Chair Force Engineer

Monday, September 04, 2006

Space News Roundup

Orion Source Selection
Congratulations are in order for Lockheed Martin upon winning the contract to build the Orion Spacecraft. I wish them all the best as they build America's next spaceship, which may be our exclusive means of manned spaceflight for several decades.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing by pundits who expect a repeat of Lockheed Martin's X-33 disaster. I think they will be shocked and amazed by what results. X-33 was a Skunk Works project, and while the Skunk Works builds great Stealth Fighters and Blackbirds, they never built a rocket or spacecraft before the X-33. Hopefully Orion will be built by the former Martin personnel who worked on the Mars probes and Titan rockets, and the Convair folks who built the Atlas.

If I had to feel sorry for anybody, it would be the NASA people who had to perform the source selection. I've done two source selections before, both on a much smaller scale than Orion, and I can say that it's Hell on Earth. Imagine being forced to read over massive technical proposals for at least a week while sealed in a stuffy room and bound to not say a word about how shitty the proposals are. Yes, source selections suck, and Orion must have been a black hole.

Ansari the Ambassador?
NASA Watch reports that the State Department is nervous about what Anousheh Ansari might say when she flies in space this month. She is, after all, a self-appointed peace ambassador. Well, I wouldn't worry about her praising the current Iranian regime, as her family fled Iran when the Shah was deposed. I think that she will ultimately be an inspirational figure for all people of Iranian descent, particularly Iranian girls. Yet it's also important to remember that she could not achieve the great success she's had without the freedom that America offers. As long as Iran lives under the laws of Shiite Fundamentalism, no Iranian citizen will be able to achieve the highs of Anousheh Ansari without leaving Iran.

Clearing the IAU's Neighborhood
Pluto is no longer a planet, in the eyes of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU has lost a lot of credibility in my eyes. Not because I have a particular attachment to Pluto, but because they've chosen a definition for planet that is being subjectively applied. Apparently Pluto hasn't "cleared its neighborhood," but neither has Earth or Jupiter or Neptune. Pluto is smaller than the eight other planets, but it's still big enough for planetary formation processes that result in a spherical body.

The IAU should have arrived at a definition that looks at whether a body is nearly spherical (due to the presence of planetary-formation mechanisms,) whether its orbit is around a center of mass that lies on the sun but no other body (which would exclude the moons of existing planets) and whether it meets a minimum average radius (which would eliminate spherical artificial satellites from consideration.) "Clearing the neighborhood" should have nothing to do with it. Under the criteria I suggested (which were rejected by the IAU prior to the "Clearing the Neighborhood" stupidity,) the door is opened for the asteroid Ceres and the Kuiper-Belt Object UB313 (a.k.a. Xena) to become planets. Pluto would still be a gray area, because the center of mass between Pluto and its moon Charon lies between the two bodies. This more sensible proposal, rejected by the IAU, would have refered to Pluto and Charon as binary planets.