SpaceX Changes, Breaking Ground for Neutrinos, and Banning Quackery Funding | Vol. 4 / No. 39

Today we’ve got stories on a whole lot of changes taking place at SpaceX, the beginning of a decade-long saga to build a better neutrino detector, and a UK ban on using public funds for homeopathic quackery. It’s the news roundup for Sunday, July 23, 2017!

SpaceX Developments

This week, Elon Musk gave a keynote at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference (ISSRDC), in which a whole lot of SpaceX’s plans were revealed. Here’s a basic rundown:

  • The Falcon Heavy will probably not make it to orbit on the first try. Musk indicated that it had been a lot harder to design than just strapping three Falcon 9s together, reminding everyone that you’re essentially tripling vibration and noise problems, not to mention creating aerodynamic issues that are very hard to test on the ground. It sounds like he expects things to get hairy at Max Q (the moment of maximum aerodynamic pressure), but that it could go badly sooner: “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it’s not going to cause damage. I would consider that a win, honestly. And yeah. Major pucker factor is the only way to describe it.”
  • The Crew Dragon (Dragon 2) propulsive landings have been scrapped. Dragon 2 was initially going to land with parachutes and later transition to a thruster-based landing technique with little feet that popped out of the heat shield. But it’s apparently too hard to make the heat shield work while also having moveable parts, and Musk no longer thinks it’s a sound financial decision to go through all the testing that would have to be done to get the system certified for human occupants. This also means that:
  • The Red Dragon missions have been canceled. With Dragon’s propulsive landing development canned, there’s no way of landing a Dragon capsule on the red planet, so there goes that 🙁 But this is apparently fine because:
  • They’re redesigning the entire concept behind the vehicle they’re planning to use to get to Mars, the ITS. Musk refused to give much detail in the talk, but he did tweet a few times afterward saying that the “plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship,” and that the ITS (formerly BFR) was being scaled down: “it’s a little smaller, still big, but I think this one’s got a shot at being real on the economic front.” When pressed about the size by the r/spacex community, he tweeted that “a 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing facilities.” This would make the new ITS design 3/4 the original diameter, or half the overall scale, which is more economically realistic and would still be the most powerful rocket ever built.

There were other details, too, but this is quickly becoming an all-SpaceX news roundup, so you can check those out at this handy reddit thread, and this article by Spaceflight Now for more.


Groundbreaking Day | Photo: Fermilab

Breaking Ground

Construction began this week on a massive international experimentation facility to study neutrinos. The Long Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) will be a kilometre and a half underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota, in what used to be the Homestake gold mine. When completed, it will house the “far detector” for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) which will see it “catching” a beam of trillions of neutrinos—fired at it through 1300km of the Earth’s crust from Fermilab in Illinois—in four detectors, tanks filled with tens of thousands of tons (!) of liquid argon. It’s going to take ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars from over two dozen partnering countries to build it, but before any of that can happen, they’ll need to remove 870,000 tons of rock to make the space for it in the former mine. That’s what got underway this week. The high-tech components of the detectors are still being designed, and the US Department of Energy has yet to okay the funding for completion of the facility, but in order to meet deadlines at the decade mark, things need to get underway now. Scientists are hoping that, when complete, it’ll be able to solidify our understanding of the ways neutrinos oscillate between their three forms, and also examine whether there’s an imbalance between neutrinos and their antimatter cousins, the antineutrinos. You can read more about the experiment over at AAAS Science magazine.


Now if only we could stop people buying it here | Travis Godspeed, CC BY 2.0

UK Homeopathy Ban

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has this week announced that it will be enacting a long-overdue policy of stopping funding for homeopathic “treatments.” In the ruling, they wrote that using public money for the scientifically unfounded alternatives amounted to a “misuse of scarce funds,” which just about every person familiar with how homeopathy is supposed to work could have told them decades ago. Both fortunately and unfortunately, not much money was actually being spend on it—about £90,000—meaning that it won’t go far in their (unwise, ideologically-driven) efforts to cut yearly spending by £250million. But if nothing else it’ll mean that the people taking it will be getting actual medicines instead of placebos. You can read more over at the Independent.

Best of the Rest

Honestly it was a pretty slow news week for science, at least in my corner of the internet, but here’s a couple of things I didn’t get to anyway:

That’s all for this week, folks. Maybe that’s enough.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.