A review of the Saudi purge taking place this week

Link here. The analysis here is the best I’ve seen, and suggests once again that we might be seeing a significant shift taking place within the Arab Middle East.

It is in the context of Saudi Arabia’s reassessment of its interests and realignment of strategic posture in recent years that the dramatic events of the past few days in the kingdom must be seen.

Saturday’s sudden announcement that a new anti-corruption panel headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the near simultaneous announcement of the arrest of more than two dozen royal family members, cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen is predominantly being presented as a power seizure by the crown prince. Amid widespread rumors that King Salman will soon abdicate the throne to his son, it is reasonable for the 32-year-old crown prince to work to neutralize all power centers that could threaten his ascension to the throne.

But there is clearly also something strategically more significant going on. While many of the officials arrested over the weekend threaten Mohammed’s power, they aren’t the only ones that he has purged. In September Mohammed arrested some 30 senior Wahhabist clerics and intellectuals. And Saturday’s arrest of the princes, cabinet ministers and business leaders was followed up by further arrests of senior Wahhabist clerics.

At the same time, Mohammed has been promoting clerics who espouse tolerance for other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. He has removed the Saudi religious police’s power to conduct arrests and he has taken seemingly credible steps to finally lift the kingdom-wide prohibition on women driving.

There’s a lot more, including details about how the Obama administration was dishonestly aiding the wrong side. Read it all

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United flies its last 747

United yesterday completed its last scheduled 747 passenger flight, ending a period lasting almost a half century since the first 747 took off.

The flight had a 1970s theme, with the crew in vintage uniforms and the passengers dressing in costumes invoking that time period.

The article does a nice job of recounting the 747’s history, as well as why it is being replaced. It also noted this:

[T]he aircraft would go on to defy all expectations. Boeing anticipated it would become obsolete before the Nineties, believing that supersonic jets would overtake conventional aircraft.

In fact the 747 is still in production with current orders placed by a number of developing countries which will potentially see it serving into 2030. While the aircraft’s life is limited in the US – with Delta the only airline still flying the craft and due to retire it later this year – other major carriers will continue operating it well into the next decade. British Airways, which now operates 36 of the aircraft, more than any other airline, has confirmed it will be phasing it out – but will not part ways with it entirely until 2024.

Even once it has disappeared from passenger routes, it is expected the 747 will go on to serve many more years as a cargo plane.

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Physicists once again fail to detect dark matter

The uncertainty of science: The most sensitive detector yet created by physicists has once again failed to detect dark matter, casting strong doubt on all present theories for its existence.

The latest results from an experiment called XENON1T at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, published on 30 October, continue a dry spell stretching back 30 years in the quest to nab dark-matter particles. An attempt by a Chinese team to detect the elusive stuff, the results of which were published on the same day, also came up empty-handed. Ongoing attempts by space-based telescopes, as well as at CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, have also not spotted any hints of dark-matter particles.

The findings have left researchers struggling for answers. “We do not understand how the Universe works at a deeper and more profound level than most of us care to admit,” says Stacy McGaugh, an astrophysicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

The process here has been a good demonstration of the scientific method. Observers detect a phenomenon that does not make sense, which in this case was that the outer regions of galaxies rotate so fast that they should fly apart. Theorists then come up with a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon, which here was dark matter, subatomic particles that have weight but do not generally interact with the rest of the universe except by their mass, which acts to hold the galaxies together. Observers than try to prove the hypothesis by finding these theorized particles.

When the particles are not found, the theorists begin to rethink their theories. Maybe dark matter does not exist. Maybe (as is mentioned near the end of the article) a rethinking of the nature of gravity itself might be necessary. Or possibly the unseen matter is not subatomic, but ordinary matter not yet detected.

If only the climate field would apply this basic scientific method to its work. There, scientists found that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere. Some theorists posited an hypothesis that said that this increase might cause the climate to warm, and created numerous (almost a hundred) models to predict this warming. After more than thirty years, however, none of those models has successfully worked. The climate has not warmed as predicted, which suggests the hypothesis is flawed, and needs rethinking. Sadly, the leaders in the climate field refuse to do this rethinking. Instead, they appear willing to adjust and change their data to make it fit, sometimes in ways that are downright fraudulent.

This is not how science is done, and it is doing a terrible disservice to both science and society in general.

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Arianespace successfully launches Morocco’s first reconnaissance satellite

Capitalism in space: Morocco’s first reconnaissance satellite, built in France, was successfully launched into orbit last night by Arianespace’s Vega rocket.

This was Arianespace’s tenth launch in 2017, one more than its total for 2016 With one more launch scheduled, it appears the company will achieve close to its desired launch rate of one launch per month, despite labor problems in the spring that shut it down for almost two months.

Increasingly, Arianespace’s business (or ArianeGroup, depending on the rocket) seems restricted to European satellites. Its market share of American satellites is more and more being taken by American companies. This doesn’t appear to be reducing the company’s overall launch rate, however, proving once again that competition is not a zero sum game. Introduce it, and instead of the players fighting over a never changing pie of business, the pie grows so that everyone is doing more.

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More SLS delays

Here we go again! At a three-day meeting this week aimed at resolving some of NASA’s scheduling issues for its Space Launch System (SLS), it appears that managers are faced with further launch delays because of the need to insert an extra SLS launch prior to the first manned flight.

The problem is that the first unmanned flight, presently set for December 2019 (but which I am positive will be delayed) will be not be using the second stage planned for later missions. In order to fly humans on that stage NASA needs to fly at least one more more unmanned mission beforehand. Since Congress has mandated that NASA use the SLS rocket to fly a mission to Europa, managers are now planning to insert that mission into the manifest prior to the manned mission.

At a major three day Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) at the Kennedy Space Center recently, NASA noted that the Europa Clipper mission has a formal, target launch date of 4 June 2022, the opening of a 21 day launch window that closes on 25 June.

A backup launch option exists in 2023.

The problem with the June 2022 launch window is that the mobile launcher that moves the rocket from the assembly building to the launchpad will likely not be ready by then. If it is not, then the next time Europa Clipper can fly, in 2023, will certainly force more delays on the first manned SLS/Orion flight. And even if it is ready, I am willing to bet that NASA will not be able to fly that manned mission in 2023 regardless. For years the agency has made it clear that they will need at least two years turn-around time between SLS launches.

So, my prediction that the first manned mission of SLS/Orion will occur in 2023 was wrong. I now predict it will not occur prior to 2024, more than 20 years after George Bush first proposed it.

Overall, the entire NASA project to replace the space shuttle with a manned rocket and capsule is the perfect poster boy for government incompetence, waste, and corruption. Twenty years, and all we will get, at most, is a single manned mission and one flight capsule. Worse, by 2024 the cost for this entire effort will likely have exceeded $50 billion. What a squandering of taxpayer money.

What makes this more infuriating is that this is not an exception, it is now the standard operating procedure for the entire federal government. From incompetence in the Navy to the failure of the Air Force to do something as simple as properly registering a person in the FBI’s gun national background check system, our federal government is a disaster. And I see only a token effort by Congress and even Trump to fix it.

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Astronaut Richard Gordon, 88, has died

R.I.P. Astronaut Richard Gordon, who piloted both a Gemini and an Apollo mission in the 1960s, has passed away at 88.

I described one of Gordon’s spacewalks during his Gemini 11 mission in 1966 as follows:

When he opened the hatch, both he and everything unfastened in the capsule was sucked toward space. Pete Conrad had to grab a leg strap on Gordon’s spacesuit to prevent him from drifting away. Later, Conrad had to pull him back using his umbilical cord. The arduous nature of the work caused both Gordon and his spacesuit to overheat, leading him to terminate the firs spacewalk after only 33 minutes.

On Gordon’s second and last flight on Apollo 12 he remained in orbit while Pete Conrad and Alan Bean went down to the surface, the third and fourth humans to walk on another world.

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Annual fund-raiser at Parabolic Arc

Doug Messier, who runs the space-news website Parabolic Arc, has begun his annual fund-raising drive. While Doug and I disagree on a number of issues, our mutual passion for reporting on space unites us. I hope my readers will consider supporting Doug’s work as generously as you support my work here at Behind the Black.

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EPA approves release of bacteria-carrying mosquitoes to 20 states

The EPA has approved the release of lab-grown male mosquitoes, carrying a bacteria that prevents reproduction, in 20 states.

MosquitoMate will rear the Wolbachia-infected A. albopictus mosquitoes in its laboratories, and then sort males from females. Then the laboratory males, which don’t bite, will be released at treatment sites. When these males mate with wild females, which do not carry the same strain of Wolbachia, the resulting fertilized eggs don’t hatch because the paternal chromosomes do not form properly.

The company says that over time, as more of the Wolbachia-infected males are released and breed with the wild partners, the pest population of A. albopictus mosquitoes dwindles. Other insects, including other species of mosquito, are not harmed by the practice, says Stephen Dobson, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and founder of MosquitoMate.

While caution should always be exercised when introducing something like this into the environment, I honestly can’t see any downside to this work. The lab-grown mosquitoes cannot spread, as they cannot reproduce, even as their introduction reduces the mosquito population.

Nonetheless, no one should be surprised that this project has met with political resistance in many places.

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First infrared image of a red giant star with a mass of the sun

 W Hydrae

Astronomers have used the ALMA array in Chile to take the first infrared image of a red giant star that has a mass similar to the Sun.

The dotted ring in the the image, cropped to post here, shows the Earth’s orbit. The star is farther along in its evolution than the Sun, and has expanded as it begins to use up its nuclear fuel.

The observations have also surprised the scientists. The presence of an unexpectedly compact and bright spot provides evidence that the star has surprisingly hot gas in a layer above the star’s surface: a chromosphere. “Our measurements of the bright spot suggest there are powerful shock waves in the star’s atmosphere that reach higher temperatures than are predicted by current theoretical models for AGB stars,” says Theo Khouri, astronomer at Chalmers and member of the team.

An alternative possibility is at least as surprising: that the star was undergoing a giant flare when the observations were made.

The handful of infrared images that astronomers have taken so far of several red giant stars indicates that these stars no longer look like the Sun, with a clear and precise spherical shape, but are puffed up almost like a cloud, with many uneven layers and complex extensions produced by their chaotic nature. This image of W Hydrae reinforces this impression.

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New Horizons wants the public to help pick a nickname for its next target

The New Horizons science team is asking the public to submit suggestions for a good nickname for 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object that the spacecraft will fly past on January 1, 2019.

The naming campaign is hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, and led by Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The website includes names currently under consideration; site visitors can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. “The campaign is open to everyone,” Showalter said. “We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69.”

The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.

The press release says that a more formal name for the object will be submitted to the IAU after the fly-by.

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NASA forces retraction of astronaut vision study due to privacy issues

NASA has forced the retraction of an important science paper researching the damage to vision for astronauts on long spaceflights because of a concern the privacy of the astronauts might be violated.

According to the first author, the paper included information that could identify some of the astronauts that took part in the study — namely, their flight information. Although the author said he removed the identifying information after the paper was online, NASA still opted to retract it. But a spokesperson at NASA told us the agency did not supply the language for the retraction notice. The journal editor confirmed the paper was retracted for “research subject confidentiality issues,” but referred a question about who supplied the language of the notice back to NASA.

…According to first author Noam Alperin of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, the paper “Role of Cerebral Spinal Fluid in Space Flight Induced Ocular Changes and Visual Impairment in Astronauts” showed that visual damage caused by long space flights resulted from tiny shifts in the volume of spinal fluid — not vascular changes, as many experts had previously thought.

Protecting the health privacy of the astronauts is something NASA and the doctors that work with them are legally required to do. However, in this case the paper had been scrubbed of this information a long time ago. To force its retraction now when the actual. research was valid and important and the privacy of the astronauts was now protected seems an over reaction to me. Then again, NASA might be under legal pressure from the astronauts themselves, and thus forced to act.

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The Danish National Symphony Orchestra – Star Trek Medley

An evening pause: It is never a bad thing to listen to the music from Star Trek (though I would have preferred a larger percentage of this piece devoted to Alexander Courage’s original score).

Hat tip Willi Kusche.

Readers: If you want to contribute to Behind the Black, you can! I am in need of Evening Pause suggestions. If you haven’t suggested any before and want to now, comment here (without posting the link to your suggestion) and I will contact you!

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Sunspot update for October 2017

NOAA today posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for October. That graph is posted below, with annotations.

October 2017 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

After two straight months of rising sunspot activity, the number of sunspots plunged in October, returning the numbers almost exactly back to the general trend we have seen since 2014 when the solar maximum ended. While the short two month increase indicated that the minimum will not occur as soon as this long term trend suggests, the quick return to that trend this month suggests that it will.

Meanwhile, November is six days old and has yet to see any sunspots at all.

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Bezos sells another $1 billion in Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin

Capitalism in space: Repeating a stock sale he did in May, Jeff Bezos this week sold another million shares of his Amazon stock to raise another $1.1 billion in cash to finance his Blue Origin rocket company.

The stock sale reduced his holdings in Amazon by 1.3% to 16.4% total.

With this much cash available, Bezos has the luxury of developing and building his business with no help from the government and completely free to do whatever he wants. This freedom puts him in a very enviable position.

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Canada’s Supreme Court rules against tribe in development dispute

In a case that appears similar to the dispute in Hawaii over the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope, Canada’s Supreme Court this week ruled against a local tribe in its more than quarter century battle to block the construction of a nearby ski resort.

The Ktunaxa Nation had opposed a resort on Crown land near their community in southeastern British Columbia, arguing that it would affect a grizzly-bear habitat and drive away the Grizzly Bear Spirit essential to their faith.

But, in a line that stunned some academic observers, seven judges of nine said that they looked on the religious-freedom claim under Section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights no differently than if it were made by non-Indigenous. They said the Ktunaxa claim fell entirely outside of the Canadian notion of freedom of religion, as established in previous Charter cases, which protects only the right to hold and manifest beliefs.

“In short, the Charter protects the freedom to worship, but does not protect the spiritual focal point of worship,” Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Malcolm Rowe wrote for the seven judges. The court also affirmed that, while developers and government need to consult with Indigenous peoples and accommodate their concerns, the First Nations possess no veto power over development.

What I find interesting about this story is that the developer first proposed this ski resort in 1991, and has spent 26 years consulting and then fighting with the local tribes. Talk about stick-to-it-ness! Moreover, the insincerity and delaying tactics of one tribe are revealed by this quote:

It was only in 2009, the Supreme Court said, as the proposal appeared on the verge of approval, that the Ktunaxa first mentioned the Grizzly Bear Spirit and said that no accommodation was possible.

It is important to note that the land in question is privately owned by the resort, and that the tribe essentially wanted a full veto over the rights of that private owner to use their land as they wished. The Supreme Court ruled that the tribe does not have that right. Had it agreed to this demand, the court would have essentially given the tribe the power to rule over everyone else in Canada, on almost any issue the tribe wished. All they would have had to do is to come up with some religious excuse (as it appears they did here).

Hat tip Peter Arzenshek.

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Astronomers find Kuiper Belt-like ring around Proxima Centauri

Worlds without end: Astronomers have found a dusty ring 1 to 4 astronomical units from the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Because Proxima Centauri is a smaller, dimmer star, its system is more compact. Proxima b [the star’s known exoplanet] circles the star at 0.05 astronomical units (a.u., the average distance between Earth and the Sun) — for reference, Mercury orbits the Sun at 0.39 a.u. The dusty ring lies well beyond that, extending from 1 to 4 a.u.

The Proxima ring is similar in some ways to the Kuiper Belt, a cold, dusty belt in the far reaches of our solar system (beyond 40 a.u.) that contains a fraction of Earth’s mass. While the Kuiper belt is well known for larger members such as Pluto and Eris, it also contains fine grains, ground down through collisions over billions of years. The dust ALMA observed around Proxima Centauri is composed of similar small grains. The average temperature and total mass of the Proxima ring is also about the same as our Kuiper Belt.

Because the ring here much closer to the star than our Kuiper Belt, the material is much more densely packed. Moreover, the presence of both a ring and an exoplanet suggests more planets might remain undiscovered there, increasing the chances that this star could have a solar system very worthwhile exploring.

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Today in fascist academia

Time to post this week’s list of stories outlining the fascist culture of the modern American campus. Since my last update, the stories have been more mixed, as there have not been many scheduled speaking events that would have prompted the brownshirts to move in and squelch our first amendment right to freedom of speech.

The last story needs highlighting because it illustrates the close-minded and willfully ignorant aspects of this college movement. These students are proud of their refusal to listen to other points of view, and want to encourage all students to stick their fingers in their ears and scream “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!” as loudly as possible to anything they disagree with. Worse, these are students, who are at the university to learn something. Instead, these know-nothing thugs are working so that everyone else will remain as ignorant as they are.

There was one small piece of good news: UCLA backs down from free speech confrontation. What happened is that UCLA has agreed to not charge the college’s Republican club exorbitant security fees for an upcoming Ben Shapiro speech.

The Bruin Republicans had protested the potential fee – charged if more than 30 percent of the audience is from outside the campus – as a tax on their free speech.

“Given UCLA’s commitment to free speech, and to avoid any appearance to the contrary,” said campus spokesman Tod Tamberg in an email, “UCLA has decided to also pay the basic security costs for this event. UCLA will be adopting this approach going forward while it reviews its current policy to ensure that it continues to be a useful planning tool for UCLA and registered student organizations.”

The sad part is that the university has to spend so much for security, illustrating how out of favor free speech remains at UCLA. Everyone expects the campus to erupt in violence simply because a conservative might get up and say something.

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Tesla stock crashes due to possible loss of tax credit

The stock of Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car company crashed this week, dropping 7% on Wednesday, with the revelation that the Republican tax plan proposes eliminating the $7,500 tax credit for buying an electric car.

Its share price fell more than seven per cent to about $296 apiece from Wednesday’s $321. The draft law emerged as the Elon-Musk-led automaker announced its worst-ever quarter, recording a $671m loss and admitting it had not met its production target for its new Model 3 car, producing just 220 of them against its 1,500 target.

Economists believe that the tax credit is a key driver for electric car sales, and cite the example of when the state of Georgia cut its $5,000 tax credit and saw sales of electric cars slump from 1,400 a month to just 100 a month in response.

What this story highlights is that electric cars are simply not economical at this time, and that the government is distorting the market by pushing them. Without government aid, practically no one would buy them.

It would be far better for everyone to let the market decide. Not only would this save us tax dollars, it would allow the industry to focus its innovative efforts on upgrades that are cost effective and profitable, rather than on pie-in-the-sky fantasies that actually do no good at all.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette for pointing me to this story.

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Builders of Ghana’s first satellite push for government help

The new colonial movement: The student engineers who built Ghana’s first satellite, GhanaSat-1 and launched in July, are pushing their government to establish the legal framework for future space activities in that country.

Student engineers behind the successful launch of Ghana’s first satellite into orbit have appealed to the government to set up a multi-stakeholder committee to come up with an act, the Ghana outer space act, a key requirement that would enable the country to ratify and sign the United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

They said if the country signed and ratified the treaty, it would give investors the signal and confidence that the country was ready for them to come and establish space science facilities.

The description in the article of what these students want suggests they do not quite understand the ramifications of all the UN space treaties, because it appears they also want Ghana to become signatories to them all. This would be a big mistake. While every country that launches satellites is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, very few have signed the Moon Treaty, as its language puts far more serious restrictions on property rights.

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Fifth mirror for Giant Magellan Telescope has been cast

The fifth mirror, out of seven, for Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) has been cast by the University of Arizona mirror lab.

With its casting this weekend, the fifth GMT mirror joins three additional GMT mirrors at various stages of production in the Mirror Lab. Polishing of mirror 2’s front surface is well underway; coarse grinding will begin on the front of the third mirror shortly and mirror number 4, the central mirror, will soon be ready for coarse grinding following mirror 3. The first GMT mirror was completed several years ago and was moved to a storage location in Tucson this September, awaiting the next stage of its journey to Chile. The glass for mirror 6 has been delivered to Tucson and mirror seven’s glass is on order from the Ohara factory in Japan.

In time, the giant mirrors will be transported to GMT’s future home in the Chilean Andes at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory. This site is known for being one of the best astronomical sites on the planet with its clear, dark skies and stable airflow producing exceptionally sharp images. GMTO has broken ground in Chile and has developed the infrastructure on the site needed to support construction activities.

If all goes right, GMT will begin its science work using 4 mirrors in 2020, with the use of all 7 mirrors beginning in 2022. This will be several years before the larger Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope.

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China says Long March 5 will resume launches in 2018

The new colonial movement: Though the details are vague, a Chinese official said earlier this week that they now expect to resume launches of their Long March 5 rocket in 2018.

The article says that the July launch failure of the second Long March 5 was due to “a manufacturing defect affecting one of two YF-77 engines powering the first stage. If officially confirmed, this would mean no major effects such as redesign are required, meaning a relatively swift return to flight.”

The long delay since July however suggests to me that the defect was more serious, and has either required that redesign or a complete recall of all YF-77 engines.

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Local tribe signs deal for Australian spaceport

Capitalism in space: An aboriginal tribe tribe in Australia has signed a lease with a new space company proposing to build a spaceport on their land where smallsat rockets can launch.

The Northern Land Council has granted a 275-hectare lease in northeast Arnhem Land to the Gumatj clan for use as a commercial rocket launching facility. That’ll pave the way for Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation to sublease the site to Equatorial Launch Australia, a firm whose $236 million space base proposal is being considered by federal and NT infrastructure funds.

The 12-year lease has an option for a 28-year extension, and is expected to be finalised later this month.

This is the first I have ever heard of Equatorial Launch Australia. Their website provides little information. Further web searches revealed little as well. My impression is that it is focused on creating a spaceport for the use of new Australian smallsat rocket companies. Whether it plans to launch its own rocket is unclear.

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Saudi minister calls for “toppling” Hezbollah

Intriguing: The Saudi state minister for Gulf affairs has called for the “topplng” of Hezbollah, condemning that organization as “a party of Satan.”

He also said that “The coming developments will definitely be astonishing.”

While there have always been strong differences and hostility among the many Arab nations and movements in the Middle East, rarely have these differences been expressed so publicly and forcefully. Read the whole article. The things this powerful official says could not be said if he did not have the support of his government. I wonder if this indicates some major shifts are about to occur in the Arab world.

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