Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Pioneer

Pioneer

I am today announcing the publication of Pioneer, a science fiction book I first wrote back in 1982 that has languished in my files now for more than three decades. As I note in the introduction,

It was never published because at the time I could not find an agent to market it to book publishers, and was then too naive and shy to attempt to do such things myself.

In viewing several recent science fiction movies, however, I was motivated to pull the final draft of Pioneer from my files, wondering if it might be marketable. I hadn’t read it in decades, and had literally forgotten the story. I started reading expecting a typical first novel, somewhat incoherent and emotionally immature.

Instead I was quite surprised and enthralled. I couldn’t put the book down. Moreover, I was astonished at the coherence of the story and characters. “This is a good book!” I exclaimed to my wife Diane. Nor am I bragging when I say this, since the person who wrote it is someone from many decades ago and who essentially no longer exists.

Thus, I decided it was time to get Pioneer published, especially since this is now a very easy thing to do, no longer requiring either an agent or a book publisher.

The press release announcing the book’s publication provides the story’s premise:
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Space hype versus reality

Three stories today illustrate the importance of maintaining some skepticism when reading the claims of rocket companies.

I could probably also include the story earlier today about the model rocket test launch that was hyped absurdly by the company and the British newspapers that reported it.

The first story reports the comments of a local politician claiming that SpaceX will be launching from its Boca Chica Texas spaceport by the end of 2018. Interesting, but I’d rather go by what the company itself says, and what SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell says today is “Our Texas site still doing landscaping, could be avail in ~ 2 yrs; no rush given our capacity at two Fla pads.”

In other words, the local official’s prediction was a bit overstated, and therefore should not be taken too seriously.

The second story however can be taken a bit more seriously, since it is a report from an actual company official, Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. He explains that they hope to resume New Shepard suborbital test flights before the end of the year, with manned test flights occurring in 2018. However, he says little about why there was such a long gap in New Shepard launches after they completed their last test flight in October 2016. At that time they said they would be doing more test flights in early 2017, but by the spring of 2017 had back tracked.

The claim that they might be flying again before the end of the year, however, still carries weight, in that it matches earlier statements. In other words, Blue Origin has been very careful not to make promises it cannot meet. In rocket science this care cannot always be met, but they clearly have tried hard. This is why I take Mowry’s statement that they hope to fly humans on New Shepard in 2018 with some trust.

The third story is a perfect example of how a company loses trust. Virgin Orbit is part of the Virgin set of companies run by Richard Branson, and used to be part of Virgin Galactic. Branson and Virgin Galactic have been making promises now for more than a decade, none of which have born fruit. This unreliability has made me very skeptical about anything they say, which is also why I do not report their claims much anymore. When they actually fly something I will write about it.

For awhile I thought Virgin Orbit was a different bird, as the executives there have been more careful, only making cautious promises and then more or less fulfilling them. The story above however gives me pause. Even as they admit they have had to delay their test program their president still insists that they will be able to ramp up to two launches per month by 2020. Considering the fact that no single private company has yet managed to do such a thing, in the more than half century since the beginnings of the space age, I think it is a little dangerous for this guy to make this claim, even before the company has even launched its first rocket. Virgin Orbit might do it, but such wild claims make me very suspicious of them.

And then there was today’s earlier story about Starchaser Industries. They launch a model rocket 4000 feet in the air, and from this they claim that they will be putting humans on a suborbital rocket in only two years. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you, cheap.

The bottom line here is to use some common sense and thoughtful judgment in reading stories about future space achievements. The first three stories above are actually all well written, well researched, and very careful in how they report their stories. It however is not necessarily their job to tell you whether the claims are trustworthy, especially if the claims seem reasonable based upon the available information. The last however is an example of bad journalism, rewriting a press release without doing any research at all.

In all cases, it is important to distinguish between stories about what is going to happen versus what is happening. I always prefer the latter, since a real achievement will always trump a mere prediction. And when it comes to the space industry and rocket science, predictions surely must take a back seat to reality.

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Cassini says goodbye to Saturn

Saturn, October 2016

Cool image time! The picture above, reduced in resolution to show here, was taken in October 2016 during one of Cassini’s last distant orbits that gave it a global view of Saturn and its rings. Since it began its dives close to the gas giant such views have not been possible.

The mission ends this coming Saturday with a dive into Saturn. It was launched in October 1997, and after a seven year journey has spent the last thirteen years in orbit around the planet, providing us the first long term glimpse of a gas giant as its seasons evolved.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for nearly a half of a Saturnian year but that journey is nearing its end. This extended stay has permitted observations of the long-term variability of the planet, moons, rings, and magnetosphere, observations not possible from short, fly-by style missions.

When the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, the planet’s northern hemisphere, seen here at top, was in darkness, just beginning to emerge from winter (see Cassini’s Holiday Greetings​). Now at journey’s end, the entire north pole is bathed in the continuous sunlight of summer.

The spacecraft was also able to observe the seasonal changes that occurred to Titan. It also studied the plumes coming from the tiger stripe cracks on Enceladus, shown below the fold in a movie created by Cassini over a 14 hour time period in August 2017.

I expect that scientists will be exploring Cassini’s data archive for decades, finding many things not noticed in their initial viewing. Unfortunately, we will not have another spacecraft taking new pictures in orbit around Saturn to compare with Cassini’s past images for many decades to come. On Saturday, we go blind.
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Mars rover update: September 6, 2017

Summary: Curiosity ascends up steepest part of Vera Rubin Ridge, getting just below the ridgetop, while Opportunity inspects its footprint in Perseverance Valley.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1807

Curiosity's location, Sol 1802

Since my last update on August 11, Curiosity has been slowly working its way along the base of Vera Rubin Ridge, and up its slope. Today’s update from the science team describes how the rover is now on the steepest part of that slope, which is also just below the ridgetop. The panorama above looks east at the ridge, at the sand-duned foothills in the Murray Formation that Curiosity has been traversing since March 2016, and the crater plains beyond.

The image on the right shows Curiosity’s approximate position, with the point of view of the panorama indicated. The image also shows their planned upcoming route across the Hematite Unit. As they note in their update:

Curiosity now has great, unobstructed views across the lowlands of Gale crater to the rear of the rover. The view is improving as the air becomes clearer heading into the colder seasons. The first image link below shows a Navcam view into the distance past a cliff face just to the left of the rover. The image is tilted due to the to the unusually high 15.5 degree tilt of the rover as it climbs the ridge. Part of Mount Sharp is in the background. The second link shows an image looking ahead, where we see much more rock and less soil. The foreground shows that some of the pebbles are relatively well rounded. The rock face up ahead is smooth, which will mean easier driving.

That report I think is somewhat optimistic.
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Global warming and Glacier National Park

One of the main activities for almost everyone visiting Glacier National Park is to drive across the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the mountains and probably has some of the most spectacular scenery of any road in the United States. During our visit this week we entered the park from the west side, spent several days there hiking trails, then took this road across to the east side, where we did more hiking.

The highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass. The park service has built a visitor center there, where everyone stops to do a short hike and admire the views. The trail head for the more challenging Highline Trail, which we did soon after arrival, is also here.

Outside the Logan Pass visitor center are a variety of displays. One focused on the changing environment at Glacier, and not surprisingly, it made a point of talking about the documented shrinkage of the glaciers during the past century. Below is an image of the pertinent quote from that display:

Display outside Logan Pass visiter center

When I saw this I was quite amused. The glaciers in the park are expected to be gone in only three more years, by 2020? Not a chance. I thought, they are going to have to change this sign soon. In fact, based on my experience with past failed global warming predictions, I was actually surprised they had let this display stay there this long, and hadn’t already made it vanish to be replaced with a new doomsday prediction that was far enough in the future that they could use if for awhile to generate new fear (and funding) before it too turned out to be wrong.

Anyway, in driving east and down from Logan Point, Diane and I eventually reached the east entrance to the park, where there was another visitor center. Like Logan Pass, this center also had a collection of outdoor displays, with one display once again focused on the park’s changing environment. Below is the pertinent quote from that display:
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The Eclipse

The eclipse approaching totality

Just arrived at Glacier, where the internet access is bad, and there is no cell service. Thus, this might be my last post for the week. I will try to post in the evening, but this is a vacation, so it will not be my first priority. If I could do it in my room that would okay, but I have to go down to the lobby of the Lake McDonald Lodge.

Anyway the image to the right was taken by me by holding my hand filter out at arm’s length, blocking the sun, and snapping a picture with my camera. It came out far better than I expected, as you can actually see the sun in the filter, partly blocked.

Totality was amazing. I was amazed by two things. First, how quiet it became. There were about hundred people scattered about the hotel lawn, with dogs and kids playing around. The hotel manager’s husband set up speakers for music and to make announcements, but when totality arrived he played nothing. People stopped talking. A hush fell over everything. Moreover, I think we somehow imagine a subconscious roar from the full sun. Covered as it was, with its soft corona gleaming gently around it, it suddenly seemed still.

Secondly, the amazing unlikeliness of the Moon being at just the right distance and size to periodically cause this event seemed almost miraculous. Watching it happen drove this point home to me. And since eclipses themselves have been a critical event in the intellectual development of humanity, helping to drive learning and our understanding of the universe, it truly makes me wonder at the majesty of it. I do not believe in any particular religion or their rituals (though I consider the Bible, the Old Testament especially, to be a very good manual for creating a good life and society), but I do not deny the existence of a higher power. Something made this place, and set it up in this wonderous way. Today’s eclipse only served to demonstrate this fact to me again.

Posting will be light for the rest of the week. If I get a chance I will add some more pictures to this post tomorrow.
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A celebration of hate and ignorance

The last few days have not been good ones for American free speech and freedom. Not only have we seen violence perpetrated to silence the free expression of dissent, we have seen an effort after the fact to use that violence as a club for destroying any opposition to the liberal and leftist dogma that dominates the American political and academic community.

The following links will provide a nice overview of how our cultural elites, especially on the left, have responded to this weekend’s terrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person was killed and almost twenty injured when a car rammed into a crowd of competing racist demonstrators.

That is how our elites responded, not with conciliatory remarks aimed at bringing people together, but with anger and hate, hate of Trump, hate of the Republican Party, hate of the NRA, hate of whites, hate for anyone that dared disagree with their leftist agenda. Then, when Trump issued a statement condemning all violence in the name of bigotry, the response was equally hateful:
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Mars rover update: August 11, 2017

Summary: After a two week hiatus because the Sun was between the Earth and Mars and blocking communications, both rovers are once again on the move.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1782

Vera Rubin Ridge close-up

Since my last update on July 12,, Curiosity spent most of the month waiting out the solar conjunction that placed the Sun between the Earth and Mars and blocked communications. In the past few days, however, the rover has begun to send down images again while resuming its journey up Mt. Sharp. The panorama above, reduced to show here, was taken by the rover’s left navigation camera, and shows the mountain, the ridge, and the route the rover will take to circle around the steepest sections to get up onto the ridge. To see the full resolution panorama click on the picture.

To the right is a full resolution section of the area in the white box. As you can see, the geology of the ridge is many-layered, with numerous vertical seams or cracks. In order to track the geological changes across these layers as the rover climbs, the science team is as expected taking a systematic approach.

Lately, one of our biggest science objectives is to conduct bedrock APXS measurements with every 5-meter climb in elevation. This allows us to systematically analyze geochemical changes in the Murray formation as we continue to climb Mount Sharp. Yesterday’s drive brought us 6 meters higher in elevation, so another touch and go for today it is!

Below is a cropped and reduced resolution image of the most recent orbital traverse image, dated sol 1754. The dotted line shows where I think the rover’s has traveled in the last 28 sols. I have also annotated what I think is the point of view of the panorama above.
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A Martian Journey

The exploration of the solar system has barely begun. Though we regularly get to see some spectacular images taken by the fleet of unmanned planetary probes that now circle or rove the various planets throughout the solar system, we mustn’t think we have seen very much. In truth, we have only gotten a very distant glimpse of only a few tiny spots, most of which have been viewed from very far away. Even at the highest resolution the images do not really tell us what it really will be like when we can stroll across those surfaces routinely.

To give you an idea of how much remains hidden, let’s take a journey inward from Mars orbit. The image below looks down on a good portion of the Martian globe, with the giant volcano Olympus Mons on the left, its three companion volcanoes in line to the east, and the vast valley of Valles Marineris east of these. This valley would cover the continental United States almost entirely, and extend significantly beyond into the oceans on either side.

Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris

This was essentially our first good look at Mars, taken from orbit by Mariner 9 in 1971.
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John McCain, Liar

In commenting about the failure yesterday by Senate Republicans to pass a trimmed down version of an Obamcare repeal by a vote of 49-51, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has this to say:

There are going be a great many Americans who tonight feel a sense of betrayal. …If you stand up and campaign and say we are going to repeal Obamacare and you vote for Obamacare, those are not consistent. And the American people are entirely justified in saying any politician who told me that and voted the other way didn’t tell me the truth. They lied to me.

He then added:

“No party can remain in power by lying to the American people.”

Cruz is right, but only partly. The entire Republican Party did not lie to its voters. Instead, a small contingent of fake Republicans lied, led by John McCain, king liar and the most likely person to stab a friend in the back I have ever seen.
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Mueller widens witch hunt investigation

Special counsel Robert Mueller today widened his investigation on President Trump’s contacts with Russia during the campaign to now include Trump’s entire business transactions.

I haven’t posted anything about the Russian collusion story until now, because on its face it is absurd. As noted repeatedly by even Trump’s critics, there is no evidence of any illegal acts by anyone. Moreover, the media focus on the Russians distracts from the heart of the DNC hack, that it revealed illegal pay-offs and corruption by Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and others in the Democratic Party. I don’t really care that much how these emails were obtained since what they uncovered is far worse.

What prompts me to post now is to underline the corruption of Robert Mueller himself. It is already well known that the investigation team he has put together includes at least seven Democratic donors, including an attorney who donated $34,000 to Democratic candidates. What I want to highlight is his blatant partisan actions to help cover up the IRS scandal for the Obama administration. I only remembered this recently, but when Mueller was called to testify to the House about his newly begun FBI investigation into that scandal, he couldn’t name the head of that investigation, even though he was the man who would have appointed such a person only a month prior.

I once again have embedded below the fold Mueller’s testimony in 2013 before Congress. Not only does he not know who is running his so-called IRS scandal investigation, he admits that not one victim of the IRS scandal had yet been contacted. In fact, none of these people were ever contacted, and that investigation never took place. Mueller stone-walled it for Obama, so that administration and president could get away with their use of the IRS as a weapon against their opponents. And of course, the Democratic mainstream media assisted them in this stone-wall by never pursuing the story. They let it fall, as they do today with the content of those hacked Clinton emails, into the memory hole.

And even if there were improprieties by Trump and his campaign, does anyone with even the slightest objectivity believe that Mueller’s investigation is going to non-partisan? I don’t. This is a witch-hunt, and it always has been.

And if you disagree with me I dare you to watch the video below. Mueller comes off clearly as a tool of the Democrats, something he still is today.
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Commercial space has won

Today the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, chaired by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), held the third of a series of hearings on the future regulatory framework required for American commercial space to prosper.

My previous reviews of the past two hearings can be found at these links:

In today’s hearing the witnesses in general once again called for a variety of reforms that would simplify the regulatory process for private enterprise. Dr. Moriba K. Jah, associate professor from University of Texas at Austin, suggested removing NOAA’s veto power on remote sensing, something that the proposed House bill I analyzed in my Federalist op-ed actually does). Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks suggested giving the private sector a certain date when ISS will be decommissioned so that they can more easily obtain investment capital for building the privately-built space facilities that will replace it. Tim Ellis of Relativity, a company trying to build rocket engines manufactured entirely by 3D printing, called for more American spaceports, accessible by private companies, as well as a simplification of the FAA permitting process. Robert Cabana, Director at the Kennedy Space Center, talked about the need for government facilities to provide the infrastructure for private companies, as the center has done for the private launch sites and manufacturing facilities they have helped get established at Kennedy since the retirement of the shuttle.

Tim Hughes from SpaceX topped them all.
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Mars rover update: July 12, 2017

Summary: Curiosity looks at some big dune ripples, then creeps up hill. Opportunity tests its wheels.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The interior of a dune ripple

Since my last update on June 23,, Curiosity has worked its way around and, for a few days, even into the small sandy field at the base of Vera Rubin ridge. The scientists noticed that the sandy here had a series of large ripples, and they wanted to take a close look at at least one. The image on the right, cropped to show here, was taken shortly after they had the rover drive through one ripple in order to expose its interior. You can see the robot arm directly above the cut created by the rover’s wheels. On the cut’s wall several distinctly different toned layers are visible. A close look reveals that they are wavy, and probably indicate numerous and repeated overlays as the wind brushes a new layer of dust on top of old layers, time after time. The different tones indicate a change in the material’s composition, which could reveal something about some past events in either Mars’ weather or geology.

In order to decipher this information, however, they will need to be able to date the layers, and figure out when each tonal change happened. I am not sure Curiosity can do this, especially since they have not scooped up any of this dust for later analysis.

They are now approaching Vera Rubin Ridge, and should climb up onto in the coming weeks. At that point they will move off the Murray Formation, where they have been since March 2016, made up of dried and ancient crushed mud, and up onto a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit. This October 3, 2016 press release. gives a good outline of the geology of these regions.
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Pablum from Pence on space

If you want to waste about about 25 minutes of your life, you can listen to the speech that Vice President Mike Pence gave today at the Kennedy Space Center here, beginning at the 49:30 minute mark.

My advice is that you don’t do it. Pence said nothing. He handed out a lot of empty promises and cliches, without any specifics or details of any kind. He confirmed for me what I have suspected of Pence for several years, that despite the fact that he lives and breathes a conservative and honorable personal life, as a politician he is a hack.

He made a big deal about the recreation of the National Space Council, which he now leads. However, as this article by Eric Berger properly noted the people who seem to be exerting the most influence on that council, on Trump, and on Pence are from the big space companies that have spent more than a decade and a half spending about $40 billion trying to build a big rocket (SLS) to fly a single unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule.

My pessimism here might be misplaced. We still do not know who will be on this space council. Furthermore, the Trump administration has been very good at doing a lot of public relations and soft stroking of its opponents in order to put them off guard prior to hitting them hard, where it hurts. This might be what Pence was doing here.

Nonetheless, the lack of any substance in Pence’s remarks makes me fear that he will be easily influenced by the big players who simply want the federal cash cow to continue sending them money, whether or not they ever build anything.

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As predicted climate scientists begin adjusting satellite data to fit models

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts! The scientists in charge of the climate satellite data produced by Remote Sensing Services (RSS) in California have decided to adjust their satellite data to increase the warming trend since 2000 and make that data more closely match the surface temperature data that NASA and NOAA have already altered to show that same warming trend.

Researchers from Remote Sensing Systems (RSS), based in California, have released a substantially revised version of their lower tropospheric temperature record. After correcting for problems caused by the decaying orbit of satellites, as well as other factors, they have produced a new record showing 36% faster warming since 1979 and nearly 140% faster (i.e. 2.4 times larger) warming since 1998. This is in comparison to the previous version 3 of the lower tropospheric temperature (TLT) data published in 2009.

How have they done this? They made several changes, the first two of which appear quite questionable. First, they addressed the “time of observation issue.” There is a belief among some climate scientists that the time temperature readings were taken can introduce an error in the long term trends.

To account for changes in observation times, the RSS group used a number of different approaches and models to try and estimate what the temperature would have been if the measurement time remained constant. This involves a combination of satellite observations (when different satellites captured temperatures in both morning and evening), the use of climate models to estimate how temperatures change in the atmosphere over the course of the day, and using reanalysis data that incorporates readings from surface observations, weather balloons and other instruments.

Depending on the time of the observation correction approach chosen, the resulting temperature trends between 1979 and 2016 ranged from as low as 0.13C per decade to as high as 0.22C per decade. The RSS group ultimately decided that the most reasonable set of parameters give a temperature trend of 0.17C. [emphasis mine]

I am puzzled by this, since satellites in orbit do not take readings at one particular time, but at a wide range of times. In fact, I would say that the number of readings, at all different times, would easily introduce enough randomness into the results that any error would be insignificant. Instead, these scientists have decided to adjust the raw data to add a warming trend of almost a tenth of a degree centigrade.

Next, they simply decided that the data coming from some satellites should be excluded.
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A river canyon on Mars

A river on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution significantly to show here, was taken by the Themis camera on Mars Odyssey, and shows an unnamed canyon on Mars. Be sure to click on the image to see the full resolution version.

This canyon of course no longer has anything flowing in it. Moreover, it is not clear whether this was formed by water or lava. Unfortunately, the image is part of a series of “Art images” from Mars Odyssey, where they pick an image and suggest it looks like something else. In this case, they are claiming this looks like a “snake, slithering down the image.” Cute, but not very helpful. And unfortunately, they don’t add any further details at all about the image or its location. The context image suggests this canyon is next to a volcano.

After doing further research at the Themis image site, I was able to locate this image on Mars (using latitude 32.0515 and longitude 152.236 given at the link) and look at the images surrounding this one. Further research identified the volcano as Hecates Tholus in the Elyesium Plantia region to the west of Mars’s giant volcanoes.

Looking at all the nearby Mars Odyssey images, it appears that there are a lot of flows like this in this area, and all of them appear to be lava flows, with this one being the largest. A close look at the area just to the south of where the deep canyon opens out shows that the small surface flow draining into the canyon also appears to sit on much larger surface flows (at least two) that left the surface higher than the surrounding terrain.

Elyesium Plantia itself is a plateau, somewhat close to the border between Mars’s southern highlands and the northern plains where some scientists think an ocean might have once existed. Thus, it makes sense that the canyon drains north, as it is following the dip down to those northern low plains.

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Mars rover update: June 23, 2017

Summary: Curiosity continues up hill. Opportunity has wheel problems.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The march up Mt Sharp continues. Since my last update on May 15, Curiosity has continued working its way up towards what the science team has named Vera Rubin Ridge, the beginning of a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the mountain’s slope. They have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, so entering this new layer of geology is eagerly anticipated by the science team. (This October 3, 2016 press release. gives an overall picture of the geology Curiosity is traversing.)

Reader Phil Veerkamp sent me a beautiful panorama he stitched together from recent Curiosity images of Vera Rubin Ridge, directly to the south of the rover and higher up hill. Below is a reduced resolution version. Be sure you click on it to explore the full resolution image. This is a new type of terrain, significantly different than anything Curiosity has seen up to now. It also appears that the rover will see far less dust, and might be traveling mostly over solid boulders. Below I have cropped out a very small section of the ridge line near the center of the full image, just to illustrate this.
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It’s the hate, not the violence

The last few days have probably been the ugliest I have ever seen in American culture. Not only was an attempt made to commit mass murder against a group of Republican elected officials, the response from too many mainstream Democrats has generally been tone deaf and even supportive of the violence. Worse, the violence appears to be on-going, with no sign of relief.

My list is hardly complete. The stories above are only a small sampling of the ugly stuff I have read since the shooting on June 14. The best I have seen from some Democrats is a hint that maybe they have let their rhetoric get out of hand, but even here they often backtrack to blame Republicans and only Republicans for the shooting.

Are Republicans innocent here? No. The coarseness of language and increasing anger I have seen from both sides in the past six months has been appalling. Rather than respond strongly but intelligently and with civility, too many Republicans have decided they can be as harsh and as coarse and as vicious as the Democrats.

Nonetheless, the bulk of the coarseness and viciousness and violence falls mainly to the Democratic and liberal side of the political spectrum. You need only scan this list of attacks against conservatives since in the past year, many of which I have noted here on Behind the Black. The left has been getting increasingly violent, with no protest by the left’s leaders in the Democratic Party. Even an attempted mass murder seems insufficient to cause much horror or shame in Democratic and leftwing circles.

The key to all this however is the single word I have highlighted in the fourth headline link above. That word is “hate.” What is motivating all of this violence and ugliness is hate, a blind irrational emotion that now prevents these people from looking at reality coolly. Trump is “evil.” He is a “nazi.” He is an “anti-Semite.” He is “racist.” He wants to “kill sick people.”

None of this is true. Trump is surely not the most ideal person to be our president at this moment of time, but he is also not any of the terrible things the left is accusing him of being.

Facts and rational thought however no longer matter to the left. They hate, and their hatred can now be used to justify almost any act, including an attempt at mass murder. This is beyond the pale, and it is turning the left into everything it has said it opposes for the past century: bigoted, hateful, violent, and oppressive. They had better cool their minds down a bit or else they will find themselves in the middle of hellstorm, targets themselves, with no way to control it.

One more thought. Right after the Tucson attack on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, I noted the disgusting inflammatory language of the left. They demanded civility from conservatives, while simultaneous calling for their murder. I said then that they had better tone down their rhetoric or face a firestorm that they themselves might not survive.

This behavior must stop. Violent and angry rhetoric can and will cause violence. And it probably has, considering the fact that a large number of the random violent acts in recent years have actually been committed by deranged individuals with liberal, not conservative, leanings. This is not to say that I blame the left for this violence, but that the left has as much of a responsibility as the right to think carefully about what it says, before it says it. Otherwise, they might find that they have made their less rational followers more angry than they ever imagined, or can control.

Or as Michael York says to his Nazi friend at the end of this scene from the 1972 movie, Cabaret. “You still think you can control them?”

We are now six and a half years later, and instead of toning down their rhetoric, the left has escalated it to violence and murder. They have embraced their hate, and it is making them insane.

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Using math to protect the Washington power structure

What could possible go wrong? A group of mathematicians have written software designed to prevent the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and are offering that software as a weapon for the courts to force states to revise the districts, even though those districts were created by fairly elected state legislatures.

Leaning back in his chair, Jonathan Mattingly swings his legs up onto his desk, presses a key on his laptop and changes the results of the 2012 elections in North Carolina. On the screen, flickering lines and dots outline a map of the state’s 13 congressional districts, each of which chooses one person to send to the US House of Representatives. By tweaking the borders of those election districts, but not changing a single vote, Mattingly’s maps show candidates from the Democratic Party winning six, seven or even eight seats in the race. In reality, they won only four — despite earning a majority of votes overall.

Mattingly’s election simulations can’t rewrite history, but he hopes they will help to support democracy in the future — in his state and the nation as a whole. The mathematician, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has designed an algorithm that pumps out random alternative versions of the state’s election maps — he’s created more than 24,000 so far — as part of an attempt to quantify the extent and impact of gerrymandering: when voting districts are drawn to favour or disfavour certain candidates or political parties.

There are numerous problems here, all of which center on my basic disbelief in the non-partisan objectivity of these scientists and their work.

First, note the first example used. Mattingly proudly shows how his software demonstrates that Democrats could have won more districts in North Carolina. In fact, if you read the article, he claims that the district revisions produced by his software (producing more victorious Democrats) creates fairer districts than the districts created by the state’s fairly elected Republican legislature. Moreover, it was the Republican redistricting that prompted this mathematician to write the software.

Funny how he never felt compelled to do this when it was Democrats controlling the legislatures and gerrymandering the congressional districts to their benefit.

Second, he has offered this software to the courts as evidence to overrule the redistricting done by fairly elected legislatures. In other words, this software will be used to justify letting unelected experts decide how congressional districts should be shaped, not elected officials picked by voters.

Third, note who has expressed interest in using this mathematician as a witness to win its lawsuits:
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Washington rallies around the Outer Space Treaty

Yesterday Senator Ted Cruz (D-Texas) held the second in what he says will be a series of hearings on the future government regulation of the commercial space industry. The specific focus of this hearing was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and its effect on private enterprise.

The hearing saw two panels of witnesses, the first three legal experts on the Outer Space Treaty, the second four industry experts from a variety of private space businesses.

Like the first hearing on April 27, the witnesses this time were once again unanimous in their call for a simplification of the present regulatory arrangement. They also emphasized repeatedly that private enterprise should not be required by Congress to get permission to do things in space. Instead, Congress should merely provide regulation that will facilitate private enterprise while helping them avoid interfering with each other.

Unlike the first hearing, however, the atmosphere was decidedly less interested in improving the overall international regulatory framework created under the Outer Space Treaty. Instead, the witnesses in unison were supportive of the treaty and did not want the U.S. to either pull out of it or try to change it. All advocated the position that the treaty as written allowed the U.S. to regulate private businesses in a manner that could protect property rights in space.

As I watched the hearing I was struck by this unity of position. To me, it appeared that the Washington elitist community was circling its wagons in order to protect the status quo.

The witnesses from the business community appeared afraid of the consequences of any effort to change the Outer Space Treaty. As Mike Gold, Vice President of Space Systems Loral, noted,
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Trump budget released only to be immediately trashed

Today the Trump administration released its proposed 2018 budget for the federal government. Here is a good article on what that budget proposed for NASA.

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget request includes $19.1 billion for NASA, a $561 million decrease over previously enacted levels that would reduce the number of Earth science missions, eliminate the agency’s education office and do away with the Obama administration’s plans to robotically retrieve a piece of an asteroid as a precursor to eventual flights to Mars.

The budget closely reflects the administration’s blueprint, released in March, and overall, NASA’s acting administrator said America’s space program remains healthy and suffered relatively modest cuts compared to other federal agencies.

Though the NASA budget did include the cancellation of a handful of Earth Science projects as well as a cut in the Earth science budget, those cuts were nowhere near what had been hinted at previously.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism about global warming and its presumed causes and impacts and as expected, the budget eliminates funding for five Earth science missions and instruments. Earth science would receive $1.8 billion overall, reflecting a reduction of nearly $170 million. “The hard choices are still there, and we can’t do everything,” Lightfoot said. But the budget “still includes significant Earth science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”

That’s a reduction of less than 10% in the total Earth science budget, hardly a catastrophe. The overall budget proposal was a little more daring, calling for a 30% cut at the EPA, and a 16% cut at Commerce, mostly in NOAA.

What does this all mean? Nothing. A president’s budget proposal is generally only a statement of desires. It has no force of law. Congress decides how to spend money, and the Republicans controlling this Congress are not really interested in cutting anything. In fact, the pigs have already begun to squeal, including a complete rejection of the budget by many Republican leaders in Congress.

‘President Trump’s $603 billion defense budget request is inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law, and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress,’ said Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The administration didn’t seem to signal its own vote of confidence by releasing the document during President Trump’s first overseas trip.

Longtime GOP Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, a longtime appropriator, declared proposed cuts to safety net and environmental proposals ‘draconian.’

‘I don’t think the president’s budget is going anywhere,’ said Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, asked if he’s concerned about the message sent by slashing the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

That’s only a sampling. Essentially, these Republicans have no interest in gaining control of the out-of-control federal budget. They like having that budget out-of-control, as it feeds money to their friends and partners whom then line their pockets with campaign contributions.

I should note that I fully expect Trump to bow to their demands, and back off. When it has come to budget matters, he has so far shown no stomach for the fight.

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The bigotry that dominates today’s colleges

I have been collecting stories over the past two weeks that highlight the horrible spread of bigotry and prejudice, based merely on race, on many of today’s college campuses. Here are a few of those stories.

This list includes colleges in numerous states, from ivy league institutions to public colleges and private universities. Worse, in every case it appears that the school administrations either actively support the bigotry, condone it, or passively do nothing to oppose it.

This list of course is hardly complete. However, I compiled it to illustrate that the daily stories coming from today’s college campuses illustrate a frightening trend that can be seen across the entire country. What is horrifying is that I compiled it in just a little over a week. I have no doubt that should I continue compiling the list I will find that the list of colleges supporting this bigoted behavior, almost all of which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act (not to mention morally repugnant), will grow significantly. I expect that every college in the United States that takes federal dollars is dominated by this race-based hate. Worse, that hate is growing and becoming more violent and fearless in its blatant desire to oppress those it hates.

The time has come to cut off all tax dollars to these places. Donations from alumni should cease. Parents should refuse to send their children there.

If we do not stand up against this evil, it will soon consume us. The warning signs are there. And it has happened before. We will have no one to blame but ourselves if we do nothing.

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GAO: Cost and scheduling problems with many big NASA projects

A new Government Accountability Office audit [pdf] that reviewed 22 major NASA projects, including Orion and SLS, has found that many of them have significant scheduling and cost problems.

Let’s just go through them all:

  • SLS: “The SLS program’s schedule is deteriorating and it is at increased risk of exceeding its cost baseline and missing its November 2018 launch readiness date.”
  • Orion: “The Orion program is increasingly at risk of missing the November 2018 launch date for its first uncrewed exploration mission.”
  • Mars 2020: “The Mars 2020 project has not met key best practices for reducing product development risk.”
  • Asteroid Redirect Robot Mission (ARRM): “In August 2016, the ARRM project entered the preliminary design and technology completion phase with a higher cost and longer schedule than previously estimated.”
  • Europa Clipper: “At the project’s most recent decision review, its independent review board stated that it was at risk of exceeding its preliminary cost and schedule ranges unless its scope or complexity was reduced.”
  • Ground Systems (EGS) upgrade: “The EGS program’s schedule is deteriorating and it is at increased risk of exceeding its cost baseline and missing its November 2018 launch readiness date.”
  • ICESat-2: “The ICESat-2 project has encountered problems with the flight lasers in its sole instrument—the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS)—that will likely cause it to miss its committed launch date and could cause it to exceed its current cost baseline.”
  • InSight: “The InSight project missed its committed launch date of March 2016 and exceeded its cost baseline due to technical issues with its primary science payload—the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument—which is contributed by the French space agency (CNES).”
  • Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICE): “The ICON project has experienced technical issues and delays in system integration and testing, but it still on track to launch in July 2017—3 months earlier than its committed launch date.”
  • James Webb Space Telescope: “In December 2016, we found that the primary threat to the JWST project continues to be the ability of the observatory development and integration contractor, Northrop Grumman, to control its costs.”
  • Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI): “NASA’s joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis indicated that the likelihood of the project meeting the date is low and the project’s independent review board described the schedule as optimistic when compared to similar instruments. … The RBI project’s prime contractor Harris continues to experience cost overruns.”
  • Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS): “The SGSS project has exceeded the new cost and schedule baseline NASA set for it in June 2015 and further cost and schedule growth is likely.”

Not all the projects audited were a disaster. GRACE-FO, Landsat-9, NISA, Solar Probe Plus, SWOT, TESS, and WFIRST have few significant problems, though even with these there have been delays with each project still facing significant cost and scheduling risks.

As for Commercial Crew, the audit notes delays and problems, but these appear to be mostly linked to the bureaucratic and somewhat unjustified demands by NASA for increased safety, such as the agency’s refusal to accept the use of the Atlas 5 with a Russian first stage engine and its concerns about SpaceX’s plans to fuel the rocket with astronauts on-board (even though astronauts have been aboard fueled rockets with every other manned launch for the entire history of space exploration).

Overall, this audit does not speak well of either NASA’s management or the contractors with whom the agency has routinely worked. Space engineering is hard, but many of these problems seem more related to either incompetence or a willingness of NASA to forgive bad work too often. The number of contractors or government agencies listed here who have failed entirely at their jobs is appalling.

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Mars rover update: May 15, 2017

This update could also be entitled, “Up and down into Martian gullies,” as that is what both rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are presently focused on doing.

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1696 (May 12, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past month, since my previous April 21, 2017 update, Curiosity has been working its way up the dry wash, frequently stopping to inspect the rocky surface terrain within. As they note,

As we climb up Mount Sharp, recently over slopes of 4-6 degrees, we have seen more varied outcrop structures and chemistries than the rest of the Murray formation, and such changes catch the collective eye of the team.

Only in the last week have they shifted to the east, as planned. Their near term goal is the lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the slope of Mount Sharp. As they have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, I am certain the science team is even more eager to get to this different layer of geology to find out what it is made of and why it is there.

You can get an overall view of the geology Curiosity is traversing from this October 3, 2016 press release. Below is a version of the traverse map shown at that site that I posted as part of my October 6, 2016 rover update, updated to show Curiosity’s present location. It is apparent that Curiosity is finally moving out of the foothills below Mount Sharp and beginning its climb up the mountain’s actual slopes.
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The press begins to turn against SLS

This report by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, describing the press teleconference today where NASA announced that they would not fly humans on the first SLS flight in 2019, reveals a significant political change.

In the past, most mainstream reporters would routinely accept NASA’s announcements about SLS. If the agency said it was great, their stories would wax poetic about how great it was. If NASA said its greatness was causing a delay, their stories would laud NASA had how well it was doing dealing with SLS’s greatness, even though that greatness was forcing another delay. Never, and I mean never, would NASA or these reporters ever talk about the project’s overall and ungodly cost.

This press conference was apparently quite different. The press had lots of questions about SLS and its endless delays. They had lots of questions about its costs. And most significant, they had lots of questions for NASA about why the agency is having so much trouble building this rocket, when two private companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are building something comparable for a tenth the money in about half the time.

During the teleconference, Ars asked Gerstenmaier to step back and take a big-picture look at the SLS rocket. Even with all of the funding—about $10 billion through next year—how was the agency likely to miss the original deadline by as much as three years, if not more?

“I don’t know,” Gerstenmaier replied. “I don’t know—I would just say it’s really kind of the complexity of what we’re trying to go do, and to build these systems. We weren’t pushing state-of-the-art technology, like main engines sitting underneath the rocket or new solid rocket boosters. But we were pushing a lot of new manufacturing, and I think that new manufacturing has caused some of the delays we’ve seen. No one welds the way that we’re welding material at the thicknesses we’re welding.”

…Later, the NASA officials were asked about private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are also building heavy-lift rockets but at a very limited cost to taxpayers. What would they have to say about just buying those vehicles off the shelf, at significantly lower cost than an SLS launch, and preserving NASA’s funds to execute in-space missions?

Gerstnmaier’s explanations for SLS’s delays and costs, that it is a very complex and advanced piece of rocket engineering, is total bunk. This was supposed to be an upgraded Saturn 5, but it will only be able to lift about 70% of the payload. It is using the actual shuttle engines, and upgraded shuttle solid rocket boosters. While new engineering was required to refit these for SLS, none of that should have been so hard or expensive.

The key here is that members of the press are finally aware of this, and are asking the right questions. With Falcon Heavy about to launched multiple times before SLS even launches once, the continuation of this boondoggle is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

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The soft avalanches of Mars

Krupac Crater gullies

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution to show here, shows the gullies flowing down Krupac Crater on Mars. Be sure to check out the original, released today by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team, since they have enhanced the colors to bring out the sandy flows, noting as well that while most of these gullies are found in higher latitudes, this crater at 7.8 latitude has them as well.

Although large gullies (ravines) are concentrated at higher latitudes, there are gullies on steep slopes in equatorial regions. An enhanced-color closeup shows part of the rim and inner slope of Krupac Crater located just 7.8 degrees south of the equator.

The colors of the gully deposits match the colors of the eroded source materials. Krupac is a relatively young impact crater, but exposes ancient bedrock. Krupac Crater also hosts some of the most impressive recurring slope lineae (RSL) on equatorial Mars outside of Valles Marineris.

Below I have cropped out a small section showing, at full resolution, the termination point of one of these flows, indicating where this section is on the larger image to the right. This avalanche is clearly not liquid, though it has a very sandy and soft nature, suggesting — as some scientists have theorized — that liquid from below the surface might have played a part in its flow.

It is important in looking at these images to repeatedly remind yourself that the gravity here is about one third that of Earth, and thus the angle of repose will be different, and that avalanches will behave very differently in this environment. Moreover, Mars’s far colder climate will also effect things. The avalanche we are looking at could not happen in this way on Earth.

close-up of flow

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The coming fascism

This post will be a very pessimistic one. In the last twenty-four hours I watched two different videos, both of which illustrated the growing close-mindedness in American society. On one hand we watch while a high school assistant principal does everything he can to not talk reasonably to two students holding signs opposed to abortion. First he tries to get them to leave, claiming they don’t have the right to stand there (they do, as it is a public street and there is something called the first amendment protecting their right to speak). Then he accuses them of harassing people, which it is very clear from the video they are doing no such thing. Finally, he stands there trying to prevent others from seeing their signs, while yelling “La-la-la-la-la-la-la!” loudly to keep others (and himself) from hearing what they say. He really does this.

On the other we have a detailed video report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) about the alarming hostility to free speech at Tufts University. This quote from the video struck me as downright terrifying for our future:

The climate at Tufts embodies several trends FIRE has seen growing in recent years. There is a shift away from the heavy-handed administrators posing the biggest threat to free speech on campus. Now the loudest calls for censorship are coming from the students themselves. … And in some cases like we saw first hand at Tufts, students are equating offensive or uncomfortable speech with violence. [emphasis mine]

Both videos are embedded below the fold. Please spend the time to watch both. I think you will be equally terrified. The left not only can no longer tolerate listening to any dissenting opinions, they have created a culture and mindset among the younger generation that makes dissent and freedom of speech downright impossible. And both the adults and the students of this intolerant culture are moving with increasing aggressiveness to try to shut down any opposing speech, sometimes with outright violence.
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Space, regulation, the Outer Space Treaty, and yesterday’s Senate hearing

Yesterday the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce committee held a hearing, organized by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), entitled “Reopening the American Frontier: Reducing Regulatory Barriers and Expanding American Free Enterprise in Space.”

You can watch the hearing here. There have also been a number of stories last night and today that summarized the testimony during this hearing.

Having watched the full hearing, I think that most of these stories did not capture well the full political context and significance of yesterday’s event. They focused on Cruz’s advocacy for private space and the call for less and more streamlined regulation by the witnesses. They missed a great deal else.
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A look at some Israeli West Bank settlements

As my regular readers know, I periodically take trips to Israel to visit family. When I return, I then post my impressions and what I have learned, thereby providing an eye-witness perspective to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Previous essays from earlier visits are as follows, with the first five from my 2013 visit and the last from my visit in 2014.:

Map of the West Bank settlements that I have visited

Having just returned from another visit, I have some new impressions. Above all, I think it worthwhile to note that in all these visits, I have routinely stayed with relatives who live in West Bank settlements. In fact, I have now visited or stayed in five different settlements. The map on the right shows the locations of these settlements, marked with an X. If you click on the image you can see a higher resolution version.

Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of the settlement from my 2003 visit, though I know it was west of Hebron. It might have been Carmel, but I am not sure. I do know I have indicated its location with reasonable accuracy.

Regardless, there are a number of things we can learn from my visits. The largest settlements, Alon Shvut, Kiryat Sefer, and Beitar, are all close to the 1949 Armistice border. They are also all relatively close to Jerusalem and thus act for many as suburbs of that larger city. As I wrote in 2013,
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Mars rover update: April 21, 2017

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1664 (April 10, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my previous February 14, 2017 update, Curiosity has worked its way through the dunes and has emerged, as planned at the head of what looks like a dry wash flowing down from Mount Sharp. At the time I had predicted that the science team would then have the rover make a beeline to Mount Sharp, following the smoothest route. That prediction is almost certainly wrong. Instead, the scientists are probably going to have the rover zig-zag its way south into the dry wash so that they can study the geology there. This is what they have been doing, as shown on the traverse map to the right, which shows Curiosity’s location through Sol 1664 (April 10). Ideally I expect them to want to check out the flow areas of the central parts of the wash as well as the contact point on either side where the color of the terrain changes from dark to light. This appears to be what they doing now, two weeks later, based on this update posted yesterday.

The 23 m drive on Sol 1673 put Curiosity alongside Murray bedrock blocks that appeared to be capped with a different material, with a darker color and smoother texture relative to the Murray

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