planned new telecommunication satellite constellation.” It’s believed the primary customer for the satellite may actually be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning a satellite constellation. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

Phantom Space working on pathfinding vehicle. In a tweet on Sunday, the new company said it was nearing completion of a development model for its “Daytona” rocket. “This development model is a manufacturing and design pathfinder of the flight system and will be complete in Q1 this year,” the company said. The tweet (now deleted, but archived here) included an image of what appeared to be this pathfinder inside the factory, with several people standing around.

Everything is not as it seems … However, sharp-eyed readers noted that the image appeared to be a rendering or perhaps a composite image of a rendered rocket inside a real factory. (See archived image here). Eventually, Phantom Space founder Jim Cantrell chimed in, saying, “Guys, its RENDERING – ALL OF IT. Last time I looked, those aren’t illegal. Maybe I should review the federal code again.” This may not be entirely true. The rocket was rendered, but the photo was, in fact, real. It originally showed NASA’s abort motor for Orion, taken in 2019.

Falcon 9 sets reuse records, expands envelope. The Falcon 9 rocket took off on schedule Wednesday morning, lofting its payload of 60 Starlink Internet satellites toward orbit. Then came something of a challenge for this first stage—sticking the landing. According to SpaceX engineer Jessie Anderson, winds at the surface near the landing site were stronger than what Falcon 9 rockets have experienced on previous flights. With a safe landing, she said, it “expanded the envelope” of recovery-wind limits.

This mission reached milestones in other ways … This was the eighth flight of this Falcon 9 rocket first stage—setting a new record for the number of uses of any single rocket core, Ars reports. And its 38-day turnaround period from its last launch significantly beat the previous turnaround margin for a Falcon 9 first stage, which is 51 days.

China launches first rocket of 2021. On Tuesday, the country’s Long March 3B rocket lofted a Tiantong-1 mobile communications satellite into orbit. The launch took place form the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, reports.

Many more to come … The Long March-3B launch vehicle is decades old and has been used to launch both domestic and international satellites. The Chinese government and several commercial companies in the country are expected to launch 40 or more rockets during the coming year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

French government seeks to expedite engine testing. The French space agency, CNES, and European rocket developer ArianeGroup have reached an agreement to begin testing the Prometheus rocket engine before the end of this year. The goal is to accelerate the Prometheus schedule by consolidating the test program at the Vernon site in Normandy, France.

Need to go faster … Under the agreement, ArianeGroup will receive additional funding for the site to enable the tests. Europe has a lot riding on the development of Prometheus, which it bills as a “low-cost, reusable” engine. It is expected to power a new generation of rockets after Ariane 6 and Vega C. “This agreement was signed against a backdrop of heightened global competition in the field of launch vehicles,” a news release stated.

Boeing completes Starliner software updates. Boeing recently completed its formal requalification of the CST-100 Starliner’s flight software in preparation for its next flight, the company said this week. “The work this team put into exhaustively wringing out our software is a defining moment for the program,” said John Vollmer, Starliner vice president and program manager. “We’re smarter as a team having been through this process.”

Setting up another launch … The rewriting and retesting of the spacecraft’s software came after a 2019 uncrewed test flight of the vehicle failed to complete its mission of docking with the International Space Station. This drove the decision to revamp the vehicle’s software and conduct another uncrewed flight test. The launch of this next mission, on an Atlas V rocket, is tentatively scheduled for March 29. (submitted by Ken the Bin, platykurtic, and Tfargo04)

Satellogic signs launch agreement with SpaceX. The Uruguay-based company that builds Earth-observation satellites said it has signed a “multiple launch agreement” to deliver its satellites on Falcon 9 ride-share missions. “What SpaceX has accomplished through their agile launch schedule is a perfect complement to our own business model at Satellogic,” said Alan Kharsansky, VP of Mission Engineering and Operations.

First launch coming soon … As part of its announcement, the company said SpaceX will become Satellogic’s “preferred vendor” for ride-share missions, allowing for a reduction in time between manufacturing and getting its satellites into orbit. The first launch will occur in June 2021. This seems like a notable shift as Satellogic initially launched on Chinese rockets. (submitted by Tfargo04, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)

Putting launch into perspective. A new report from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is part of the Department of Commerce, estimated the US space economy “gross output” from 2012 through 2018. For the most recent year available, the space economy accounted for $177.5 billion (0.5 percent) of US gross output. Two sectors dominated the space economy: information and manufacturing.

One piece of the pie … The launch industry falls into this latter category, say the study authors. The sub-category of “other transportation equipment” was valued at $17.4 billion in 2018, and it includes space vehicles and space weapons systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. Space reaches into a broad number of industries, the report notes, including agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, mining, and utilities, reflecting production related to research and development and remote sensing. (submitted by TH)

SLS rocket fails to complete its hot-fire test. The core stage of NASA’s rocket roared to life on Saturday afternoon in southern Mississippi, but then it stopped after just 67.2 seconds. Officials had hoped the test-firing would last for 485 seconds but believed they could get enough data with a 250-second firing, Ars reports. “It’s not everything we hoped it would be,” then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said afterwards.

To test again, or not? … A preliminary analysis identified that the test ended after an onboard sensor read pump-return pressures slightly lower than test limits. This reading came shortly after the rocket began to gimbal, or steer its engines. Publicly, NASA officials are saying they need to review data from the tests before decided whether to redo the Green Run test. But internally, Ars reports that officials are already leaning strongly toward a repeat to collect all the data needed. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starship gets two mobile spaceports. SpaceX has acquired two former oil drilling rigs to serve as floating spaceports for its Starship launch system, reports. Named Phobos and Deimos, after the two moons of Mars, they are currently undergoing modifications to support Starship launch operations. Recently, SpaceX has begun hiring crane operators, electricians, and offshore operations engineers to modify the platforms.

No noise concerns here … Although SpaceX has enjoyed some autonomy at its Boca Chica launch site, as opposed to the more heavily regulated Cape Canaveral facility, the company could get even more freedom offshore. The superheavy-lift launch vehicle will have a large blast danger area and pose noise concerns if launched frequently near populated areas. (submitted by danneely, platykurtic, martialartstechie, and Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Jan. 23: Falcon 9 | Transporter 1 ride-share | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 14:40 UTC

Jan. 27: Falcon 9 | Starlink-17 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 13:00 UTC

Feb. 15: Soyuz | Progress 77P | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 04:45 UTC

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Rare, flesh-eating “black fungus” rides COVID’s coattails in India



Enlarge / A health worker exits an ambulance outside a quarantine center in the Goregaon suburb of Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021.

As the pandemic coronavirus continues to ravage India, doctors are reporting a disturbing uptick in cases of a rare, potentially fatal fungal infection among people recovered or recovering from COVID-19.

The infection is called mucormycosis, or sometimes “black fungus” in media reports, and it appears to be attacking COVID-19 patients through the nose and sinuses, where it can aggressively spread to facial bones, the eyes, and even the brain (rhinocerebral mucormycosis). In other cases, the fungus can also attack the lungs, breaks in the skin, and the gastrointestinal system or spread throughout the body in the blood stream.

A classic feature of mucormycosis is tissue necrosis—the death of flesh, essentially—which in the rhinocerebral form of the disease can lead to black, discolored lesions on the face, particularly on the bridge of the nose and the roof of the mouth. Mucormycosis is fatal in around 50 percent of cases.

If the fungus is able to spread to the eyes, patients may develop blurred vision, drooping eyelids, swelling, and vision loss. Patients may even need to have their eyes surgically removed to prevent the infection from spreading further, according to doctors who spoke to the BBC.

Dr. Akshay Nair, a Mumbai-based eye surgeon, told the BBC that he treated 40 patients with mucormycosis in April. Eleven of them needed to have an eye surgically removed.

The total number of mucormycosis cases in India is unclear, but media reports have tallied dozens to hundreds of cases. Dr. Renuka Bradoo, head of the ear, nose, and throat wing of Sion Hospital in Mumbai, told the BBC that doctors there have seen 24 cases of mucormycosis in the past two months. Usually, they see only about six cases in a whole year.

Worse for diabetics

A report in The New York Times out of New Delhi relayed that local news media in the western state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, had tallied around 200 cases. In the western state of Gujarat, state officials have reportedly ordered 5,000 doses of amphotericin B, an antifungal medicine used to treat mucormycosis.

The startling increase in cases may be explained by India’s high number of people with diabetes, coupled with poor hygiene amid the critical COVID-19 surge, doctors speculate. Mucormycosis is known to strike people who have compromised immune systems, especially people with diabetes—and those with poorly controlled diabetes in particular.

Not only does diabetes dampen immune responses, welcoming invasive fungi, it also provides a comfortable environment for the infections. Mucormycosis is caused by mucormycetes, a ubiquitous group of molds that live in soil and decaying organic matter, like wood, leaves, and compost. These molds love iron-rich, acidic environments, and diabetic ketoacidosis—a complication of diabetes that causes the blood to become acidic—is a key risk factor for developing mucormycosis. A literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1999 estimated that about 50 percent of all cases of rhinocerebral mucormycosis occur in people with diabetes.

India doesn’t have exceptionally high rates of diabetes compared with other countries. But because of its population of over 1.36 billion people, the country has one of the highest raw totals of diabetes cases in the world, estimated to be around 77 million people, second only to China. India also has some of the highest estimated levels of death and disability from diabetes, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports last year.

“Triple whammy”

Adding to this problem is the current COVID-19 crisis crippling India’s healthcare system. With hospitals overwhelmed, experts who spoke with the Times noted that many COVID-19 patients are being treated with oxygen at home without proper hygiene. Moreover, many COVID-19 patients are given powerful steroids—which further tamps down the immune system.

“You’ve got a high rate of mucormycosis, you’ve got a lot of steroids—maybe too much—being used, and then you’ve got diabetes, which is not being well controlled or managed,” David Denning, an expert in fungal infections at Manchester University, told the Associated press. It’s a “triple whammy,” he said.

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After many delays, Massachusetts’ Vineyard Wind is finally approved



Enlarge / An offshore wind farm in the UK.

After years of delays, the federal government has approved what will be the third offshore wind project in the US—and the largest by far. Vineyard Wind, situated off the coast of Massachusetts, will have a generating capacity of 800 Megawatts, dwarfing Block Island Wind’s 30 MW and the output from two test turbines installed in Virginia.

Vineyard Wind has been approved a number of times but continued to experience delays during the Trump administration, which was openly hostile to renewable energy. But the Biden administration wrapped up an environmental review shortly before announcing a major push to accelerate offshore wind development.

The final hurdle, passed late Monday, was getting the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to issue an approval for Vineyard Wind’s construction and operating plan. With that complete, the Departments of Commerce and Interior announced what they term the “final federal approval” to install 84 offshore turbines. Vineyard Wind will still have to submit paperwork showing that its construction and operation will be consistent with the approved plan; assuming that the operators can manage that, construction can begin.

Vineyard Wind was controversial from the start, as it’s located less than 15 miles from two islands, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, notable for their expensive vacation homes. But offshore wind will need to play a critical role in US plans to decarbonize electricity production. The densely populated states along the Eastern Seaboard often don’t have good renewable resources, and the shallow continental shelf offshore provides an excellent site for wind turbines.

The approval delays have essentially meant that the US outsourced research and development on offshore wind to Europe, where experience building and operating giant wind farms—some substantially larger than Vineyard Wind—has helped drop the cost of this source of electricity considerably. European companies are now poised to take advantage of the opening US wind market, with several planning to help the Biden administration reach its goal of having 30 GW of capacity installed offshore by 2030.

The many delays faced by Vineyard Wind will hopefully provide lessons that will help ease the approval of future offshore projects. Thanks to the developments in Europe, there is now extensive construction and operational experience with projects of this scale. What’s currently lacking is the infrastructure to build turbines, blades, and support hardware, get them on ships, and support their operations. Vineyard Wind’s construction will help drive the development of this infrastructure, easing the way for future projects.

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Programming a robot to teach itself how to move



Enlarge / The robotic train.

Oliveri et. al.

One of the most impressive developments in recent years has been the production of AI systems that can teach themselves to master the rules of a larger system. Notable successes have included experiments with chess and Starcraft. Given that self-teaching capability, it’s tempting to think that computer-controlled systems should be able to teach themselves everything they need to know to operate. Obviously, for a complex system like a self-driving car, we’re not there yet. But it should be much easier with a simpler system, right?

Maybe not. A group of researchers in Amsterdam attempted to take a very simple mobile robot and create a system that would learn to optimize its movement through a learn-by-doing process. While the system the researchers developed was flexible and could be effective, it ran into trouble due to some basic features of the real world, like friction.

Roving robots

The robots in the study were incredibly simple and were formed from a varying number of identical units. Each had an on-board controller, battery, and motion sensor. A pump controlled a piece of inflatable tubing that connected a unit to a neighboring unit. When inflated, the tubing generated a force that pushed the two units apart. When deflated, the tubing would pull the units back together.

Linking these units together created a self-propelled train. Given the proper series of inflation and deflation, individual units could drag and push each other in a coordinated manner, providing a directional movement that pushed the system along like an inchworm. It would be relatively simple to figure out the optimal series of commands sent to the pump that controls the inflation—simple, but not especially interesting. So the researchers behind the new work decided to see if the system could optimize its own movement.

Each unit was allowed to act independently and was given a simple set of rules. Inflation/deflation was set to cycle every two seconds, with the only adjustable parameter being when, within that 2-second window, the pump would turn on (it would stay on for less than a second). Each unit in the chain would choose a start time at random, use it for a few cycles, and then use the system’s on-board sensor to determine how far the robot moved. The start time was chosen randomly during the learning period, and a refinement period followed, during which areas around the best-performing times were sampled.

Critically, each unit in the chain operated completely independently, without knowing what the other units were up to. The coordination needed for forward motion emerged spontaneously.

The researchers started by linking two robots and an inert block into a train and placing the system on a circular track. It only took about 80 seconds for some of the trains to reach the maximum speed possible, a stately pace of just over two millimeters per second. There’s no way for this hardware to go faster, as confirmed by simulations in a model system.

Not so fast

But problems were immediately apparent. Some of the systems got stuck in a local minimum, optimizing a speed that was only a quarter that of the maximum possible. Things went poorly in a different way when the team added a third robot to the train.

Here again, the system took only a few minutes to approach the maximum speed seen in simulations. But once they reached that speed, most systems seemed to start slowing down. That shouldn’t be possible, as the units always saved the cycle start time associated with the maximum velocity they reached. Since they should never intentionally choose a lower velocity, there’s no reason they should slow down, right?

Fortunately, someone on the team noticed that the systems weren’t experiencing a uniform slowdown. Instead, they came to a near-halt at specific locations on the track, suggesting that they were running into issues with friction at those points. Even though the robots kept performing the actions associated with the maximum speed elsewhere on the track, they were doing so in a location where a different series of actions might power through the friction more effectively.

To fix this issue, the researchers did some reprogramming. Originally, the system just looked for the maximum velocity and stored that and the inflation cycle start time associated with it. After the switch, the system always saved the most recent velocity but only updated the start time if the stored velocity was slower than the more recent one. If the system hit a rough spot and slowed down dramatically, it could find an optimal means to power through and then re-optimize for the optimum speed afterward.

This adjustment got the four-car system to move at an average speed of two millimeters per second. Not quite as good as the three-car train, but quite close to it.

More twists

The misadventures between expectations and reality did not end there. To test whether the system could learn to recover from failure, the researchers blocked the release valve in one of the units, forcing it into an always-inflated state. The algorithm re-optimized, but the researchers found that it worked even better when the pump still turned on and off, even if the pump wasn’t pushing any air. Apparently, the vibrations helped limit the friction that might otherwise bog the whole system down.

The refinement system, which tried start times close to the maximum, also turned out to be problematic once a train got long enough. With a seven-car example, the system would regularly reach the maximum speed but quickly slow back down. Apparently, the slight variations tested during refinement could be tolerated when a train was small, but they put too many cars out of sync once the train got long enough.

Still, the overall system was pretty effective, even if used on a simple system. It took two simple properties and turned them into a self-learning system that could respond to environmental changes like friction. The system was scalable in that it worked well for systems with a variety of train lengths. And it was robust to damage, such as when the researchers blocked a valve. In a different experiment, the researchers cut the train in half, and both halves re-optimized their speeds.

While simple, the system provides some insights into how we might think about self-teaching systems. And the experiment reminds us that the real world will throw even the best self-teaching system a few curves.

PNAS, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2017015118  (About DOIs).

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