Tuesday, August 18, 2020

the elephant

I am increasingly perturbed by SpaceX. I'm sure many fellow astronomers are feeling this way. Actually, most of the reactions I'm seeing are quite negative. Personally, I'm betwixt and between.

Here's a company, lead by a tenacious man, making things happen.

Elon Musk can rightly claim to have been responsible for getting USA astronauts back in space with USA-built craft from soil in the USA territory. That will save the government and the space agency a lot of money. That's good.

The company has established a good track record getting supplies to and from the International Space Station. That's good for science and research and medicine.

SpaceX is driving down the costs associated with spaceflight by reusing components. That was the stuff of science fiction a decade ago. Relaunching booster rockets and catching shroud casings is saving a lot of cash. That's good. Good for the company, good for customers, good for the environment (a bit). 

A subtle thing about SpaceX rockets is the modular approach. A typical booster with nine Merlin engines can be strapped to one or two other boosters. The "heavy" lift rocket demonstrates this efficiency.

Another subtle philosophical approach is building as much as they can themselves. By reducing outsourcing, they gain control, speed, and still more cost-savings. SpaceX is doing things at about one-third the pricing as NASA.

That's very helpful for new business and new companies wanting to get into low Earth orbit (LEO). That's helping universities and colleges do more research and science.

This is having an interesting effect on other organisations. NASA is now relieved of the chore of getting people and equipment in LEO. So they can focus on other things, like science, and better rocket propellants.

I'm convinced that humans working and living on the Moon and Mars will be attributed to SpaceX. That's gonna be a lot tougher but I believe Musk's organisation will play a pivotal part. We're on the verge of becoming a multi-planet species. Again, the stuff of SF movies and books. But I now think I will see this in my lifetime. That's... that's... wow.

Not a SpaceX product directly but I'm am very pleased to see Musk putting a lot of energy and money into electric cars. Actually, I didn't think I'd see acceptance of electric vehicles in my lifetime, given the long love affair with the internal combustion engine. But it is amazing to see Tesla shaking the tree.

But these little satellites, the Starlink satellites for the internet relay constellation, this just seems to be a huge issue. A thorn in this rosy future.

It appears to be a problem for the amateur and professional astronomer with dozens or hundreds of satellites streaking through the field of view of the telescope or instrument. It's completely destroying images when they parade through. There are only a few hundred, maybe close to one thousand right now, but the Hawthorne company is petitioning for tens of thousands. What will this do to the night sky?

Is this another nail in the coffin, along with out-of-control light pollution, for amateur astronomy?

But all this is ironic. Ask anyone in a rural location how their internet service is. It is woeful in remote locations in Ontario, I know that all too well. So, hold your tongue. If you want better internet, how to you propose we do that? The Starlink system is an answer for those under-served.

[ed: Update. Beta testers are reporting decent upload and download rates.]

It's a pickle.

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