Readers!

June 27th marks the 8th anniversary of my first post here on Behind the Black. In those eight years my goal has been to provide a clear and independent analysis of the present-day space effort as well as the culture, politics, and technology that moves it.

 

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Regardless, I thank everyone for their support and encouragement. I could not do this work without it.

 

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Conflict in Hubble constant increases with new data from Hubble and Gaia

The uncertainty of science: New data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia continues to measure a different Hubble constant for the expansion rate of the universe, when compared with data from the Planck space telescope.

Using Hubble and newly released data from Gaia, Riess’ team measured the present rate of expansion to be 73.5 kilometers (45.6 miles) per second per megaparsec. This means that for every 3.3 million light-years farther away a galaxy is from us, it appears to be moving 73.5 kilometers per second faster. However, the Planck results predict the universe should be expanding today at only 67.0 kilometers (41.6 miles) per second per megaparsec. As the teams’ measurements have become more and more precise, the chasm between them has continued to widen, and is now about 4 times the size of their combined uncertainty.

The problem really is very simple: We haven’t the faintest idea what is going on. We have some data, but we also have enormous gaps in our knowledge of the cosmos. Moreover, most of our cosmological data is reliant on too many assumptions that could be wrong, or simply in error. And the errors can be tiny and still throw the results off by large amounts.

The one thing that good science and skepticism teaches is humbleness. Do not be too sure of your conclusions. The universe is a large and complex place. It likes to throw curve balls at us, and if we swing too soon we will certainly miss.

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GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew

A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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California’s coming crash

Link here. Money quote:

Economist Herbert Stein once said: “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” California, on its current trajectory and with its new Socialist-inspired leadership, cannot go on forever. There simply isn’t enough money. The state will ultimately fail because the math says it has to.

Or as the article’s author also notes, “California’s aspiring new Socialists have already run out of other people’s money.” Worse, they don’t even know it, and plan to spend even more money they don’t have on more pie-in-the-sky communist fantasies.

California today reminds me of Venezuela ten years ago, when things started to go sour but no one there wanted to admit it. It also reminds me of the Soviet Union under Brezhnev in the 1970s. The collapse is coming, but the insane culture and leadership in California continues to do the same failed thing, over and over, expecting a different result. Instead, everything is going to crash. My big fear is that they will take everyone else down with them.

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Ghost dunes on Mars

Scientists have found Martian pits formed by the leftover remains of dunes that long ago blew away.

Scientists have discovered hundreds of crescent-shaped pits on Mars where sand dunes the size of the U.S. Capitol stood billions of years ago. The curves of these ancient dune impressions record the direction of prevailing winds on the Red Planet, providing potential clues to Mars’s past climate, and may hold evidence of ancient life, according to a new study detailing the findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Ghost dunes are the negative space left behind by long-vanished sand dunes. Lava or water-borne sediments partially buried the dunes and hardened, preserving the dunes’ contours. Wind subsequently blew sand off the exposed tops and scoured it out from inside, leaving a solid mold in the shape of the lost dune.

The claim that these geological features “may hold evidence of ancient life” is pure hyperbole, and absurd. However, the features are important because they will help date the sediment or lava flows around them, while also providing markers to help understand the history of the Martian climate.

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SpaceX installs much larger arms for net on ship for fairing recapture

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has completed the installation of much larger arms for the net that will be used to try catching rocket fairings.

While it’s difficult to estimate from photos alone, it appears that Mr Steven’s new arms are minimum of roughly 65 meters squared, assuming a square aspect ratio. In other words, the vessel’s next and newest net could have an area as large as 3600 square meters (~40,000 square feet, ~0.85 acres), easily more than quadruple the size of Mr Steven’s previous net. For comparison, the massive autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) SpaceX often recovers its Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters aboard have a usable landing area of roughly 45,000 square feet, a little more than 10% larger than Mr Steven’s new net.

With these vast new arms, struts, and (soon enough) net, SpaceX is likely as close as they have ever been to successfully catching a Falcon 9 fairing, an achievement that would likely allow the company to begin reusing the large carbon fiber-composite shrouds almost immediately. Critically, although SpaceX appears to have begun attaching recovery hardware to both fairing halves in recent West Coast attempts, it remains to be seen whether Mr Steven’s new claw apparatus will be able to catch both halves, thus closing the gap on fairing recovery without necessitating the leasing and modification of perhaps three additional copies of the vessel.

This new net setup is big. We shall see if it works during an Iridium launch later this month.

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Engine tests for reusable Phantom Express space plane completed

Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne have successfully completed ten engine firings in ten days of an rocket engine originally designed for the space shuttle and now being recycled as part of Boeing’s Phantom Express reusable rocket being built for DARPA.

I honestly am not that excited by this. The Merlin engine has been able to do some variation of this now for a half decade. Firing an engine repeatedly is required to get satellites into geosynchronous orbit. This really isn’t news.

Nonetheless, it will be news if they can get this engine installed in a rocket that they actually fly to orbit ten times in ten days.

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Nine finalists for UAE’s astronaut corps of four

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates has reduced its astronaut candidate pool to nine in preparation for choosing the person who will fly on a Russian Soyuz to ISS.

These finalists will now undergo training and assessment by the Russians. The actual flight is presently set for April 2019.

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Rocket Lab plans second launch site in U.S.

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab is considering opening a second launch site in U.S.

American sites being considered were Cape Canaveral in Florida, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Rocket Lab said.

The firm expected its first launch from the United States would take place in the second quarter of 2019.

Since the company has not yet succeeded in initiating commercial operations, we should not get too excited by this news. At the same time, that they are considering doing this suggests they are increasingly confident about their future.

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Cygnus fires engine to test reboost of ISS

The Cygnus freighter presently berthed to ISS yesterday did a successful test engine firing to see if it could raise the orbit of ISS.

The cargo resupply vehicle provided a reboost to the Station at 4:25 pm Eastern, with a short 50 second burn of its main engine on the aft of the vehicle, raising the Station’s altitude by 295 feet. This test will pave the way for future, longer burns, removing some of the orbital stationkeeping strain from the Russian assets.

This was the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011, a US spacecraft had performed a reboost of the ISS.

Northrop Grumman proposed the idea, considering it a way to enhance the value of Cygnus for future NASA contracts. It also appears that NASA is looking to see if the Dragon and Starliner capsule can do this. If so, it will free the U.S. from another dependency it presently has with Russia, who today has the only approved ability to raise the station’s orbit, using Progress and Soyuz capsules and sometimes the engine on its Zvezda module.

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Eric Whitacre – The Seal Lullaby

An evening pause: Originally written for a film that was never made, this song speaks to the emotion of every parent, watching their child asleep.

Oh, hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us
And black are the waters that sparkled so green
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between

Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow
Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas

Asleep in the arms
Of the slow swinging seas

Whitacre is the conductor in this performance by Junges Vokalensemble Hannover.

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

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Inventor of 3D gun wins lawsuit against Justice

The inventor of a 3D gun has won a free speech lawsuit against the Justice Department for its order blocking the publication of his 3D gun designs.

Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed and Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) reached a settlement with the Department of Justice allowing unfettered publication of 3D gun files and other information in a case centered on free speech. Breitbart News reported that SAF filed a suit on behalf of Defense Distributed on May 6, 2015, seeking to free Wilson from a federal mandate that he not post blueprints for The Liberator pistol online.

Over three years later, the announcement comes that Wilson and SAF won. SAF sent a press release to Breitbart News, explaining details of settlement, saying, “The government has agreed to waive its prior restraint against the plaintiffs, allowing them to freely publish the 3-D files and other information at issue. The government has also agreed to pay a significant portion of the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, and to return $10,000 in State Department registration dues paid by Defense Distributed as a result of the prior restraint.”

In other words, the Justice Department had no authority under the Constitution to block the publication of these 3D gun plans, and in its effort to try it has lost badly.

What this really means is that it is now literally impossible for any government to impose gun control. If you want a gun, all you will need is the right kind of 3D printer (getting better all the time) and the right plans, soon to be available on the web. While this might make guns more available for bad guys, I guarantee that they will quickly be outnumbered by the good guys.

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Tory Party opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit deal grows

Seven Tory officials have now resigned from Theresa May’s Conservative government in protest to her planned “Chequers” deal with the European Union for Britian’s exit.

It appears that the deal leaves Britain subject to EU regulations, something that the voters did not want. As noted by one Tory rebel,

Mr Bradley said the Chequers plan would wreck opportunities to develop global trade and be ‘an outward-looking nation in control of our own destiny’. ‘Being tied to EU regulations and the EU tying our hands when seeking to make new trade agreements will be the worst of all worlds,’ wrote the Mansfield MP, who voted Remain in a constituency where 70 per cent of voters opted to Leave.

The resignations follow those of Brexit Secretary Mr Davis, his junior minister Steve Baker, Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson and ministerial aides Conor Burns and Chris Green.

Right now it appears that this deal will likely fail, and that Great Britain will leave the EU without a deal, something that will probably please the voters. The EU’s regulations, created not by elected officials but by unelected bureaucrats, stifle competition and free enterprise as every stage of industry.

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Spiders on Mars!

spiders on Mars

Cool image time! Today’s release of new captioned images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) included a wonderful image of the melting carbon dioxide cap of Mars’s south pole. On the right is a cropped portion of the full image, showing what the MRO scientists nickname spiders, features that appear as the CO2 begins to turn into gas.

But these aren’t actual spiders. We call it “araneiform terrain,” to describe the spider-like radiating channels that form when carbon dioxide ice below the surface heats up and releases. This is an active seasonal process we don’t see on Earth. Like dry ice on Earth, the carbon dioxide ice on Mars sublimates as it warms (changes from solid to gas) and the gas becomes trapped below the surface.

Over time the trapped carbon dioxide gas builds in pressure and is eventually strong enough to break through the ice as a jet that erupts dust. The gas is released into the atmosphere and darker dust may be deposited around the vent or transported by winds to produce streaks. The loss of the sublimated carbon dioxide leaves behind these spider-like features etched into the surface.

The image above shows older spiders, formed during past seasonal events. If you click on the image you can see the full image, which shows darker spiders produced by this season’s cycle.

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The dying Russian space program, from a Russian’s perspective

Link here. I have written previously about how Russia’s space effort seems to be steadily shrinking, month-to-month. This article gives the perspective from the point of view of a Russian who writes about space, and provides some concrete further examples of the program’s bureaucratic problems:

For example, the Russian space agency has been developing a “new” science and research module for the space station, “Nauka,” since 1995. More than two decades later, the module still awaits a decision on whether it should actually be completed.

Borisov asserts that this is because there are concerns about post-launch problems. “No official from Russia’s space industry wants to take responsibility for the laboratory module and its safety for use as part of the ISS, about which many questions have arisen,” he writes. (A translation of the 3,000-word article was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell).

The story is similar for Russia’s next-generation spacecraft, Federation. Instead of investing in this new vehicle designed for deep-space crew activities, which has been under development for a decade, Russia will likely opt to continue revising the Soyuz spacecraft, which first launched 52 years ago. This was before NASA’s Apollo capsule had flown.

The Putin government made a decision in the past decade to consolidate their entire space industry into one giant government-run corporation. In the process they eliminated all competition, and put every new project under the control of government bureaucrats whose first concern is not innovation and risk, but covering their behinds. As such, Russia has found it impossible to produce new space technology fast enough to compete.

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Global topographic maps of Pluto and Charon

Using data and images from New Horizons scientists have now produced the first global topographic maps of Pluto and Charon.

Obviously, the resolution for the maps of both planets is very uneven, since the spacecraft only saw part of each planet at high resolution during its fly-by. Nonetheless, they note some of the more interesting details revealed:

These maps reveal a rich variety of landforms on both Pluto and Charon. The topographic maps confirm that the highest known mountains on Pluto are the Tenzing Montes range, which formed along the southwestern margins of the frozen nitrogen ice sheet of Sputnik Planitia. These steep-sided icy peaks have slopes of 40° or more and rise several kilometers above the floor of Sputnik Planitia. The highest peak rises approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) above the base of the range, comparable to base-to-crest heights of Denali in Alaska, and Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Pluto’s mountains must be composed of stiff water ice in order to maintain their heights, as the more volatile ices observed on Pluto, including methane and nitrogen ice, would be too weak and the mountains would collapse.

The topographic maps also reveal large-scale features that are not obvious in the global mosaic map. The ice sheet within the 1000-kilometer (625-mile) wide Sputnik Planitia is on average 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) deep while the outer edges of the ice sheet lie an even deeper 3.5 km (or 2.2. miles) below Pluto’s mean elevation, or ‘sea level’ surface. While most of the ice sheet is relatively flat, these outer edges of Sputnik Planitia are the lowest known areas on Pluto, all features that are evident only in the stereo images and elevation maps. The topographic maps also reveal the existence of a global-scale deeply eroded ridge-and-trough system more than 3000 kilometers (or 1864 miles) long, trending from north-to-south near the western edge of Sputnik Planitia. This feature is the longest known on Pluto and indicates that extensive fracturing occurred in the distant past. Why such fracturing occurred only along this linear band is not well understood.

On Charon the topographic maps also reveal deep depressions near the north pole that are ~14 kilometers (8.7 miles) deep, deeper than the Marianas Trench on Earth. The equatorial troughs that form the boundary between the northern and southern plains on Charon also feature high relief of ~8 kilometers. The mapping of fractured northern terrains and tilted crustal blocks along this boundary could be due to cryovolcanic resurfacing, perhaps triggered by the foundering of large crustal blocks into the deep interior of Charon. The rugged relief also indicates that Charon retains much of its original topography caused by its history of fracturing and surface disruption.

These maps are obviously only our first stab at mapping both planets. We will need orbiters around both to truly detail their surface features.

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Mars 2020 gets fourth candidate landing site

The science team for the next American Mars rover, Mars 2020, has decided to consider a fourth candidate landing site, located between two other candidate sites.

The site has been dubbed “Midway,” because it’s roughly halfway between two other candidate landing locations — Jezero delta and Northeast Syrtis. The third previously identified candidate is the Columbia Hills region of Gusev Crater, which NASA’s now-defunct Spirit rover explored after touching down in January 2004.

Jezero, Northeast Syrtis and Columbia Hills were selected as finalists at the third 2020 rover landing site workshop, which was held in February 2017.

Midway has the same morphologic units as Northeast Syrtis and is relatively close to Jezero, explained John Mustard, a professor in the Department of Earth Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “It has emerged from Mars 2020 science team members I believe brainstorming on possibly getting two birds with one rover,” Mustard told Inside Outer Space.

Based on this story, it sounds to me as this new site has emerged as the favorite. It would put the rover down in the transition zone between Mars’s northern low plains and its southern highlands, an area where evidence of the receding shoreline of any past intermittent ocean might exist. It would also allow it to study geology similar to two previous candidate sites.

One problem they may have is that this candidate site has not yet been photographed in detail by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera, as have the other sites. They will need to get time on MRO to do this in order to make sure this site is acceptable.

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Israel’s former Google Lunar X-Prize contestant to launch in 2018

Capitalism in space: Despite a failure of all contestants to to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, Israel’s competitor announced today that they still plan to launch, and will do so in December of this year.

The SpaceIL spacecraft will be launched from the United States on a Falcon 9 orbital launch vehicle, built by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX. At a press conference on Tuesday, SpaceIL representatives announced that the unmanned lunar landing craft will be transferred to the US in November, with a launch date in December.

According to SpaceIL, the unmanned space vessel will reach the moon and complete the lunar landing on February 13th next year.

They say the lander will plant an Israeli flag on the Moon, but the images at the link, as well as the announcement, suggests that the lander will no longer have the ability to rove, as required for the X-Prize. It appears to me that they have simplified the mission in order to fly it quickly and gain the public relations such a flight will give them.

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First manned Dragon capsule completes thermal vacuum tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule has completed its thermal vacuum tests ahead of its test orbital flight, presently scheduled for September of this year.

There have been hints that this schedule could be further delayed. That neither SpaceX nor NASA were willing to comment about the results of the thermal tests could be a cause for concern, or it could simply be that they have not yet digested the material and wish to do so first before commenting.

I suspect a more firm schedule will be announced before the end of this month.

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China launches GPS satellite, matches record for annual launches

China today completed its 20th launch in 2018, putting a GPS satellite into orbit with its Long March 3C rocket.

Twenty launches matches China’s 2016 record for annual launches, but they have done so in just over half a year. They continue on track to meet their prediction of about 40 launches in2018.

The updated 2018 leader launch standings:

20 China
12 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan

China now leads the U.S. 20 to 18 in the national rankings.

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All thirteen trapped cavers rescued alive!

Miracles happen: Cave divers today successfully rescued the last four boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand.

All 12 members of a Thai youth football team and their coach have been brought safely out of the cave in northern Thailand. The final five members rescued join eight team members taken to hospital on Sunday and Monday and said to be doing well. Each person was pulled through the cave by expert divers. The last Navy Seals – three divers and a doctor – are out of the cave, the rescue chief says.

As I said, this is a miracle. The press is likely going to focus on the kids and their coach, but the real heroes are the cave divers who risked their lives, with one man dying, to save these children.

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Trump picks Kavanaugh for Supreme Court

Link here. Kavanaugh’s track record places him no worse than middle-of-the-road Kennedy, whom he replaces, but more likely leaning more to the right. How far will remain for time to decide.

Expect a lot of slander, over-the-top attacks, and vicious opposition from the left, based not on facts but on their insane thirst for power, now certain to shrink significantly.

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Sunspot update for June 2018: Activity increases again

NOAA today posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for June 2018. Below is this month’s annotated graph.

For the third straight month the Sun showed a small increase in sunspot activity. The pattern also continued to follow the two-week-on/two-week-off pattern of activity caused by the Sun’s 27-day rotation, as I described in my update last month.

June 2018 sunspot activity

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 yellow line compares the present activity with the activity during solar minimum in 2008 and 2009.

This pattern is continuing. As of today, there have been no sunspots since June 28, almost two weeks. I would not be surprised if some sunspots appeared within the next week, especially because today’s image of the Sun from Solar Dynamic Observatory shows bright faculae rotating into view. Faculae are, like sunspots, a sign of solar magnetic activity. The two usually go together.

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Israel considers a loosening of its gun laws

The Israeli government is considering a relaxing of its gun laws in order to allow more ordinary citizens the ability to own and carry guns for self defense.

Israel is mulling relaxing gun rules that will allow up to 40,000 more people to get weapons, the local media reports. Gun-lobbying politicians hope the measure will help ordinary citizens to neutralize “terrorists.”

The Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan proposed to allow any Israeli citizen who passed rifle training in the IDF to apply for a gun license, Tel-Aviv-based daily Haartez reported on Sunday. According to the paper, the required level of training for the license will be equivalent to the one of an IDF combat infantry soldier. If introduced, the measure will be a win for Israel’s gun lobby that had been fighting to lower the bar for gun ownership in order to help regular citizens defend themselves during terror attacks.

“Sending the citizens of Israel to protect themselves with pizza trays, selfie sticks, guitars and umbrellas is a crime of the state against its citizens,” politician Amir Ohana, who leads the gun lobby caucus in the nation’s parliament told Haaretz. “A law abiding citizen, who has the basic skill required, is entitled to be able to defend himself and his surroundings.”

It is simple common sense. It is the same common sense the required all citizens in the American west to know how to use a gun or rifle, and to be armed. Unfortunately, Israel does not have a second amendment, so the right to bear arms is something that the government can give or take, depending on who wins elections.

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Four more boys rescued from cave in Thailand

Link here.

Keep your fingers crossed. What I did not mention yesterday in describing the dangers of cave diving was the truly courageous work of the divers to find these boys. Caving diving is mostly done blind. The first person in can sometimes see, but very quickly the silt reduces visibility to zero. To make sure divers can find their way back, they lay a lifeline as they go.

There had not been a lifeline to the passages where the boys were found, prior to this rescue effort. To have laid out a lifeline in passages almost two-thirds of a mile long, so quickly, speaks volumes for the courage and skills of the cave divers here. It is also why I am not surprised one diver died in the effort.

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Why Google blurs surface images of Israel, and why that blurring could end

Link here. A 1997 U.S. law requires that all satellite imagery of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank be blurred. The law also sets the resolution standard based on the best images produced by other commercial companies outside the U.S.

NOAA is now reviewing the law, since high resolution European commercial images have been available since 2012. If it decides this is the new standard, high resolution views of this very politically hot region could become publicly available for free.

The article focuses on the wonderfully good things in science and research this change would bring. It completely ignores the use that terrorist organizations, set on killing as many Israelis as possible, could put to such images.

In general, I prefer freedom and the wide distribution of information. In this case I am torn.

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