Category Archives: Points of Information

Big money for California air pollution researchers

The next time anyone tries to point out how “Big Oil” or “Big corporations” are using their financial clout to squelch research into air pollution, the environment, and global warming, refer them to this story:

Nineteen California professors earning more than $300 million in grants from the government to study air pollution have issued a letter demanding more air quality regulations, which they can then use as a foundation for earning more government grants studying air pollution.

The environmental movement likes to talk about how big corporate money pays for all the environmental skepticism we see in the press, and if that money disappeared the debate would vanish and everyone would agree with them. The trouble is that most skeptics I know, including myself, get nothing from big corporate money. Instead, it is the environmental movement that gets gigantic amounts of cash from the federal government, run by politicians like President Obama, who has a very pro-environmentalist bias and wants his scientists to confirm his religious belief in human-caused global warming and the evils that humans do to the environment.

UAE adopts a national space policy

The competition heats up: The cabinet of the United Arab Emirates has adopted a national space policy for the Arab nation.

This push by the UAE to become a major player in space is being entirely led by, to quote the story at the link, the “Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.” His effort is a good thing, but in many ways a hollow gesture. The UAE does not yet have the people or the infrastructure for its own space program. What they have is a lot of oil money, which will allow them to buy those skills from others. This is what they are doing for their Mars probe that they hope to launch in 2020.

Whether the skills will then remain within the UAE remains questionable.

Russia completes preliminary design for Progress replacement

The competition heats up: Russian engineers have completed their preliminary design for a proposed Progress replacement, first revealed August 22.

The main rationale for the development of the new cargo ship was the urgent need to reduce the number of cargo launches to the ISS from four to three annually, while still supporting three crew members on the Russian segment of the station.

The preliminary design for the new cargo ship was originally to be completed in December 2016, but the work was apparently sped up to be completed in August of the same year. Still, even if the go ahead for the full-scale development of the project was given immediately, the new cargo ship was not expected to fly before 2020. In the meantime, the Russian crew onboard the ISS could be reduced from three to two people beginning in March 2017 onward, with the exception of a time period in 2018, when Russian cosmonauts would have to conduct spacewalks to outfit the newly arrived MLM module.

The new design, radically different from Russia’s present Soyuz and Progress capsules, would be able to place 8.2 tons in orbit, one ton more than Progress. That the Russians accelerated the design process suggests to me that they are putting a high priority on this project, and that they will build it.

Head of Swiss Space Systems attacked

Horror: The CEO of Swiss SpaceSystems (S3) was attacked and badly injured last week in an attack that was appears to be connected to a series of threats he had reported in the last several months.

Pascal Jaussi, 40, who heads Swiss Space Systems (S3), was beaten up and set on fire by two unknown perpetrators on August 26th in a forest in the canton of Fribourg, reported the Tribune de Genève on Monday. News of the attack was not released until his condition improved, said the paper. The CEO’s life is now out of danger but he remains in a serious condition in hospital, it said.

The entrepreneur was found near his vehicle and transported to Lausanne’s CHUV hospital with burns on 25 percent of his body. According to the paper’s sources, Jaussi was forced to drive his car into a forest, where he was doused in petrol and set on fire. He managed to get himself out of the vehicle and call a friend, who alerted emergency services.

This does not sound like a random attack, but something planned by someone who was trying to make a point. In that context, the threat and attack could be related to some personal issue of Jaussi’s that we are unaware, or it could be connected to his company, which if successful will challenge many other big aerospace players.

Philae found!


Less than a month before Rosetta’s mission ends the spacecraft’s high resolution camera has finally located Philae in its final resting spot on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G.

The images were taken on 2 September by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera as the orbiter came within 2.7 km of the surface and clearly show the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on 12 November 2014.

The image on the right clearly shows the lander on its side with one leg sticking up, as theorized by the Rosetta engineers based on the small amount of data they had received before Philae went dead. Furthermore, the wide image at the link above shows that the lander landed exactly as predicted by data, up against a wall — in this case a large boulder — which placed it in shadow most of the time.

Update on Falcon 9 explosion

NASA and SpaceX have released detailed statements about Thursday’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, summarizing what is known at the moment as well as the state of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, the failure will cause delays in SpaceX’s upcoming plans as well as force the company to shift launches to a different launchpad that will not be ready until November.

China to launch next space station September 15

Despite the launch failure this week of a different rocket, China is moving forward with the launch of its second space station test module, Tiangong-2, now set for September 15.

Original built as a back up to Tiangong-1, TG-2 is expected to be identical in size to the previous Chinese station launched in 2011. Having an increased payload capacity, the new station will use its improved living conditions to verify key technologies, such as on-orbit propellant resupply using the new Tianzhou logistics vehicle. TG-2 will also be used to conduct space science experiments on a relatively large scale compared to China’s previous efforts. Tiangong-2 will also be equipped with a new robotic arm and will be accompanied by the small Banxing-2 satellite for technology demonstrations. It will also capture images of the new station in orbit.

Once in orbit China will then follow quickly with a 30 day manned mission.

Want to buy a used NASA robot? You can!

Link here. The robot was developed in the 1960s to test spacesuits, though because it leaked oil it was never used.

In fact, this particular 1960s NASA project appears to be a perfect example of “engineers gone wild!” The website explains that the robot was an attempt to replace human test volunteers.

Unfortunately, pressure suits aren’t like coveralls. They’re complex pieces of engineering. A human can provide qualitative information about how (un)comfortable a suit is, but cannot gauge the forces involved with the precision and accuracy that an an engineer needs. In addition, testing pressure suits with volunteers can be grueling, unpleasant and even painful.

In the end, however, the robot didn’t work and the testing was done by humans, probably for a lot less than the $175,000 they spent (in 1960s dollars) to build two of these robots. One however is now being auctioned off, and could serve wonderfully as a great piece of interesting artwork in someone’s home.

New delays for Angara

Because of budget constraints Russia has been forced to delay by at least a year the construction of the launchpad facilities at Vostochny for their new Angara family of rockets.

Angara’s first test flights from Vostochny will now not happen before 2021. It seems to me that by the time they get this rocket off the ground it will already be obsolete.

Opportunity’s steep downhill path

An update on Opportunity: The panorama I have created below from two images taken by its navigation camera and transmitted from Opportunity today, shows the steepness of the slope in Lewis and Clark Gap down which engineers are thinking of sending Opportunity. It appears also that Opportunity has moved closer to the gap since my post on Friday outlining the rover’s future travels.

I have not followed Opportunity’s entire journey on Mars close enough to say whether this will be the steepest downhill slope the rover has ever attempted. If not I suspect it is close to the steepest. I also suspect that they are still unsure whether they are going to attempt it, and are creeping slowly towards it to assess the situation.

Lewis and Clark Gap within Endeavour Crater's rim

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

First science results from Juno

Storms at Jupiter's pole

The Juno science team today released the mission’s first science results gathered during its first close fly-by of Jupiter.

I have cropped on the right one of their full images to focus in on two of the strangely shaped storms Juno imaged during its pass. This image is of the northern pole. They also have some fascinating images of the south pole storms as well. Unlike the equatorial regions, which on gas giants have what appear to be parallel coherent bands of weather, the poles appear very chaotic, with the storms forming shapes that have not been seen in any other atmosphere in the solar system. They also found a hexagon-shaped weather feature in the pole.

The first link above also included data from the spacecraft’s other instruments, showing the gas giant’s complex atmosphere in a variety of other wavelengths.

NASA sets InSight’s new launch date to Mars

NASA has now set 2018 as the new launch date for its Mars InSight mission.

The mission was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but missed that launch window when significant problems cropped up during construction of the spacecraft’s French-built prime instrument. NASA has now taken much of the responsibility for building that instrument away from the French and given it to JPL.

The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet. Under what’s known as the mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.

The cost for the changes and reschedule is estimated to be more than $150 million, adding to the budget strain in NASA’s science programs already caused by the overruns from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The surface of Ceres lacks water

The uncertainty of science: Despite significant evidence that water ice has helped form specific features on Ceres, other data collected by Dawn suggest that there is not much ice on the surface.

Angular polygonal craters on the surface suggest that Ceres’ crust is fractured, furthering the conclusion that the near-surface crust “must be both brittle enough to fracture and strong enough to retain fractures for long periods of time.”

“Based on our analysis, the crust of Ceres is too strong to be dominated by ice,” said Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the study’s lead author. “While surface features such as the lobate flows show that water ice is present in the dwarf planet’s upper crust and on the surface in some locations, it appears not to be a major factor in creating surface features.”

In addition to studying the surface, researchers drew conclusions about the dwarf planet’s interior makeup. Beneath a strong crust composed of rock, ice and salt hydrates lays a water-rich mantle and a silicate core. Evidence of cryomagmatism is found in the floor-fractured craters, while Ahuna Mons and other domical features have been shown to be cryovolcanic in nature. These surface features suggest that Ceres has been geologically active at some point in its past, perhaps even its recent past.

Note that in just two days, Dawn researchers released two press releases, the first noting that water ice played a significant role in molding major features on Ceres, and the second noting that the surface doesn’t have much water ice. How’s that for a nice demonstration of the uncertainty of science?

Did China today have a launch failure?

A scheduled Chinese launch today has apparently ended in failure, though exactly what happened remains presently unknown.

China was early this morning expected to launch its Gaofen-10 Earth observation satellite from Taiyuan, following the issuance of an airspace exclusion zone days in advance. However, it seems the launch did not go to plan. Gaofen-10, nominally part of the ‘CHEOS’ Earth observation system for civilian purposes, was due to be launched on a Long March 4C rocket between 18:46 and 19:11 UTC on Wednesday (02:46-03:11 Thursday Beijing time). China usually releases information of launches once payloads are successfully heading towards their target orbits around an hour after launch. Much earlier, spectators and insiders often share details and photos of the launch on social media.

However, many hours after the launch window passed there was still silence, with the launch timing and location of the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre apparently limiting opportunities for outside viewers.

The launch however was not scrubbed, as first stage launch debris was found as expected along the flight path, suggesting that some failure occurred with the upper stage.

Like today’s Falcon 9 failure, this Chinese failure could have a rippling effect on their ambitious plans this fall, including the launch of their next space station followed by a 30-day manned mission.

Ahuna Mons, Ceres’s biggest mountain, is an ice volcano

Ahuna Mons

Using data from Dawn scientists have concluded that Ceres’s biggest mountain, Ahuna Mons (shown on the right), was created by water volcanism.

“Ahuna is the one true ‘mountain’ on Ceres,” said David A. Williams, associate research professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “After studying it closely, we interpret it as a dome raised by cryovolcanism.” This is a form of low-temperature volcanic activity, where molten ice — water, usually mixed with salts or ammonia — replaces the molten silicate rock erupted by terrestrial volcanoes. Giant mountain Ahuna is a volcanic dome built from repeated eruptions of freezing salty water.

The implications of this fact are important, as it suggests that Ceres’s interior was warm enough for long periods, enough to melt ice. Where that heat came from however is a mystery, considering the dwarf planet’s small size.

The Earth’s oldest fossil?

The uncertainty of science: Geologists this week announced the discovery of what they think is the Earth’s oldest fossil, approximately 3.7 billion years old.

While the press as usual is going gaga over this announcement, it should be noted that many others in the field have expressed significant doubts.

But the discovery involves some of the most physically tortured rocks on Earth, which have been squeezed and heated over billions of years as crustal plates shifted. The pressure and heat recrystallizes the rocks, erasing much of the fine-scale detail that researchers normally use to identify fossilized stromatolites — so the work is already triggering heated debate. “I’ve got 14 queries and problems that need addressing before I’ll believe it,” says Roger Buick, a geobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

NASA extends Hubble contract through 2021

NASA has extended its contract with Lockheed Martin for the operation of the Hubble Space Telescope until June 2021.

This contract is for non-science operations. Science operations are controlled by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Note that when the last repair mission to Hubble took place in 2009, they expected it to add five years to the telescope’s life. This contract says they now expect it to last at least until 2021, which will also be 31 years after its launch and almost forty years since its actual construction. Not a bad track record when you think about it, especially since its original mission was set at 15 years, ending in 2005.

Iran to launch three satellites

What, me worry? Iran has announced it will attempt to launch three satellites into orbit within the next year.

These rockets are closely linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program, so their increased skill at putting satellites into orbit also means they have refined their ability to launch missiles to any point on the globe. The response of the Obama administration?

Asked about the reports on Tuesday, a State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon that it will not take a position on the launch before it has occurred. “We’re not going to speculate on the specifics of something that hasn’t happened yet,” the spokesman said. “Our longstanding concerns regarding Iran’s ballistic missile development efforts remain, and are shared by the international community.”

“If there are specific launches or other actions that are inconsistent with any relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, we will address them through the appropriate channels,” the spokesman continued. “And we will continue to work with our partners, and take any necessary unilateral actions, to counter ongoing threats from Iran’s ballistic missile program.”

That’s telling ’em!

Social Security paid $1.7 million to dead federal workers

Government in action! An audit of Social Security has discovered that the agency paid $1.7 million to dead federal workers.

An audit released by the agency’s inspector general Monday revealed that the Social Security Administration had not crosschecked beneficiaries’ deaths with the Office of Personnel Management, which manages federal employees. Missing just 35 deaths cost taxpayers $1.7 million.

“OPM’s annuitant file contained deaths that were not recorded in SSA’s systems,” the inspector general said. “SSA paid $1.7 million in [Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance] OASDI benefits to 35 deceased beneficiaries. The average payment after death was $49,156 for an average of 84 months. …Additionally, we estimate SSA would have continued paying these beneficiaries approximately $258,000 over the next year had the deaths not been identified,” the inspector general said. Another six deceased individuals received $56,695 after their benefits were terminated by the agency.

The response by Social Security? The agency called the $1.7 million payments to dead government workers an “extremely small number.”

Scientists discover exoplanets orbiting both stars of binary system

Worlds without end: Scientists have discovered a stellar binary system which has giant exoplanets orbiting each of the system’s stars.

The twin stars studied by the group are called HD 133131A and HD 133131B. The former hosts two moderately eccentric planets, one of which is, at a minimum, about 1 and a half times Jupiter’s mass and the other of which is, at a minimum, just over half Jupiter’s mass. The latter hosts one moderately eccentric planet with a mass at least 2.5 times Jupiter’s.

The two stars themselves are separated by only 360 astronomical units (AU). One AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This is extremely close for twin stars with detected planets orbiting the individual stars. The next-closest binary system that hosts planets is comprised of two stars that are about 1,000 AU apart.

Dawn moves to higher orbit around Ceres

In order to save fuel as well as obtain a different view of Ceres, engineers are moving Dawn to a higher orbit.

On Sept. 2, Dawn will begin spiraling upward to about 910 miles (1,460 kilometers) from Ceres. The altitude will be close to where Dawn was a year ago, but the orientation of the spacecraft’s orbit — specifically, the angle between the orbit plane and the sun — will be different this time, so the spacecraft will have a different view of the surface.

Big scandal for Virgin Galactic’s investment partner

Virgin Galactic’s biggest investor has been caught up in a big scandal involving two of its top managers, including the arrest of one.

As noted at the link, there is no evidence that anyone at Virgin Galactic was involved in what appears to be an illegal transfer of $3.5 billion from the investment company. However, the collapse of this company, which invested $390 million for a 37% share in Virgin Galactic, could impact the space company’s future efforts.

DNA sequencing successfully done on ISS

Researchers have now confirmed that a new lightweight DNA sequencer has been successfully tested on ISS.

Using a hand-held, USB-powered sequencing device called the MinION, astronaut Kate Rubins, PhD, sequenced samples of mouse, bacteria and virus DNA. This portable sequencing technology could eventually help diagnose sick astronauts, monitor space station food, water, and environment for microbes, and identify extraterrestrial life forms.

As part of a collaboration with NASA on the Biomolecular Sequencer project, Earth-bound researchers – a bicoastal team at UCSF and Weill Cornell Medical College – analyzed the sequencing data from space and compared it to identical samples sequenced on the ground. The analysis would tell whether the journey to space and conditions aboard the space station affected the sequencing results.

…[An] analysis of the space and Earth data found comparable results. “We essentially got equivalent data, and it’s of very high quality, probably within the top 20 percent of nanopore runs that we do routinely here on Earth,” Chiu said.

The press release makes a big deal about how this new equipment will be beneficial for research in space, but I am betting that its creators are as much if not more interested in the profits they will make selling it to customers on Earth, where its portability will make a very useful and beneficial to Earth-bound patients and researchers.

Three professors ban skepticism of human-caused climate change

Academic fascists: Three professors teaching an online course at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs have told their students that they are forbidden to raise any skeptical data or sources or even questions when the issue of man-made global warming is discussed.

Signed by the course’s professors Rebecca Laroche, Wendy Haggren and Eileen Skahill, it was sent after several students expressed concern for their success in the course after watching the first online lecture about the impacts of climate change. “Opening up a debate that 98% of climate scientists unequivocally agree to be a non-debate would detract from the central concerns of environment and health addressed in this course,” the professors’ email continued. “… If you believe this premise to be an issue for you, we respectfully ask that you do not take this course, as there are options within the Humanities program for face to face this semester and online next.”

The professors also note this ban on debate extends to discussion among students in the online forums. Moreover, students who choose to use outside sources for research during their time in the course may select only those that have been peer-reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the email states.

Putting aside the fact that the study claiming that 97% of scientists agree with man-made global warming has been debunked, this refusal to allow open debate by these fake teachers makes them the poster child for fascism in academia.

Hat tip to commenter cotour for finding this story.

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