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Changing seasons on Titan

Since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, Cassini has seen the seasons on Titan shift through half a Saturn year.

As Titan approaches its northern summer solstice, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed dramatic seasonal changes in the atmospheric temperature and composition of Saturn’s largest moon. Winter is taking a grip on the southern hemisphere and a strong vortex, enriched in trace gases, has developed in the upper atmosphere over the south pole. These observations show a polar reversal in Titan’s atmosphere since Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, when similar features were seen in the northern hemisphere.

Sadly, there will not be any spacecraft at Saturn during the second half of this Saturn year. After Cassini ends its mission in 2017 it will likely be many decades before another spacecraft arrives, since at this moment none has even been proposed.

Pentagon demanding return of cash bonuses given to soldiers a decade ago

Evil. The government is routinely evil: The Pentagon is demanding that soldiers who ten years ago volunteered to re-enlist to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for cash bonuses return those bonuses because new audits have revealed that the government had screwed up.

The Army asked wounded Iraq veteran and former Army captain Christopher Van Meter, 42, to repay a $25,000 reenlistment bonus it said he was ineligible to receive. He was also asked to repay $21,000 in student loan repayments. Van Meter told the paper that rather than fight the Army he paid back the money after refinancing his home. “These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter said. “People like me just got screwed.”

The Times reported that 48-year-old Army sergeant Robert Richmond, who suffered permanent injuries in an Iraq roadside bomb attack, is refusing to repay his $15,000 cash bonus. The Army contends he was ineligible to receive the bonus in 2006 because he had already served 20 years in the Army. “I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond told the paper. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after his money.”

Investigations determined that fraud and mismanagement due to poor oversight contributed to the California Guard bonus overpayments, according to the Times. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the government was either incompetent or downright corrupt a decade ago, and now wants soldiers who risked their lives but did their job well to suffer for that incompetence and corruption.

As I say, the government is routinely evil, and incompetent. It can’t do anything right, and will never take responsibility for its own disasters. Instead, it tries to pass its failures on to us all.

Science conference accepts fake paper

I’m so glad it was peer-reviewed! A fake physics paper written entirely in gibberish using autocomplete function has been accepted by a science conference.

Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the Human Interface Technology laboratory at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, received an email inviting him to submit a paper to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics in the US in November. “Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper,” he wrote in a blog post on Thursday. “I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions. The text really does not make any sense.”

It only took the conference three hours to review the work and to accept it. They then asked the author to confirm his oral presentation and register for the conference for a mere $1099.

Saturn’s changing north pole

A comparison of images taken by Cassini in 2012 and then in 2016 of Saturn’s north polar region shows a significant change in color.

Scientists are investigating potential causes for the change in color of the region inside the north-polar hexagon on Saturn. The color change is thought to be an effect of Saturn’s seasons. In particular, the change from a bluish color to a more golden hue may be due to the increased production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere as the north pole approaches summer solstice in May 2017.

Moon found orbiting one of the larger known Kuiper belt object

Astronomers have found a moon circling 2007 Or10, one of the Kuiper Belts eight largest objects and the only one as yet unnamed.

Astronomers Gábor Marton and Csaba Kiss (Konkoly Observatory, Hungary), and Thomas Müller (Max Planck Institute, Germany) have identified a moon orbiting 2007 OR10. They spotted it in Hubble Space Telescope images taken in September 2010 as part of a survey of trans-Neptunian objects. Marton announced the discovery this week at a joint meeting of the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences and the European Planetay Science Congress.

Although 2007 OR10 itself has been known for almost a decade, only recently have researchers realized that it’s surface is quite dark and therefore that it must be quite sizable, with an estimated diameter of 1,535 km (955 miles). This makes it the third-largest dwarf planet, after Pluto and Eris. It also ranks third for distance — 13 billion km or 87 astronomical units away — drifting among the stars of central Aquarius at a dim magnitude 21.

Of the eight largest Kuiper Belt objects, only Sedna has not yet been found to have a moon.

Did fueling procedures cause Falcon 9 launchpad explosion?

This Wall Street Journal article today speculates that “problematic fueling procedures” might have caused the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Company officials have said it is too early to arrive at definitive answers, though one person familiar with the investigation said initial concerns about potentially substandard welds have been relegated to a low priority. If testing bears out early findings focusing on problematic fueling practices instead of hardware flaws, SpaceX likely will avoid a major redesign effort or extensive quality-control checks that could drag on for months.

Caution must be exercised here. The article depends on unnamed sources, and does not provide any details describing how fueling procedures could have caused the explosion.

Something in the Kremlin is jamming GPS

It appears that any GPS unit that approaches the Kremlin in Moscow can no longer pinpoint accurately its location.

A programmer for Russian internet firm Yandex, Grigory Bakunov, said Thursday his research showed a system for blocking GPS was located inside the Kremlin, the heavily guarded official residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Users of GPS have complained on social media in recent months that when they are near the Kremlin their GPS-powered apps stop working or show them to be in Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, 29 kilometers (18 miles) away.

The problem has frustrated those requesting taxis via services such as Uber or looking to catch Pokemons in the popular game played on mobile devices. Large numbers of people running the Moscow marathon last month complained that their jogging apps lost track of how far they had run when they passed the Kremlin.
“I got 40 kilometers added on to my distance. It happened by the Kremlin,” marathoner Andrey Yegorov wrote on Facebook as part of a discussion by runners.

Not surprisingly, the agency in charge of security at the Kremlin declined to comment.

Expansion rate of the universe might not be accelerating

The uncertainty of science: A new review of the data suggests that the expansion of the universe might not be accelerating as posited based on research done in the 1990s.

Making use of a vastly increased data set – a catalogue of 740 Type Ia supernovae, more than ten times the original sample size – the researchers have found that the evidence for acceleration may be flimsier than previously thought, with the data being consistent with a constant rate of expansion.

The study is published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Professor Sarkar, who also holds a position at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, said: ‘The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe won the Nobel Prize, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. It led to the widespread acceptance of the idea that the universe is dominated by “dark energy” that behaves like a cosmological constant – this is now the “standard model” of cosmology.

‘However, there now exists a much bigger database of supernovae on which to perform rigorous and detailed statistical analyses. We analysed the latest catalogue of 740 Type Ia supernovae – over ten times bigger than the original samples on which the discovery claim was based – and found that the evidence for accelerated expansion is, at most, what physicists call “3 sigma”. This is far short of the 5 sigma standard required to claim a discovery of fundamental significance.

I am not surprised. In fact, I remain continually skeptical about almost all cosmological theories. They might be the best we have, based on the facts available, but they are also based upon incredibly flimsy facts.

Celtic Woman – Isle of Inisfree

An evening pause: Written by Dirk Farrelly in 1950 while on a bus heading to Dublin, the song invokes the longing of an immigrant far from home.

And when the moonlight peeps across the rooftops,
Of this great city, wondrous though it be,
I scarcely feel its wonder or its laughter…
I’m once again back home in Inisfree.

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

MRO images Schiaparelli on Mars

before and after Schiaparelli

A comparison of images taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter before and after Schiaparelli’s failed attempt to land on Mars have revealed changes that are likely the lander on the surface. The image on the right is a composite that I’ve made showing the two images. The black spot near the top and the white spot near the bottom are not in the first image.

It is thought that the white spot is likely Schiaparelli’s parachute, while the dark spot is thought to be the lander’s impact point.

The larger dark spot near the upper edge of the enlargement was likely formed by the Schiaparelli lander. The spot is elliptical, about 50 by 130 feet (15 by 40 meters) in size, and is probably too large to have been made by the impact of the heat shield.

The large size of the dark spot suggests that the lander hit the ground hard enough to create this large scar.

Did Viking discover life on Mars?

Link here. The article provides a very detailed review of the conflicting results from the various 1970s Viking lander experiments, one of which strongly suggested the presence of microorganisms.

Overall, these life-detection experiments produced surprising and contradictory results. One experiment, the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, showed that the Martian soil tested positive for metabolism—a sign that, on Earth, would almost certainly suggest the presence of life. However, a related experiment found no trace of organic material, suggesting the absence of life. With no organic substances, what could be, or seem to be, metabolizing?

In the forty years since these experiments, scientists have been unable to reconcile the conflicting results, and the general consensus is that the Viking landers found no conclusive evidence of life on Mars. However, a small minority of scientists argues that the Viking results were positive for life on Mars.

The contradictory Viking results have never been fully explained. Many theories have been proposed, ranging from the chemical to the biological, but none have satisfied anyone.

Virgin Galactic lawsuit against Firefly moves forward

Virgin Galactic last week moved forward aggressively in its lawsuit against Firefly Space Systems, its officers, and its business partners for using stealing trade secrets.

According to the Complaint, Galactic hired Markusic in 2011 as its VP of Propulsion. Markusic’s role gave him intimate knowledge of the Company’s research into liquid rocket propulsion, space vehicle architecture, “aerospike” technology, and other confidential projects. While still employed at Galactic, Markusic allegedly solicited business partners and founded Firefly based on concepts and data he obtained in the course of his work. Galactic maintains that Markusic and Firefly relied on and continues to use the Company’s technical and marketing information, as well as Markusic’s engineering notes from his tenure at Galactic, to develop products such as a recently announced small launch vehicle.

The worst thing about this court battle to me is that if Virgin Galactic has developed worthwhile technology in connection with the aerospike engine, they have done nothing to develop it, and are now acting to squelch someone else’s effort.

TMT hearing a fiasco

The initial hearing in Hawaii for the second permit application of the Thirty Meter Telescope today appears to have been a complete fiasco, designed to extend the proceedings as long as possible, ad infinitum.

Confusion reigned as Thursday’s hearing got underway in a Hilo hotel banquet room. Various telescope opponents complained about the scheduling and location of the hearing. One lawyer wanted to know the process for making objections. More than an hour went by before the first witness, environmental planner Perry White, was called to testify.

All witnesses will be allowed to provide a 10-minute summary of written testimony already submitted. But before White could provide his summary, there were various objections about qualifying him as an expert. Nearly two dozen people— many who are individual telescope opponents who don’t have lawyers representing them — will have a chance to cross-examine each witness.

Cross-examination of White will resume Monday.

It is very clear to me that Hawaii is stalling, designing the hearings so that they will last forever. TMT will never get built in Hawaii. It is time to say bye-bye and go somewhere where knowledge and technology is treasured.

Two Trump advisers push for National Space Council

In a somewhat vague op-ed today, two Trump space policy advisers, former Congressman Robert Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro, recommend the re-establishment of the National Space Council to coordinate the U.S.’s civilian space effort.

Despite its importance in our economic and security calculations, space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government. A Trump administration would end the lack of proper coordination by reinstituting a national space policy council headed by the vice president. The mission of this council would be to assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests. Key goals would be to would create lower costs through greater efficiencies. As just one example, a Trump administration will insist that space products developed for one sector, but applicable to another, be fully shared.

Here, it makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment. [emphasis mine]

This analysis of the op-ed at gives some history of the National Space Council, as well as range of opinions about its usefulness.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut. Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say “no” to any idea, but without the clout to say “yes” and make something happen. Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion. They say the Council would “end the lack of proper coordination” and “assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests.”

I however want to focus on the highlighted text above from the op-ed. This language appears to suggest that these advisers do not think it efficient for NASA to buy rockets and spacecraft from competing private companies, as it is doing with its cargo and crew ferries to ISS. If so, their advice will mean that a Trump administration will eliminate the competition that has been so successful in the past decade in lowering NASA’S costs and getting so much more done.

Yet, in the very next paragraphs Walker and Navarro say this:
» Read more

Did Opportunity see Schiaparelli?

Opportunity image of Schiaparelli?

Because Schiaparelli was aimed at a landing site somewhat close to the Mars rover Opportunity, the science team aimed the rover’s panoramic camera at the sky yesterday, taking fourteen pictures in the hope of capturing the lander as it came down. Of those fourteen images, the image on the right, reduced in resolution, is the only one that shows that bright streak in the upper right.

close-up of streak

Though this streak might be an artifact, I do not think so. To the left is a close-up from the full resolution image, showing the streak in detail. That doesn’t look like an artifact. It still could be a meteorite, but I also think that doubtful. The coincidence of a meteorite flashing across the sky at the same exact moment Opportunity is looking to photograph Schiaparelli’s landing is too unlikely.

If this is Schiaparelli, expect a press release from NASA in the next few days.

Schiaparelli landing apparently a failure

This report from provides some details about the apparent landing failure of the European Mars probe Schiaparelli on Wednesday.

The very preliminary analysis of the data revealed a number of serious problems in the final phase of the parachute descent. The telemetry showed that the back heat shield holding the parachute had been ejected earlier than scheduled — 50 seconds instead of 30 seconds before the touchdown. Also, the lander was apparently descending at a speed higher than planned. There were also indications that the soft-landing engines had fired for only three or four seconds and all communications from the lander were cut 19 seconds later, or shortly before touchdown. By that time, Schiaparelli’s landing radar had been activated.

It appears the parachutes were released too soon so that they did not function properly and slow the spacecraft down enough. When the retro-rockets fired the spacecraft was probably also closer to the ground than planned and falling too fast, so they failed to stop it from impacting the surface hard and prematurely.

Fate of Schiaparelli remains unknown

While Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully gone into orbit around Mars, it remains unknown whether the lander Schiaparelli was able today to land successfully on the surface.

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, just gave an update on the situation. “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase — the descent phase. At a certain point, it stopped,” Ferri said. “This was unexpected, but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on the ground was coming from an experimental tool.

“We (waited) for the Mars Express measurement, which was taken in parallel, and it was of the same kind. It was only recording the radio signal. The Mars Express measurement came at 1830 (CEST) and confirmed exactly the same: the signal went through the majority of the descent phase, and it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“There could be many many reasons for that,” Ferri said. “It’s clear these are not good signs, but we will need more information.”

Three GOP offices have now been attacked

The third Republican offices in the past two weeks was attacked today.

An Indiana Republican Party office was vandalized last week after someone tossed two bricks through the window, officials said Monday. That news comes just a day after a Republican headquarters in North Carolina was firebombed. The Sunday blaze injured none, however, a perpetrator also spray painted the message “Nazi Republicans get out of town or else” on a nearby building.

An office in San Antonio used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign was burglarized on Wednesday, FOX29 reported. Police detained a suspect around 5:30 a.m. and authorities believe that person targeted other buildings in the area, too.

The third case was a burglary, so it might have nothing to do with politics. Nonetheless, it is fascinating how the press and the Democrats always scream that Republican supporters are dangerous and could become violent at any time, incited by the evil words of Donald Trump, but somehow almost all the acts of violence we see are committed against conservatives.

In related news, “We could have died”.

Juno enters safe mode prior to Jupiter close approach

Because Juno entered safe mode prior to its close approach of Jupiter today, no science data was gathered.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered safe mode Tuesday, Oct. 18 at about 10:47 p.m. PDT (Oct. 19 at 1:47 a.m. EDT). Early indications are a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. The spacecraft acted as expected during the transition into safe mode, restarted successfully and is healthy. High-rate data has been restored, and the spacecraft is conducting flight software diagnostics. All instruments are off, and the planned science data collection for today’s close flyby of Jupiter (perijove 2), did not occur. “At the time safe mode was entered, the spacecraft was more than 13 hours from its closest approach to Jupiter,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We were still quite a ways from the planet’s more intense radiation belts and magnetic fields. The spacecraft is healthy and we are working our standard recovery procedure.”

This problem, combined with the thruster valve problem that prevented engineers from putting the spacecraft into its proper 14-day science orbit today, is significantly delaying science operations. They will not be able to adjust the orbit again until its next close approach December 11 (assuming the thruster problem has been solved by then), and until then it will also not be able to do much science.

Landslides on Charon

Landslide on Charon

Images from New Horizons have detected evidence of past avalanches on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The image on the right is a reduced version of a perspective view created using data from various instruments.

This perspective view of Charon’s informally named “Serenity Chasm” consists of topography generated from stereo reconstruction of images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), supplemented by a “shape-from-shading” algorithm. The topography is then overlain with the PIA21128 image mosaic and the perspective view is rendered. The MVIC image was taken from a distance of 45,458 miles (73,159 kilometers) while the LORRI picture was taken from 19,511 miles (31,401 kilometers) away, both on July 14, 2015.

close-up of landslide

To the left is a close-up taken from the annotated image. You can see the slump materials at the base of the mountain left behind after the material slide down the mountain. It is not clear whether it is Charon’s lower gravity and alien composition and environment (very very very cold) that makes this look more muddy than one would expect, or whether it is because of the limited resolution of the original image and the modeling to create the oblique version.

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