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Curiosity science team to attempt first drilling in a year

After a year of tests and engineering rethinking, the Curiosity science team has decided to attempt drilling its first hole in more than a year.

From yesterday’s Curiosity mission update:

Because there is only so much data volume and rover power to go around, performing drill activities must temporarily come at the expense of scientific investigations (although you’d be pressed to find a disappointed science team member this week, as the drilling campaign will bring loads of new scientific data!). As a result, with the exception of some environmental observations by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instrument, today’s plan does not have any targeted scientific observations within it. Today will instead be dedicated to drill preload activities and imaging for engineering and rover planning purposes in preparation for a full test of the revised drilling operations.

The problem with the drill has been its feed mechanism, the equipment that moves the drill downward into the hole. As designed the robot arm would get planted on the surface to provide stability for the drill, which as it drilled would be pushed downward that that feed mechanism. Last year they found something had clogged that mechanism so that it would not retract properly.

From what I understand, what they have tested and have decided to try instead is to place the drill against the surface in an extended position, and use the arm itself to push the bit downward. The concern is whether the arm can hold the drill steady. They have done some tests and think it can. We shall soon find out.

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Robert Mueller’s political document

Numerous pundits have commented in great detail and with far greater expertise than I on the indictments (pdf) last week issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against thirteen Russians for wire and bank fraud, identity theft, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. (See here and here for two thoughtful conservative takes.)

As an American who cares about our democracy, however, I decided it was essential I read the indictment myself to form my own opinion about it. I advise every American to do the same, using the first link above to download it. My own personal take-aways are as follows:

1. It is a very good thing that Mueller indicted these Russians. Based on the evidence summarized by the indictment, they clearly committed crimes against Americans and the U.S. government. Moreover, those crimes were committed with the intent by foreigners to interfere with our political process, something we must never allow if at all possible, and punish if we can.

2. Still, I am very curious to learn how Mueller’s team obtained the evidence in these indictments. Reading the document suggests that they must have either had extensive wiretaps, or inside information. Unfortunately, as it is very unlikely that any of these Russians will ever go to trial (having apparently all fled back to Russia long before the indictment was announced), this is information we are likely never to get.

I am therefore also very puzzled by the timing of the indictment. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to issue it as soon as possible, and in a way that might have allowed the authorities to detain these individuals so they might be put on trial? Instead, the slow timing seems almost intended to allow them to escape, and thus prevent an actual trial from ever occurring. I wonder why, though I have my suspicions.

3. Despite the correctness of and the need for these indictments, Mueller’s indictment is first and foremost a political document. If you read it, it is quite obvious that its purpose was not to bring these Russians to justice, but to imply that Russia was working with Trump to get him elected, even though a careful analysis of everything the Russians did shows that this is not the case.

Why do I say this? The indictment spends numerous pages describing in incredible detail every single pro-Trump action taken by these Russians, from organizing social media campaigns to anti-Clinton protests to pro-Trump rallies, while providing only one or two very short summaries of the anti-Trump actions they took, thus giving the impression if you do not read the indictment closely that they were essentially a Trump operation. This however is false. Not only does the indictment lack any evidence of any links between the Russians and the Trump campaign, the details indicate strongly the non-partisan nature of the Russian strategy. While prior to the election it appears they favored Trump, once he was the candidate they shifted tactics to attack both him and Clinton. The goal was not so much to get Trump elected but to cause the most negative disruption to the American election process as possible. The indictment itself admits this, though almost as an aside. The first paragraph quote below shows the Russian strategy before Trump is the candidate, with the second showing their strategy afterward.
» Read more

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SpaceX successfully launches Spanish radar satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched a Spanish radar satellite.

They also intended to try to recover the rocket’s fairing, but they did not telecast this, and there is no word yet whether they were successful. In fact, their low-key approach here suggests a shift in policy. Previously, SpaceX was eager to show off its test programs. Now, this silence suggests a desire to throttle back on that openness, possibly in order to protect their proprietary engineering.

Update: It appears that at least one fairing half landed in the water intact, though that also means they were unable to catch it. According to a Musk tweet at the link, the fairing missed the ship net by “a few hundred meters.” Musk also indicates the need for larger chutes in the future. Either way, I wonder if the fairing in the water can still be reused.

The 2018 launch standings:

7 China
4 SpaceX
2 ULA
2 Russia
2 Japan

As a nation, the U.S. now has 7 launches total, tying China.

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The first launch of NASA’s SLS rocket delayed again

During the second meeting of the National Space Council today this tidbit was quietly revealed by NASA’s acting administrator:

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot acknowledged that the space agency’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, would not make its first uncrewed test flight until 2020. The first crewed SLS-Orion mission is still due to take a trip around the moon and back in 2023.

Lightfoot also mentioned that NASA provide support for a 2020 commercial lunar landing.

SLS continues to be this ever receding but very expensive fantasy, scheduled for a future that never arrives, while spending enormous amounts of money that would be far better spent in other ways. The first launch, should it happen in 2020, would be three years later than originally planned, nine years after the initiation of the SLS project, and sixteen years after George Bush first proposed it. For this single unmanned test mission NASA will have spent about $25 billion. Meanwhile, I fully expect Falcon Heavy as well as Blue Origin’s New Glenn to fly numerous times, both costing mere pennies in comparison, and far less time to develop.

The article at the link is not focused on this tidbit. Instead provides a good summary of the National Space Council meeting itself. It increasingly appears, not surprisingly, that the Trump administration is going to focus on streamlining the space regulatory process for commercial space. It is also taking a look at the national security threats to U.S. military assets in space, posed by China and others, which are forcing the military and administration to review how it has been building these assets. Expect a continuing and accelerating shift by the Air Force to many frequently launched smallsats instead big but rarely launched behemoths.

It also appears to me that the Trump administration is treading lightly when it discusses the giant pork projects like SLS. It is partnering closely with all the private companies that build space assets, from the independent commercial space sector epitomized by SpaceX to the traditional big space companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Such a partnership will make it politically difficult to cut the pork that these traditional big companies depend on. Moreover, Trump appears to like these big government projects, as they represent how the U.S. has done space since the 1960s, allowing him to claim credit for a big space project, even if it never flies.

Posted from Beitar just over the green line in the West Bank. I head home late tonight.

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Bigelow establishes company to market its private space stations

Capitalism in space: Bigelow Aerospace yesterday established a marketing company to research and find potential customers for its private space stations.

“You’ll need deep pockets if you’re interested in staying aboard a Bigelow station; prices will likely run in the ‘low seven figures,'” Bigelow said today. He doesn’t expect tourist jaunts to make up the bulk of his business, however. “What we’ve always anticipated and expected is that we would be very involved in helping foreign countries to establish their human space programs, and be able to facilitate whatever their needs were in whatever context that they wanted to pursue,” he said. “The corporate world, obviously, is huge, and [leveraging] that is also our intent.”

Bigelow already says it will launch to of its large B330 modules in 2021, with another aimed for lunar orbit in 2022. I must note that the 2021 launch date appears to be year later then earlier announcements.

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Identifying the mysterious dark bands in Venus’s atmosphere

The uncertainty of science: Scientists have now proposed two new best candidates for the unknown major component in Venus’s upper atmosphere that was first identified in 1974 when Mariner 10 took the first good close-up images.

We have analyzed spectra taken during the second Venus flyby of MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft on its route to Mercury, in 2007. Using a numerical code, we have reproduced the light reflected by the equatorial atmosphere of the planet and retrieved the distribution of particles in the upper atmosphere of Venus, with a cloud top of some 75 km above the surface. We have also retrieved the absorption spectrum of the puzzling absorber and compared it with some previously proposed candidates. While no perfect match is found, sulfur-bearing species (S2O and S2O2) provide the best agreement. There is still a long way to undoubtedly identify Venus’s UV absorber, but this work provides substantial spectral constraints.

The dark absorber shows up as dark streaks in the upper atmosphere, and allows images to track wind and cloud movement. No one has been able to firmly identify it.

S2O and S2O2 are disulfur monoxide and disulfur dioxide respectively, both of which are unstable on Earth. The first is thought to have been detected in Io’s numerous volcanic eruptions, with it settling as a solid around at least one volcano, Pele. The second has already been suggested as the dark absorber. This research helps confirm that earlier research.

Note however that other research says there is too little sulfur in Venus’s atmosphere for this to be its dark absorber. The science here therefore remains decidedly unsettled.

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The first SLS mobile launcher is leaning

Though NASA says it is not a problem, they have now revealed that the very expensive mobile launcher to be used for the first unmanned SLS launch in 2019, is leaning slightly.

The notes spoke of engineers being concerned about a lean towards the North – which would be towards the rocket when mated – with the angle of the leaning claimed to be seen as increasing when the Vertical Stabilizer porch was installed. It was also claimed the ML Tower is twisting and this issue increased when the porch was installed. This was cited as the reason additional arm installations onto the Tower were placed on hold, until the leaning-twisting issue is understood. Next in line for installation are the ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) Umbilical Arm, the Crew Access Arm and the two Vehicle Stabilizer Arms.

NASASpaceFlight.com’s Philip Sloss took the concerns to NASA to ask for clarifications. NASA responded, saying “the ML leaning/bending was not the cause of the delay in the install of the Crew access arm. These are unrelated.” However, they did expand on the specific issue, mainly to note it is understood and does not currently require any additional mitigation or modification to the ML.

“NASA’s mobile launcher is structurally sound, built to specifications, and does not require a design change or modifications. As expected, the mobile launcher is not perfectly still,” a NASA spokesperson added.

Note that this mobile launcher is not compatible with the second SLS launch, which would be the first manned flight in 2023. NASA will either have to modify it significantly at great costs, or build another, discarding this launcher after only one use.

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More details about SpaceX’s fairing recovery plans

Link here. The article has some additional excellent images, but it was this paragraph that I thought was most significant:

To oversimplify, after launch, the payload fairing separates (mechanically) from the second stage once Falcon 9 or Heavy has left behind the majority of Earth’s atmosphere. After separation, each fairing half orients itself for a gentler reentry into the atmosphere with cold nitrogen gas thrusters, likely the exact same thrusters used in part to achieve Falcon 9’s accurate and reliable landings. Due to their massive surface area and comparatively tiny weight, fairing halves effectively become exceptionally finicky and awkward sails falling through the atmosphere at insane velocities, with the goal generally being to orient each half like a boat’s hull to provide some stability. Once they are low enough, assuming they’ve survived the journey from TEN TIMES THE SPEED OF SOUND and 62 MILES above Earth’s surface to a more reasonable ~Mach 0.5 and maybe 5 miles of altitude, the fun parts begin. At this point, each fairing half deploys a GPS-connected parachute system (a parasail, to be exact) capable of directing the massive hunks of carbon fiber and aluminum to a very specific point on the surface of the ocean.

What we don’t yet know is whether SpaceX will have cameras on the fairing, and if so, whether they will make those images available to the public, during launch.

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Planetary Resources misses fund-raising target

Capialism in space: Planetary Resources has failed to meet a recent fund-raising target.

A spokeswoman for Planetary Resources, Stacey Tearne, told GeekWire that financial challenges have forced the company to focus on leveraging the Arkyd-6 mission for near-term revenue — apparently by selling imagery and data. “Planetary Resources missed a fundraising milestone,” Tearne explained in an email. “The company remains committed to utilizing the resources from space to further explore space, but is focusing on near-term revenue streams by maximizing the opportunity of having a spacecraft in orbit.”

Tearne said no further information was available, and did not address questions about employment cutbacks. However, reports from other sources in the space community suggest there have been notable job reductions. For what it’s worth, Planetary Resources had more than 70 employees at last report.

When this company first appeared with a big splash, shouting its plans to mine asteroids, I said “Bunk, it’s going to be a smallsat telescope company for years to come, either looking at the Earth or into space.” And that is where we are. The “near-term revenue streams” hinted at above are certainly the kind of earth-observation imaging that numerous other smallsat companies are providing. Whether Planetary Resources can compete with the large number of already established smallsat earth-observation companies, however, is the big question.

Mining asteroids by commercial companies for profit makes sense, and will eventually happen. I think, however, that this company oversold its abilities when it tried to convince everything that this is what it planned to do, right away.

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April 11, 2013 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold. As I am in Israel and cannot do my regular podcasts with John Batchelor, he has dug up an appearance from April 11, 2013 and posted this today. He calls it “Classic Bob Zimmerman.” The topics included a description of the cracks that occurred in one of the early Orion test capsules, and where I expressed then my doubts of SLS/Orion. In the five years since the only thing that has changed is that they have had to delay its upcoming missions by several years.
» Read more

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Giant net to catch Falcon 9 fairing

This link provides a series of pictures, taken from a distance, of the giant net, and the structures that hold it up, that will be used by the SpaceX barge ship to try to catch the rocket’s fairing during its next launch later this week. (See comments.)

Hat tip reader Kirk Hilliard. The pictures don’t show the barge itself, but they do give a sense of the size of the net. This suggests that SpaceX has equipped the fairing with small jets capable of guiding it to the barge, where it will be caught as it falls at high speed. It could also be that they have found that the fairing itself can act as a parachute and slow itself down as it descends, meaning that impact will not be that intense.

Regardless, I wonder if they will have any cameras on board either the fairing or the barge, and whether they will broadcast them live as it comes down. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t, as it would possibly reveal proprietary information, but the images would certainly be impressive to see.

If they succeed, they will have a rocket that is almost entirely reusable, with only a single 2nd stage engine (out of 10 total) and the second stage itself not reused.

Posted from the Israeli city of Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in safe mode

After detecting low battery voltage, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) went into safe mode on February 15.

The orbiter is solar-powered but relies on a pair of nickel-hydrogen batteries during periods when it is in the shadow of Mars for a portion of each orbit. The two are used together, maintaining almost identical charge during normal operations.

The spacecraft remains in communication with Earth and has been maintaining safe, stable temperatures and power, but has suspended its science observations and its service as a communications relay for Mars rovers. Normal voltage has been restored, and the spacecraft is being monitored continuously until the troubleshooting is complete.

It appears that all is under control. If MRO goes down, however it will a big loss for Mars research, as the spacecraft not only produces the highest resolution images of the ground, it also acts as one of several communications satellites between the Earth and the rovers on Mars. With two rovers there now, and at least two more planned for arrival in 2020, the loss of this communications link would be crippling.

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Aligned erosion lines of Perseverance Valley

The uncertainty of science: Last week, while I was flying to Israel, the Opportunity science team announced the discovery of strange aligned erosion lines, what they are calling stone stripes, in Perseverance Valley.

The ground texture seen in recent images from the rover resembles a smudged version of very distinctive stone stripes on some mountain slopes on Earth that result from repeated cycles of freezing and thawing of wet soil. But it might also be due to wind, downhill transport, other processes or a combination.

…On some slopes within the valley, the soil and gravel particles appear to have become organized into narrow rows or corrugations, parallel to the slope, alternating between rows with more gravel and rows with less.

The origin of the whole valley is uncertain. Rover-team scientists are analyzing various clues that suggest actions of water, wind or ice. They are also considering a range of possible explanations for the stripes, and remain uncertain about whether this texture results from processes of relatively modern Mars or a much older Mars.

For those who are regular readers of Behind the Black, you already knew about a variation of this discovery back in November 2017, from my regular rover updates. Then, they discovered aligned groves in the gravel that looked to me like slickensides, erosion patterns produced by glacial activity. The science team told me, however, that they were favoring wind, not ice, as a primary cause, though that conclusion was far from certain.

In the press release last week, they focused more on the aligned erosion patterns in the fine gravel that appear to align perpendicular to the slope. Though they think they have found a comparable Earth-based phenomenon that might explain these patterns, it appears that the science team remains just as unsure of their cause as they are for the rocks.

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Air Force reconsiders rocket engine, aims for small rocket launches

Two stories over the past few days indicated some shifts in the Air Force’s commercial space contracting policies.

The first story has to do with ULA’s Atlas 5 and future Vulcan rockets. The engine that Aerojet Rocketdyne has been building, AR-1, has received significant subsidizes from the government for its construction, even though its only potential customer, ULA, has said it prefers Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. ULA has not made a decision yet on which engine to use, but my sense of the politics here is that the main reason ULA is considering the AR-1 is because of heavy political pressure. Nonetheless, it makes sense for them to hold off from a final decision when they have two competitors.

The story suggests however that Aeroject Rocketdyne itself lacks confidence in the engine. It wants to renegotiate its Air Force contract so that it doesn’t have to invest any of its own money on development. This suggests the company no longer expects to get any contracts for it, and thus doesn’t want to spend any of its own money on it. With that kind lack of commitment, the Air Force would be foolish to change the deal.

The second story outlines how the Air Force is now committing real money for buying launch contracts with smallsat rocket companies, something it has hinted it wanted to do for the past year. The idea is for them to depend on numerous small and cheap satellites, capable of quick launch, givingthem a cushion and redundancy should an enemy nation attack their satellites. It will also likely save them money in the long run.

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Evergreen State College expects 20% drop in enrollment

The president of Evergreen State College is predicting that the university will see a drop in enrollment in the coming year just below 20%.

President George Bridges has told the campus community that the school’s 3,800 student population is predicted to hover at about 3,100 when the 2018-19 school year begins. This 700-student loss represents an 18.5 percent decrease.

This estimate sent shock waves among faculty, and some speculate it spurred an anonymous call for Bridges’ resignation by way of flyers recently inserted into faculty mailboxes declaring “Please Resign,” among other disparaging comments.

The Olympia, Washington-based school already was hit with a 5 percent enrollment decrease when it started this current 2017-18 school year.

I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that the drop wasn’t more. After the attacks on free speech last year, I wonder why anyone would want to attend this college, especially since it appears the college’s administration continues to refuse to do anything to really change things there.

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The Russian-Trump collusion story: a media disinformation campaign

Link here. The author does an excellent job reviewing, in detail, how the mainstream Democratic media reported the Russian-Trump collusion story, from its inception before the election and since, and how all reporters involved, seemingly terrified of a Trump-Putin partnership, had had zero concerns about similar and actual Obama-Putin deal-making — often against the interests of the U.S. — during his entire administration.

The key quote, however, is this:

The reason the media will not report on the scandal now unfolding before the country, how the Obama administration and Clinton campaign used the resources of the federal government to spy on the party out of power, is not because the press is partisan. No, it is because the press has played an active role in the Trump-Russia collusion story since its inception. It helped birth it.

To report how the dossier was made and marketed, and how it was used to violate the privacy rights of an American citizen—Page—would require admitting complicity in manufacturing Russiagate. Against conventional Washington wisdom, the cover-up in this case is not worse than the crime: Both weigh equally in a scandal signaling that the institution where American citizens are supposed to discuss and debate the choices about how we live with each other has been turned against a large part of the public to delegitimize their political choices. [emphasis mine]

Essentially, we have two very bad scandals unfolding here. First and foremost, the previous president abused the power of his office to spy on his party’s opponent during the campaign, and used that information as a weapon during the campaign. Second and almost as significant, the press teamed up with that president to help him spy and attack that opponent, and is now working to squelch any mention of that abuse of power that they participated in.

To put it mildly, the mainstream press has become an American version of the Soviet press when it was required to work for the communists or face prison. Here in the U.S. however there is no fear of prison. The press is doing this voluntarily. It is no longer looking for real scoops. It is only interested in advocating the election of Democrats.

As a journalist this makes me more than ashamed. It completely disgusts me.

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Rocket Lab to launch NASA and Naval Academy smallsats

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has obtained contracts with both NASA and the U.S. Naval Academy to launch a dozen cubesats.

Rocket Lab says it has performed a successful fit check of the CubeSat dispensers for the NASA Venture Class Launch of its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) XIX mission, which will put a total 12 mini CubeSats into orbit.

A Rocket lab spokeswoman said those would include the Shields-1 payload from NASA’s Langley Research Center, which would focus on studying the harmful effects of harsh radiation environments to spacecraft.

The article doesn’t give any information on the contract itself.

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SpaceX’s Saturday launch will two test smallsats for its planned 11K internet constellation

Capitalism in space: SpaceX will include two test smallsats for its planned internet constellation of more than 11k satellites when launches a Spanish radar satellite in two days.

The FCC gave SpaceX permission for the test in November, and new documents now show that SpaceX will piggyback Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b onto its launch of a Spanish radar satellite called Paz. The mission is set to lift off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday at 9:14 a.m. ET aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, according to Spaceflight Now.

Ajit Jai, chairperson of the FCC — the government entity which must ultimately approve SpaceX’s plans — endorsed the effort on Wednesday. “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” Pai told Reuters in a statement.

A lot of news sources have made a big deal about Jai’s endorsement, as if that endorsement guarantees FCC approval of SpaceX’s gigantic constellation. It doesn’t, though it certainly helps.

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Vector gets new contract for five launches

Capitalism in space: Vector has signed a contract with nanosat company Open Cosmos, which has reserved five launches from 2019 to 2023.

The most interesting tidbit in this press release was where it says that Vector is planning its first orbital launch of its Vector-R rocket in July. According to the plans their CEO Jim Cantrell had described to me when he gave me a tour of their facility in March 2017, they were going to do five suborbital test launches before doing an orbital flight. So far they have done two of these. Either they plan to do the remaining three in the next six months, or are going to go orbital sooner than originally planned.

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SpaceX cancels Texas subsidy that required Boca Chica operation in 2018

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has canceled a small Texas subsidy that required it to begin operations at its Boca Chica spaceport by September 2018.

The company terminated a deal reached with the office of then-Gov. Rick Perry in late 2013 that earmarked $2.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund for the future spaceport at Boca Chica beach, which is near Brownsville. The project has experienced delays and SpaceX had received about $400,000 of the money, but it now has paid back all of it.

The deal mandated that, to receive the incentives dollars, the spaceport be operational by Sept. 30 this year and employ 180 people by the end of 2018. It appears SpaceX was unlikely to meet either target.

This does not mean that SpaceX is abandoning the spaceport, only that it can’t meet the schedule required by this subsidy. This also might explain why they requested an additional $5 million from Texas. They knew they were going to lose this $2.3 million subsidy and were lobbying to make up for it with other state funds.

Hat tip Robert Pratt of Pratt on Texas.

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Bitcoin-type crypto-currencies slowing SETI search for ET

The mad craze for crypto-currencies like Bitcoin is actually slowing the ability of SETI to obtain the computer chips they need, thus preventing them from expanding their search for alien signals.

Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers want to expand operations at two observatories. However, they have found that key computer chips are in short supply. “We’d like to use the latest GPUs [graphics processing units]… and we can’t get ’em,” said Dan Werthimer.

Demand for GPUs has soared recently thanks to crypto-currency mining. “That’s limiting our search for extra-terrestrials, to try to answer the question, ‘Are we alone? Is there anybody out there?’,” Dr Werthimer told the BBC. “This is a new problem, it’s only happened on orders we’ve been trying to make in the last couple of months.”

Mining a currency such as Bitcoin or Ethereum involves connecting computers to a global network and using them to solve complex mathematical puzzles. This forms part of the process of validating transactions made by people who use the currency. As a reward for this work, the miners receive a small crypto-currency payment, making it potentially profitable.

Crypto-currencies like Bitcoin remind me of the tulip craze of the early 1800s. They have no real value, are not tied to any country and its wealth, and thus are essentially a speculator’s fantasy. A lot of people playing this game are going to be hurt by it eventually.

Posted from Modi’im Ilit, the West Bank. See this essay by me for some background about this place from my previous visits.

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Why you must never buy a used smartphone

Link here. Essentially, the phone will often be stolen, and will inevitably be blocked, leaving you with a brick.

Posted from the airport in Madrid, awaiting my flight to Israel. I am also sitting here enjoying some fantastic European airport fast food, far better than one sees in the U.S. Lox and anchovies with cream cheese on a wonderful piece of flatbread. I had a similar experience flying through Italy a few years ago. In this area the Europeans have Americans beat.

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