SpaceX launches Dragon and lands 1st stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched a previously used Dragon cargo freighter to ISS as well as once again successfully landing the previously used first stage.

This was the first time NASA agreed to the use of a previously launched first stage. With the first stage and capsule both reused, only the second stage and one out of 10 Merlin engines was new and will not be available for further reuse.

I have embedded the launch video below the fold.

The standings for the most launches in 2017, as of today:

28 United States
18 Russia
17 SpaceX
15 China

Note that I am counting Soyuz launches for Arianespace out of French Guiana under Arianespace, not Russia. Also, the U.S. total includes SpaceX. I have separated SpaceX out to show how a single American company is competing aggressively with whole nations.
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The Trump administration’s space policy, according to Scott Pace

Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, outlined at a symposium earlier this week the overall space policy of the Trump administration.

The United States should seek to ensure that its space activities reflect “our values and not just our technologies,” Pace urged. “We should seek to ensure that our space activities reflect those values: democracy, liberty, free enterprise, and respect for domestic and international law in a peaceful international order.”

To influence the development and utilization of space, the United States needs to “create attractive projects and frameworks in which other nations choose to align themselves and their space activities with us, as opposed to others.”

He went on to outline several very general concepts that they are using to shape this policy. He also praised the Outer Space Treaty, and was challenged about this by another symposium participant.

Pace was challenged on the last point by University of Mississippi space law professor emerita Joanne Gabrynowicz. She agreed that the concept that space is the common heritage of all mankind has not been accepted internationally. Pursuant to the Outer Space Treaty, however, it is the “province of all mankind” and that language is based on the principle of res communis, she asserted. Pace held his ground, saying he takes advice from the State Department’s Office of Legal Adviser which has concluded that it is not. Asked later what framework he does use, Pace replied that international law can be created by the pen or by practice and ultimately is whatever sovereign nations decide to do with each other. He added that involving the international private sector is also important because it brings in best practices that can be turned into guidelines.

In other words, Pace is going along with the general Washington culture that is afraid to push for a significant change in the Outer Space Treaty, and is instead saying that property rights can still be established by other agreements within international law and individual national negotiations.

As I have been saying for years, this is bad policy. Without a right to establish sovereignty and borders in space, there will be no mechanism for nations and individuals to function legally, which is only going to cause conflict while discouraging investment and development.

Nonetheless, the position taken by Pace and the general culture in Washington is par for the course. I have very seen few good policy decisions coming out of Washington in the past three decades, especially when it comes to space. This is only another example.

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India to build a smallsat rocket

Capitalism in space: India’s space agency ISRO has announced that it developing a smallsat rocket expressly designed to launch cubesats and thus compete with the new smallsat rocket companies now about to become operational.

ISRO has been very successful in providing a launch platform for smallsats on its PSLV rocket, but in this case the smallsats fly as secondary payloads, dependent on the needs of the larger primary satellite. It appears that the space agency has realized that their market share in this area is now threatened by the small rockets being developed by Rocket Lab and Vector, and is therefore moving to compete.

This announcement also provides more evidence that the space industry is splitting between smaller unmanned payloads and larger manned payloads. I predict that in ten years most unmanned satellites launched to circle the Earth will be tiny and launched on tiny rockets, while simultaneously we will see a new generation of giant rockets putting manned spacecraft into orbit and beyond.

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Arizona’s Court of Appeals sides with Pima County on space balloon deal

Arizona’s second highest court has agreed with Pima County and approved a deal the county made, without competitive bidding, with the space balloon company World View.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel acknowledged the purpose of competitive bids is to ensure that the county — and, by extension, the taxpayers — gets the most money for the property. But Judge Peter Eckerstrom, writing for the court, said that does not apply when the real goal is not immediate income but longer-term economic development.

The Goldwater Institute, which brought the suit that claimed that the deal violated the state constitution because the lease was signed without competitive bidding, has said it will appeal to Arizona’s Supreme Court.

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Israeli X-Prize team still short of funds

Capitalism in space: The Israeli Google Lunar X-Prize competitor, SpaceIL, still needs to raise $7.5 million by December 20th or it will be forced to drop out of the competition, even though they say their spacecraft is finished.

SpaceIL initially estimated it would need about $8 million for the GLXP effort, but costs soared to $85 million, team members said. The team needs to raise $30 million by Dec. 20 to pay its bills. It has secured $22.5 million in pledges, contingent on the team’s ability to raise that additional $7.5 million.

I must admit that something about this stinks. Their budget has gone up more than ten times from its original estimate, from $8 million to $85 million. They have so far raised $55 million of hard cash, which is still about seven times their original budget, and with this they have actually built their spacecraft. Why do their need another $30 million? And why the hard December 20th deadline or they shut down?

As I say, something about this situation doesn’t feel right to me.

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More than 1,000 sign up to compete for four UAE astronaut positions

The new colonial movement: More than 1,000 people have signed up to compete for four United Arab Emirate (UAE) positions as astronauts.

Those chosen will undergo three years of training in order to prepare them for a trip to ISS. The article does not say how the UAE will get them there, but I suspect at some point the country will sign a contract with either Russia, Boeing, SpaceX, or China for a seat on one of their manned capsules.

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Vector gets launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Vector has signed a launch contract with Astro Digital.

Vector, a nanosatellite launch company comprised of new-space and enterprise software industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Sea Launch and VMware, today announced that it will join forces with Astro Digital, a leader in real-time satellite imagery data, to conduct a dedicated launch in 2018 featuring one of Astro Digital’s satellites for remote sensing applications. Astro Digital plans to engage Vector to launch at least twelve such satellites as part of a larger constellation, with an option to then continue operations at a pace of two to four dedicated satellite launches per year.

The press release notes that Astro Digital flew a test payload on Vector’s suborbital test flight on one of Vector’s two test flights, and that experience convinced the company to sign this new contract.

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Blue Origin releases video from inside capsule

Cool movie time! Blue Origin has released a video taken from inside this week’s test flight of its New Shepard capsule, showing the entire flight.

The link provides some information about some of the experiments the capsule also carried. I have embedded the video below the fold. Definitely worth watching.
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Julie Andrew – Impossible

An evening pause: From the live television premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1957, their only musical written for television. Edith Adams plays the fairy godmother.

For the world is full of zanies and fools
Who don’t believe in sensible rules
And won’t believe what sensible people say
And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes
Impossible things are happening every day!

I first posted this in 2011. Time to see it again.

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Initial analysis of radio observations of Oumuamua detect no artificial signals

The initial analysis of the first set of radio observations of Oumuamua by Breakthrough Listen has so far not detected any artificial signals.

No such signals have been detected, although the analysis is not yet complete. So far, data from the S-band receiver (covering frequencies from 1.7 to 2.6 GHz) has been processed, and analysis of the remaining three bands is ongoing. A subset of the S-band data is now available for public inspection in the Breakthrough Listen archive3, and additional data will be added as it becomes available.

The data is stored in specialized formats, and analyzing it may be challenging for non-experts. We invite those who are interested to study the tutorial material provided by the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley, SETI Research Center and to assist with the analysis not only of this intriguing object, but of the entire Breakthrough Listen dataset.

They still plan three more observation sessions.

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New exoplanet makes eight in rival solar system

comparing solar systems

Worlds without end: Astronomers using Kepler data mined by computers have discovered an eighth planet in another solar system, making that system somewhat comparable to our own.

The newly discovered Kepler-90i — a sizzling hot, rocky planet orbiting its star once every 14.4 days — was found using computers that “learned” to find planets in data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler finds distant planets beyond the solar system, or exoplanets, by detecting the minuscule change in brightness when a planet transits (crosses in front of) a star.

Vanderburg, a NASA Sagan fellow at UT Austin, and Shallue, a Google machine learning researcher, teamed up to train a computer to learn how to identify signs of an exoplanet in the light readings from distant stars recorded by Kepler. Similar to the way neurons connect in the human brain, this “neural network” sifted through the Kepler data to identify the weak transit signals from a previously missed eighth planet orbiting Kepler-90, a sun-like star 2,545 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco. “For the first time since our solar system planets were discovered thousands of years ago, we know for sure that our solar system is not the sole record holder for the most planets,” Vanderburg said.

The image to the right compares the planet sizes between this solar system and ours. It does not show that, for this distant star, all eight planets have orbits closer to the star than the Earth, and would therefore be very unlikely to harbor life.

One more thing: This story is very cool, but it also is another one of those NASA press releases that the agency PR department overhyped beforehand, even allowing some reporters to think that it might involve the discovery of life beyond Earth. Not surprisingly, several news sources and radio shows asked me to talk about it. To their disappointment I said I’d rather wait, since NASA has overhyped more than a few stories like this in recent years. Once again, my instincts were right. This story has nothing to do with alien life, and though interesting, is actually not that big a deal.

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This week in fascist academia

The childish nature of modern American culture often gets me very depressed. Sadly, this depression is worsened by the fascist and intolerant culture that dominates much of America academia and that I have been noting with regularly weekly reports since October. If our intellectual community acts like jack-booted thugs how can we expect our overall culture to be mature and civilized?

Anyway, here are a few more stories from the past week that unfortunately intensify my depression and the lack of enthusiasm I presently have for posting anything related to culture or politics. It all seems to be a cesspool, and horribly the academic community appears to relish the idea of swimming in it.

First, some stories indicating the close-mindedness and intolerance of the teaching community:

The second story is especially disturbing. The professor, Donna Riley, is head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue. This is what she advocates for her school’s engineering program:

She claims that rigor can “reinforce gender, race, and class hierarchies in engineering, and maintain invisibility of queer, disabled, low-income, and other marginalized engineering students,” adding that “decades of ethnographic research document a climate of microaggressions and cultures of whiteness and masculinity in engineering.” She evens contends that “scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced, and colonizing,” asserting that in the field of engineering, there is an “inherent masculinist, white, and global North bias…all under a guise of neutrality.”

To fight this, Riley calls for engineering programs to “do away with” the notion of academic rigor completely, saying, “This is not about reinventing rigor for everyone, it is about doing away with the concept altogether so we can welcome other ways of knowing. Other ways of being. It is about criticality and reflexivity.”

So, would you want to fly on a rocket built by engineers taught at Purdue, under this professor’s program?

Next we have stories that show that the intolerance is definitely not confined to the teachers, that the students are becoming as intolerant and as fascist.
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A variety of geological activity caused bright areas on Ceres

Occator Crater

Based on the data obtained of Ceres from Dawn scientists have concluded that a variety of geological activities caused the bright areas on the planet, and that some of those activities could still be happening today.

Since Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres in March 2015, scientists have located more than 300 bright areas on Ceres. A new study in the journal Icarus, led by Nathan Stein, a doctoral researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California, divides Ceres’ features into four categories.

The first group of bright spots contains the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors. The most iconic examples are in Occator Crater [shown in the image above, reduced and cropped to post here], which hosts two prominent bright areas. Cerealia Facula, in the center of the crater, consists of bright material covering a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) pit, within which sits a small dome. East of the center is a collection of slightly less reflective and more diffuse features called Vinalia Faculae. All the bright material in Occator Crater is made of salt-rich material, which was likely once mixed in water. Although Cerealia Facula is the brightest area on all of Ceres, it would resemble dirty snow to the human eye.

More commonly, in the second category, bright material is found on the rims of craters, streaking down toward the floors. Impacting bodies likely exposed bright material that was already in the subsurface or had formed in a previous impact event.

Separately, in the third category, bright material can be found in the material ejected when craters were formed.

The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category — the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed bythe gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks.

The report is somewhat vague about why they think that there might be some geological activity even today.

The image above, released as part of this press release, gives us a simulated oblique look at Occator Crater and its bright areas. It is definitely worth it to look at the full resolution image.

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Sea Launch will assemble rockets in U.S.

Capitalism in space: S7, the Russian company that now owns Sea Launch, announced today that it plans to assemble its rockets in United States.

This means the dock for the floating launch platform will remain in California. The article also indicates that S7 will continue to use Ukrainian Zenit rockets, which the platform was designed for, despite the desire of the Russian government to cut off all dependence on Ukrainian technology. There is also this tidbit:

The S7 company, which is about to resume the Sea Launch program, has enough clients, S7 Group co-owner and chair of the board of directors Natalia Filyova told the press. “We have [launch] orders, there is a long line [of clients], and we offer a good price. We are expecting revenue, but this will not happen right away. We will be investing heavily but we realize that we will make money,” Filyova said.

No details of the clients or the launch schedule were announced, however, so I remain skeptical. Meanwhile, Roscosmos announced today that it is negotiating with Boeing for future space tourism flights. This second story is directly related to Sea Launch, but you would only know this if you read Behind the Black. To pay off Boeing, which used to be a half partner in Sea Launch and was owed $320 million by the Russians, Roscosmos gave Boeing an unspecified number of seats on future Soyuz capsules to sell to others. Two of those seats were sold to NASA.

These new negotiations probably are an effort to arrange further sales for Boeing to help it get its money back. Boeing’s lawsuit for that money has placed a lien on the Sea Launch platform, and until its concerns are satisfied, S7 really can’t begin operations.

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Negotiations underway to shift 1st stage landings at Kennedy to new site

Capitalism in space: Negotiations between the Air Force, NASA, and Space Florida (which runs the spaceport) have begun to establish a new location at Kennedy for 1st stage rocket landings.

The goal would be to lessen the burden landings impose on the Cape’s nearby industrial area, which workers must evacuate for hours during some missions. “If we have to stop operations for a launch during the middle of day, it is severely impacting to other customers,” Brig Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, said Tuesday during a transportation conference at Port Canaveral.

As outlined in KSC’s master plan, the new landing pad could be built near the northern end of the spaceport’s secure perimeter — north of pad 39B and south of State Road 402 leading to Canaveral National Seashore’s Playalinda Beach. “We have land further to the north that’s not populated like the industrial area of the Cape is, and that might make for a really good location for a new landing zone for an increased landing rate,” said Nancy Bray, KSC’s director of spaceport integration and services.

I expect that SpaceX, should it be forced to shift landings from its just built landing sites, will also need to be in these negotiations since it will likely want some reimbursement for that work.

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Rocket Lab pins down cause of launch abort

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has identified the cause of yesterday’s abort of its Electron rocket, and is ready to proceed tomorrow with the launch.

Rocket Lab says its launch yesterday was aborted due to rising liquid oxygen (LOx) temperatures feeding into one of the Electron’s nine engines. The launch attempt was aborted two seconds before lift-off from its range on Mahia Peninsula between Gisborne and Napier.

It says it will attempt to launch again tomorrow – after 2.30pm – and that the 17m rocket or pad equipment wasn’t damaged.

The company said the slight LOx temperature increase was a result of a ”LOx chill-down bleed schedule” that was not compatible with the warm weather.

This is not that different than the kinds of issues SpaceX experienced in its early launch attempts of both its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. It appears that getting the temperature and pressure of the liquid oxygen right is critical, and requires some in use trials to figure it out. With SpaceX, they eventually were able to enhance the process enough to allow them to cool the oxygen to make it more dense and thus get more of it in the tanks to increase the rocket’s launch capacity.

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Orbital ATK gets first FCC license approval for space repair mission

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK has gotten its first FCC license approval for its Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1) robotic space repair mission, set to launch late in 2018.

Space Logistics [a subsidiary of Orbital ATK] has a contract with fleet operator Intelsat of Washington and Luxembourg to provide in-orbit servicing with MEV-1 — the first in a proposed fleet of satellite servicers Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK intends to build — with service beginning in early 2019.

In a public notice issued Dec. 8, the FCC authorized Space Logistics to use four different frequency bands for telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) of MEV-1 as the servicer completes post-launch maneuvers, reaches the graveyard orbit for decommissioned geostationary satellites some 300 kilometers above the geosynchronous arc, and attaches to Intelsat-901.

Space Logistics’ MEVs works by connecting to a satellite and taking over station-keeping, using fuel onboard the servicer to propel the satellite and extend its life. Most geostationary satellites are forced into retirement after 15 years or more due to a shortage of fuel. “It is in our plan for Intelsat-901 that at the end of the five-year life extension mission that we would return the IS-901 to the graveyard orbit and release them there. After that release the MEV would then proceed onto our next client,” Anderson said, adding that the next client has not yet been identified.

They will still need to obtain additional permits from both the FCC (for future operations) and from NOAA (because the spacecraft’s cameras, needed for docking, might also look at the Earth).

Why NOAA has this permitting power astonishes me, but then, in today’s government-run America, I probably should not be surprised. If we were trying to settle the west today we would likely have a whole range of government agencies requiring wagon train approval, route approval, and scheduling approval.

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Ariane 5 successfully launches 4 European GPS satellites

Capitalism in space: Using its Ariane 5 rocket Arianespace yesterday successfully placed four European Galileo GPS satellites in orbit.

This is expected to be Arianespace’s last launch for 2017. The standings for the most launches in 2017 as of today:

27 United States
18 Russia
16 SpaceX
15 China
11 Arianespace

SpaceX and Russia each have two scheduled launches, while China has one. China however does not release information about all of its upcoming launches, so it might surprise us with more.

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Saturn’s rings are very young

Data from Cassini’s last ring-diving orbits has now strengthened the hypothesis that Saturn’s rings formed very recently, just a few hundred million years ago.

Saturn acquired its jewels relatively late in life. If any astronomers had gazed at the sky in the time of the dinosaurs, they might have seen a bare and boring Saturn.

It was then that some sort of catastrophe struck the gas giant. Perhaps a stray comet or asteroid struck an icy moon, tossing its remnants into orbit. Or maybe the orbits of Saturn’s moons somehow shifted, and the resulting gravitational tug-of-war pulled a moon apart. However it happened, two new lines of evidence from Cassini make it clear that the rings were not around in the early days of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, as scientists had long believed, says Jeff Cuzzi, a ring specialist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “It rules out the primordial ring story,” Cuzzi says. “That’s what it looks like to me.”

At the moment there is no consensus on what might have caused the rings formation so recently.

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Blue Origin successfully flies upgraded New Shepard capsule

Capitlism in space: Blue Origin yesterday successfully completed the first flight of its upgraded suborbital reusable New Shepard spacecraft.

Further details noted this test was called Mission 7 (M7), featuring a next-generation booster – powered by its BE-3 engine – and the first flight of Crew Capsule 2.0, a spacecraft that now features real windows, measuring 2.4 x 3.6 feet.

The test flight also carried 12 payloads and even a passenger – specifically an instrumented dummy brilliantly named “Mannequin Skywalker”.

Further details noted the flight time was 10 minutes and six seconds, launching at 10:59 a.m. CT from Blue Origin’s West Texas test site. The booster achieved Mach 2.94 on ascent & Mach 3.74 on descent. It again showed its landing skills, as shown on the video released by Mr. Bezos.

I have embedded the company’s video below the fold.
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MU69 might have a moon

Worlds without end: Observations of stellar occultations this past summer of 2014 MU69, New Horizons’ Kuiper belt target for a January 1, 2019 fly-by, suggest that the object is not only very elongated or two objects practically touching as they orbit around each other, but it might have a moon orbiting it.

The data that led to these hints at MU69’s nature were gathered over six weeks in June and July, when the team made three attempts to place telescopes in the narrow shadow of MU69 as it passed in front of a star. The most valuable recon came on July 17, when five telescopes deployed by the New Horizons team in Argentina were in the right place at the right time to catch this fleeting shadow — an event known as an occultation – and capture important data on MU69’s size, shape and orbit. That data raised the possibility that MU69 might be two like-sized objects, or what’s known as a binary.

The prospect that MU69 might have a moon arose from data collected during a different occultation on July 10, by NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Focused on MU69’s expected location while flying over the Pacific Ocean, SOFIA detected what appeared to be a very short drop-out in the star’s light. Buie said further analysis of that data, including syncing it with MU69 orbit calculations provided by the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, opens the possibility that the “blip” SOFIA detected could be another object around MU69. “A binary with a smaller moon might also help explain the shifts we see in the position of MU69 during these various occultations,” Buie added. “It’s all very suggestive, but another step in our work to get a clear picture of MU69 before New Horizons flies by, just over a year from now.”

All of this is somewhat speculative. We really won’t know until New Horizons arrives next year.

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Faults on Mars

Faults on Mars

Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, captures a distinctive fault line that cuts across some layered deposits. As noted by the MRO science team,

Some of the faults produced a clean break along the layers, displacing and offsetting individual beds (yellow arrow).

Interestingly, the layers continue across the fault and appear stretched out (green arrow). These observations suggest that some of the faulting occurred while the layered deposits were still soft and could undergo deformation, whereas other faults formed later when the layers must have been solidified and produced a clean break.

Meridiani Planum

These layers are located in Meridiani Planum, a relatively flat area on the Martian equator. Opportunity landed on this plain to the southwest of this region, as shown on the geology map to the left. The white cross in the southwest corner indicates Opportunity’s landing site, with Endeavour Crater just to the southeast. The white box in the northwest shows where the faulted layered deposits are located. Based on the scale of the map, this places Opportunity approximately 400 miles away.

What exactly caused these distinct faults remains unknown. The likely cause would be a earthquake, but since Mars does not have plate tectonics like the Earth, earthquakes would have to be caused by other geological processes not yet studied.

To my eye, they look like cracks in a mirror, though this provides no real explanation other than it illustrates how cool the image is.

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Flying through Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

Cool movie time! In conjunction with the release yesterday of data from Juno’s first close fly-over of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the science team also released an animation of what it would be like to fly down into the Spot.

You can also download the mp4 file here. It is definitely worth watching. It illustrates forcefully how daunting and challenging it will be for the human race to ever explore the vastness of Jupiter. This simulated plunge only goes into the Great Red Spot a few hundred miles, and barely touches its dynamics.

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Rocket Lab launch aborted at engine start

Capitalism in space: The second test flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket was aborted just after engine start today (December 12 in New Zealand).

Members of Rocket Lab’s launch team called out ignition of the first stage’s engines as the countdown ticked off the final few seconds before liftoff, followed by an abort.

“Umbilicals in, power’s all up,” one member of the launch team called out over a loop broadcast on Rocket Lab’s live video stream. “Confirm Stage 1 engines have stopped,” an engineer later announced.

A countdown graphic on Rocket Lab’s video feed stopped at T-minus 2 seconds. “As you can see, the vehicle had an abort during the launch auto sequence,” said Daniel Gillies, Rocket Lab’s mission management and integration director who provided commentary on the company’s webcast. “At this stage of flight, the vehicle flight computer is actively monitoring a wide range of vehicle performance parameters, and when any of these parameters are violated, the vehicle determines that its not ready of flight and holds the count.”

The rocket is fine. Though they have not said what caused the abort, they have set their next launch attempt for two days from now, in the evening in the U.S.

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