It is birthday time again! As I do every February, my birthday month, I shamelessly (though reluctantly) beg my readers to consider giving Behind the Black a donation or a subscription (as outlined in the tip jar to the right). Your generous support over the last few years has allowed me to remain independent, free to report and comment on science and politics as I see fit, uninfluenced by any outside pressure.


For this I thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


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Marlene Dietrich – Lili Marleen

An evening pause: The song, aired initially during World War II by the Nazis for their troops, became a popular hit for soldiers on both sides of the war. Marlene Dietrich then recorded it as part of her effort to win the war for the Allies, in both English and German. She noted once that the German version is “darker”. Here is the English version.

Hat tip Engine Mike.


Next Falcon 9 launch date announced

In the heat of competition: SpaceX and SES have announced that they are aiming for a February 24 date for the launch of the SES-9 communications satellite.

This will be the second launch of the upgraded Falcon 9, delayed since December following that rocket’s first launch. That they have scheduled it means they have likely smoothed out the kinks detected on that first flight.

The first recorded human death from a meteorite?

Officials in India are reporting what could be the first recorded death of a human by meteorite impact.

According to local reports, a bus driver was killed on Saturday when a meteorite landed in the area where he was walking, damaging the window panes of nearby buses and buildings. Three other people were injured.

The story is not yet confirmed, and could easily be proven wrong.

One dead, four ill, in drug study in France

A drug study in France has caused the death of one person and the possible permanent brain injury to four others.

A government investigation states that the company running the test committed some major errors when the first person experienced ill effects and was hospitalized. The company, Biotrial, did not pay close attention to that person’s condition before proceeding with tests and giving additional dosages of the test drug to subjects. It also did not, as required by its own disclosure statement to the test subjects, inform them that one patient had been hospitalized so they would have all the information necessary to decide whether to continue.

The investigations third complaint, that Biotrial did not inform the government of these issues, is mostly a complaint by government officials that there weren’t treated with the due respect they deserve, and is less important in my mind.

Read the article, as it is disturbing that a research company could be so cavalier about the lives of the human beings it is using as test subjects.

This story also illustrates indirectly the significant decline in the state of today’s modern mainstream press as well as the greater interests of the general public. This is a major science story. For a clinical drug study to kill one of its test subjects is a big deal. Yet I am certain that this will get no coverage in any cable news outlet. (If anyone see a video story about this, please let me know.) The written news outlets on the web will likely do a story, but it will not give it wide exposure.

Worse however is the reason why these outlets will likely not care much about this story. As I like to say, it is the audience that counts. News organizations cover stories that they think their readers or viewers are interested in, and they, like their audiences, are simply not interested in very much these days. Our society is becoming increasingly close-minded and childish, interested only in shallow reports about subjects that are not very important (such the poll numbers in New Hampshire or whether Marco Rubio wears silly boots).

Any interest in a story about how a drug study killed a person and might have caused permanent brain damage to four others? Nah, that’s no fun! Let’s focus instead on how Donald Trump told Jeb Bush to shut up during last nights debate!

TMT to repeat hearings before state

After years of doing everything the state of Hawaii demanded in order to get permission to build the Thirty Meter Telescope, a state judge today ordered that the whole process should start over again.

Since this order was instigated by the protesters, and that it appears the government favors those protesters, I expect that there is no chance TMT will ever get approval to build in Hawaii. Though the university consortium building the telescope says they want to go through the new process to get permission, they are wasting their time. It will never happen. The peasants with the pitchforks and burning torches, terrified of new knowledge while preferring the worship of a mountain, are in control in Hawaii.

Experts: NASA’s SLS Mars proposals bunk

The death of SLS begins: At House hearings this week, congressmen listened to several space experts who lambasted NASA’s asteroid and Mars mission proposals.

Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an expert on lunar science, was especially harsh.

“America’s civil space program is in disarray, with many aspirations and hopes but few concrete, realizable plans for future missions or strategic direction,” he said, adding that NASA lacks what it needs to pull off the mission (and throwing some shade at the agency’s strong Twitter game). “We pretend that we are on a ‘#JourneytoMars’ but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future. What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals–a series of objectives and destinations that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment build space faring capability in the long term.”

The testimony claimed that it could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion for NASA to get humans to Mars, numbers that are reasonable based on using NASA’s very costly and overpriced SLS/Orion rocket and capsule. The congressmen were of course interested in this, not because they want to get to Mars, but because they see gobs of pork for their districts in these numbers.

However, I expect that when SpaceX begins successfully launching its Falcon Heavy rocket in the next two years while simultaneously putting humans in space with its Dragon capsule, and does both for a tenth the cost of SLS/Orion, those same congressmen will dump SLS/Orion very quickly. Though they want the pork, they also know they don’t have $500 billion to $1 trillion to spend on space. The private sector gives them an option that is both affordable and of strong self-interest. The more realistically priced and designed hardware of private companies will give them a more credible opportunity to fund pork in their districts.

SpaceX promises increase in Falcon 9 launch rate

The competition heats up: Even as SpaceX upgrades its Falcon 9 rocket as a result of tests of the returned first stage, the company said this week that it plans to increase its production and launch rate significantly in 2016.

“We’ve had the luxury in years past of having to build only a few rockets a year,” [Company official Gwynne Shotwell] said, “so we really weren’t in a production mode.” Last year would have been the first to require a high production rate of the rocket, she said, had it not been for the June launch failure that halted flights for nearly six months. “Now we’re in this factory transformation to go from building six or eight a year to about 18 cores a year. By the end of this year we should be at over 30 cores per year,” she said. “So you see the factory start to morph.”

Those changes, she said, include doubling the number of first stages that can be assembled at one time from three to six. The company is also working to accelerate production of the Merlin engines that power the Falcon 9 since, at the higher production rates planned for this year, the company will need to build hundreds of engines a year.

She also said that they hope to reach a cadence of a launch every two to three weeks.

We shall see. While I have confidence in SpaceX’s ultimate ability to achieve these promises, much can change as they ramp up their effort. For example, Shotwell noted that they had hoped to achieve this launch rate in 2015, but were stopped after the June launch failure.

The floating mountains of Pluto

Pluto's floating mountains

The New Horizons science team has released a new image of Pluto’s smooth heart-shaped area, dubbed Sputnik Planum, focusing this time on the mountains of water ice that pop up through the plain and are apparently floating on the nitrogen sea, having broken off from the shoreline.

Because water ice is less dense than nitrogen-dominated ice, scientists believe these water ice hills are floating in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean. The hills are likely fragments of the rugged uplands that have broken away and are being carried by the nitrogen glaciers into Sputnik Planum. ‘Chains’ of the drifting hills are formed along the flow paths of the glaciers. When the hills enter the cellular terrain of central Sputnik Planum, they become subject to the convective motions of the nitrogen ice, and are pushed to the edges of the cells, where the hills cluster in groups reaching up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) across.

I have significantly cropped the image to show it here. Be sure and check out the full version, because there is a wealth of fascinating details in it.

China releases images from lunar rover and lander

Yutu on the Moon

China has made available a new batch of very cool images taken by its Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover, and Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has figured out how to view them.

In a recent guest blog post, Quanzhi Ye pointed to the Chinese version of the Planetary Data System, and shared the great news that Chang’e 3 lander data are now public. The website is a little bit difficult to use, but last week I managed to download all of the data from two of the cameras — a total of 35 Gigabytes of data! — and I’ve spent the subsequent week figuring out what’s there and how to handle it.

So, space fans, without further ado, here, for the first time in a format easily accessible to the public, are hundreds and hundreds of science-quality images from the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover. I don’t usually host entire data sets (PDS-formatted and all) but I made an exception in this case because the Chinese website is a bit challenging to use.

The image above is a cropped version of Yutu, taken by the lander. Be sure and go to the link to see the full image as well as others.

Curiosity moves on, scoop still not working

Curiosity’s science team has finished its work at Namib Dune and has decided to move on, even though they are still analyzing an unspecified issue with the rover’s scoop instrument.

So far, in the week since they first had a problem while sifting sand from the dune, they have not described in any way what the problem is. All they have said is this:

Unfortunately, the CHIMRA behaved in an unexpected way during processing of the third scoop on Sol 1231, which prevented completion of the arm activities planned for last weekend.

The robot arm functions, and they used it yesterday to get some extreme close-ups of the sand, but it appears they cannot use the scoop at this time.

A look inside Comet 67P/C-G

The Rosetta science team has determined that Comet 67P/C-G has no voids or large caverns in its interior, and that its low density is because its dust and water ice have mixed to produce a “fluffy” density.

In a new study, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, a team led by Martin Pätzold, from Rheinische Institut für Umweltforschung an der Universität zu Köln, Germany, have shown that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is also a low-density object, but they have also been able to rule out a cavernous interior. This result is consistent with earlier results from Rosetta’s CONSERT radar experiment showing that the double-lobed comet’s ‘head’ is fairly homogenous on spatial scales of a few tens of metres.

The most reasonable explanation then is that the comet’s porosity must be an intrinsic property of dust particles mixed with the ice that make up the interior. In fact, earlier spacecraft measurements had shown that comet dust is typically not a compacted solid, but rather a ‘fluffy’ aggregate, giving the dust particles high porosity and low density, and Rosetta’s COSIMA and GIADA instruments have shown that the same kinds of dust grains are also found at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Falcon 9 to be modified

The competition heats up: SpaceX is modifying its Falcon 9 rocket based on engine tests it performed on the December 22 returned first stage.

SpaceX will be making modifications to its Falcon 9 rocket based on what the company learned from re-igniting the engines on the vehicle it landed. That’s according to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who spoke about the state of the company today at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Wasington, DC. Shotwell didn’t specify what those modifications will be, but said the changes will make the vehicle “even more robust” for its ascent into space.

This report helps explain why SpaceX has pushed back all planned launches of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket. Their tests of the returned first stage revealed issues that they think are important enough to be addressed before another rocket is launched, and they are proceeding to deal with those issues.

It also illustrates an enormous advantage they have over every other rocket company that has ever existed in the past. They, unlike all past rocket companies, actually have a used first stage that they can study to see the real consequences of launch and landing. All previous estimates of those consequences were only based on computer models and speculation.

February 2, 2016 Batchelor podcast

Below the fold is Tuesday’s podcast of my appearance on the John Batchelor show. In addition to discussing Falcon Heavy, Ariane 6, and the question of rocket re-usability, I also lambasted the glacially slow pace of NASA’s Orion project, producing four capsules for a mere $17 billion in only 19 years! And speaking of glaciers, I also noted in the science segment the stonewalling at NOAA that prevents scientists from analyzing the rational behind their “adjustments” to their climate data, all of which cool the past and warm the present.
» Read more

Carter would pick Trump if he had no other choice

Heh: When asked by a reporter about the Presidential campaign, former President Jimmy Carter said he’d pick Donald Trump over Ted Cruz if they were his only choices. And why would he do that?

If he had to choose between Cruz and Trump for the Republican nomination, Carter chuckled, “I think I would choose Trump, which may surprise some of you.” (It did, judging by the loud laughter from the audience.)

“The reason is, Trump has proven already he’s completely malleable,” Carter explained. [emphasis mine]

I think this might one of those very rare moments when Jimmy Carter has correctly analyzed the situation.

Luxembourg to establish space property rights

The competition heats up: The government of Luxembourg today announced an initiative to establish a legal framework that will ensure property rights in space for private investors.

The Luxembourg Government announced a series of measures to position Luxembourg as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources. Amongst the key steps undertaken, as part of the initiative, will be the development of a legal and regulatory framework confirming certainty about the future ownership of minerals extracted in space from Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) such as asteroids.

Luxembourg is the first European country to announce its intention to set out a formal legal framework which ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract, i.e. rare minerals from asteroids. Such a legal framework will be worked out in full consideration of international law. Luxembourg is eager to engage with other countries on this matter within a multilateral framework.

The announcement is a bit vague about what exactly Luxembourg really plans to do. For example, it is unclear if this framework will only apply to Luxembourg citizens, or will be used to bring the private efforts from other countries to Luxembourg (the more likely scenario). It also does not tell us how the initiative will deal with the UN Outer Space Treaty, which essentially outlaws countries from establishing their own legal framework in space. Individuals can supposedly own private property in space under that treaty, but no country can claim territory or impose its own legal framework on any territory, thus making any private property claims unclear and weak.

North Korea announces planned satellite launch

North Korea today revealed plans to place a satellite in non-geosynchronous orbit sometime in the next two weeks.

News of the planned launch between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25 drew fresh U.S. calls for tougher U.N. sanctions already under discussion in response to North Korea’s nuclear test. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United Nations needed to “send the North Koreans a swift, firm message.”

Pyongyang has said it has a sovereign right to pursue a space programme by launching rockets, although the United States and other governments worry that such launches are missile tests in disguise.

It is horrifyingly hilarious to read the bluster put forth by Obama administration officials about this new North Korean effort to develop ICBMs that, as the article says, “could reach the U.S. West Coast.” Besides wanting to send “a swift, firm message,” they call the North Korean launch announcement a “slap in the face”, “another destabilizing provocation,” and “an egregious violation.” They then say they are working “cooperatively and effectively with the Chinese to counter this threat.”

It is laughable, but terrifying at the same time. North Korea, led by the worst kind of power-mad tyrant, is developing the ability to launch nuclear weapons to any place on Earth, and all our leaders can do is whine how mean they are.

National debt tops $19 trillion

The coming dark age: The national debt has hit $19 trillion, and the increase from $18 trillion was the fastest on record.

It took a little more than 13 months for the debt to climb by $1 trillion. The national debt hit $18 trillion on Dec. 15, 2014. That’s a slightly stepped-up pace compared to the last few $1 trillion mileposts. It took about 14 months for the debt to climb from $17 trillion to $18 trillion, and about the same amount of time to go from $16 trillion to $17 trillion.

The facts here also illustrate the complete failure of the Republican leadership to do what they promised when the voters gave them control of Congress.

But increasingly, Congress has instead allowed more borrowing by suspending the debt ceiling for long periods of time. That allows the government to borrow any amount it needs until the suspension period ends. Back in November, the debt ceiling was suspended again, after having been frozen at $18.1 trillion for several months. As soon as it was suspended, months of pent-up borrowing demand by the government led to a $339 billion jump in the national debt in a single day.

Under current law, the debt ceiling is suspended until March, 2017, meaning the government can borrow without limit until then. Obama is expected to leave office with a total national debt of nearly $20 trillion by the time he leaves office.

It was the Republican leadership that suspended the debt ceiling and allowed spending to rise so fast. This is also the reason that their favorite candidates for President, led by Jeb Bush, have done so poorly, and why the outsiders (Trump and Carson) and the new generation of tea party politicians (Cruz and Rubio) dominated the Iowa caucuses. And I expect that domination to continue in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond.

New Shepard launch update

The competition heats up: Blue Origin expects to do about one launch per month of its New Shepard rocket in the next two years leading up to commercial space tourism flights in 2018.

Reports from the meeting quoted [Blue Origin executive Brett] Alexander as saying there would be a couple of dozen such test flights over the course of the next two years – which works out to an average of one flight per month. Alexander also told the gathering that it’s still too early to announce the ticket price for passenger flights.

First SLS launch will carry 13 cubesats

NASA today announced that the first test flight of its giant SLS rocket, more powerful than the Saturn 5 and intended to make human missions beyond Earth orbit possible, will carry 13 cubesats in addition to its Orion capsule.

Because the mission plans on sending the unmanned Orion on an Earth orbit beyond the Moon, these cubesats will have an opportunity to go where no cubesat has gone before.

The candidates’ take on science

The journal Science today posted this somewhat useful review of the positions that the presidential candidates have taken on a variety of science issues.

One must read this article while recognizing that Science is not trustworthy on many of these subjects. For one, its position is always for more funding. If a politician even suggests that the rate of budget increases should be trimmed, Science will frame that suggestion as if the politician wants to slash all spending for science.

For another, Science is quite biased and agenda-driven when it comes to climate change, and illustrates that bias in this article in its reporting on Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his position on this subject. To quote:

Cruz has used his position as head of a Senate subcommittee that oversees climate research to question recent temperature trends. Last fall Cruz called climate change a “religion.” Voted no on a measure affirming that humans contribute to climate change. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words above is a misstatement of what Cruz has said and serves to trivialize his position. He hasn’t questioned the “temperature trends”, which for almost two decades have been stalled. If anything, he has noted these trends as evidence that the theory of human-caused global warming has a problem. What he has questioned is the data that NOAA and NASA have been publishing. If anything, Cruz’s positions on the science of climate change have indicated that he has educated himself well on the subject, and has taken some thoughtful positions on it.

Nonetheless, this article is worth reviewing, as it reveals a great deal about the candidates. A close look for example at Rubio’s position on climate change reveals that he might not be consistent, and that his stated positions now might not match what he does should he become president.

NASA ships a capsule

In what appears to me to be a overwrought attempt to make the minor shipment of one Orion capsule appear to be a major achievement, NASA on Monday transported the next Orion capsule from Louisiana to Florida.

They used the NASA’s Super Guppy cargo plane to do it, even though I suspect that the capsule really isn’t that large and could have likely been shipped by road in a truck for a lot less. The agency also apparently made a big deal about this shipment with the press, which like sheep went along with it.

The pictures here illustrate what I mean. I grant that the Super Guppy is a cool plane, and it is certainly fun to see how it is loaded and flies, but from a cost perspective this seems to be a very expensive way to transport the capsule.

As a result, the impression this all leaves me with is that NASA is really not doing very much with Orion, working at a snail’s pace to stretch out the payments, and thus has to sell every little thing to convince the public that this project is accomplishing a lot.

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