Monthly Archives: June 2017

T Rex – Bang A Gong (Get It On)

An evening pause: The history of this band (which I hadn’t known until I began putting this post together) is very interesting, as it mirrors the overall cultural disaster of the 1960s. The finale is especially depressing:

Marc Bolan and his girlfriend Gloria Jones spent the evening of 15 September 1977 drinking at the Speakeasy and then dining at Morton’s club on Berkeley Square, in Mayfair, Central London. While driving home early in the morning of 16 September, Jones crashed Bolan’s purple Mini 1275GT into a tree (now the site of Bolan’s Rock Shrine), after failing to negotiate a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, southwest London, a few miles from his home at 142 Upper Richmond Road West in East Sheen. While Jones was severely injured, Bolan was killed in the crash, two weeks before his 30th birthday.

Bolan’s death ended the band. Steve Peregrin Took died from asphyxiation from a cocktail cherry after his throat was numbed from his use of morphine and magic mushrooms in 1980, Steve Currie also died in a car crash, in 1981; Mickey Finn succumbed to illness in 2003. Peter ‘Dino’ Dines died of a heart attack in 2004.

Regardless, they created good music, for a short time.

Hat tip Jim Mallamace.

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Titan’s clearing northern skies

Titan's clearing northern skies

The image of Titan on the right, reduced in resolution to show here, was taken by Cassini less than a week ago, on June 9, as it continues its last orbits of Saturn prior to crashing into the gas giant’s atmosphere in September.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sees bright methane clouds drifting in the summer skies of Saturn’s moon Titan, along with dark hydrocarbon lakes and seas clustered around the north pole. Compared to earlier in Cassini’s mission, most of the surface in the moon’s northern high latitudes is now illuminated by the sun. …Summer solstice in the Saturn system occurred on May 24, 2017.

When Cassini arrived more than a decade ago, it was winter on Titan’s northern hemisphere, and the atmosphere was thick with haze. Now the sky is clearing as the stormy weather shifts to the winter in the southern hemisphere.

As with yesterday’s global map of Mimas, this image is in many ways a farewell look at Titan. While Cassini will likely get a few more global images of the Saturn moon before the mission ends in September, this image essentially marks the end of our ability to observe this strange planet closely, for decades to come. When Cassini crashes into Saturn, our vision at Saturn will go blind. And no one knows when our sight there will return, as no mission is presently in the works, or is even being considered, to return to Saturn.

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Digitizing Venice’s 1,000-year-old archives

Link here. The article describes an ambitious effort to make this archive, much of which has never been read, easily accessible and searchable using modern digital technology.

As Venice’s empire grew, it developed administrative systems that recorded vast amounts of information: who lived where, the details of every boat that entered or left the harbour, every alteration made to buildings or canals. Modern banking was invented in the Rialto, one of Venice’s oldest quarters, and notaries there recorded all trading exchanges and financial transactions.

Crucially, those records survived through turbulent centuries. While the rest of Europe was roiled by its perpetually warring monarchs, from the eighth century onwards Venice began to develop into a stable republic that provided the peace and order required for trade to flourish. In many ways it was a model democracy. The people elected a leader — the doge — supported by various councils, whose members were also usually elected. Governance was secular, but for the most part co-existed tolerantly with religion.

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Serene Republic in 1797. En route to Vienna during his attempt to conquer the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he declared Venice’s secular and democratic governance to be a form of autocracy, and the city to be an enemy of the revolution. He forced the republic to dissolve itself. In 1815, the old Frari was turned into the State Archives of Venice. Over the next decades, all state administrative documents, including death registers, were transferred there, along with medical records, notary records, maps and architectural plans, patent registers and a miscellany of other documentation, some from elsewhere in Italy. Particularly significant are ambassadors’ reports from wider Europe and the Ottoman Empire, providing a unique source of detailed information about daily life. “Venetian ambassadors were the most observant travellers, trained to find out things like what was being unloaded at the docks, or what a prince or other high-up was like as a person,” says Daston. “Their reports were full of gossip and intrigue.”

Most of the archive, predominantly written in Latin or the Venetian dialect, has never been read by modern historians. Now it will all be systematically fed into the Venice Time Machine, along with more unconventional sources of data, such as paintings and travellers’ logs.

Venice is a particularly important component of European history, as in many ways it was the last remnant of the Roman Empire, founded by Romans even as their empire was collapsing around them. It then lasted almost a thousand years, and became throughout the Middle Ages a powerful and important center of European trade. Moreover, the growth of this strange city in a bog is in many ways a mystery. This archive will actually allow researchers and historians to finally begin to understand how these events unfolded.

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Truck driver killed in fire related to crash of Soyuz stage in Kazakhstan

A truck driver has died in an effort to extinguish a fire related to the crash in Kazakhstan of the stages from the Soyuz rocket that earlier this week launched a Progress freighter to ISS.

This story does not indicate any failure on Russia’s part during the launch. What it does highlight is the problematic location of their Baikonur spaceport, which requires expendable first stages to crash on land. In fact, this incident also suggests it wise for the Russians, and the Kazakhstans, to consider developing recoverable first stages that can land in a controlled manner, as SpaceX has, in order to make this spaceport more useful and safer.

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China launches X-ray space telescope

China today launched the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), also dubbed Insight by Chinese news sources.

The HXMT carries three x-ray telescopes observing at energies ranging from 20 to 200 kilo-electron volts as well as an instrument to monitor the space environment, according to its designers. While orbiting 550 kilometers above the planet, the HXMT will perform an all-sky survey that is expected to discover a thousand new x-ray sources. Over an expected operating lifetime of 4 years, it will also conduct focused observations of black holes, neutron stars, and gamma ray bursts.

More here. This is China’s first home-grown X-ray space telescope, and its launch once again illustrates that, for at least the next few decades, China intends to be a major player in the exploration of the solar system.

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Senate to hold third hearing on commercial space

The Senate next week will hold the third in a series of hearings, organized by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), to examine the state of the present partnership between the government and the private sector.

Like the previous hearings, the witnesses cover a wide range, though most this time represent companies in the private sector (including Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX). It appears that what Cruz is doing is using these hearings to get as much feedback from as many private companies as possible, so that their preferences will dominate any decisions Congress eventually makes.

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A new map of Mimas

Global map of Mimas

The Cassini science team has released what will be the best map of Saturn’s moon Mimas for many decades to come. A reduced resolution version is above, and was updated after the most recent fly-bys in November 2016 and February 2017.

The moon’s large, distinguishing crater, Herschel, is seen on the map at left. The map is an equidistant (simple cylindrical) projection and has a scale of 710 feet (216 meters) per pixel at the equator. The mean radius of Mimas used for projection of this map is 123.2 miles (198.2 kilometers). The resolution of the map is 16 pixels per degree.

Since Cassini is in its final orbits and will crash into Saturn in September, and no other Saturn mission is even being planned, do not expect a better map for a very long time.

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China to attempt to grow potatoes on Moon

China’s Chang’e-4 lunar rover/lander, set to launch in 2018, will include a small experiment that will attempt to grow potatoes from seeds.

Note that I have just realized that I have been confusing Chang’e-5 with Chang’e-4. Chang’e-5 is a sample return mission that they hope to launch this year. It does not include a rover. Chang’e-4 is a lander/rover mission that is planned for 2018.

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Boeing cuts management, streamlines its operations

Capitalism in space: In an effort to better compete, Boeing is eliminating a layer of management and cutting 50 jobs in its defense and aerospace division.

The changes split management into smaller units so they can make faster decisions in their specific fields. This includes separating their space and missile division from other activities. This quote however says it all about the accelerating competition in the space business.

The changes are designed to speed decision-making, [defense division head Leanne Caret] said in an interview. “Everything is moving faster,” she said of the competitive environment for defense contractors.

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Design questions might delay construction of China’s first big optical telescope

A disagreement over the design of what China hopes would be, for a short while, the world’s largest optical telescope might delay that telescope’s construction.

On one side is an established engineering team, led by a veteran optics expert responsible for the nation’s largest existing telescope, that is eager to push ahead with an ambitious design. On the other are astronomers reveling in a grassroots priority-setting exercise—unprecedented for China—who have doubts about the ambitious design and favor something simpler.

Now, a panel of international experts has reviewed the designs and come out squarely in favor of the simpler proposal, according to a copy of the review obtained by Science. But the conclusion has not ended what one Chinese astronomer calls “an epic battle” between the high-ranking engineers accustomed to top-down control over projects and the nascent grassroots movement.

The telescope would have a mirror diameter of 12-meters, topping the 10.4 meter Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands. To get it built in time to be the largest, they need to approve the construction plan by 2018.

The story is interesting in that is highlights the technical problems that exist for these large telescopes, most of which have had serious engineering issues that have limited their scientific output. The disagreement here is caused by an effort by some Chinese scientists to avoid these problems by using a simpler design.

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Russians successfully launch Progress to ISS

A Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS early today.

That’s the second Russian launch in less than a week, after a very long pause caused by the discovery of corruption in one of their major engine factories. Though the Russians presently only have two launches scheduled for July, and none scheduled for August, I suspect that this will change in their effort to clear their launch backlog.

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KFC pays to put chicken sandwich on four day World View shakedown flight

Capitalism in space: A publicity stunt by Kentucky Fried Chicken to sell a new chicken sandwich will help pay for the the first long shakedown of World View’s Stratollite balloon.

For World View Enterprises, the flight is expected to serve as a four-day shakedown cruise for its “Stratollite” system, which could eventually send military and commercial imaging payloads to the edge of the atmosphere for months at a time. “When KFC first brought this to us, we had a good chuckle,” World View CEO Jane Poynter told reporters during a teleconference today. But then the Arizona-based company realized there could be a serious point behind the project. “If you can fly a chicken sandwich to the edge of space … you can fly really just about anything,” Poynter said.

Besides, the payment that KFC is providing for the publicity will cover the cost of the test flight, including the expense of beaming down live HD video from a height of 60,000 to 75,000 feet, Poynter said.

Neither she nor KFC brand communications director George Felix would say precisely how much the fast-food chain is paying, but Felix said “we’re fully confident that this is going to be worth every penny.” For reference, NASA has paid World View as much as $440,000 for balloon test flights.

What is interesting to me is how World View appears to have significantly backed off its effort to sell and fly tourists on a balloon.

When World View was founded in 2013, the company’s main objective was to provide hours-long tours to the stratosphere in a pressurized Voyager capsule for $75,000 a ticket. Since then, World View has pivoted to the Stratollite concept, but it still intends to fly people someday. “We’re actually making huge progress,” Poynter said.

Poynter is no longer giving out a timetable for the start of Voyager tours, but she said two more Stratollite missions are scheduled for this summer. MacCallum, who is Poynter’s husband, said a full-scale mass simulator for the Voyager capsule is due to be flown by the end of the year.

All in all, the suborbital space tourism business appears, at least for now, to be fading, overwhelmed by the new and growing orbital launch industry.

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Worm grows 2 heads on ISS

The uncertainty of science: For reasons that are not yet understood, a flatworm fragment flown to ISS in a microgravity experiment regenerated with two heads.

But the most dramatic difference was a type of regeneration observed in one of the 15 worm fragments sent to the ISS. That worm returned to the scientists with two heads (one on each end of its body), a type of regeneration so rare as to be practically unheard of — “normal flatworms in water never do this,” Levin told Live Science. When the researchers snipped both heads off back on Earth, the middle portion regenerated into a two-headed worm again.

“And these differences persist well over a year after return to Earth!” Levin said. “Those could have been caused by loss of the geomagnetic field, loss of gravity, and the stress of takeoff and landing — all components of any space-travel experience for living systems going to space in the future,” he said.

The flatworms that flew in space showed other significant differences from the control group that stayed on Earth, further suggesting that for flatworms at least the environment of weightlessness causes more problems that were expected.

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More news from fascist Evergreen State College

The mob riots at Evergreen State College in Washington state have unveiled a number of new facts about that publicly funded leftwing indoctrination mill:

The source of the documents in the first link said this, “I feel compelled to come forward with evidence that the school has allowed student groups (at best) or domestic terrorists (at worse) to indoctrinate freshman into their extremist ideology,” The article also gives a sense about the distribution of these documents and the violent, fascist, leftwing, and anti-American philosophy they promote across many campuses.

From the second article is this tidbit: “Evergreen employees have not given a single dollar to a Republican congressional candidate since 2012.” Since the administration of Evergreen has also been very supportive of the leftist mob that threatened anyone who disagreed with them with violence, the political donations give a nice sense of where the Democratic Party is going.

Finally, one more story today about this fascist university: Evergreen State professor: ‘I have no way of knowing whether it’s safe for me to return’

Durning a recent appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Tonight on Fox News, Professor Bret Weinstien claims that “the college has never acknowledged the danger they put us in,” and that, as a result, “I have no way of knowing whether it’s safe for me to return.”

“Their assurances that it is safe don’t mean anything,” Weinstein said, adding: “Not that they’ve offered them.”

Weinstein noted that he had received “tremendous support” from outside Evergreen State, and “quite a bit of support, privately,” from within the school. Publicly, however, “only one other professor” at Evergreen has come forward to support Weinstein.

But other than that, it’s a great place to send your kids to be educated.

Update: One more story from Evergreen: Students accuse Weinstein of hiding behind Jewishness

What a cesspool of bigotry.

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A dust-off broom for Mars

Romanian engineers have developed a small plasma jet capable of blowing Martian dust from solar panels and other equipment that can be used by future missions.

The “plasma broom” solution developed by Ticoş and colleagues uses bursts of plasma jet produced by a simple plasma accelerator. When a large current is passed through two electrode plates separated by a field of rarefied gas, the voltage difference between the two electrodes ionizes the gas, creating the plasma. In the broom, this is done with a coaxial gun – the two metal electrodes are arranged as an inner rod within a hollow cylindrical shell. The discharge current flowing through the central rod electrode produces a magnetic field, which, together with the electric field, exerts a Lorentz force on the ionized gas that expels it. “The trick is that you need a quite high current in order to produce a reasonable magnetic field and this can be achieved more conveniently in a pulsed operation,” Ticoş explains. “For a fraction of a second (100 µs) the current is very high (several kiloamps) and the force pushing the plasma is quite strong.” During a pulse, the plasma is expelled at a very high speed – several kilometres per second – and so can simply blow dust away from an area two to four times bigger than the diameter of the jet.

An advantage of the plasma broom is that it uses low-pressure CO2 as the gas between the electrodes. This is particularly ideal for operation on Mars as the atmospheric pressure there is 150 times lower than on Earth and the atmosphere is 96% CO2. This means the gun will be able to function in “open” Martian atmosphere without the need for a pump or gas bottle. Ticoş and colleagues have also considered the energy required for the cleaner to function on Mars. This depends on the voltage the gun operates at and can vary between a few hundred to a few thousand Joules per pulse. “We did an energy budget estimate taking into account the solar irradiance on Mars,” says Ticoş, “and it appears perfectly feasible to fire a few shots even on a daily basis for cleaning the solar panels, which will boost considerably the energy production rate.”

Essentially, they are using ion engine concepts to create a can of dust-off, using the Martian atmosphere itself as the can.

Hat tip Mike Buford.

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How NIMH policy effects research

The uncertainty of science: A policy change in how the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) awards grants during the Obama administration has had a profound influence on the research of mental-health in the United States.

An analysis by Nature suggests that the number of clinical trials funded by the NIMH dropped by 45% between 2009 and 2015. This coincides with the agency’s launch, in 2011, of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) — a framework for research on the mechanisms of mental illness. The NIMH’s roll-out of RDoC included asking researchers to focus more on the biological bases of behaviour — such as brain circuitry and genetics — than on the broader symptoms that clinicians typically use to define and classify mental illness.

The NIMH’s embrace of fundamental research has infuriated many clinical researchers, who see it as an attempt to invalidate their methods — and say that there is scant evidence to support the idea that using RDoC will lead to greater insight or better treatments for mental illness. Many of these researchers also note that NIMH funding for clinical trials has declined steadily over the past decade, adding to the perception that the agency now favours research that uses the RDoC framework.

Read the article. I have no idea if the change in NIMH policy is a good or bad thing. What disturbs me however is the federal government’s overall top-down control over mental-health research. Rather than obtain funding from many different sources — which would allow for the greatest flexibility and the most creativity — this research field appears to depend almost entirely on NIMH grants. Thus, the particular preferences of that agency dictates the nature of the research, whether or not its preferences are right.

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House committee passes new commercial space bill

Last week the House Science committee passed a new commercial space bill designed to streamline the licensing system that presently exists for getting private space missions certified as required under the Outer Space Treaty.

The bill reforms the existing licensing system for commercial remote sensing satellites, streamlining a process that many companies in that sector said results in lengthy delays. It also establishes a “certification” process for commercial spaceflight not otherwise licensed today in order to eliminate any regulatory uncertainty and ensure compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.

“The goal of this bill is not to regulate space broadly,” [Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)] said in a statement at the markup. “Instead, the bill takes a commonsense approach by establishing a legal foundation upon which U.S. industry can flourish.”

I am in the process of reviewing the proposed law, and hope to write something detailed about it in the next few days. I should say here that in general this law seems to be trying to address the same issues relating to the Outer Space Treaty that have been discussed during the Senate hearings organized recently by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). And while to me the resulting bill seems generally good, it still leaves hanging the Outer Space Treaty’s fundamental problems relating to property rights.

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Sunspot update for May 2017

Last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for May. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a problem with their posting software. Though the date of the image changed, the graph itself was not updated. I contacted NOAA, and Ann Newman, IT Specialist at NOAA’s
Space Weather Prediction Center, took a look and quickly fixed the problem.

The corrected graph is posted below, with annotations, as I have done now every month since 2010.

May 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.

The decline in sunspot activity resumed in May, putting the trend back below the 2007 low prediction. Overall, the trend continues to suggest that this very weak solar maximum will end much earlier than predicted, and will make it an unprecedented short but weak cycle. As the Sun is at this moment blank, and has been for several days, I expect that June will end up with low numbers as well, continuing this trend.

As I have repeatedly said now monthly for six years, if history is any guide, the Sun’s low activity should correspond with cooler temperatures here on Earth. Why this happens is not yet understood, though there are theories.

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What ISRO charges for a launch

Capitalism in space: This article, outlining the overall expenditures and earnings of India’s space agency, ISRO included this tidbit about the price it charges for launches:

Several companies like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Russia’s Proton ULA, and Arianespace are big names in the space but ISRO’s Antrix provides competitive rates for commercial launches. ISRO, that has now become a specialist in launching satellites, cost a third of SpaceX launches. The low rates are probably because of ISRO’s location while its Indian engineers earn a fraction of the salaries that engineers would command in foreign countries. [emphasis mine]

If India does charge in the range of $20 to $30 million per launch they are in a strong position to compete with SpaceX, even after it reduces its prices because of the use of used first stages.

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Jury rejects lawsuit by disgruntled former SpaceX employee

A jury has ruled in favor of SpaceX and against a former employee who claimed he was fired because he complained about management and testing policies at the company.

Though it is hard to say what really happened, it does appear that, once given all the evidence, the jury agreed with SpaceX that the former employee was fired for good cause.

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Using math to protect the Washington power structure

What could possible go wrong? A group of mathematicians have written software designed to prevent the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and are offering that software as a weapon for the courts to force states to revise the districts, even though those districts were created by fairly elected state legislatures.

Leaning back in his chair, Jonathan Mattingly swings his legs up onto his desk, presses a key on his laptop and changes the results of the 2012 elections in North Carolina. On the screen, flickering lines and dots outline a map of the state’s 13 congressional districts, each of which chooses one person to send to the US House of Representatives. By tweaking the borders of those election districts, but not changing a single vote, Mattingly’s maps show candidates from the Democratic Party winning six, seven or even eight seats in the race. In reality, they won only four — despite earning a majority of votes overall.

Mattingly’s election simulations can’t rewrite history, but he hopes they will help to support democracy in the future — in his state and the nation as a whole. The mathematician, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has designed an algorithm that pumps out random alternative versions of the state’s election maps — he’s created more than 24,000 so far — as part of an attempt to quantify the extent and impact of gerrymandering: when voting districts are drawn to favour or disfavour certain candidates or political parties.

There are numerous problems here, all of which center on my basic disbelief in the non-partisan objectivity of these scientists and their work.

First, note the first example used. Mattingly proudly shows how his software demonstrates that Democrats could have won more districts in North Carolina. In fact, if you read the article, he claims that the district revisions produced by his software (producing more victorious Democrats) creates fairer districts than the districts created by the state’s fairly elected Republican legislature. Moreover, it was the Republican redistricting that prompted this mathematician to write the software.

Funny how he never felt compelled to do this when it was Democrats controlling the legislatures and gerrymandering the congressional districts to their benefit.

Second, he has offered this software to the courts as evidence to overrule the redistricting done by fairly elected legislatures. In other words, this software will be used to justify letting unelected experts decide how congressional districts should be shaped, not elected officials picked by voters.

Third, note who has expressed interest in using this mathematician as a witness to win its lawsuits:
» Read more

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Luxembourg revises space law to address Outer Space Treaty

Luxembourg has revised its proposed new space law in order to try to address the property right concerns posed by the Outer Space Treaty.

The legislation is patterned on the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which includes provisions that grant U.S. companies the rights to resources they extract from asteroids or other celestial bodies. One difference, Schneider said, will be that while the U.S. law requires companies to be based in the country, Luxembourg’s protections would cover companies regardless of their location. “We don’t really care where the money comes from,” he said.

The bill also creates a system for the authorization and continuing supervision of commercial space activities that are regulated by the country. The lack of similar policy in the United States for “non-traditional” commercial space activities like asteroid mining — required, many argue, in order to comply with Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty — has been an issue debated in the last few years.

…Luxembourg is also in the process of creating a national space agency, Schneider said. The country is a member of the European Space Agency but has not previously had its own national agency. However, he said the agency will be structured differently than those in other countries. “This space agency will not be a copy of NASA or ESA, but it will be a space agency whose only focus on the commercial use of space resources,” he said. It will be set up a public-private partnership between the government and private funds.

I would say that the competition in space is definitely now heating up. These actions by Luxembourg might not solve the legal problems with the Outer Space Treaty, but they will certainly up the pressure on the world’s space-faring nations to face the issue.

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