Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

The storms of Jupiter

The storms of Jupiter

Cool image time! The image on the right, taken by Juno during its fifth close fly-by of Jupiter in late March and cropped to post here, shows two of the major storms in what I think is one of Jupiter’s main large mid-latitude belts. The full image, posted below in a significantly reduced form but annotated by me to indicate the location of the inset, covers a much larger area, but I have specifically zoomed into these two storms to highlight how large these storms are as well as how much detail is hidden within them.

In the bright spot in particular (officially called A6 by planetary scientists) you can see a hint of the existence of innumerable mini-storms. Juno’s camera does not have the resolution to image these smaller storms, but this image suggests that the gas giant’s atmosphere is far far far more complex than we can yet imagine.

Full image of Jupiter reduced and annotated

Unfortunately, these images do not provide a scale. Based on a global image taken by Juno in October 2016 and matching the gas giant’s major horizontal bands, the annotated full image strip on the left appears to cover a little less than a third of Jupiter, from about 10 degrees latitude to about 50 degrees latitude. From this I estimate that if we put the Earth in the inset image it would probably be only slightly larger than the image itself, which means these two storms would cover most of one hemisphere.

In other words, the mini-storms inside the big bright oval are still larger than the biggest hurricanes on Earth, and they are packed together inside a much larger planet-sized storm.

What should fill us with even more awe is that this only covers a very thin slice of the top of Jupiter’s deep atmosphere. The planet itself is about 89,000 miles in diameter, more than ten times larger than Earth. The depth of its atmosphere is not really known, but it must be deeper than several Earths, piled on top of each other. In that depth there must be many atmospheric layers, each thicker and denser than the one above, and each with its own weather systems and complexities.

It will take centuries of research, including the development of new engineering capable of accessing this place, to even begin to map out its meteorology. And this is only one gas giant, of what we now know must be millions and millions throughout the galaxy.

If we have the nerve and daring, the human race has the opportunity to go out there and never be bored. There will always be something unknown to discover.


Another Grand Canyon tour

On the Tonto Platform

Because I live in southern Arizona, I take advantage of this location to make an annual trip to the Grand Canyon. On my previous trips I’ve talked about the right way to hike the canyon (slowly!) and then provided some suggestions for proper preparation.

This time I am simply going to suggest two hikes. One is very easy and should be done by every visitor to the south rim. The other hike is for those who go to the bottom, and reserve themselves one day there for a day hike.
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A tour of Vector Space Systems

Jim Cantrell and cars

[UPDATE: I have been informed by Vector’s PR department that they have recently changed the company’s name, dropping “Space Systems” from the title. I can’t really change the title here, but I thought I note this fact for my readers.]

Today I got a quick tour of Vector Space System’s very blue collar but active rocket factory in Tucson, Arizona. My tour guide was Jim Cantrell, the CEO of the company.

Cantrell, shown on the right in front of one of his side businesses fixing and refurbishing race cars and rare luxury sports cars (also located in this factory), started out with a love of race cars, which he still builds and races. As he said to me, “Long endurance car racing is still my thing.”

However, he has also spent his life in the space business. He has worked for government agencies and numerous private businesses, including SpaceX at its very beginning. Vector Space Systems is an effort put together by him and several other people to capture the smallsat market, a market he truly believes is going to explode with activity in the coming years. If things go as he wishes, they hope to launch at least one hundred times a year, from multiple launch sites. Their goal is simplicity and quick turnaround at an inexpensive cost.

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County. The image below is the first stage of that first test rocket.

Vector test first stage

Vector first stage engine

second test rocket

For this flight their main goal is to test the engine, which Cantrell is showing me in the picture to the right. I was astonished at how small and simple the engine was. In fact, the rocket itself was amazingly small. It looked like it could almost fit inside a typical moving truck.

Below and to the right is the first stage for their second test flight, presently being assembled. They hope it will be ready for flight in only a few weeks after the first flight. They plan five suborbital test flights, with the last capable of getting about 90% to orbit. Along the way they will test their avionics, the rocket’s balancing systems, and its computer and tanks. Once these tests are complete they will then move to testing the orbital version in 2018.

Obviously, all this depends on every test flight being successful. But then, even if something goes wrong they will learn something and move on. For example, they recently transported an engineering version of the rocket to the visitor center at Kennedy. As Cantrell explained, “We learned things new just making that move.”

bumper sticker

In the end, I think the bumper sticker to the right, attached to the window of Vector Space System’s office, sums everything up. The people at Vector want to make money in space, but they — like everyone in the space business — also love making rockets and engines and going fast. What better combination from life could you ask for?


Washington Bubble fights back against Capitalism in Space

The response to my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, has been not surprisingly mixed. Eric Berger at Ars Technica wrote a reasonable analysis that focused on the absurdly high overhead costs of SLS/Orion. There have also been a number of critical reviews, one in Forbes and a second today in the print edition of Space News.

Both have tried to discredit the facts I have put forth about the ungodly cost of SLS/Orion, when compared to commercial space, without actually citing any incorrect facts in my paper. The truth is that everything I have written is true. This graph from my paper remains fundamental:

Table 5 from Capitalism in Space

SLS/Orion is costing four times as much, is taking more than twice as long to build, and is producing one tenth the operational flights. It is essentially a pork-laden jobs program that has no ability to get the United States anywhere in space. It might be an engineering marvel, but the cost is so high and its operational abilities so slow (one flight per year, at best) that it will never be a reliable and effective tool for exploring the solar system.

Meanwhile, private enterprise is getting innovative new rockets off the ground, for far less money, and repeatedly. If we want to settle the solar system, they are providing us the only viable way to do it.

People must recognize that these attacks are essentially the bubble of Washington working to protect its financial and intellectual interests. A lot of people in DC depend on keeping the faucet of government spending flowing to SLS/Orion, even if those projects accomplish nothing. In the case of the attacks from academics, they don’t like the fact that I am an outsider and not beholden to them. Moreover, they are instinctively appalled by the idea of allowing capitalism and freedom to operate freely, without their guiding hands controlling things. Such thoughts must be attacked and squelched (if possible), in order to protect their interests.

That they don’t seem to care that much about the interests of the American people and the country is quite revealing however. As some have said repeatedly, this is how you got Trump.


Capitalism in Space:
Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry

After much delay and discussion, my policy paper for the Center for a New American Security, Capitalism in Space: Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry, has finally been published.

You can download the pdf here or at the Center here. Please feel free to distribute this widely. If you visit other websites please pass it on to them. This should be read by as many people as possible, especially since the space policy of the Trump administration remains at present undecided. This policy paper will help them work out a wise policy, with the paper’s key data point contained in this table:

SLS vs Commercial space

I document my numbers very carefully. The result illustrates clearly how much a failure the government model has been and continues to be. We have spent a lot of money since the 1970s on NASA and space, and have generally gotten very little for that investment, as demonstrated by the comparison between the accomplishments of private and government space in the past two decades. Going forward it is going to be very difficult for SLS/Orion to compete with the heavy lift rockets coming from SpaceX and Blue Origin.

My concluding words:
» Read more


Trump budget proposal

The Trump administration today released its overall rough budget plan for 2018. This is not a detailed budget, but an summary of their plan, indicating where they wish to cut and where they wish to increase budgets. The proposal is also not complete, making no mention of the administration’s budget plans for many departments, such as the National Science Foundation.

Science research in the federal government is significantly impacted, but not as badly as most of the articles you will read in the mainstream anti-Trump, Democratic Party press. A few examples:

I must note that not all the news stories are blindly hostile to this budget proposal:

Of all the science agencies, NASA probably came off with the least change. The budget cuts only about 5% from the agency’s Earth science budget, while cutting some specific Earth science missions. The budget also supports SLS/Orion, though it finally puts the nail in the coffin of the asteroid redirect mission, an Obama proposal that has never garnered any interest from anyone else.

The Trump budget proposal in context

The key to understanding all these budget cuts is to see them in context, to compare the 2018 proposed budgets with the budgets these agencies received in the past. The table on the right gives some of this context (numbers shown are in millions) for several of the science agencies most effected by the proposal. The proposal is not detailed enough to pin down the changes for many other science agencies, but from this table it is clear that the Trump administration is not calling for the end of science, and is proposing some reasonable cost cutting, something that has been rare in government for many years.

What will be missed by most of the press about this Trump budget proposal is that it is not trying to trim the size of the federal government. While it cuts spending in many departments, those cuts are entirely aimed at providing room to raise the budget of the Defense Department by $54 billion. While I can applaud the desire of the Trump administration to be revenue neutral, the stark fact remains that by remaining revenue neutral Trump still leaves us with a gigantic annual federal deficit. They have made no effort to balance the overall budget.

Worse, this proposal would repeal the Budget Control Act of 2011, which imposed sequestration to the federal budget and has actually done the most in the past half century to bring that budget under control. Once this act is repealed, it will allow the spenders in Congress (of which the Republicans are as guilty as the Democrats) to open the floodgates once again. This will not be good.

Let me add one good aspect of the Trump budget. It proposes to eliminate a whole range of government political agencies that accomplish nothing but provide pork or to propagandize the Democratic Party’s positions:

The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for other independent agencies, including: the African Development Foundation; the Appalachian Regional Commission; the Chemical Safety Board; the Corporation for National and Community Service; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the Delta Regional Authority; the Denali Commission; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Inter-American Foundation; the U.S. Trade and Development Agency; the Legal Services Corporation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation; the Northern Border Regional Commission; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; the United States Institute of Peace; the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Getting these eliminated will at least be a start to cleaning up the mess in Washington.


At the crest

Looking north at the crest

Cool images time! The image above, cropped and reduced to show here, is a panorama that I have created from the most recent images sent down from Opportunity yesterday. The rover sits on the crest of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama looks north at that crest, back in the direction where the rover has come. The rovers tracks can be seen fading away into the distance slightly to the left of the crestline..If you click on the picture you can see the full resolution image.

The crater floor is to the right, the plains that surround the crater are to the left.

Below is another panorama, created by me from the same images sent down today, this time looking south at the crest in the direction Opportunity is heading. Once again, if you click on the picture you can see the full resolution version.

The full set of today’s images from Opportunity suggest that the science team took them to assemble a full 360 degree panorama before they begin the journey south to the gully that is just now becoming visible at the southernmost edge of the most recent overhead traverse image. To get to that gully they will now have to descend off the crest and down outside the rim of Endeavour Crater, moving to the right in the panorama below. This is therefore their last opportunity for awhile to get a good view from a high overlook.

Looking south at the crest


Cuts to NOAA, EPA, and the environmental bureaucracy

Two articles today outline some of the proposed cuts the Trump administration is considering for the EPA and NOAA and their generally bloated and politicized administrative bureaucracies.

The first article focuses on the proposed cuts to the EPA, which would reduce the overall budget to that agency by about 25%.

The Trump administration wants to cut spending by EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) by more than 40% from roughly $510 million to $290 million, according to sources that have seen preliminary directives from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The cuts target scientific work in fields including climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. EPA’s $50 million external grant program for environmental scientists at universities would disappear altogether. Such erasures represent just part of a larger plan to shrink EPA’s budget by 25% to $6.1 billion, and cut its workforce by 20% to 12,400 employees, in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October.

The second article focuses on proposed cuts aimed at NOAA and within the Commerce Department, with cuts in specific departments ranging from 5% to 26%, with an overall cut to NOAA of 17%.
» Read more


The tampering of climate data at NOAA and NASA

data tampering at NASA

Last week there was the another Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. One presentation there by several important climate skeptics outlined in detail the data tampering that has been going on at an increasingly outrageous manner at both NOAA and NASA in recent years. The slides presented by Tony Heller (available here [pdf]), many of which I have highlighted previously here at Behind the Black, are especially educational and damning.

To the right is just one of Heller’s slides, the one that I find the most damning of all. It shows how the surface data issued by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), the two green lines, does not match the satellite data at all. While the satellite data shows no warming this entire century, the GISS data shows steady rising in the surface data. Other slides by Heller show that this rise comes solely from data adjustments and the extrapolation of imagined temperature data in places where no data exists, neither of which has been explained in any manner by the scientists at GISS.

What is most damning however is the change Heller documents between GISS’s November 2016 and December 2016 data sets. For reasons that are simply unjustified by any scientific measure, GISS somehow found it necessary to adjust its entire data set upward in one month about 0.03 of a degree. The only reason I can find for such a change in such a short period of time is a desire by the scientists at GISS to create the illusion that the climate is warming, and warming fast. They don’t have any real data to show this, so they make it up.

Make sure you look at all of Heller’s slides [pdf]. It is also definitely worthwhile to spend the time to watch the entire CPAC presentation, available at the first link above.


The consequences of leftwing censorship

Two stories today illustrate the consequences, both good and bad, of the left’s effort to stifle free speech on campuses:

The first story describes how a California law banning any university interaction with four states that have passed anti-transgender bathroom laws (laws that prevent men who are making believe they are women from entering women’s bathrooms) has prevented three California debate teams from attending the nationals.

This week the nation’s top debate coaches released their recognition of the top collegiate policy debate teams. This exceptional group of sixteen teams receives pre-bids to the National Debate Tournament at the end of March and will have strong potential toward winning the national title in debate at the tournament to be held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Two of the nation’s top teams that made this elite selection are from Berkeley, a campus recently racked by violent demands for the suppression of free speech. Incredibly, Berkeley’s teams and one other team from California who made the cut, will not attend the National Debate Tournament. That is because the state of California has banned all university related personnel from traveling to four states around the nation: Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi, on the specious grounds that these states have all passed “anti-LGBT legislation.” All debate teams from California state schools are practically banned from attending the national debate tournaments being held in the state of Kansas in March.

In other words, the intolerance by California to all alternative points of view has succeeded in literally shutting down all debate. As the author notes,
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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more


Capitalism in Space to be released early next week

After several months of delay for a variety of reasons that I do not need to go into, my policy paper for the Center of New American Security has gone to the printers will be released to the public early next week. The title: Capitalism in Space: Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry.

I will have the pdf of this paper available here on Behind the Black the instant it is available. To give everyone a taste, here are my concluding words:

A close look at these recommendations will reveal one common thread. Each is focused on shifting power and regulatory authority away from the federal government and increasing the freedom of American companies to act as they see fit to meet the demands of the market. The key word that defines this common thread is freedom, a fundamental principle that has been aspired to since the nation’s founding. Political leaders from both parties have made the concept a central core tenet of American policy. Democrat John Kennedy stated that his commitment to go to the Moon was a “stand for freedom” in the Cold War. Republican Ronald Reagan proposed “Freedom” as the name for the new space station, and viewed it as a platform for promoting private enterprise in space.

Freedom is actually a very simple idea. Give people and companies the freedom to act, in a competitive environment that encourages intelligent and wise action, and they will respond intelligently and wisely.

The United States’ history proves that freedom can work. It is time that it prove it again, in space.


Mars rover update: February 14, 2017


Ireson Hill, Sol 1604

Dune fields

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

Taking a close look at rock

Since my last update in January, Curiosity done more or less what I predicted. It headed southwest through the dune area and then made a side trip to the small mesa there, dubbed Ireson Hill by the Curiosity science team and shown on the right. They then made an additional side trip past the hill to get a close look a the large sandy dune field beyond, also shown on the right. After getting some nice closeups as well as scooping up some sand for observation, they have now gone back to Ireson Hill to get another close look at the dark rocks that have rolled off the top of the hill and are now in reach at its base. The image on the left shows the arm positioned above one of those rocks.

The drill remains out of commission, with no word when they will try using it again. In addition, there had been a problem with the ChemCam laser that does spectroscopic analysis, but as of this week it is back in action, and is being used to analysis the small rock above.

Below is an overview of their route so far as well as my annotations on where I think they will be heading in the future.
» Read more


Hunting Javelinas

A javelina

This past weekend I participated on my third hunt, the second in which I was carrying my own weapon with the possibility of making my own kill. (For my first hunting experience I only came along as an observer.) The goal was to find and shoot a javelina, a boarlike wild animal whose range covers the southwestern United States down into Central America.

The hunt itself was what Arizona Game and Fish calls a HAM hunt, specifically limited to the use of handguns, archery, or muzzleloaders. This means that the only long gun you can use must be loaded through the muzzle one shot at a time, use black powder, and function somewhat like an old-fashioned musket. My weapon of choice was the 1911 pistol I use for bullseye competition, with a red dot scope, a customized left-handed grip, a carefully adjusted trigger, and in general carefully adjusted to be as accurate as possible. With this gun, shooting 45 caliber ammo, I can hit the black bullseye 50 yards away shooting one-armed about 70% of the time. At shorter distances, using two hands, I can easily group my shots in a space less than a few inches across. (Such accuracy on my part is actually not very impressive. Among bullseye shooters I am about average. The public’s general belief that pistols are not accurate beyond 20 feet is simply wrong. Practice, make sure your gun functions as it should, and you will reliably be able to hit your target at 50 yards.)

Since I really have no knowledge about hunting, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this without some help. My mentor this weekend was a local friend, Gary Kessinger, who has been hunting for decades, has a number of record kills, and routinely comes home successfully from his hunts. When I mentioned to Gary my desire to learn more about hunting and see how it is done, he gladly offered to guide me through the process. He hadn’t hunted javelinas much in the past few years, but decided to get his own license or tag so that he could shoot one himself.

As I told Gary on Saturday morning, I am essentially a babe in the woods, and would do whatever he suggested. My attitude was that I was the equivalent of a 10-year-old on his first hunt. Anything I accomplished well would be a success, even if it was merely learning how to spot javelinas on a distant hillside using binoculars.
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Trump to the Moon!

Two stories in the past two days strongly suggest that the Trump administration is planning a two-pronged space policy approach, with the long-term goal of shifting most of space to private operations.

From the first link:

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month. Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA’s traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin. But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a “seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations.” “This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted,” it says.

Essentially, they are going to do exactly what I suggested back in late December, give SLS/Orion a short-term realistic goal of going to the Moon. This is what it was originally designed for, and it is the only technology presently available that has even the slightest chance of meeting the three year deadline outlined above. More important, this will give Congress something in the negotiations, as SLS/Orion has been Congress’s baby — pushed and funded by Congress over the objections of the previous administration and without a clear mission to go anywhere — in order to keep the money stream flowing to the big “Old Space” companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Obama tried to simply cancel its predecessor, Constellation, and that did not sit well with Congress. Trump however understands negotiation and how to play the game. In order to eventually eliminate SLS Trump is going to provide Congress some short term excitement and some viable long term alternatives.

The long term alternatives will be private enterprise. Even as they send SLS/Orion on its grand finale to the Moon, the Trump administration will accelerate the restructuring of NASA to make the agency less of a design and construction operation and more a mere customer of private space. All non-military Earth orbital operations will be shifted to the private sector over time, so that once SLS/Orion has achieved that goal of completing a lunar mission there will be a strong enough private space sector to replace it, allowing Congress to let it go the way of Apollo and the space shuttle.


The Sun turns

NOAA today posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for January. As I do every month, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

January 2017 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Since my last solar cycle update, sunspot activity showed a slight increase in activity when compared to the previous month. Overall, however, the ramp down from solar maximum continues to underperform the predictions, and suggests that this solar maximum will not only be a very weak one, but a short one as well.

January’s activity however illustrated a statistical phenomenon that is typical of the sunspot count. That count is determined not by the numbers of sunspots on the entire surface of the Sun, but on the sunspots visible on the side of the Sun facing the Earth. Since it is not unusual for one face to be more active than the other, as we transition from maximum to minimum the sunspot counts will often show a more pronounced up-and-down curve reflecting this fact. Since the Sun’s day equals about 27 Earth days, this means that about every two weeks the active side will dominate our view until it rotates away and the inactive side reveals itself for two weeks.

Silso daily sunspot graph, January to February 2017

This pattern was very evident in January, as shown by the graph on the right and obtained from here. During the first two weeks of the month the Sun was blank. Then that inactive face rotated out of view. For the next two weeks or so the sunspot count went up, then began to drop as the active face began to rotate out of view to be replaced by the blank face last seen in early January.

This pattern of course is very fluid, as at any time the inactive face can become more active and the active face less so. Nonetheless, for short periods covering one to three months it helps to partly explain the up-and-down pattern of sunspot fluctuations during this time period when large portions of the Sun’s face are blank.


Mars rover update: January 18, 2017


Curiosity's location, Sol 1582

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

In the past month, since my last rover update on December 22, 2016, Curiosity has begun moving again, carefully picking its way through the dune-filled flats in the foothills at the base of Mount Sharp. The route taken, shown on the image on the right, corresponds to the easternmost of the possible routes I noted in my November 14, 2016 update. This route is also the most direct route, which I think is smart considering that the rover’s life on Mars certainly uncertain and the higher they can climb the more geological information they will get.

I have also annotated the likely route into the near future, including a possible side trip to the base of the mesa up ahead. It appears to me that they are now a little more than halfway through the flats, with Mt. Sharp directly ahead, as shown by the panorama below, taken near the end of December. The goal is a canyon just out of view to the right of this panorama.

Looking at Mount Sharp

The flats the rover is presently traversing, and visible in the foreground of the panorama above, is strewn with dark sand that often piled into large sand dunes. Where the ground is exposed, it is made up of a scattering of pavement-like rocks. As noted in a press release yesterday, many of these flat rocks have polygonal cracks and boxwork similar to that seen in dried mud here on Earth, suggesting that this area was once wet and then dried. This geology helps confirm the theory of planetary scientists that Gale Crater was once filled with water that slowly evaporated away. As the rover climbs, it leaves the lakebed and begins to move through the lake’s various shores, each one older than the last.


For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.
» Read more


Launch industry trends, based on recent history

The worldwide competition to launch the most rockets each year, first noted by Doug Messier about the 2016 race that was won by a squeak by the U.S., and then augmented by my own post about the various predictions by different nations and companies about what they hope to achieve in 2017, got me to thinking. How do these numbers compare with the past? What are the launch trends? Who has been moving up and who has been moving down? And most important, what would a close look at the trends for the past two decades tell us about the future?

In order to answer these questions, I decided to compile a table of all worldwide launches since 1998.

Worldwide Launches since 1998

This table reveals some very interesting trends and facts that I had not recognized previously.
» Read more


The sunspot crash continues

On Sunday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for December. As I do every month, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

December 2016 Solar Cycle graph

January 2017 sunspots as of January 9, 2017

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Sunspot activity continues to decline, and it appears to be declining at a steadily faster rate as the solar cycle ramps down towards minimum. Not only did sunspot activity drop below the 2007 low prediction in 2016, since 2017 began the sun has been blank almost continuously, as shown by the graph on the right. The signs continue to point to a solar minimum occurring much sooner than predicted, producing an unprecedented short and weak solar cycle.

Despite this, the appearance in December of the first sunspot for the next solar cycle suggests that we will not be entering a Grand Minimum in the coming decades. It does not guarantee it, as there is some evidence that even though no sunspots were visible during the Maunder Minimum in the 1600s the magnetic activity that causes sunspots did continue, and with our better observation equipment today we may see sunspots they would not have seen in the 1600s.


The competition heats up

According to this story, China plans 30 launches for 2017, which would smash the record of launches, 22, the country set in 2016.

This website lists the known scheduled launches worldwide. As far as I can see, only 15 Chinese launches are listed. However, China’s space program is modeled after the Soviet Union’s, which means they are somewhat secretive. The first link above has been reporting on China quite reliably during the past year, so I have some faith that the goal of 30 launches seems reasonable.

In 2017 China however is not the only country, or company, that will be attempting smash records. Russia hopes to complete 29 launches, which would not be a record for that country but would be a significant recovery from the 17 they completed in 2016. India set a record of 9 launches in 2016, and hopes to top it in 2017, starting with a single launch in January that will place a record 103 satellites in orbit in one shot. Europe meanwhile shows 21 launches on its 2017 manifest, while Japan has 9, according to the second link above.

The list gets even more interesting when you look at the 2017 launches planned for each American company. SpaceX has 31 launches all by itself,. ULA has 14, while Orbital ATK plans 4.

Obviously, these predicted numbers are not what is really going to happen. SpaceX is not going to launch 31 rockets in 2017. Not a chance. However, if they can get through the year with no launch failures, they will likely complete more than half that number, since that was the pace they were aiming for in 2016 and were getting close to achieving until the September 1 launchpad explosion. Meanwhile, ULA’s prediction of 14 launches for 2017 seems wholly reasonable since ULA completed 12 launches in 2016.

What this data suggests overall is that the total number of launches in 2017 will go up, significantly. Moreover, the increase in pace will be linked to an revived commercial satellite market, as well as a newly competitive launch industry aimed at reducing costs while making its increased launch pace more routine. These factors suggest that the increases will not be a one time thing, but will instead be heralding a new standard that signals a new age in space travel.

Hold onto your hats. The next few years in space should be quite exciting.


The real margin of error for polls

In my daily scanning of the news, looking for stories that are both educational as well as entertaining, I came across this particular post: “WATCH – This Viral Video Perfectly Illustrates Why Americans Don’t Trust the Lamestream Media”.

The title is typical click-bait, hinting at something truly revealing that nine times out of ten turns out to be immensely disappointing. This time, however, I found that the post revealed a lie about political polls, almost as an aside, that is simply never noted.

The video itself is entertaining. It shows one particularly bad performance by a MSNBC political reporter, where in only about five minutes he used NBC polls to make a string of predictions about the presidential election, every single one of which turned out to be spectacularly wrong. I’ve embedded the video below the fold for your enjoyment.

What the post however noted that I found revealing was something else:

After all, these were NBC polls that Kornacki cited time and time again. Polls that showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump in places like North Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio. The polls were terribly off-base. In some cases, the NBC numbers showed Clinton with a double-digit lead in states that she went on to lose. In other words, the polls were not by any means scientific, fair, or truthful.

Does the phrase “margin of error” ring a bell? Typically, it is between three and four percent, in order to be deemed usable, anyway. But NBC’s margin of error in Pennsylvania was 11 percent. [emphasis mine]

In the past decade or so political polls have routinely included what they call their “margin of error,” which generally for most polls ranges, as noted above, about three to four percent. This number is, and has always been a lie, however, as shown by the highlighted text. The real margin of error is the difference between what the poll predicted and what the actual results were. And for all of these NBC polls, the margin of error was not 3 to 4 percent, but anywhere from 11 to 30 percent!

In other words, these polls were worthless. Worse, they suggest some intentional manipulation, as they all made their error in only one direction (against Trump and for Clinton), much like the tampered global temperature data that we see coming from NASA and NOAA. It could be that there is confirmation bias going on here, producing results these liberal news outlets wish, but I do not think so. NBC, and its sister station MSNBC, have repeatedly in the past five years committed some egregious journalist frauds, all of which designed to make conservatives and Republicans look bad and to promote the interests of the Democratic Party. The network has made no moves to correct the problems. Nor has it fired anyone.

I think it very reasonable to suspect intentional fraud here, specifically aimed at helping the Democrats.

More important, this story illustrates why we should all laugh uproariously the next time we see a mainstream media journalist note pompously that the poll he or she is citing has a margin of error of 3%. He or she either doesn’t know what they are talking about, or they know very well and think you are too stupid to notice.
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Venezuela: the bankruptcy of socialism and modern intellectualism

The editorial board of the Washington Post today decided it was time to speak up about the disaster of Venezuela and the totalitarian rule of that country’s socialist leader, President Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuela, which was once Latin America’s richest country, has become an unwilling test site for how much economic and social stress a modern nation can tolerate before it descends into pure anarchy. This month its 31 million people lurched a big step closer to that breaking point, thanks to another senseless decree by its autocratic populist government.

For years Venezuelans have struggled with mounting shortages of food, medicine and other consumer goods, as well as triple-digit inflation that has rendered the national currency, the bolivar, worthless. By this month the 100-bolivar bill, the largest note in circulation, was worth only 2 cents, forcing people to carry piles of them in order to make the most rudimentary purchases. Then came this coup: On Dec. 11, President Nicolás Maduro, an economically illiterate former bus driver, announced that all 6 billion 100-bolivar notes would cease to be legal tender in just 72 hours. He also closed Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, on the theory that traders were hoarding currency in those countries.

Almost overnight, millions of Venezuelans — about 40 percent of whom do not have bank accounts in which the currency could be deposited — lost the ability to purchase even those goods still available on the market. The result was predictable: looting and riots in at least eight cities. In the eastern town of Ciudad Bolivar, with a population of some 400,000, hundreds of stores were looted and at least three people were killed in three days of mayhem. [emphasis mine]

To the Washington Post’s editorial board, made up of east coast liberals, Maduro’s government has never been socialist. Instead, it is an “autocratic populist government.” In fact, nowhere in their entire editorial do the words “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism” appear, even though it has been those exact ideologies that has shaped the decisions of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. In fact, until recently the liberals on the Washington Post editorial board would have likely celebrated the socialist revolution in Venezuela, begun by Chavez. Their leftwing comrades throughout modern intellectual circles surely did.

With petrodollars pouring in, Chavez had free rein to put his statist prescriptions into effect. The so-called Bolivarian revolution over which he — and later his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro — presided, was an unfettered, real-world example of anticapitalist socialism in action. Venezuela since at least the 1970s had been Latin America’s most affluent nation. Now it was a showpiece for command-and-control economics: price and currency controls, wealth redistribution, ramped-up government spending, expropriation of land, and the nationalization of private banks, mines, and oil companies.

And the useful idiots ate it up.

In a Salon piece titled “Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle,” David Sirota declared that the Venezuelan ruler, with his “full-throated advocacy of socialism,” had “racked up an economic record that . . . American president[s] could only dream of achieving.” The Guardian offered “Three cheers for Chavez.” Moviemaker Oliver Stone filmed a documentary gushing over “the positive changes that have happened economically in all of South America” because of Venezuela’s socialist government. And when Chavez died in 2013, Jimmy Carter extolled the strongman for “improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen.”

Now that this socialist “economic miracle” has failed, as socialist economic miracles always do, the useful idiots on the Washington Post’s editorial board have suddenly realized that it was never Marxist ideology that moved Chavez and Maduro, but an “autocratic populist government.” The intellectual dishonesty here is amazing. Worse, however, is how typical it has become. Western intellectuals, the so-called elites of our society, have developed an uncanny ability to fool themselves. They are never wrong. Instead, they simply change the facts to protect their shallow leftist beliefs.

Nonetheless, Marxist leftwing ideology did destroy Venezuela, just as it destroyed Russia and Eastern Europe, and just as it is destroying the big urban cities of the United States, all ruled by increasingly leftist Democratic politicians whose only goal is to emulate Hugo Chavez and bring his “economic miracle” to their cities.

The great tragedy is that these leftist Democratic politicians in America’s big cities will likely succeed, because our so-called intellectual community, like those on the Washington Post’s editorial board, are willing to blind themselves to the truth.

Remember this the next time they try to tell you how evil Trump and the Republicans in Congress are. They are lying, not just to you, but to themselves.


Lobbying for the Moon

Several news articles in the past few days, partly fueled by the make-up of some of the new members of Trump’s NASA transition team, have exhibited a strong push to get the new administration to restart the Bush administration’s goal of returning to the Moon.

All of this might happen. What these stories suggest to me is that the big contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin who are building SLS and Orion, are pushing the new administration to give this rocket and capsule a mission, something it presently does not have. At the same time, the stories might also indicate some of Trump’s typical and very smart negotiation tactics. Unlike Obama, who never knew how to play the game, Trump appears to understand that if he is going to institute major changes in NASA’s future projects, he needs to get Congress to agree.

Rather than eliminate SLS and Orion right off the bat, as Obama tried to do when he unilaterally cancelled Constellation, Trump could offer the Moon to Congress as an interim goal for this giant rocket and capsule. This was what both were really designed for initially, as they are essentially modern copies of the Saturn 5 and the Apollo capsule. In exchange, Trump could then get Congress to place more emphasis on commercial space needs, getting the competing privately built capsules and new cargo vessels (Dragon, Starliner, and Dream Chaser) better funded and built faster. He could also propose that NASA encourage private companies to compete to design and build lunar orbiting facilities, ideas that both Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital ATK have been pushing now for several years.

I should note that giving a lunar goal to SLS/Orion does not mean that the program will get bigger or last significantly longer. Congress could simply fund one or two more missions through 2024. By that time, the competing successes of private space will make it very clear that this boondoggle is not the way to go into the future. By then, the new commercial space industry will have also grown enough that Congress will have no problem letting this industry replace SLS/Orion, and will thus have less objections in letting that program die.

I must also emphasize that I am speculating here. It is probably a bit soon to predict what a Trump administration will do with NASA and space. The signs however are pointing in this direction.


Mars rover update: December 22, 2016


Curiosity's location, Sol 1555

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

After weeks of drill diagnostics and enforced lack of travel while those diagnostics were on-going, Curiosity finally moved last weekend (Sol 1553). The traverse map to the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, indicates where they went, which wasn’t far and doesn’t really tell us yet which route they plan to take to pick their way through the surrounding dune fields. Thus, the options I indicated in my November 14, 2016 rover update all remain possible. If you go to that update you can see a much better Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overhead image showing the upcoming terrain.

In the meantime, the Curiosity science team is preparing to take a well deserved Christmas-New Year’s break (see update for sols 1566-1568). So that Curiosity doesn’t sit idle during that time, they have uploaded to it an 8-sol plan to cover December 22 to December 30 followed by a 3-sol plan from December 31 to January 2. The rover will not move during this period, but will take lots of different observations in situ.

As they note rightly at the link above, “It’s been quite the year for our rover: we have drilled six holes, performed two scoops, driven 3 km, and climbed 85 vertical meters!” What is more significant is that the best is yet to come!


For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.
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The squealing of pigs

Back in October 2010, just days before the mid-term elections, I wrote the following:

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that, come Tuesday, the Republicans take both houses, in a stunning landslide not seen in more than a century. Let’s also assume that the changes in Congress are going to point decidedly away from the recent liberal policies of large government (by both parties). Instead, every indication suggests that the new Congress will lean heavily towards a return to the principles of small government, low taxes, and less regulation.

These assumptions are not unreasonable. Not only do the polls indicate that one or both of the houses of Congress will switch from Democratic to Republican control, the numerous and unexpected primary upsets of established incumbents from both parties — as well the many protests over the past year by large numbers of ordinary citizens — make it clear that the public is not interested in half measures. Come January, the tone and direction of Congress is going to undergo a shocking change.

Anyway, based on these assumptions, we should then expect next year’s Congress to propose unprecedented cuts to the federal budget, including the elimination of many hallowed programs. The recent calls to defund NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcastings are only one example.

When Congress attempts this, however, the vested interests that have depended on this funding for decades are not going to take the cuts lightly. Or to put it more bluntly, they are going to squeal like pigs, throwing temper tantrums so loud and insane that they will make the complaints of a typical three-year-old seem truly statesman-like. And they will do so in the hope that they will garner sympathy and support from the general voting public, thereby making the cuts difficult to carry out.

The real question then is not whether the new Congress will propose the cuts required to bring the federal government under control, but whether they, as well as the public, will have the courage to follow through, to defy the howls from these spoiled brats, and do what must be done.

The legislative situation with NASA over the summer and fall might give us a hint about whether the next Congress will have the courage to make the cuts that are necessary. In this case Obama actually proposed doing something close to what conservatives have dreamed of for decades: take NASA (and the government) out of the business of building rockets and spacecraft and pass it over to the private sector.

Moreover, despite the strong dislike the right has for Obama and his leftist policies, many conservative pundits both inside and outside of the space activist community publicly supported the President in this effort.

Nonetheless, these policies were not accepted by Congress. Instead, the legislative body passed an authorization bill that requires NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket and the manned capsule to go with it. Congress did this partly for national security reasons, but mostly because they wanted to protect the jobs in Houston, Florida, and elsewhere that NASA provides, and thus bring home the bacon to their constituents. And they did this because those constituents had squealed at them about the threatened loss of funding.

In other words, elected officials from both parties had teamed up to authorize this pork-laden program in order to keep the pigs quiet. In other words, NASA’s legislative history this past year does not give us an encouraging view of the future. It appears that Congress will give us the same-old same-old, when asked.

More than six years have passed, and my analysis of the situation in 2010 appears almost perfect. While the Republicans did not win both houses of Congress in 2010, they did in 2014. Despite these victories from voters who clearly wanted them to cut back on the power of government, they did exactly what I expected, based on their actions in connection with NASA and SLS: maintain the pork and chicken out whenever challenged by Obama, the Democrats, the press (I repeat myself), and too many spoiled members of the general public.

After the 2016 elections, things have moved even more to the right. The Republicans not only control both houses of Congress, they have a Republican president (though a very unpredictable one) and the leftwing mainstream press has been discredited and no longer monopolizes the distribution of information. What will happen in the coming years?
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Mars rover update: December 8, 2016


Mars' dusty sky

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

Since my last rover update on November 14th, Curiosity moved relatively little. They drove a short distance to the southeast to a point where they wanted to drill, but have not moved from this location for the past two weeks because of drill issues.

While the engineers study the drill problem, which requires them to not move either the rover or the drill arm, the scientists have still used Curiosity to take images of the dust in the sky, to take hourly images of the dust on the ground (to see how it is changed by the wind), and to take images of nearby interesting nearby features (below the fold).
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Canyoneering in Death Valley

Slabby Acres

This past Thanksgiving weekend I joined some caving and canyoneering friends in Death Valley to celebrate the holiday in the great outdoors as well as explore some of the park’s more inaccessible canyons. We did not camp in the park, since campfires are not allowed and the park has a size limit for groups. Instead, we camped on BLM land just outside the park, in what appeared to be an abandoned RV trailer park that canyoneerers call Slabby Acres.

First a primer. Regular readers will know that I have been doing cave exploration and mapping now for about thirty years. This recreational activity not only involves knowing how to use survey instruments in a cave, you need also to be trained in the vertical rope techniques required to reach some remote places underground, sometimes dropping multiple pits on the way in and climbing those same domes on the way out.

Canyoneering is somewhat similar to caving. Just like caving you need to know how to travel over boulders and rough terrain and also know how to rappel and climb ropes. Unlike caving the canyons are open to the sky, and you rarely climb the ropes to travel up the canyon. In canyoneering the goal is to find the head of the canyon and travel down its many drops to come out at the bottom safely, all the while getting to see some wild, majestic, and rarely seen places. In addition, modern canyoneering rarely involves virgin exploration. Most canyoneerers visit already explored canyons whose details are well documented so that they know what ropes to bring as well as how to find the canyons.

This was our goal this past weekend. Some of the western cavers who have joined my survey projects and learned how to cave survey are also active canyoneerers. While none of us had ever visited the canyons on our trip list, several were very experienced with finding and traversing places they had never been before. My plan was to follow them and enjoy the experience. Below are my pictures during one of this weekend’s canyoneering trips. The canyon is Scorpion Canyon. It was the first we visited and was relatively easy to do, only 4.6 miles long with only six rappels and only an 1,800 foot elevation drop. It would take us over one of the mountain ranges that form the eastern wall of Death Valley. In fact, this was how I was going to enter Death Valley for the first time. Rather than drive in, like most tourists, I would rappel in.
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NASA global warming advocate Gavin Schmidt fights back

The head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), Gavin Schmidt, declared in a newspaper interview on Thursday that “Global warming doesn’t care about the election.”

The science community and environmental campaigners in the US have already begun efforts to persuade Mr Trump that climate change is actually real before he takes office next year. Dr Gavin Schmidt, the director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, signalled they would have allies among the federal science agencies. He tweeted a graph including new data from Nasa showing that last month was the second warmest October on record, putting 2016 firmly on course to be the warmest year. “No surprise here, planetary warming does not care about the election,” he wrote.

I would not be surprised if Schmidt ends up getting fired by Trump. His monthly graphs showing each month to be the hottest on record, such as the one he tweeted in the quote above, have been absurd campaigning, not science. For one thing, the differences from month to month have been in the hundredths of a degrees, well within the margins of error and essentially insignificant in value. To claim that his data has determined the “hottest” month on record from this is demonstrating that he is not a scientist, but a political activist.

Gavin Schmidt vs the satellite data

Secondly, his data is not trustworthy to begin with. Schmidt has been in charge of all of the data tampering at NASA that has consistently altered the decades-old surface temperature record — without any clear scientific justification — to cool the past and warm the present so that the amount of warming is emphasized. While his graphs show the climate to be warming, based on surface data that he has been adjusting, the satellite data that NASA gathers that he (a NASA scientist) generally ignores, does not. The image to the right illustrates this, and shows that the divergence between his adjusted surface data and the satellite data has been increasing steadily over the years.

I fully expect Schmidt and the other global warming scientists in NASA and NOAA to team up with the press, as Schmidt does here, to defy Trump. Whether Trump will have the courage to fight back, something no Republican has been willing to do for decades, will be the key question.


Mars rover update: November 14, 2016


Curiosity looking south, Sol 1516

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

Since my last update on November 3rd, Curiosity has reached the region of sand dunes and has started to pick its way through it. The panorama above was created using images from the rover’s left navigation camera, taken on Sol 1516. It looks south, with Mount Sharp rising on the left.

That same day Curiosity also used its mast camera to zoom in on the canyon gap in the center of the panorama. The first image below is the wider mast camera shot, with the an outline showing the even closer zoom-in below that.
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