Monthly Archives: February 2019

Rising tensions between India and Pakistan

One day after India completed an air strike in Pakistan on what it called a “militant group” responsible for a suicide bombing that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers earlier in February, Pakistan now claims it has shot down two Indian jets near the border between the two countries.

Why should we care?

The escalation, many fear, has increased the risk of a full-fledged military confrontation between the two nuclear-armed countries. The biggest worry for the international community at the moment is that this could lead to a nuclear confrontation. Although, both countries have played down the risk of a nuclear war, regional and international players remain watchful.

The possibility of nuclear war? No big deal, and far less important than watching and being absorbed by Congressional testimony of a convicted liar whose life, no matter how odious, has been destroyed not because of anything he actually did but because he simply happened to be the lawyer for Donald Trump.

Share

Trump walks out on North Korea summit

Unsatisfied with the deal offered by North Korea’s leader on his nuclear weapons, President Trump abruptly ended their summit meeting in Vietnam today.

Donald Trump’s talks with Kim Jong-un ended abruptly on Thursday as the president said he was forced to walk away after the North Korean dictator demanded that all sanctions be lifted in return for giving up only some of his nukes.

Trump said the final snag that caused the sudden breakdown was over sanctions – and Kim’s push to have all of them lifted in exchange for a concession Trump and his secretary of state could not live with. ‘Sometimes you have to walk away,’ Trump told reporters at a press conference in Hanoi that was abruptly moved up after a breakdown in talks.

The president expressed his hope that the two leaders would meet again, but acknowledged: ‘It might be soon, it might not be for a long time. I can’t tell you.’

The standard American politician since the 1960s would have instead gone through with the ceremonies, including signing some form of fake agreement that in terms of the U.S. would have stunk. That standard American politician would have typically been willing to sell out the U.S. in order to save face.

Trump is no standard American politician. He is there to actually negotiate, and sometimes a negotiation requires you, as he said, to walk away, as Reagan did with the Soviets in 1986.

Share

New Horizons data suggests the Kuiper Belt is emptier that previously believed

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from New Horizons now suggests a paucity of small objects in the Kuiper Belt.

Using New Horizons data from the Pluto-Charon flyby in 2015, a Southwest Research Institute-led team of scientists have indirectly discovered a distinct and surprising lack of very small objects in the Kuiper Belt. The evidence for the paucity of small Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) comes from New Horizons imaging that revealed a dearth of small craters on Pluto’s largest satellite, Charon, indicating that impactors from 300 feet to 1 mile (91 meters to 1.6 km) in diameter must also be rare.

I therefore wonder how the objects we do find there formed. The volume of space in the Kuiper Belt is gigantic, and if the larger bodies found so far are the bulk of the objects there, what did they coalesce from? Moreover, it seems unlikely that the few large objects we have found there would have been able to clear the region out of small objects.

Overall, this is a fundamental mystery tied directly to how the solar system formed, and illustrates how little we know about that process.

Share

Ceres has too much water!

The uncertainty of science: In a paper released today, scientists puzzle over the amount of water they have detected evaporating from the dwarf planet Ceres, finding that observations by Dawn of its surface do not provide enough water sources to explain the amount of water in its thin atmosphere.

From the abstract:

The dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is known to contain large amounts of water ice, and water vapor was detected around it. Possible sources of the water are surface exposure of ice through impacts and subsequent sublimation when heated by sunlight, or volcanic activity. It turns out that with either process it is difficult to create sufficient water vapor to explain the observations. This means that the geological processes on Ceres are not fully understood.

They propose several possible explanations for the discrepancy. Either the measurements of evaporation are wrong, or they have not fully mapped the surface water sources on Ceres. Either or both are certainly possible, as there are great uncertainties here.

To me, the most interesting quote from their paper however is the amount of water discovered. Besides finding water on the surface at nine locations “localized on crater floors or slopes, and generally in or close to shadows,” they also found a lot of water under the surface.

The gamma ray and neutron detector on Dawn discovered a global ice‐rich layer in the subsurface of Ceres, at a depth of ~1 m in equatorial regions and much closer to the surface in polar regions. The estimated abundance of ice in this layer is ~10%. … Evidence for ice on depth scales of a few kilometers is [also] reported by Sizemore et al. (2018). From the analysis of geomorphological features, they find that the distribution of ice is heterogeneous on scales of 1 km to hundreds of kilometers.

In other words, Ceres has a lot of water below the surface, even if the evaporation rate observed by Dawn does not at present match the amount of water vapor observed surrounding Ceres.

Share

Curiosity sends its first images in two weeks

The computer problems that caused Curiosity to cease science operations two weeks ago appears to have ended with the arrival of the first new images today.

The second link above goes to the images arriving today from Curiosity’s ChemCam camera, designed to take macro images of small features on the surface. The rover also sent down a small set of thumbnail images taken by one of its navigation cameras.

It appears they have figured out why the computer did an unexpected reboot in mid-February, and are now willing to let the rover resume science operations. There is no word on what they have learned, or whether it poses a future threat to the mission, but the fact that they are downloading new data is a good sign.

I must note again that this is news you will not see anywhere else. Most news sources today will wait for the NASA press release to report on Curiosity’s recovery, while I like to do some real journalism, reporting events as they happen. Consider this another reason to donate to Behind the Black during this month’s fund-raising drive.

Share

Planet-wide groundwater system on Mars

Old news: The European Space Agency today released a press release announcing the results of a science paper that appears to have found evidence of a planet-wide groundwater system on Mars.

I call this old news because I reported on this paper a month ago here on Behind the Black: Well water likely available across Mars.

We are now near the end of my February birthday-month fund-raising drive. If anything should justify a donation or subscription, this story should provide it. You can either wait for the mainstream press to rewrite press releases, or you can support my effort to get real news to you now, reported with both enthusiasm and honest skepticism.

I really do hate to brag, but I also don’t believe in false modesty.

Share

Close-up of Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a very high resolution image taken of Bennu’s north pole region. To the right is the most interesting part of that image, cropped by me to show here.

This image shows a region near asteroid Bennu’s north pole on the terminator line between the asteroid’s day and night sides. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s MapCam camera obtained the image on Feb. 20 while in orbit around the asteroid from a distance of 1.1 miles (1.8 km). At this distance, each pixel covers approximately 4.5 inches (12 cm) of Bennu’s surface. The largest boulder, located slightly left of the center, measures around 52 feet (16 meters) across, which, for scale, is the length of the trailer on a semi-truck.

In other words, if this was a truck stop along an interstate highway, you could see the driver getting out of that semi to head inside for dinner.

The spacecraft right now is not doing much science work. They are in what they call the Orbital A phase of the mission, where they are in a very low orbit along the terminator line between night and day — generally a mile above the surface — and are using this orbit to give the engineering team practice maneuvering at such an orbit while they transition from using the stars to navigate to using landmarks on the surface.

Share

ExoMars prototype test driven from 6,000 miles away

The engineering team that will drive ExoMars 2020 on the surface of Mars in 2021 has completed a test drive using an engineering prototype, controlling it from more than 6,000 miles away.

Experts at the European Space Agency’s centre in Oxfordshire completed a series of tests across nearly 6,900 miles (11,000 km) in order to see how the Mars rover reacts to commands across large distances.

When on the surface of Mars, the rover will need to be controlled when it is up to 250 million miles from Earth.

The trials team used a new model called ‘Charlie’ to test hardware, software and to practice science operations for the future European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars rover, which will look for life on Mars in 2021. The Atacama desert was chosen because it is the closest we can get to a Martian-like environment.

I must admit that every press release from Europe about ExoMars 2020 gives me worried chills. Each release is often filled too much with empty boasts and little substantive detail. Worse, each seems to repeatedly remind me of some guy working in his garage on a weekend project.

The issue could merely be a case of poor press release writing, but something about each release makes these alarm bells go off in the back of my mind. With the launch only about sixteen months away, I hope I am wrong.

Share

Arianespace successfully launches first set of six OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket, Arianespace today successfully launched the first set of six OneWeb communications satellites.

This is the first of 21 Soyuz launches to put the entire OneWeb constellation into orbit. OneWeb also has launch contracts with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The 2019 launch standings:

2 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
1 ULA
1 Japan
1 India
1 Russia

It could be argued that this Soyuz launch should be placed under Russia. I place it under Europe because they are the one’s who signed the contract.

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 3-2 in the national rankings.

Share

Waterlike Martian lava flows

Flowing like water
Click for full image.

Each month the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team highlights with captions about four out of the 300-500 new images released that month.

Of the four captioned images in February, the first was entitled “Almost Like Water,” and focused on the waterlike nature of the lava flow. The image on the right is a cropped and annotated section of that featured photograph, with the yellow arrows indicating the flow directions.

The lava appears to have flowed smoothly around obstructions, almost like water, forming streamlined islands. In the southern part of this image, a branch of the flow diverts around a small crater, and eventually rejoins the main part of the flow. [Visible in the full photograph] Irregular-shaped ring structures appear on the northern end and are related to the volcanic activity that formed the flows.

You can see an example of one of those islands near the top of the above image.

This is hardly the only MRO image showing such flows. In fact, the February image release included a bunch, some of the more intriguing of which I highlight below. These lava flows are seen in many different places on Mars, in a wide variety of geological settings, facts that suggest that volcanic activity was once very widespread and ubiquitous on Mars.
» Read more

Share

No laser communications system at Tabby’s Star

If alien megastructures exist at Tabby’s Star, new research has precluded the likelihood that those aliens are using lasers for communications within those gigantic structures.

[The scientists checked] for laser signatures, on the not unreasonable grounds that any structure large enough to encase a star – Boyajian [Tabby’s Star] is almost one-and-a-half times the mass of the sun – would have an internal communication system, for which lasers would represent a good candidate medium.

In the latest research, Lipman and colleagues decided to test the idea. They analysed 177 high-resolution spectra from the star, gathered by the Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder telescope as part of the Breakthrough Listen Project. They estimated that the data was so detailed that lasers with power greater than 24 megawatts should show up. To hunt for them, the researchers developed an algorithm to perform a pixel-by-pixel analysis of each spectrum in order to identify “spatially unresolved emission lines that meet the criteria for an artificial laser signal”.

The good news is that they found several. The bad news is that a secondary multi-step analysis designed to pick up false positives discounted them all. “The top candidates from the analysis can all be explained as either cosmic ray hits, stellar emission lines or atmospheric air glow emission lines,” they conclude.

We must remember that alien megastructures are the most unlikely explanation for the random light fluctuations of Tabby’s Star. This research helps to strengthen that conclusion.

Share

Europe to build reusable first stage

Capitalism in space: Even as Europe works to develop Ariane 6, their non-reusable next generation rocket, Ariane Group and the French are now considering replacing it with a different rocket with a reusable first stage.

Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”

“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.

As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.

Essentially they are copying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, except for the fuel. And they admit it. Moreover, this action tells us that the problems Ariane 6 has had getting European contracts has become serious enough that they have finally recognized that it simply cannot compete with the new wave of reusable rockets expected in the next decade. Building a new rocket that does not have a reusable capability is not viable in the coming market.

They should have recognized this four years ago, but better late then never.

Share

Beresheet’s second engine burn stopped by computer reset

It appears that the second engine burn to raise the orbit of Israel’s privately built lunar lander, Beresheet, did not happen as planned because of an unexpected computer reboot.

In a statement Tuesday morning, SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers said they were investigating the malfunction, but said that other than a known problem with the navigation system’s star tracker, the Beresheet’s systems were all functioning properly.

The maneuver was scheduled to take place Monday night, as the spacecraft passed near the Earth in an area where the Ramat Gan-based SpaceIL ground crew would not be in direct communication with the craft.

During the pre-maneuver phase, the spacecraft computer reset unexpectedly, and the maneuver was automatically cancelled.

The question that immediately comes to mind: Did they purchase a space-hardened computer? Cosmic rays can wreck havoc on computer memory, causing just this type of unexpected reset, so computers in space need to be much better shielded than on Earth.

Share

Bad climate science, bad climate journalism

The coming dark age: It appears that the most fundamental concept of science, that all research is subject to skepticism, questioning, and doubt, is no longer followed by the world’s leading science journal Science, in either the research or journalism it publishes.

In reporting today how the Trump administration is establishing a climate review panel that will include global warming skeptics, this so-called science journal describes this effort as follows:

The White House is recruiting researchers who reject the scientific consensus on climate change for its “adversarial” review of the issue.

The proposal to form a “Presidential Committee on Climate Security” at the National Security Council (NSC) has shifted, into an ad-hoc group that will review climate science out of the public eye. Those involved in the preliminary discussions said it is focused on recruiting academics to conduct a review of the science that shows climate change presents a national security risk.

William Happer, a senior director at the NSC and an emeritus Princeton University physics professor not trained in climate science, is leading the effort.

Among those who have been contacted are the relatively small number of researchers with legitimate academic credentials who question the notion that humans are warming the planet at a rapid pace through the burning of fossil fuels. A number of the names the White House is targeting are those frequently invited by Republicans to testify at congressional hearings on climate change where uncertainty is emphasized.

The stated goal of the committee, according to a leaked White House memo, is to conduct “adversarial scientific peer review” of climate science. [emphasis mine]

The article also stated that the panel “will also include scientists who agree with the vast majority in the field of climate science that humans are warming the planet at a pace unprecedented in the history of civilization.”

First of all, it is not clear that “a vast majority in the field of climate science” agree with that global warming hypothesis. And even if it was, it would not matter. Science isn’t determined by consensus or majority rule. It is determined by facts, and if the facts don’t support the beliefs of 97% of all climate scientists, all 97% of those scientists are wrong. That this writer and the editors at Science don’t understand this is shocking.
» Read more

Share

SpaceX first stage for launch abort returns to port

Capitalism in space: The first stage that SpaceX used (for the third time) last week to put three payloads into orbit, including Israel’s privately built lunar lander Beresheet, has returned to port and begun its preparation for its fourth launch, the launch abort test required before the company can fly humans on its Dragon manned capsule.

Musk tweeted that the launch escape test could occur in April. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, said Friday that teams are looking at whether the in-flight abort could be moved forward from June.

SpaceX plans to reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft slated to fly to the space station this weekend for the in-flight abort. Assuming a March 2 launch, the capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on March 8, where teams will retrieve the spacecraft and bring it back to Cape Canaveral for the abort test.

The timing of the in-flight abort test “depends on when Crew Dragon comes back,” Musk tweeted. “That’s scheduled for launch next Saturday, but (there’s a) lot of new hardware, so time error bars are big.”

Officials do not expect the Falcon 9 booster to survive the abort test, likely ending its lifetime at four launches, and three intact landings. “High probability of this particular rocket getting destroyed by Dragon supersonic abort test,” Musk tweeted. [emphasis mine]

Unless something significant goes wrong during next week’s unmanned Dragon test flight, the only thing that I see preventing a June or earlier launch abort test would be the paperwork NASA demands SpaceX fill out in order for the agency to rubberstamp the flight.

Share

Beresheet successfully completes first in-space engine burn

Capitalism in space: The privately-funded Israeli Beresheet lunar lander has successfully completed its first orbital maneuver.

The 30-second engine burn raised its orbit’s low point by 600 kilometers. They will next do a series of similar maneuvers to steadily raise the orbit’s high point until it carries the spacecraft into the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence. The actually landing is presently scheduled for April 11.

SpaceIL was set up as a non-profit, with this its only planned mission. However, the subcontractors who built Beresheet’s lander and batteries are now looking into commercializing their capabilities.

Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the lander, has shown an interest in commercializing the platform. In January it announced a partnership with German company OHB to make it available for potential future missions by the European Space Agency or other national space agencies.

Around the time the Falcon 9 carrying Beresheet lifted off, Japanese company ispace also announced milestones in the development of its lunar lander systems. The company announced an agreement with Japanese firm NGK Spark Plug to test its solid-state battery technology on its Hakuto-R lunar lander mission, scheduled for 2021.

Share

Exos to test the reusability of their suborbital rocket

Capitalism in space: The smallsate rocket company Exos Aerospace has announced that they have scheduled its first fully reusable test flight of its SARGE suborbital rocket for March 2nd.

Exos completed the Pathfinder Launch on August 25, 2018 from Spaceport America. It was the first step in validating the SARGE SRLV that was flown and recovered for reuse. Exos gathered critical flight data that enabled advancing the design and setting them up for continued reuse of their SARGE vehicle.

,,,The “Mission 1” test flight of the SARGE reusable system will carry the commercial payloads flown under the programs listed below. A successful launch will further solidify the company’s plan to use this technology as the design basis of their Jaguar orbital launch vehicle with reusable first stage capable of carrying 100kg to Low Earth Orbit (200-400km).

The link provides the list of payloads. For their orbital rocket their plan seems straightforward and brilliant. Build a simple suborbital rocket that lands by parachute gently enough so that it can be reused. While using that commercially also use it as the testbed for building an orbital rocket whose first stage would also land by parachute.

This approach puts them in direct competition with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for the suborbital business, and likely at a much cheaper price than either. And if the plan works to orbit, it also positions them to be a strong competitor in the smallsat orbital rocket business, being the first with a reusable vertically launched rocket.

Share

Hayabusa-2 touchdown images released

Surface of Ryugu 1 minute after touchdown

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released images taken during its quick touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu last week.

The image to the right was taken:

roughly 1 minute after touchdown at an estimated altitude of about 25m (error is a few meter) [80 feet]. The color of the region beneath the spacecraft’s shadow differs from the surroundings and has been discolored by the touchdown. At the moment, the reason for the discoloration is unknown but it may be due to the grit that was blown upwards by the spacecraft thrusters or bullet (projectile).

The image proves that everything on Hayabusa-2 worked as planned, and it almost certainly captured some of that grit.

They are going to do at least two more touchdowns before they have Hayabusa-2 leave Ryugu and head back to Earth.

Share

Most popular theorized particle for explaining dark matter now eliminated

The uncertainty of science: The WIMP particle (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle), the most popular theorized particle to explain dark matter, has now been eliminated by experiments.

These experiments have now been ongoing for decades, and have seen no dark matter [WIMPs].

…Theorists can always tweak their models, and have done so many times, pushing the anticipated cross-section down and down as null result after null result rolls in. That’s the worst kind of science you can do, however: simply shifting the goalposts for no physical reason other than your experimental constraints have become more severe. There is no longer any motivation, other than preferring a conclusion that the data rules out, in doing.

Other theorized but less favored particles could still be proved to be dark matter, but the problem is getting harder and harder to solve, as presently assumed.

Dark matter has always been an invention created to explain the too-fast orbital velocities of stars in the other regions of galaxies. It could very well be however that the problem comes not from new physics and a newly contrived particle we can’t see, but from a deficiency in our overall observations of galaxies and what is there, within the constraints of the physics we know now.

Hat tip Mike Buford.

Share

Firefly to build and launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday that it will build its rocket manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral, as well as launch from there.

Texas-based launch startup Firefly Aerospace finally revealed its plan to build a manufacturing facility near Kennedy Space Center and outfit the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 20 in Cape Canaveral for its two core launch vehicles — one of the first manufacturing facilities of its kind in the Sunshine State.

Firefly was shrouded under the codename “Maricopa” for months as Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, trickled out details of a deal that includes an 18-acre chunk of Exploration Park and 28 acres at LC20. The value of the deal is $52 million, and Firefly vows to put 200 of its 300 employees in the Cape.

Firefly’s first rocket, Alpha, will cost $15 million per launch, which means it will either launch a larger bunch of smallsats or they will be serving the larger smallsats in this new industry.

Share

Israeli lunar lander deploys legs

Capitalism in space: The Israeli lunar lander Beresheet, now beginning its circuitous journey to the Moon, has established communications with the Earth while deploying its landing legs.

There does appear to be an issue with the spacecraft’s star trackers, but it is not clear how critical this is.

Beresheet, by the way, means “In the beginning” in Hebrew.

Share

New high resolution images of Ultima Thule

Highest resolution image of Ultima Thule
Click for full resolution image.

The New Horizons team has released new high resolution images of Ultima Thule, taken during its fly-by on January 1, 2019.

These new images of Ultima Thule – obtained by the telephoto Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) just 6½ minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to the object (officially named 2014 MU69) at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 – offer a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel.

…The higher resolution brings out a many surface features that weren’t readily apparent in earlier images. Among them are several bright, enigmatic, roughly circular patches of terrain. In addition, many small, dark pits near the terminator (the boundary between the sunlit and dark sides of the body) are better resolved. “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team,” said John Spencer, deputy project scientist from SwRI.

Available at the link above is a three-second long movie they created from these images, showing Ultima Thule as it zips across the camera’s view.

Share
1 2 3 6