Messenger descends to Mercury

As Messenger continues its observations of Mercury engineers have now lowered its orbit to its closest approach yet, 62 miles.

They will lower the orbit even more in August and September, then raise it up again for its final few months of research at the innermost planet, after which the spacecraft will use its last fuel to impact the planet.


Venus Express is alive

After diving into Venus’s atmosphere on an aerobraking test that could have destroyed the spacecraft, the European probe Venus Express has now successfully used its last bits of fuel to raise its orbit back to research height.

Its present orbit will probably decay sometime in December, when the spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere. However, the scientists running the mission though that was likely to happen during the aerobraking maneuver. Instead, Venus Express is giving them about another half year of research.

Planet of geysers

Using Cassini data assembled over the past seven years, scientists have now identified 101 distinct geysers erupting on the surface of the Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Over a period of almost seven years, Cassini’s cameras surveyed the south polar terrain of the small moon, a unique geological basin renowned for its four prominent “tiger stripe” fractures and the geysers of tiny icy particles and water vapor first sighted there nearly 10 years ago. The result of the survey is a map of 101 geysers, each erupting from one of the tiger stripe fractures, and the discovery that individual geysers are coincident with small hot spots. These relationships pointed the way to the geysers’ origin.

The really important discovery here however is this:
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Another DC gun ban ruled unconstitutional

Victory for freedom: On Saturday a federal judge ruled that the DC ban on carrying handguns outside your home was unconstitutional and must no longer be enforced.

Expect the crime rate in DC to finally begin declining.

Update: DC’s police chief today announced that they will no longer arrest anyone who has the legal right to carry a gun, concealed or otherwise, in DC or in any other state. This means they now recognize the gun laws of the rest of the country.

Will Russia’s most powerful rocket engine be reborn?

The competition heats up? The original builders of the hydrogen-oxygen engine that launched the Soviet Union’s most powerful rocket, Energia, are pushing to restart production of that engine.

By 2013, the KBKhA design bureau, which developed the original RD-0120 engine, declared its restoration as one of several high-priority projects. According to a schedule developed by KBKhA in coordination with its manufacturing arm — the Voronezh Mechanical Plant — the RD-0120 could be brought back to production in six years, given adequate funding.

The final decision on the restoration of the RD-0120 would depend on the approved architecture of the super-heavy rocket, whose development was included into the latest draft of the Federal Space Program from 2016 to 2025. Plans to restore RD-0120 had its critics, who believed that a new investment into the hydrogen propulsion technology would be too costly and risky for the Russian rocket industry. A recent analysis of prospective super-heavy rocket designs by RKTs Progress, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, favored methane and solid propellants over the liquid hydrogen. At the same time, an alternative proposal from RKK Energia, the Russia’s chief manned space flight contractor, featured the RD-0120 engine on the third stage of the super-heavy Energia-KV rocket, industry sources said.

I’m not sure if it will be economically wise for Russia to focus their energies on this engine, or on a super-heavy rocket. Like NASA’s SLS, such projects look great for politicians and provide a lot of pork, but they generally are too expensive to accomplish very much.

SpaceX launch schedule heats up

A close look at SpaceX’s launch schedule through the rest of 2014 calls for six Falcon 9 launches, including two before the end of August.

If the company is successfully in maintaining this schedule, they will end any doubts about their ability to transform the launch industry. Every other launch company will have to match their prices, or lose their customers.

One paragraph in the article does tell us that there are limits to the re-usability of the Falcon 9 first stage, even if they do succeed in bringing it back safely to a vertical landing on land.
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Commercial communications satellites for Mars?

The competition heats up? NASA is considering a different commercial approach for providing communications to and from its Mars probes.

The purpose of NASA’s request for information, or RFI, released July 23 “is to explore new business models for how NASA might sustain Mars relay infrastructure, consisting of orbiters capable of providing standardized telecommunication services for rovers and landers on the Martian surface, in the Martian atmosphere, or in Mars orbit,” according to a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

According to the post, NASA will use information it receives from respondents to inform its future Mars exploration strategies, but the agency has not decided to pursue a commercial interplanetary telecom initiative. “We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, in a statement. “Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars.” [emphasis mine]

It is important to highlight the fact that NASA has not yet made a decision on this issue. The best thing the agency could do, in my opinion, would be to step back, design nothing, but let private companies bid on providing the service. The expertise at many of the private satellite companies providing communications efficiently and inexpensively to private customers worldwide would easily provide NASA better communications at Mars for less money.

In other words, like manned flight and cargo delivery to ISS, NASA should simply become a customer, and let private companies build and own the products that NASA buys.

SpaceX scores first in its suit against the Air Force

A federal judge has denied the motion of the Air Force and ULA to dismiss SpaceX’s suit against their block buy launch contract that excludes competition from any other company.

The judge also required the parties go to mediation to settle their differences. Both rulings give added weight to SpaceX’s main complaint, that the company as well as others should have the right to compete for this Air Force launch work.

Maria and the Captain dance the Laendler

An evening pause: From the classic musical, The Sound of Music (1965), a moment with few words where all things change because everyone understands everything anyway.

As I noted in my first Evening Pause on July 1, 2010, “Julie Andrews, in her prime, had one of the most incredible screen presences of any actor in the history of film.”

Protecting the Mars orbiters from comet flyby

Engineers are repositioning the American spacecraft orbiting Mars so that they will be better protected by the planet when Comet Siding Spring flies past on October 19.

The comet’s nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers), shedding material hurtling at about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per second, relative to Mars and Mars-orbiting spacecraft. At that velocity, even the smallest particle — estimated to be about one-fiftieth of an inch (half a millimeter) across — could cause significant damage to a spacecraft.

NASA currently operates two Mars orbiters, with a third on its way and expected to arrive in Martian orbit just a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of the Red Planet when the comet is most likely to pass by.

The loss of skepticism in science

In April I taped a half hour television interview with George Noory for his subscription-based video show, Beyond Belief. Below is a clip from that interview, where I describe the terrible state of climate research, and how politics is destroying the very heart of what science stands for. Too many people are no longer open-minded. Rather than relay on the data they push their theories instead.

Robert Zimmerman discusses the truth about climate change with George Noory!

Sierra Nevada signs deal with Japan

The competition heats up: Japan has signed a development agreement with Sierra Nevada in connection with its Dream Chaser manned spacecraft.

I was also tempted to preface this post with the phrase, “Who needs NASA?” Sierra Nevada has a viable product that can get humans into space cheaply. Several countries, Germany, now Japan, want to get their own citizens into space, and have realized what a bargain Dream Chaser is. Sierra Nevada is taking advantage of this demand to sell its product worldwide. If Congress decides to defund them, or NASA decides not to pick them to continue development, they very clearly intend to build the ship anyway. It just won’t be used to put American astronauts into space.

Russia loses contact with Photon-M

Russia has lost contact with its Photon-M biology spacecraft, launched last week with a four geckos on board.

The Russians say that the receipt of telemetry from the spacecraft shows it is successfully operating autonomously without help from the ground. And since the Russians have a great deal of experience building spacecraft that can function on their own, I have no reason to disbelieve them in this. What is not clear is whether the spacecraft can come home on its own.

SLS needs more money!

Surprise, surprise! A GAO report finds that SLS is over budget and that NASA will need an additional $400 million to complete its first orbital launch in 2017.

NASA isn’t meeting its own requirements for matching cost and schedule resources with the congressional requirement to launch the first SLS in December 2017. NASA usually uses a calculation it calls the “joint cost and schedule confidence level” to decide the odds a program will come in on time and on budget. “NASA policy usually requires a 70 percent confidence level for a program to proceed with final design and fabrication,” the GAO report says, and the SLS is not at that level. The report adds that government programs that can’t match requirements to resources “are at increased risk of cost and schedule growth.”

In other words, the GAO says SLS is at risk of costing more than the current estimate of $12 billion to reach the first launch or taking longer to get there. Similar cost and schedule problems – although of a larger magnitude – led President Obama to cancel SLS’s predecessor rocket system called Constellation shortly after taking office. [emphasis mine]

I want to underline the current $12 billion estimate for the program’s cost to achieve one unmanned launch. That is four times what it is costing NASA to get SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to build their three spaceships, all scheduled for first manned launch before 2017. SLS not only can’t get off the ground before 2017, it can’t even get built for $12 billion.

If this isn’t the definition of a wasteful, boondoggle designed merely as pork, I don’t know what is. And what I do know is that there is no way SLS is going to ever get the United States back into space. It should be shut down, now.

Falcon 9 soft lands on water

SpaceX claimed in a press release on Tuesday that it had successfully completed a soft splashdown of the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in its launch earlier this month.

Video below the fold. The quality is not great because of a buildup of ice on the camera, but it does show they were able to restart the engines twice after separation. It also shows the landing legs deploy just before the stage hovers above the water.
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Exoplanets with no water

The uncertainty of science: Though planet formation theories said they should have water, in looking for water on three exoplanets astronomers were surprised to discover practically none there.

The three planets, known as HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b, are between 60 and 900 light-years away from Earth and were thought to be ideal candidates for detecting water vapor in their atmospheres because of their high temperatures where water turns into a measurable vapor. These so-called “hot Jupiters” are so close to their star they have temperatures between 1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the planets were found to have only one-tenth to one one-thousandth the amount of water predicted by standard planet-formation theories.

“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we’ve found water in an exoplanet,” said Nikku Madhusudhan of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England. “However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing.” Madhusudhan, who led the research, said that this finding presents a major challenge to exoplanet theory. “It basically opens a whole can of worms in planet formation. We expected all these planets to have lots of water in them. We have to revisit planet formation and migration models of giant planets, especially “hot Jupiters,” and investigate how they’re formed.”

New Rosetta comet images

New images from Rosetta have a resolution of 100 meters per pixel and are finding that the neck connecting the comet’s two sections is apparently much brighter than the rest of the nucleus.

As earlier images had already shown, 67P may consist of two parts: a smaller head connected to a larger body. The connecting region, the neck, is proving to be especially intriguing. “The only thing we know for sure at this point is that this neck region appears brighter compared to the head and body of the nucleus”, says OSIRIS Principal Investigator Holger Sierks from the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany. This collar-like appearance could be caused by differences in material or grain size or could be a topographical effect.

It looks like this comet is going to turn out to be one of the most fascinating objects any space probe has visited in a long time.

Soviet spacecraft kidnapped by CIA

Stranger than fiction: In 1967 the CIA kidnapped a Soviet spacecraft for 24 hours during a global international exhibition tour.

Because the Lunik was guarded 24/7 by Soviets during the second exhibition, the intelligence agents had to wait until the show was over and the Lunik crated for shipment. Then the CIA agents “arranged to make the Lunik the last truckload of the day to leave the grounds,” Finer says. When the Americans made sure no Soviets were on the road watching the truck with the precious cargo as it made its way to the railroad station, “the truck was stopped at the last possible turn-off, a canvas was thrown over the crate and a new driver took over,” Finer says. “The original driver was escorted to a hotel room and kept there for the night.” In a salvage yard, the American experts poked, prodded and photographed the Lunik. Meanwhile, at the railroad yard where the shipment was expected, the Americans got lucky. The Russian waiting to check in the truckloads evidently grew tired, bored, hungry or all three: He left his post to eat dinner and then headed to his hotel to sleep. By 7 a.m., the Russian was back at his post at the rail yard, none the wiser. There he “found the truck with the Lunik awaiting him.”

Out of the Canyon

We exited the Grand Canyon on schedule at about 1:30 on Thursday. The hike out this year took one hour longer than last year, mostly because we took longer breaks.

As always, the Canyon is a sublime place, hard to describe to those who have never been there and unnecessary to describe for those who have. We hiked in, did an 11 mile hike the one day we were at the bottom, then hiked out today.

Posting will resume but will remain light until I return home on Sunday night.

Eddi Reader – Galileo

An evening pause:

Galileo fell in love as a Galilean boy
And he wondered what in heaven, who’d invented such a joy.
But the question got the better of his scientific mind
And to his blind and dying day
He’d look up high and love and sighed and sometimes cried,
Who puts the rainbows in the sky?
Who lights the stars in the night?
Who dreamt up someone so divine?
Someone like you and made them mine?

Islamic terrorism and bigotry for all to see.

The religion of peace: “In a sort of reverse Passover, ISIS activists have marked the homes of Christians with the letter N for “Nassarah,” an Islamic term for Christian, to identify the homes whose inhabitants were to be slaughtered.”

The article also shows, with pictures, the violent nature of the Muslim demonstrations against Israel in France, and the intolerant treatment of Christians by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq.

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