Category Archives: Points of Information

Sunspot update for February 2017

On Sunday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for February. As I have been doing every month since 2010, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

February 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.

The decline in sunspots continues. Though the increase in activity from January held in February, the overall activity remains significantly below the predictions, and continues to point to a much earlier arrival of the solar minimum, sometime in 2019.

Russia puts four engineers on trial for Proton launch failure

Russia has begun the criminal trial of four engineers for their part in the launch failure of a Proton rocket six years ago, in December 2010.

According to the office of Russia’s federal Prosecutor General, employees at RKK Energia used a wrong formula during the fueling of the company’s Block DM-03 upper stage, which received 1,582 kilograms of extra liquid oxygen above the maximum allowable limit. The prosecutors allege that the department head at RKK Energia Stanislav Balakin, the unit head Aleksandr Martynov and his deputy Sergei Lomtev, while being responsible for the development of operational documentation for Block DM-03, failed to ensure that their subordinate engineer Yuri Bolshigin had completed the on-time adjustment of the computation formula controlling the operation of the fueling system.

This is not the right way to encourage good work in Russian aerospace factories. Sure, these guys screwed up, but you don’t put them on trial, you fire them and hire better people. Making them scapegoats in this way is only going to scare away the best people, who won’t want to join a high-risk industry where, if they make a mistake, they might find themselves in prison.

Japan passes its own commercial space law

The competition heats up: Just as the U.S., Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and others have recently passed laws of clarify and encourage the private commercial development of space, Japan now done so as well, enacting its own commercial space law.

Now that Japan has adopted its Space Activities Act, start-ups are not left wondering what agency they should contact but can go in advance to discuss their plans with officials at a specially designated counter in the Cabinet Office. The new Japanese law also provides government support in the provision of financial guarantees required by commercial space launch operators, such as by arranging third-party liability insurance coverage. The required coverage is calculated on the basis of the maximum probable loss estimated in line with the rocket type and the payload content; in the case of damages in excess of this coverage, the law provides that the government is to pay for the residual damages up to a certain limit. This is similar to arrangements that have been adopted in the United States and France, although the French government sets no limit on payments.

In addition, Japan’s Space Activities Act provides that the launch operator bears liability for accident damages even if they are due to problems in the payload. This channeling of liability would seem to be disadvantageous to launch operators, but it can be expected to enhance the competitive position of the Japanese companies providing this service, because it reassures customers around the world who are seeking to have their satellites put into orbit. France is the only other country that has adopted a similar provision.

The article is worth reading in that it provides a good overview of the history of space law since the 1960s, as well as the political background that helps explain why Japan has lagged behind in the commercialization of its space industry.

Automated factory to build smallsats

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

Scientists estimate age of bright spots in Occator Crater on Ceres

Using crater counts and a careful analysis of features in Occator Crater on Ceres, scientists have estimated that the last major eruption occurred about 4 million years ago.

Nathues and his team interpret the central pit with its rocky, jagged ridge as a remnant of a former central mountain. It formed as a result of the impact that created Occator Crater some 34 million years ago and collapsed later. The dome of bright material is much younger: only approximately four million years. The key to determining these ages was the accurate counting and measuring of smaller craters torn by later impacts. This method’s basic assumption is that surfaces showing many craters are older than those that are less strongly “perforated”. Since even very small craters are visible in highly resolved images, the new study contains the most accurate dating so far.

“The age and appearance of the material surrounding the bright dome indicate that Cerealia Facula was formed by a recurring, eruptive process, which also hurled material into more outward regions of the central pit”, says Nathues. “A single eruptive event is rather unlikely,” he adds. A look into the Jupiter system supports this theory. The moons Callisto and Ganymede show similar domes. Researchers interpret them as volcanic deposits and thus as signs of cryovolcanism.

The volcano itself has slumped away, leaving behind the bright depression. Whether any cryovolcanism is still occurring underground remains unknown.

North Korea test fires four ballistic missiles

Does this make you feel safe? North Korea today test fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

North Korea on Monday launched four ballistic missiles, three of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese government said. There were no immediate reports of damage to ships or aircraft in the area, Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said at a news conference in Tokyo, calling the latest missile launch a “grave threat to national security.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe separately told reporters that the missiles traveled around 1,000 km. He later said at a Diet session that the remaining missile also fell near the EEZ.

It is very unclear whether these missile tests were a success, since we really don’t know what kind of missiles they were. If short or medium range, they went the right distance. If longer range, the distance traveled (600 miles or 1000 kilometers) suggests the missiles did not travel as far as they should.

Democrats make no gains in special elections

Despite their screaming and protesting since the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party’s effort to win elections continues to falter.

The Democrat resistance may be generating a lot of noise in Washington, D.C., but so far in 2017, it has shown little impact on elections in the states. Even with hefty financial investments and high profile Democrats lending star power to state-level candidates, Republicans won control of every district they previously held across multiple states that Democrats have won in the last three or more presidential elections, including as recently as yesterday in Connecticut.

Read the whole thing. Essentially, the protests and wild mindless opposition to Trump by Democrats nationwide has failed to persuade anyone who voted for Trump or the Republicans to switch their votes. In fact, the failed Democratic election effort, which included significant campaign spending in some very small local elections, suggests that the voters have been turned off by their almost hateful opposition. Not only did vulnerable Republicans win their special elections, they appear to have generally done so comfortably.

TSA to make pat-downs more “intimate”

Does this make you feel safer? TSA has decided to make the pat-downs they give to travelers more thorough and invasive.

Bloomberg reported that airport employees have already been notified at some locations that they need to employ a “more rigorous” and “thorough” screening. The screenings will reportedly include “more intimate contact” than before. The new measure also applies to airline pilots and flight attendants. [emphasis mine]

In other words, they are ordering their thugs at the airports to commit sexual assault each time they do a pat-down. Not only is this unconstitutional, it is downright criminal. Be prepared to hear about a a sex scandal when TSA employees abuse this power.

New commercial proposals for launching almost 15,000 satellites

The competition heats up: New applications filed by SpaceX and OneWeb with the FCC propose augmenting both companies’ previously proposed satellite constellations and raising the number of total satellites to be launched to almost 15,000 total.

SpaceX has filed a new application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites to provide communications in the little used V band. The system is in addition to another constellations of 4,425 satellites (plus orbital spares) SpaceX proposed in November that would operate in the Ku and Ka bands. In total, the two constellations would have 11,943 spacecraft plus spares. “When combined into a single, coordinated system, these ‘LEO’ and ‘VLEO’ constellations will enable SpaceX to provide robust broadband services on a full and continuous global basis,” SpaceX said in its application.

Competitor OneWeb has submitted a new application that would add an additional 2,000 satellites capable of operating in the V-band to its planned constellation of 720 satellites.

These are all smallsats, which means they can be launched in bunches. Still, even if they are launched in groups of 100, it will still take 150 launches to get them all into orbit. That is a lot of business for the launch industry.

44 days for first round of hearings on TMT

Stonewalling: Hawaiian officials have just completed the first round of hearings for deciding whether to issue a new construction permit for building the Thirty Meter Telescope, and those hearings stretched out for 44 days and cost nearly $225K.

Will that allow for a new permit? Don’t bet on it.

The hearings officer will recommend whether the state land board should grant a construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope. If there are exceptions filed to the hearings officer’s recommendations, the land board will hear arguments before issuing a written decision.

In other words, the state will allow the telescope’s opponents to force another set of hearings that could likely last as long.

As I’ve said before, it is time to tell Hawaii to go to hell. The state, run by Democrats, is obviously taking sides in opposition to the telescope, though they are trying to hide that fact. If the consortium wants to build this telescope on time, they need to find a place interested in having them. Let Hawaii keep its barren and empty mountain, even if it means the state will be poorer and less connected with the cutting edge of science.

A propeller in Saturn’s A ring

A propeller in Saturn's A ring

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to show here, captures the same propeller feature in Saturn’s A ring, with the top image showing the sunlight side and the bottom image the side away from the Sun.

Cassini scientists have been tracking the orbit of this object for the past decade, tracing the effect that the ring has upon it. Now, as Cassini has moved in close to the ring as part of its ring-grazing orbits, it was able to obtain this extreme close-up view of the propeller, enabling researchers to examine its effects on the ring. These views, and others like them, will inform models and studies in new ways going forward.

…The propeller’s central moonlet would only be a couple of pixels across in these images, and may not actually be resolved here. The lit-side image shows that a bright, narrow band of material connects the moonlet directly to the larger ring, in agreement with dynamical models. That same thin band of material may also be obscuring the moonlet from view.

Lengthwise along the propeller is a gap in the ring that the moonlet has pried open. The gap appears dark on both the lit and unlit sides. Flanking the gap near the moonlet are regions of enhanced density, which appear bright on the lit side and more mottled on the unlit side.

The scale of the two images is slightly different, 0.33 and 0.44 miles, as they were taken as Cassini was zipping past during one of its ring-grazing orbits on February 21.

To my eye, the effect here faintly resembles a wake produced by a boat in water, except that the wake moves in opposite directions on opposite sides of the tiny moonlet as it plows through the A ring.

Fascist protesters attack professor and speaker at Vermont college

Brownshirts: While leaving a speaking event at Middlebury College in Vermont, both political scientist Charles Murray and the college professor escorting him were attacked by protesters, causing injuries to the professor.

As Stanger, Murray and a college administrator left McCullough Student Center last evening following the event, they were “physically and violently confronted by a group of protestors,” according to Bill Burger, the college’s vice president for communications and marketing. Burger said college public safety officers managed to get Stanger and Murray into the administrator’s car.

“The protestors then violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and try to prevent it from leaving campus,” he said. “At one point a large traffic sign was thrown in front of the car. Public Safety officers were able, finally, to clear the way to allow the vehicle to leave campus. “During this confrontation outside McCullough, one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck,” Burger continued. “She was attended to at Porter Hospital later and (on Friday) is wearing a neck brace.”

I am willing to bet that these protesters would heartily agree with you if you proposed throwing all conservatives in prison camps.

Two of five cameras on Japan’s Venus orbiter Akatsuki shut down

Japan has been forced to shut down operation on two of the five cameras on its Venus orbiter Akatsuki.

They think the problem has been caused by the additional five years required to get into Venus orbit when its main engine failed to fire during the first orbital attempt in 2010. During those five years the spacecraft was exposed to more radiation that expected, possibly damaging its equipment.

College Republicans at Berkeley-UC continue to be threatened

Fascists: One day after a Berkeley student was filmed destroying property belonging to the College Republicans group at Berkeley-UC, the campus was plastered with posters calling its members “baby fascists”.

The posters included pictures of six members of the College Republicans group.

The college today issued a condemnation of the harassment, but as yet has not done anything about the students who have been doing the harassment, even though they have been videotaped in the act and have apparently been identified.

The Berkeley campus, much like most of urban California, has begun to resemble the Soviet Union. You better not dare to express any dissent against the liberal, Democratic Party agenda, or else you face harassment, violence, and outright hatred.

Police arrest former journalist for bomb threats against Jewish centers

The police today arrested a former journalist, fired for making up quotes, for making some of the recent bomb threats nationwide against Jewish community centers.

Juan Thompson, 31, of St. Louis, was arrested in connection with the menacing messages sent by phone or email to Jewish organizations from coast to coast, authorities said. He invoked his girlfriend’s name in making four of the bomb threats, the FBI said in court papers. “Thompson appears to have made some of the … threats as part of a sustained campaign to harass and intimidate” the former girlfriend, according to an FBI complaint.

While this arrest is a good thing, it appears that there were others who made other bomb threats against Jewish sites in the past year or so that still remain at large.

Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.

Virgin Galactic spins off LauncherOne into its own division

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic this week spun off its LauncherOne smallsat orbital rocket to form a new company called Virgin Orbit.

This split highlights the competition that actually existed within Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo remains a very questionable design. Rather than have its problems suck the profits from LauncherOne, which has contracts and I firmly believe will fly first, the Virgin corporation has pulled it from Virgin Galactic so that the two rockets can succeed or fail on their own. In the end, I suspect now that Virgin Galactic will die and Virgin Orbit will succeed.

China launches smallsat on new rocket

The competition heats up: China yesterday launched a small experimental satellite on new rocket, Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2).

The Xinhua news agency is identifying the new launch vehicle simply as ‘KT-2’. Other sources identify the new launcher as the Kaituo-2. Previously rumors expected that the new launch vehicle was the Kaituozhe-2A. The Kaituozhe-2/Kaituo-2 launch vehicle is a three-stage solid propellant launch vehicle developed by the “CASIC Forth Bureau”. The new launcher is capable of orbiting a 350 kg cargo to LEO or a 250 kg cargo to a 700 km high SSO.

KT-2 has similar capabilities to the Kuaizhou-1A launch vehicle, that was used for the first time on January 9, 2017. The KZ-1A is capable of orbiting a 300 kg satellite to LEO or a 200 kg payload to a 700km SSO. The other Chinese solid fuel launcher, the Long March 11 (Chang Zheng-11) rocket, is capable of orbiting a 750 kg to LEO or 350kg to a 700 km SSO.

With this fleet of small rockets, Chinese is now well positioned to grab market share in the emerging smallsat launch market. Their biggest problem remains the legal restrictions that prevent any American space technology from launching on Chinese rockets.

SpaceX loses 89 smallsats due to delays

Spaceflight, a company that specializing in scheduling secondary payload launches for smallsat companies, this week pulled 89 satellites from SpaceX because of that company’s launch delays.

For more than a year, Seattle-based Spaceflight has been waiting to launch an array of 89 miniaturized satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy them in orbit from its innovative SHERPA carrier.

Now the launch logistics company isn’t waiting any longer. All 89 satellites have been rebooked due to schedule concerns, Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, reported today in a blog posting. “We found each of our customers an alternative launch that was within the same time frame,” Blake wrote. “It took a huge effort, but within two weeks, the team hustled to have all customers who wanted to be rebooked confirmed on other launches!”

The SHERPA carrier had been slated as a secondary payload on the launch of Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite. It was put on SpaceX’s manifest since 2015, but the launch has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to the Falcon 9 rocket mishaps that occurred in mid-2015 and last September.

What is good about this is that the competition in the launch industry is now robust enough that these smallsats can find alternatives, and do it quickly. As good as SpaceX might be at some things, if the company doesn’s start fulfilling its promised launch schedule it will start to bleed customers more and more.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say which launch companies have now gotten this business. If I had to guess, I would bet that India got the contracts, based on their recent PSLV launch that put 103 smallsats into orbit. In arranging that launch ISRO had been very mobile, adding new smallsats to it quickly and very late in the launch schedule.

China completes construction of space station core module

The competition heats up: China has completed the construction of the core module of its full size space station, now set to launch in 2018.

Tianhe-1, the first of three 20-tonne space station modules, was completed by the end of 2016 and has entered a testing phase, according to Bao Weimin of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Tianhe-1 will launch from Wenchang on a new Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket sometime in 2018, which was developed specifically to allow China to put large space station modules into low Earth orbit.

The image of the module at the link is remarkable in its resemblance to the core module of Russia’s Mir station, launched in 1986.

Asteroid breaks in two, each piece develops a tail

Astronomers have discovered a main belt asteroid that six years ago broke in two, after which both pieces developed tails resembling comets.

“The results derived from the evolution of the orbit show that the asteroid fragmented approximately six years ago, which makes it the youngest known asteroid pair in the Solar System to date,” says Fernando Moreno, researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC), in charge of the project.

P/2016 J1 presents another important peculiarity, which makes it very unusual. “Both fragments are activated, i.e., they display dust structures similar to comets. This is the first time we observe an asteroid pair with simultaneous activity,” says Fernando Moreno (IAA-CSIC).

Analyses revealed that the asteroids were activated near their perihelion – the point on the orbit nearest to de Sun – between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, and that they remained for a period of between six and nine months. The span of time between the moment of fragmentation and their bout of activity implies that the two events are not related. In fact, the data suggests that the fragmentation also happened near the perihelion but during the previous orbit (it takes P/2016 J1 5.65 years to spin around the Sun). “In all likelihood, the dust emission is due to the sublimation of ice that was left exposed after the fragmentation,” says Moreno (IAA-CSIC).

I suspect that the more we learn about asteroids and comets the more we will blur the line that separates them.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

The winds of Mars

New data from Curiosity has confirmed that the winds of Mars have been the primary force shaping the red planet’s landscape for billions of years.

The new data suggests that Mount Sharp once filled Gale Crater, and it was the winds that eroded it away to create the impression that it is the crater’s central peak. Instead it appears that it is the crater’s original floor!

Below the fold is the video from the link showing a number of dust devils imaged by Curiosity.

This link provides a gif animation showing the surprisingly significant changes to the ripples in the sand dunes directly below Curiosity that take place in only one day. The changes are astonishing, and show that even though Mars’ atmosphere is far thinner than Earth’s, it is capable of moving things quickly across the Martian surface.
» Read more

The oldest fossils ever?

Scientists think they have found the oldest fossils ever in Canada.

Scientists say they have found the world’s oldest fossils, thought to have formed between 3.77bn and 4.28bn years ago. Comprised of tiny tubes and filaments made of an iron oxide known as haematite, the microfossils are believed to be the remains of bacteria that once thrived underwater around hydrothermal vents, relying on chemical reactions involving iron for their energy.

If correct, these fossils offer the oldest direct evidence for life on the planet. And that, the study’s authors say, offers insights into the origins of life on Earth. “If these rocks do indeed turn out to be 4.28 [bn years old] then we are talking about the origins of life developing very soon after the oceans formed 4.4bn years ago,” said Matthew Dodd, the first author of the research from University College, London.

This discovery reminds me of the Mars fossils discovered in the late 1990s. There were enormous uncertainties with that discovery, all of which eventually caused most scientists in the field to reject the result. The same thing could be the case here.

Still in Dallas. I hope to get caught up tomorrow.

China considering multi-asteroid mission

The competition heats up: China is considering an unmanned probe to visit three different asteroids, including Apophis.

According to details that have previously emerged, one proposal is for a launch via Long March 3B rocket to take place in early 2022, with rendezvous with Apophis a year later and spend 220 days in orbit.

Then the probe would depart Apophis for a flyby of 2002 EX11 in 2025, and finally landing on 1996 FG3 in 2027, where it would, in Ji’s words, “conduct in-situ sampling analysis on the surface”.

The proposal is only in the design stage, but it should definitely be taken seriously. China is committing more and more of its resources to its space program, as that program is giving that government a big payoff in international recognition.

Posted in the airport in Dallas, where I have to wait an extra three hours because American Airlines practically shut the door to my connecting flight in my face. Their flight from Belize was late, and then Customs and the TSA conspired to create giant lines for no reason. Even though I had a friend at the gate with whom we were in contact by text who could tell them I was only a minute away, they shut the door anyway.

I have avoided American for more than a decade because they did something as obnoxious to me before. I think it might be a decade before I fly them again.

NASA buys Soyuz seats from Boeing

NASA has purchased two additional seats from Boeing on a Russian Soyuz capsule and rocket to get astronauts to ISS beyond 2019.

The reason Boeing was able to sell Russian Soyuz seats is because they have obtained them from the Russians in a deal to settle Boeing’s $320 million lawsuit over ending the Russian/Boeing Sea Launch partnership.

Heading Home

Today we completed our last caving trip in Belize. I and many of the expedition’s participants head home tomorrow.

Because our cave trips take so much time, I have not had time to post anything these last few days. I will try to post tomorrow during my return home, but expect full posting to resume on Thursday.

Also, though I will comment then in greater length about SpaceX’s announcement on Monday that they plan on sending two tourists around the Moon by 2018, I want to note here that this announcement is clearly Elon Musk’s response to the effort by NASA to delay the launch of commercial crew because of so-called safety issues so that SLS/Orion might fly first. Musk is telling the world that NASA’s safety concerns are crap (to which I generally agree) and he intends to prove this with his own lunar manned mission.

Unity completes third glide test

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, successfully completed its third glide test on February 24.

I must admit that I cannot get excited by this event. Until Virgin Galactic flies this ship with its engines and puts it through a full suborbital flight, I remain completely skeptical about its capabilities.

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