Halo craters on Pluto

More images from New Horizons reveal even more strange terrain on Pluto.

Data suggest that the bright rims are made of methane ice, while the dark crater floors are made of water ice, though why this has happened is a complete mystery. As they note at the link above, “Exactly why the bright methane ice settles on these crater rims and walls is a mystery; also puzzling is why this same effect doesn’t occur broadly across Pluto.”

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The stupid party, part 2

Update: Thomas Sowell chimes in, expressing some of the same thoughts I do below.

As we approach the Indiana primary next Tuesday, it appears that we are also approaching the moment of truth for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the Republican Party. And not surprisingly, that party appears ready to once again shoot itself in the foot, as it did in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012.

Polls show that the race is very tight, though the momentum seems to be favoring Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, national polls as well as the analysis of most political insiders say that Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton in November, while those same polls and insiders say that Ted Cruz has a far better shot at winning the national election.

In other words, it looks like Republican voters are going to pick the weaker of the two candidates for their nominee.

Pretty dumb, eh? What makes it even dumber is that even the slightest honest appraisal of the political beliefs of Donald Trump quickly reveals himself to be a RINO, a liberal Democrat with many ties to the corrupt political establishments of both parties. In addition, his political positions both before and during the campaign have revealed himself repeatedly to be a liberal Democratic in all things except illegal immigration, and even here he has shown indications that he will go soft once in office.

Trump is not a corrupt lying politician like Hillary Clinton. He would definitely be a better choice than her. Moreover, the insiders and the polls might be wrong about his chances against her, but I do not think so. Trump’s primary election results suggested to me that he has the support, like Mitt Romney, of a large minority of moderate Republicans and moderate former Democrats (concentrated in the northeast) that will not translate into a majority in the general election. If anything, he has set himself up to be a nice target for the press to destroy, once he is the Republican candidate.

For the Republican Party to favor him over Ted Cruz, a committed conservative who has repeatedly proven his willingness to stand up for these ideals, even under terrible fire from the press, the left, and the Republican leadership that really doesn’t want the right to win, is either madness, or it shows that the country in general no long believes in the ideals that founded it.

I’m not sure which it is, but either way, the future does not look good.

Money for space

The competition heats up: Three stories today about investors putting money into different space related business ventures are worth consolidating into one post, as they all indicate the same thing.

The first story involves a takeover by SES of the O3b satellite constellation that provides internet service globally. They already have 12 satellites in orbit, and have plans to launch 8 more by 2019. A partial list of their customers (Digicel Pacific, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, American Samoa Telecom, Speedcast, Rignet, Bharti International (Airtel), Timor Telecom, CNT Ecuador, Entel Chile and NOAA) illustrates the solidity of the company’s success, which is also why SES is spending $20 million to own it.

In the second two stories we find investment capital being committed for two different and unusual space-tourism-related companies. World View plans to launch high altitude balloons with passengers, taking them up 20 to 30 miles for a several hour journey on the edge of space. That they have secured an additional $15 million in investment even as their deal with the city of Tucson is being challenged in court indicates the confidence the investors have in their business.

SpaceVR is even more interesting. They plan to launch smallsats with cameras providing a 360 degree view, and link them to virtual reality headsets here on Earth. Consumers will then be able to experience being in space, without actually going. Though the press release does not specific how the product will be sold, it suggests that they are aiming for the education and museum market.

All three stories prove that the modern investment community, normally very adverse to high risk endeavors, is increasingly finding that the financial benefits of space travel and anything related to it are worth the financial risks. This fact can only lead to good things for the eventual development and exploration of space.

Moreover, the third story once again demonstrates the value of reducing the cost to get into orbit. SpaceVR’s idea is a very good one, but it couldn’t have happened before SpaceX forced a reduction in launch prices. Beforehand, no one could have afforded to buy the product because of the high cost to launch the satellites. Now, because the launch price is affordable, it can be marketed at a realistic price.

In other words, lower the price, and you increase the number of customers able to buy your product. I expect the rocket business to boom in the coming years.

Curiosity’s wheels handling rough terrain

Good news: The Curiosity engineering team has found that the rough and fractured rocky terrain the rover has been recently traveling across on Naukluft Plateau has not significantly increased the wear & tear on the rover’s wheels.

The rover team closely monitors wear and tear on Curiosity’s six wheels. “We carefully inspect and trend the condition of the wheels,” said Steve Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Cracks and punctures have been gradually accumulating at the pace we anticipated, based on testing we performed at JPL. Given our longevity projections, I am confident these wheels will get us to the destinations on Mount Sharp that have been in our plans since before landing.”

Inspection of the wheels after crossing most of the Naukluft Plateau has indicated that, while the terrain presented challenges for navigation, driving across it did not accelerate damage to the wheels.

New research confirms CO2 increase is greening Earth

The uncertainty of science: New data from satellites have confirmed that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the past century is contributing to an expansion of plant life globally.

Researchers studying NASA satellite data on the Earth’s vegetation coverage have discovered that plants have significantly increased their leaf cover over the last 35 years to the point that new growth across the planet is equivalent to an area twice as large as the continental United States. According to the study, the largest contributor to this greening is the growing level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

Using data collected from instruments such as NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer mounted on the AquaProbe satellite and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (such as that deployed on NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite), an international team of researchers has determined that CO2 fertilization explains fully 70 percent of the greening effect observed.

I love how the article repeatedly inserts several out-of-context comments about the dangers of global warming, even though everything in the story suggests that global warming might actually be beneficial.

SpaceX gets its first official Air Force contract

The competition heats up: On April 27 the Air Force made it official and announced that SpaceX has won its first military contract, breaking ULA’s launch monopoly.

This contract award really isn’t a surprise, as SpaceX had been certified by the Air Force as a qualified bidder, and ULA had declined to bid on this particular contract, leaving SpaceX as the Air Force’s only possible contractor.

Update: The Air Force has admitted that SpaceX’s $83 million price is 40% less than what ULA has typically charged for a comparable launch, confirming what Elon Musk and SpaceX (and many others, including myself back in 2005) have claimed all along, that the Air Force’s EELV bulk buy (giving ULA an Air Force launch monopoly) was a bad idea, discouraging innovation, forcing costs up, and guaranteed to force the government to spend a lot of unnecessary extra money.

I must add that it is definitely worthwhile reading my UPI column from 2005 again, now, more than a decade later. I predicted quite accurately what has subsequently happened following the merger of Lockheed Martin and Boeing to form ULA.

Another successful launch for India

The competition heats up: India has successfully launched its seventh home-built GPS satellite, completing their GPS constellation.

The seven first-generation satellites have been launched over a three-year period, starting with the deployment of IRNSS-1A in July 2013. ISRO has launched all of the satellites itself using the PSLV rocket. The flight number for Thursday’s launch was PSLV C33, which saw the vehicle fly in its most powerful configuration, the PSLV-XL. This version of the PSLV was introduced in October 2008 with the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe, and features more powerful solid rocket boosters than the standard PSLV, increasing the amount of payload it can carry into orbit.

Meanwhile, they are gearing up for the first test flight of the engineering prototype of their reusuable spaceplane.

First launch from Vostochny a success

The competition heats up: After more than a decade of construction and more than $6 billion, the new Russian spaceport succeeded in its first rocket launch in the early morning hours of April 28, sending three satellites into Earth orbit.

Several news stories have said that Putin was not happy about the one day launch delay due to a computer issue, as well as the one day delay of a Soyuz launch in French Guiana earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, don’t expect any further launches at Vostochny for a long time. The spaceport really isn’t ready for regular operations. This launch was merely a face-saving gesture to disguise the fact that construction is really more than a year behind schedule, not three months.

Billy Joel and Michael Pollack – New York State of Mind

An evening pause: Hat tip Frank Kelly. As Frank emailed me, “Student Michael Pollack asks Billy Joel if he can accompany him on piano, playing New York State of Mind. Billy Joel accepts and asks, “What key do you play it in.” Pollack: “What key do you want it in?” Just from that Joel can tell he can play, then Pollack starts playing, and this is important, when he starts, Joel instantly knows he’s [good]. Perhaps he realizes he might be a reason this kid learned piano. Joel is a bit amazed, watch it, he relaxes and just lets Pollack do his thing; he even makes a flamboyant point of putting his sunglasses on.”

Or as Joel says at the end, “The guy’s got chops.” Stick with it, it only gets better.

Venus’s dark stripes remain unexplained

The uncertainty of science: A new analysis of past data from Venus suggests that the planet’s atmospheric sulfur cannot be causing the atmosphere’s dark stripes seen in the ultraviolet.

If we look at Venus in a normal optical telescope, we see only a dull yellowish-white sphere without any other distinguishing features. However, if we capture an image in the ultraviolet range, the picture changes drastically – dark and light areas appear on the disc, reflecting the dynamics of the atmosphere. “These areas mean that somewhere in the upper cloud layer there is a substance that is absorbing UV radiation. Over the past 30 years there have been a wide range of hypotheses as to what this substance could be. Many scientists believed that sulfur particles were responsible for the absorption. But now we will have to abandon this hypothesis,” says Krasnopolsky.

It appears that the new analysis puts the sulfur too low in the atmosphere.

Tallest tunnel slide to open in London

A reason to go to London: The world’s tallest tunnel slide, almost 600 feet long and 250 feet high, is being built as part of a sculpture that was part of the 2012 Olympic games location.

Once complete, the slide will be 178-m (584-ft) long and 76-m (249-ft) high, making it, according to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the “world’s tallest and longest tunnel slide.” Riders will experience 12 twists and turns, including a tight corkscrew section called the “bettfeder,” which is German for “bedspring.” The slide ends with a 50-m (164-ft) straight stretch to the ground.

It is estimated that it will take about 40 seconds for people to descend the slide, with riders expected to hit speeds of up to 15 mph (24 km/h). On the way down, there will be dark sections, as well as points where it will be possible for riders to see out of transparent polycarbonate windows, providing brief views out over the Olympic Park and surrounding areas.

Dragon to go to Mars in 2018

The competition heats up: Though no details have yet been released, SpaceX has announced through its twitter feed that they plan to send a Dragon to Mars by 2018.

This is not really a surprise, as rumors have been circulating literally for years of Musk’s Martian goals. Nor am I doubtful they can do it. What is important about this announcement is that it suggests that they are now confident that the delays for the first Falcon Heavy launch are mostly over, and that it will happen in the fall as presently planned. With this rocket they will have the launch capability to do a test flight to Mars.

Curiosity drills again

The Curiosity science team has paused the rover’s journey up Mt Sharp in order to drill another hole, this time on the fractured rock covering the surface of Naukluft plateau.

The drill effort was a success, and they are now gathering data from the hole and the material from it. At the same time, the drilling process drained the rover’s batteries, which means they are now taking a break from science to let them recharge.

First Vostochny launch scrubbed at T-1.5

The first launch at Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport yesterday was aborted by its computers at T-1.5 minutes.

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, said the launch was halted automatically due to the glitches of the automated control system. He said the system may be restored in a day. “As usual, the responsibility for what is happening in the space sector rests with those people who are in charge of it and head it,” Komarov added.

I love how governments and their minions always use the word “glitch” when the really haven’t the slightest idea what went wrong.

Regardless, based on their plans to try again tomorrow, I suspect that the problem was relatively simple, related to the computer sensing some parameter that was outside expected tolerances, and easily fixed.

Fascists try to shut down conservative panel at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

At a conservative panel at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on Monday, protesters once again screamed and heckled the speakers, trying to silence them.

This was another event in the Milo Yiannopoulos speaking tour that saw the same kind of treatment on Saturday at American University. This time, Yiannopoulos was not alone, joined by Christina Hoff Sommers and Steven Crowder, who when he got the mike proceeded to give an epic 4 minute long put-down of the protesters, to loud applause from the audience. You can see some video of the event at the link above, but I have embedded Crowder’s rant below the fold, as it is absolutely worth seeing. He demonstrates the right way to treat these people, by standing up to them boldly, with humor, and courage.
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April 25, 2016 Zimmerman Space Show appearance

My appearance on the Space Show yesterday is now available as a podcast. I strongly recommend people listen to it, especially the first hour. During that section I compared at length the cost and practicality of the Falcon Heavy with SLS/Orion, and noted how badly Congress and Presidents from both parties have served the American people these past twenty years in mismanaging our aerospace industry.

David Livingston called it a rant, and criticized me for it during the show, but I think the time has come for more Americans to rage in horror at the foolishness and possible corruption of our elected leaders in Washington.

A close look at Falcon 9’s reusable cost savings

Link here.

The analysis is interesting and thoughtful, though some of the negative comments quoted from a former NASA engineer only illustrate why NASA was unable to do this very well. Moreover, these comments from Arianespace’s chief suggest that Arianespace doesn’t understand basic economics.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, in an April 23 briefing at Europe’s Guiana Space Center here on the northeast coast of South America, said Europe’s launch sector can only guess at how much SpaceX will need to spend to refurbish its Falcon 9 first stages. Israel said European assessments of reusability have concluded that, to reap the full cost benefits, a partially reusable rocket would need to launch 35-40 times per year to maintain a sizable production facility while introducing reused hardware into the manifest.

…Israel’s argument, which he has made before, is that even if first stages can be recovered and refurbished in a cost-effective way, the launch rate needed for maximum cost savings – and hence price reductions to customers – is beyond Europe’s reach. The only nations today whose governments are launching sufficiently often to reach those rates are the United States and China, and even these government markets may be insufficient, in and of themselves, to close the business case.

The customer base is not static. If you lower the price, the customer base grows, a fact that Elon Musk understands and which has been driving his effort from day one.

The methane seas of Titan

Scientists have used the data that Cassini has gathered in more than a hundred fly-bys of Titan to assemble a rough outline of the geology and make-up of Titan’s liquid lakes.

There are three large seas, all close to the north pole, surrounded by dozens of smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one lake has been found in the southern hemisphere. The exact make-up of these liquid reservoirs remained elusive until recently. A new study using scans from Cassini’s radar during flybys of Titan between 2007 and 2015 confirms that one of the largest seas on the moon, Ligeia Mare, is mostly liquid methane.

“We expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart,” explains Alice Le Gall from the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales and Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, France, and lead author of the new study. “Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane.”

The data is also giving them the first understanding of the weather and geology that forms the lakes, including why methane instead of ethane dominates.

Airbus Safran joint rocket venture moving forward

The competition heats up: According to the head of Safran, their joint venture with Airbus to build Europe’s next rocket, Ariane 6, is on schedule to begin full operations by July 1.

He said in a press teleconference that the issues both with the French tax authorities and with the European Union about the merger are being resolved.

Hubble discovers moon circling Kuiper belt object

Worlds without end: Hubble has spotted a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt object Makemake.

The moon — provisionally designated S/2015 (136472) 1 and nicknamed MK 2 — is more than 1,300 times fainter than Makemake. MK 2 was seen approximately 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its diameter is estimated to be 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide. The dwarf planet, discovered in 2005, is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

An extended Dawn mission might go to another asteroid

The Dawn science team is proposing that NASA extend the mission by allowing them to use the remaining fuel on the spacecraft to send it away from Ceres and towards another asteroid.

Originally mission managers had planned to park it in a stable orbit around Ceres later this summer, creating a permanent artificial satellite. They could not crash the spacecraft into Ceres, as is customary with many similar missions, because Dawn has not been sterilized in accord with planetary protection procedures. But the extra xenon has created an additional opportunity.

Scientists involved with the spacecraft say they could visit a third object in the asteroid belt. “Instead, we want to go the other way, away from Ceres, to visit yet another target,” principal investigator Chris Russell told New Scientist. Russell would not name the destination without approval of the plan from NASA, but we should learn about it in a few months.

Up until now they had said that they didn’t have enough remaining fuel to do much more than remain in orbit at Ceres. It appears now that they have saved enough fuel to give them more options.

New smallsat rocket company obtains financing

The competition heats up: A new rocket company, Vector Space Systems, has announced that it has obtained seed money to begin the development of a new rocket for launch very small satellites.

Vector is designed to provide dedicated launches of very small spacecraft. The vehicle is capable of placing satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms into a basic low Earth orbit, and 25 kilograms into a standard sun synchronous orbit. Those launches will cost $2–3 million each, with the higher price reserved for “first class” launches reserved as little as three months in advance.

This rocket would compete with Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne and Rocket Lab’s Electron for the smallsat and cubesat business.

Congress micro-manages rocket engineering again

In an effort to funnel money to Aerojet Rocketdyne at the cost of every other rocket company in the nation, the House Armed Services Committee has written a bill that tells the Air Force exactly how it will build its future rockets.

“The Committee shares the concern of many members that reliance on Russian-designed rocket engines is no longer acceptable,” the committee said April 25. “The Chairman’s Proposal, as recommended by Chairman Rogers of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, denies the Air Force’s request to pursue the development, at taxpayer expense, of new commercial launch systems. It instead focuses on the development of a new American engine to replace the Russian RD-180 by 2019 to protect assured access to space and to end reliance on Russian engines. The Mark also holds the Air Force accountable for its awards of rocket propulsion contracts that violated the FY15 and FY16 NDAAs.”

…“The funds would not be authorized to be obligated or expended to develop or procure a launch vehicle, an upper stage, a strap-on motor, or related infrastructure,” says a draft of the 2017 defense authorization bill.

As presently written, the bill would leave the Air Force only one option: use engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

If anything demonstrates the corruption or foolishness of our elected officials, it is this proposal. Not only are they telling the Air Force how to design rockets, they are limiting the options so much that they are guaranteeing that it will either cost us more than we can afford, or it won’t be doable at all. As I say, either they are corrupt (working to benefit Aerojet Rocketdyne in exchange for money), or they are foolish, (preventing the Air Force from exploring as many inexpensive future options as possible).

First Long March 5 begins assembly

The competition heats up: China has begun assembly of its first Long March 5 rocket, set for launch in September.

Yang Hujun, vice chief engineer, has spoken about the next steps for the Long March-5 project. “After the assembly is finished in the first half of this year, it will take a little more than a month to test it to ensure that the product is in good shape. The first launch will be made after it is out of the plant in the latter half of the year. “

The rocket will be able to put about 25 tons into orbit, making it one of the most powerful rockets in the world. They plan to use it on its first launch to put their next space station into orbit.

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