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Boeing Said to Clash With Key Supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne Ahead of Starliner Spacecraft Launch

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Boeing Said to Clash With Key Supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne Ahead of Starliner Spacecraft Launch

Boeing is feuding with Aerojet Rocketdyne, a key supplier for its Starliner spacecraft, as the US aerospace giant races to test launch the uncrewed astronaut capsule and mend its reputation in the space sector, people familiar with the matter said.

The CST-100 Starliner is scheduled for a May 19 Florida launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket to the International Space Station, with Boeing aiming to show NASA that the spacecraft is safe to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting outpost. Software failures cut short a similar 2019 uncrewed test flight.

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The mission is a crucial step toward re-establishing Boeing as a viable rival to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a drive complicated by Boeing’s disagreement with propulsion system supplier Aerojet, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chicago-based Boeing and El Segundo, California-based Aerojet are at odds over the cause of a problem involving fuel valves in the Starliner propulsion system that forced a postponement of a test flight last July, with the two companies faulting one another, the sources said.

The disagreement, which has not been reported before, comes at time when Boeing already is scrambling to emerge from successive crises that have hobbled its jetliner business and drained cash.

The Aerojet dispute is the latest illustration of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner, a programme costing the company $595 million (roughly Rs. 4,598 crore) in charges since 2019. Facing fixed-price NASA contracts that leave Boeing with little wiggle room financially, the company has pressed forward with the Starliner test.

Boeing in a statement provided by a spokesperson to Reuters acknowledged for the first time that it ultimately intends to redesign Starliner’s valve system to prevent a repeat of the issue that forced last year’s test-flight postponement. The Boeing statement said that “we are working on short- and long-term design changes to the valves.”

Thirteen fuel valves that are part of a propulsion system that helps steer Starliner in space were discovered stuck and unresponsive in the closed position, prompting last year’s postponement.

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The various technical setbacks have pushed Starliner’s first flight with people aboard into an unknown future, placing it far behind Musk’s SpaceX, whose Crew Dragon capsule, developed under the same NASA program as Starliner, has already flown five astronaut crews for the US space agency.

NASA hopes Boeing can provide additional options to carry astronauts to the space station. NASA in March awarded SpaceX three more missions to make up for Boeing’s delays.

A team of Boeing and NASA engineers is in general agreement that the cause of the stuck valves involves a chemical reaction between propellant, aluminium materials and the intrusion of moisture from Starliner’s humid Florida launch site.

Aerojet engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical that Boeing has used in ground tests, two of the sources said.

An Aerojet representative declined to comment.

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Root Cause

“Testing to determine root cause of the valve issue is complete,” Boeing said in its statement, and the work did not find the problems described by Aerojet.

NASA shares that view, Steve Stich, who oversees the Boeing and SpaceX crew programs for the space agency, told Reuters.

Boeing also said Aerojet did not meet its contractual requirements to make the propulsion system resilient enough to resist the problems caused by the chemical reactions.

Boeing last week wheeled Starliner back to the launch pad for a third time ahead of the upcoming launch, having swapped out the propulsion system for a new one with a temporary fix that prevents moisture from seeping into the valve section.

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Boeing and NASA said they did not recreate any fully stuck valves during nine months of testing, instead measuring the degree to which valves struggled to open.

This approach was used in order to get Starliner back to the launchpad quickly, two of the sources said.

NASA, Boeing, Aerojet and independent safety advisers are set to meet this week to reach a final determination on the cause of the valve problems and decide whether the temporary fix will work.

Boeing officials privately regard Aerojet’s explanation for the faulty valves as a bid to deflect responsibility for the costly delay for Starliner and to avoid paying for a redesigned valve system, two of the sources said.

“It’s laughable,” one person involved in the joint Boeing-NASA investigation of the value issue said of Aerojet’s claim, speaking anonymously to discuss confidential supplier relations. “Getting a valve maker or propulsion system provider to write down, ‘Yeah, I screwed that up’ … that’s never gonna happen.”

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After testing and software issues caused Starliner’s 2019 failure to dock at the space station, NASA officials acknowledged they had trusted Boeing too much when they decided to devote more engineering oversight to the newer SpaceX than the aerospace giant.

The feud with Aerojet is not Boeing’s first Starliner subcontractor quarrel. In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of a different subcontractor to have his leg medically amputated. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing subsequently settled the case.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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3D-Printed Food Developed by Researchers, Could Help People Eat Alternative Protein Sources

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Future food supply concerns were the focus of a team of Singaporean academics, who eventually chose to generate them using 3D printing. The need for foods high in protein is anticipated to grow as the world’s population ages and expands, raising concerns over rising greenhouse gas emissions, and increased water and land use associated with conventional methods of raising animals for food. People have already started using alternate sources of proteins from plants, algae, and insects in several regions of Africa, Asia, and South America to produce nutrient-dense, sustainable food.

However, some people might find it strange to eat things like algae and bugs. To make eating insects a little more appealing, the research team developed a novel method. To modify the flavour, they opted to blend the crickets or larvae with more widely consumed veggies like carrots.

In order to effectively include alternative proteins in food inks, researchers from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) worked together on this project. By limiting the number of experimental runs, the study team minimised time and resources while optimising protein inks.

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Professor Chua Chee Kai, the co-author from SUTD, said that for many people, the look and flavour of such alternative proteins might be unsettling. Kai added that 3D food printing can change how food is presented and go beyond consumer inhibitions.

For instance, to provide a more recognisable flavour, typical foods like carrots can be combined with alternative proteins like crickets. A 3D food printer can then extrude this blend of carrots and bugs to produce a dish that is both aesthetically pleasing and delicious.

The study was published in Food Hydrocolloids.

The team of researchers optimised the protein ink compositions with three variables—carrot powder, proteins, and xanthan gum—using the central composite design approach. In addition to flavour, nutrients, and colour, carrot powder assisted in giving the inks it was used to create mechanical strength.

They also experimented with different proteins like sericin, soy, spirulina, crickets, and black soldier fly larvae. Experimentally developed inks were tested for 3D printability and syneresis, with optimised inks obtaining the highest printability and the lowest syneresis.

Alternative proteins may eventually replace animal proteins as the primary source of protein consumed by humans, according to Prof Yi Zhang, the principal investigator from UESTC. This study suggests an organised engineering strategy for improving food inks, making it simple to create and customise aesthetically beautiful, flavourful, and nutritionally adequate food boosted with non-traditional proteins.


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NASA’s Curiosity Rover Completes 10 Years of Exploring Mars — Here’s What It Has Found So Far

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It’s been more than 10 years since the US space agency NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars in search of ancient signs of life on the planet. Curiosity is part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission and is the biggest and the most capable rover ever sent to the Red Planet. Having launched on November 26, 2011, and making its descent on the Martian surface on August 5, 2012, Curiosity has so far covered 29 kilometres and ascended 625 metres on the Gale crater, where it landed. During its expedition so far, Curiosity has used its host of instruments and tools to examine if Mars ever had the right environmental conditions to support small life forms such as microbes.

Digging for evidence, the rover analysed 41 rock and soil samples on the planet in the past years. It scanned the skies of the Red Planet and sent intriguing pictures of shining clouds and drifting moons. With its radiation sensors, Curiosity has been capable of measuring the amount of radiation astronauts in future missions would be exposed to on Mars.

In its most significant finding, the rover concluded that the Gale crater had liquid water as well as the chemical building blocks and nutrients required for sustaining life at least tens of millions of years ago. It also determined that the crater had a lake and whose size waxed and waned over time. It explored the foothills of Mount Sharp in the crater where each layer offers signs on more recent era of the Red Planet’s environment.

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Watch this video to know more as Curiosity turns 10:

“We’re seeing evidence of dramatic changes in the ancient Martian climate. The question now is whether the habitable conditions that Curiosity has found up to now persisted through these changes. Did they disappear, never to return, or did they come and go over millions of years?” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Considering its abilities and efficiency, NASA recently extended Curiosity’s mission for three more years. Now, the rover is passing through a canyon, a new region that is thought to have formed after the water dried up and left salty minerals called sulfates. Scientists plan to explore this sulfate-rich region for the next few years and target particular sites like the Gediz Vallis channel for their study.


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Dwarf Galaxies of Earth’s Second Closest Galaxy Cluster Devoid of Dark Matter Halos

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When you ask an astronomer about dark matter, they will always mention about how the cosmos is filled with this enigmatic, unseen stuff. It is specifically found in the halos that encircle the majority of galaxies. The galaxy itself, as well as other galaxies nearby, are strongly gravitationally influenced by the mass of the halo. That has been the accepted theory on dark matter and how it affects galaxies. The concept of such halos is not without flaws, though. Evidently, there are certain weirdly shaped dwarf galaxies that appear to lack halos.

How is that feasible, then? Do they present a challenge to the observed dark matter halo hypotheses that are currently held?

Galaxies are shielded by dark matter halos or shells from the gravitational pull of their close galactic neighbours according to the so-called “standard model” of cosmology. This view is now being challenged in a study led by the University of Bonn and the University of Saint Andrews (Scotland).

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The results suggest that these dark matter halos are absent from the dwarf galaxies in the Fornax Cluster, the second closest galaxy cluster to Earth. The findings were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Elena Asencio, a PhD candidate at the University of Bonn and the principal author of the study, said, “We introduce an innovative way of testing the standard model based on how much dwarf galaxies are disturbed by gravitational tides’ from nearby larger galaxies.”

Small, faint galaxies known as dwarfs are generally located in or close proximity to larger galaxies or galaxy clusters. They might therefore be affected by the gravitational effects of their larger neighbours. Recent research reveals that some of these dwarfs have distorted appearances, as though the cluster environment has disturbed them.

The Standard Model does not predict “such perturbations in the Fornax dwarfs,” said Pavel Kroupa, Professor at the University of Bonn and Charles University in Prague, and added that it’s because dark matter halos of these dwarfs should partially protect them from tides brought on by the cluster, according to the Standard Model.

Based on internal characteristics and distance from the gravitationally strong cluster centre, the authors calculated the expected level of disturbance of the dwarfs.

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According to Asencio, the comparison revealed “if one wants to explain the observations in the standard model, the Fornax dwarfs should already be destroyed by gravity from the cluster centre even when the tides it raises on a dwarf are 64 times weaker than the dwarf’s own self-gravity.”

This goes against the findings of earlier research that the amount of force required to perturb a dwarf galaxy is roughly equal to the dwarf’s own gravity.

The authors deduced from this that the observed morphologies of the Fornax dwarfs cannot be self-consistently explained by the mainstream paradigm. Dr Hongsheng Zhao from the University of St Andrews said that their findings have significant ramifications for fundamental physics, and that they expect to find additional perturbed dwarfs in other clusters.


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