Monthly Archives: May 2019

Stratolaunch shutting down?

According to a Reuters story today based upon anonymous sources within the company, Stratolaunch is about to cease operations.

The key quote from the article:

As of April 1, Stratolaunch had only 21 employees, compared with 77 last December, one of the four sources said. Most of the remaining employees were focused on completing the carrier plane’s test flight.

The decision to set an exit strategy was made late last year by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc and trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, one of the four people and the fifth industry source said. Jody Allen decided to let the carrier aircraft fly to honor her brother’s wishes and also to prove the vehicle and concept worked, one of the four people said.

If true, this is hardly a surprise. The company was never able to find a viable path to orbit. It had built a spectacular plane, but could not find a rocket for that plane to launch.

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Mexico’s president responds to Trump’s imposition of tariffs

Mexico’s president Andres Manuel López Obrador has issued a response to Trump’s announcement yesterday of the imposition of tariffs, set to escalate monthly, until Mexico makes some effort to help with the illegal immigration problem.

In his letter (pdf) translated by the Wall Street Journal, the socialist leader pushed back at Trump’s announcement, accusing him of transforming the United States from “a country of fraternity for the world’s migrants into a ghetto.” He also attacked Trump’s “America First” slogan, calling it a fallacy as they should be seeking instead the socialist principles of “universal justice and fraternity.”

Obrador then proposed to “deepen the dialogue” instead of using “taxes or coercive measures” to resolve the illegal immigration issue, which has overwhelmed the immigration system at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It is worth remembering that, within a short period of time, Mexicans will not need to migrate into the United States and that migration will become optional, not compulsory. This is because we are fighting corruption, the main problem in Mexico, as never before!” Obrador said as he tried to convince Trump to “seek alternatives to the immigration problem.”

He added that the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico is leading a delegation to Washington to discuss with the Trump administration in order to seek “an agreement for the benefit of the two nations.”

The last paragraph is the important part. Everything else is bluster. Obrador needs to get those tariffs lifted, so he needs to negotiate something with the U.S. to get Trump to remove them. Whether he is really willing to help shut down the illegal traffic remains to be seen.

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NASA selects three companies to provide lunar landers for its science instruments

Captalism in space: NASA today announced the selection of three new companies to provide the agency lunar landers on which to fly its science instruments to the Moon.

The companies chosen:

  • Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Intuitive Machines of Houston has been awarded $77 million. The company has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, has been awarded $97 million and has proposed to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the Moon’s craters, by September 2020.

If successful as awarded, the cost for these spacecraft will be minuscule compared to what NASA normally spends for its own planetary probes.

These contract awards are puzzling however in one way. All three companies are relatively unknown. None competed in the Google Lunar X-Prize, as did the American company Moon Express, which at one time was thought to be very close to launching. That Moon Express is not one of the winners here is mysterious. The only explanation I can come up with is the lawsuit that Intuitive Machines won from Moon Express in January 2018. Maybe that suit killed Moon Express, and made Intuitive Machines the winner today.

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Solar scientists struggle to predict the next sunspot cycle

Link here. This is a detailed article describing the meeting in March where the solar science community gathered to formulate its prediction for the next solar cycle.

What stands out about the meeting is the outright uncertainty the scientists have about any prediction they might make. It is very clear that they recognize that all their predictions, both in the past and now, are not based on any actual understanding the Sun’s magnetic processes that form sunspots and cause its activity cycles, but on superficial statistics and using the past visual behavior of the Sun to predict its future behavior.

“There’s not very much physics involved,” concedes panelist Rachel Howe of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who has been tasked with reviewing the mishmash of statistical models. “There’s not very much statistical sophistication either.”

Panelist Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder agrees with Howe. “There is no connection whatsoever to solar physics,” he says in frustration. McIntosh, who by now has walked downstairs from his office and appears in the doorway, is blunter. “You’re trying to get rid of numerology?” he says, smirking.

The result, as I repeatedly note in my monthly sunspot updates, is that the last prediction failed, and that there is now great disagreement among these scientists about what will happen in the upcoming cycle.

[They] dutifully tabulate the estimates, and come up with a peak sunspot range: 95 to 130. This spells a weak cycle, but not notably so, and it’s marginally stronger than the past cycle. [They do] the same with the votes for the timing of minimum. The consensus is that it will come sometime between July 2019 and September 2020. Maximum will follow sometime between 2023 and 2026.

The range of predictions here is so great that essentially it shows that there really is no consensus on what will happen, which also explains why the prediction has still not been added to NOAA’s monthly sunspot graph. For past cycles the Sun’s behavior was relatively consistent and reliable, making such statistical and superficial predictions reasonably successful.

The situation now is more elusive. For the past dozen or so years the Sun has not been behaving in a consistent or reliable manner. Thus, the next cycle might be stronger, it could be weak, or we might be heading into a grand minimum, with no sunspots for many decades. These scientists simply do not know, and without a proper understanding of the Sun’s dynamo and magnetic field, they cannot make a sunspot prediction that anyone can trust.

And so they wait and watch, as we all. The Sun will do what the Sun wants to do, and only from this we will maybe be able to finally begin to glean an understanding of why.

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Europe inaugurates ExoMars control center

The Europe Space Agency yesterday inaugurated the control center where it will control and download data from the ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, scheduled to launch to Mars in the summer of 2020.

The control center also includes a dirt filled enclosure where they can simulate Martian conditions with a rover model.

The article outlined the project’s upcoming schedule:

Over the summer the rover will move to Toulouse, France, where it will be tested in Mars-like conditions. At the end of the year Rosalind Franklin will travel to Cannes to meet the landing and carrier modules for final assembly.

As I noted yesterday in my most recent rover update, this assembly, only six months before launch, gives them very little margin. If there are any problems during assembly, they will likely miss the 2020 launch window.

I also wonder if this will allow them any time to do acoustical and environmental testing, as was just completed on NASA’s 2020 rover, to make sure ExoMars can survive launch, landing, and the journey to Mars. If they forego those tests, they might discover after launch that they were launching a paperweight, not an expensive planetary probe.

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Astronauts recover towel left on outside of ISS ten years ago

During a spacewalk this week Russian astronauts recovered a towel that had been left on the outside of ISS during an earlier spacewalk ten years ago.

The towel was originally meant to clean astronauts’ spacesuits during their work in outer space. It was left by a Russian cosmonaut about a decade ago. Mr Kononenko and Mr Ovchinin removed the towel from the station’s surface and placed it in a special container. It will be sent back to Earth and delivered to a group of experts for further examination.

Though unplanned, this towel will provide some good data on the ability of microorganism to survive in space. It almost certainly had such things within it when it was taken outside a decade ago, and the question now will be whether they survived or not, and their condition in either case.

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Trace Gas Orbiter shifts orbit to prepare for ExoMars rover arrival

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, is about to make the final shifts to its orbit to place it in the right position to relay communications from the ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin, when it land on Mars in 2020.

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GAO finds continuing budget and scheduling problems for NASA’s big projects

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday revealed that the ongoing budget overruns and scheduling delays for NASA’s big projects have continued, and in some cases worsened in the past year.

The cost and schedule performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) portfolio of major projects continues to deteriorate. For this review, cost growth was 27.6 percent over the baselines and the average launch delay was approximately 13 months, the largest schedule delay since GAO began annual reporting on NASA’s major projects in 2009.

This deterioration in cost and schedule performance is largely due to integration and test challenges on the James Webb Space Telescope (see GAO-19-189 for more information). The Space Launch System program also experienced significant cost growth due to continued production challenges. Further, additional delays are likely for the Space Launch System and its associated ground systems. Senior NASA officials stated that it is unlikely these programs will meet the launch date of June 2020, which already reflects 19 months of delays. These officials told GAO that there are 6 to 12 months of risk associated with that launch date. [emphasis mine]

The Trump administration has made it clear to NASA’s bureaucracy that it expects SLS to meet the June 2020 deadline, or it will begin the process of ending the program and replacing it with private rockets. This GAO report suggests that this threat is almost certain to be carried out.

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Anomaly during static fire test of Northrop Grumman OmegaA rocket motor

Capitalism in space: During a static fire test of the first stage solid rocket motor for Northrop Grumman’s OmegaA rocket, the rocket’s nozzle suddenly broke apart two minutes into the firing.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The anomaly occurs about 2:11 into the video.

OmegA is being developed as part of a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman by the Air Force:

After the end of the Ares 1 and Liberty launch vehicle projects, Orbital ATK developed a next generation launch vehicle concept to compete for future US Air Force and NASA launches, and won a rocket propulsion system (RPS) contract in January 2016 as part of the Air Force’s effort to end its dependence on Russian RD-180 engine imports, due to increased geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia.

The contract enabled Orbital ATK to keep working on the next generation launch system, which was later named OmegA, with the first and last letters capitalized to incorporate the company’s initials.

In June 2018 Orbital ATK was acquired by Northrop Grumman to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), and in October of that year the US Air Force awarded NGIS a launch service agreement (LSA) contract initially worth $181 million for the first 18 months, and ultimately worth $792 million, to develop, build, and test the OmegA rocket, culminating in four test flights of two configurations starting in 2021.

» Read more

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Russian Proton rocket launches Russian communications satellite

In its first launch in 2019, a Russian Proton rocket today successfully placed a French-built Russian communications satellite into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

7 China
6 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. continues to lead China 11 to 7 in the national rankings.

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Trump imposes escalating tariffs on Mexico

President Trump announced today the imposition of escalating tariffs on Mexico until it acts to stop illegal immigration traveling through its country from Central America.

From the White House statement:

To address the emergency at the Southern Border, I am invoking the authorities granted to me by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Accordingly, starting on June 10, 2019, the United States will impose a 5 percent Tariff on all goods imported from Mexico. If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the Tariffs will be removed.

If the crisis persists, however, the Tariffs will be raised to 10 percent on July 1, 2019. Similarly, if Mexico still has not taken action to dramatically reduce or eliminate the number of illegal aliens crossing its territory into the United States, Tariffs will be increased to 15 percent on August 1, 2019, to 20 percent on September 1, 2019, and to 25 percent on October 1, 2019. Tariffs will permanently remain at the 25 percent level unless and until Mexico substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory.

It seems to me a perfectly reasonable position, considering how unwilling Mexico has been to enforce its own immigration laws in connection with illegals heading to the U.S. The illegal immigrant caravans crossing Mexico last year from other Central American countries could have been stopped if the Mexico government had taken action. Instead, it provided aid and comfort to these illegals, often to the distress of its own citizens.

Since then that government’s policies on illegal immigration have been very mixed.

Trump’s action here might serve to clarify the situation.

The bottom line remains the same as always. The law should be obeyed. The federal government is obligated to enforce that law. And, as the White House statement noted, “Workers who come to our country through the legal admissions process, including those working on farms, ranches, and in other businesses, will be allowed easy passage.” Nothing the Trump administration has done has contradicted that statement.

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Oregon official who oppressed Christian bakers loses election

Update: One of my readers pointed out something I completely missed when I read the story below today: The story is from 2016, describing an election then, not recently. Thus, this isn’t recent news and does not indicate anything about the present state of politics in Oregon.

Essentially this is a “Never mind.”

Very good news: The Oregon labor official who used the law to put a Christian bakery out of business because they would not bake a gay wedding cake has lost a statewide election to a Republican.

In his bid for Secretary of State, Avakian promised a push for “progressive values” like wage equality and reproductive freedoms. His conservative opponent promised to adhere to the position’s basic, more traditional roles, like auditing public records and officiating elections.

In the end, the opponent, Dennis Richardson won 48% of the popular vote, beating Avakian by nearly 100,000 votes. The victory makes Richardson the first Republican to win a statewide office in Oregon since 2002.

Maybe Oregonians are finally getting a bit sick and tired of how the left is giving their state the reputation as a failing fascist state.

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Nevada’s governor vetoes bill to void electoral college

Good news: Nevada’s Democratic governor has suprisingly vetoed a bill to that would have given all of Nevada’s electoral college votes to whichever candidate won the national popular vote.

It appears he actually put the interests of his state and its citizens above Democratic partisan politics.

“After thoughtful deliberation, I have decided to veto Assembly Bill 186,” [Governor Steve] Sisolak said in a statement. “Once effective, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could diminish the role of smaller states like Nevada in national electoral contests and force Nevada’s electors to side with whoever wins the nationwide popular vote, rather than the candidate Nevadans choose.”

This is a major blow to the effort by Democrats to void the electoral college, which would almost guarantee their victory in every future presidential election, due to their domination in high population states like California and New York.

Some related good news: Maine’s House today defeated a similar bill that had been approved by its Senate two weeks ago.

While the Senate vote fell largely on along party lines, with all Republicans and two Democrats opposing it, the House saw a more bipartisan rejection of the measure, after at least 20 lawmakers made speeches from the floor.

In other words, once they were made aware of the harmful nature of the bill to Maine’s interests, more Democrats, like Nevada’s governor, chose their state’s interests over national Democratic partisan politics.

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Rover update: May 30, 2019

Summary: Curiosity confirms clay in the clay unit. Yutu-2 begins its sixth day on the far side of the Moon. Three other rovers move towards completion and launch.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Clouds over Gale Crater
Clouds over Gale Crater

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity’s journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater goes on! On the right is one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

This clay-enriched region, located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, stood out to NASA orbiters before Curiosity landed in 2012. Clay often forms in water, which is essential for life; Curiosity is exploring Mount Sharp to see if it had the conditions to support life billions of years ago. The rover’s mineralogy instrument, called CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), provided the first analyses of rock samples drilled in the clay-bearing unit. CheMin also found very little hematite, an iron oxide mineral that was abundant just to the north, on Vera Rubin Ridge. [emphasis mine]

That two geological units adjacent to each other are so different is significant for geologists, because the difference points to two very different geological histories. The formation process for both the clay unit and Vera Rubin Ridge must have occurred at different times under very different conditions. Figuring out how that happened will be difficult, but once done it will tell us much about both Gale Crater and Mars itself.

With the success of their clay unit drilling campaign, the Curiosity science team has had the rover begin its trek back from the base of the cliff below Vera Rubin Ridge to its planned travel route up the mountain.

An updated description of that route was released by the Curiosity science team last week, while I was in Wales. Below is their image showing that route, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
» Read more

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Study shows Common Core hurt kids’ test scores

Common Core's damage

Our incompetent federal government: Researchers have found that since the adoption of Common Core during the Obama administration the test scores of children have dropped, not risen as promised.

Moreover, the decline appears directly related to Common Core itself.

Researchers the Obama administration funded to assist Common Core’s rollout recently found, to their surprise, that under Common Core U.S. student achievement has sunk. “Contrary to our expectation, we found that [Common Core] had significant negative effects on 4th graders’ reading achievement during the 7 years after the adoption of the new standards, and had a significant negative effect on 8th graders’ math achievement 7 years after adoption based on analyses of NAEP composite scores,” the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning (C-SAIL) preliminary study said. “The size of these negative effects, however, was generally small.”

The study found not only lower student achievement since Common Core, but also performed data analysis suggesting students would have done better if Common Core had never existed. The achievement declines also grew worse over time, study coauthor Mengli Song told Chalkbeat, an education news website: “That’s a little troubling.”

The study looked at math and reading test scores for both 4th and 8th grade students, and found that, almost as soon as Common Core was adopted scores began dropping. In many cases the drop reversed an improving trend that had been on-going for decades. The graph on the right illustrates this starkly for 8th grade math scores. There are other graphs at the link that show the same thing.

Common Core was another power grab by the federal government. It was opposed by many local parents and teachers, partly because they saw its defects, and partly because they strongly believed that education is better left to local communities, the teacher in the classroom, and the parents of that teacher’s students.

Sadly, however, we live in a time that insists that all decisions must come from Washington, no matter how trivial, and despite the reality that Washington’s track record for the past half century is truly abysmal, in almost everything it has attempted to accomplish.

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First movie of solar eclipse rediscovered

The first movie ever made of a solar eclipse, taken in 1900, has been rediscovered and restored.

The film was taken by British magician turned pioneering filmmaker Nevil Maskelyne on an expedition by the British Astronomical Association to North Carolina on 28 May, 1900. This was Maskelyne’s second attempt to capture a solar eclipse. In 1898 he travelled to India to photograph an eclipse where succeeded but the film can was stolen on his return journey home. It was not an easy feat to film. Maskelyne had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the event. This is the only film by Maskelyne that we know to have survived.

I have embedded the movie below the fold.
» Read more

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Russians say ISS threatened by debris from India’s anti-satellite test

According to one Russian official, data from the U.S. Air Force suggests that ISS now faces an increased risk from the debris produced from India’s anti-satellite test in March.

The probability that debris from an Indian satellite shot down earlier may puncture the International Space Station (ISS) has risen by 5%, Executive Director of Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos for Manned Space Programs Sergei Krikalyov said on Wednesday.

“The Americans have carried out calculations on the probability of the station getting punctured because of more debris surfacing and being dispersed. There are numerical estimates raising the probability of a puncture by about 5%,” Krikalyov said at a session of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Council.

It is unclear what this means, since Krikalyov did not say what the estimated overall risk is now thought to be. Increasing a 1% risk by 5% is far less significant that increasing a 10% risk by 5%. In fact, without knowing what the overall risk is, this story is practically meaningless, and instead suggests there are political reasons for making this statement.

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Hayabusa-2 successfully places reference target at man-made crater

Close-up during Hayabusa-2's close approach

Hayabusa-2 has successfully dropped a small reference target at the man-made crater on Ryugu, getting within 10 meters of the surface.

The image to the right is the last image taken by the spacecraft’s navigation camera during the operation. Unfortunately, the science team did not provide any further information, such as the height from which this image was taken, nor the scale of the features. Based on the sequence of images, it clearly occurred at the moment of closest approach.

I have tried to see if I could pinpoint the crater in the image by comparing it to the planning image post here. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify comparable features.

Either way with the successful placement of the reference target on the surface, they can now begin planning the sample grab touch-and-go at this location.

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Turkey releases jailed American citizen

Turkey yesterday released an American citizen and former NASA researcher whom they had arrested in 2016 during their effort to squelch a failed coup.

39-year-old Serkan Golge has been in Turkish custody since 2016 when he was arrested in the southern part of the country while on vacation. The arrest occurred in the midst of a failed coup attempt where thousands were detained on dubious evidence as suspicions swirled in the Turkish government. Golge was sentenced to five years on terrorism charges.

…Golge was accused of working with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government alleged was the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt. The only evidence authorities had against Golge was a $1 bill they found after searching his brother’s house. Turkish prosecutors alleged that Gülen would give blessed $1 bills to his followers.

Though the decision to release Golge was made by the Turkish courts, don’t be fooled. This was done for political reasons. It occurred only hours after Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan completed a phone conversation about trade and tariff issues. They apparently did not discuss Golge, but I am sure Erdoğan realized that getting Gloge released would make negotiations with Trump easier.

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Netanyahu calls for new elections

Having failed to form a coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu has called for new elections, only seven weeks after his coalition of parties won the previous election.

Like all the Israeli news sources I’ve read, this one is also somewhat vague about the disagreement, which is between the orthodox parties and another smaller party within Netanyahu’s coalition.

At the heart of the impasse was the issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students: Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, without whom Netanyahu can’t form a coalition, refused to back down on the bill’s terms, while ultra-Orthodox parties claimed they have already yielded enough ground.

It appears the disagreement involves a new law related to the requirement that orthodox yeshiva students be liable for the military draft, as are all other Israeli citizens. Because of a deal made many decades ago by Ben-Gurion, those students had been exempted from the draft until just a few years ago. It seems the negotiations were either an attempt to expand their exemption again, or reduce it further. None of the stories I’ve read have been clear on this point.

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The mysterious slope streaks of Mars

Massive flow on Mars
A typical Martian slope streak.

The uncertainty of science: In the past decade or so scientists have documented in detail a number of features on the Martian surface that evolve or change over time. From the constantly changing poles to the tracks of dust devils to landslides to the appearance of seasonal frost, we have learned that Mars is far from a dead world. Things are happening there, and while they are not happening as quickly or with as much energy as found on Earth, geological changes are still occurring with regular frequency, and in ways that we do not yet understand.

Of the known changing features on Mars, two are especially puzzling. These are the two types of changing streaks on the slopes of Martian cliffs, dubbed recurring slope lineae (referred as RSLs by scientists) and slope streaks.

Lineae are seasonal, first appearing during the Martian summer to grow hundreds of feet long, and then to fade away with the arrival of winter. Their seasonal nature and appearance with the coming of warm temperatures suggests that water plays a part in their initiation, either from a seep of briny water downhill or an avalanche of dust begun by. Or a combination of both. The data however does not entirely fit these theories, and in fact is downright contradictory. Some studies (such as this one and this one) say that the seasonal lineae are caused by water. Other studies (such as this one and this one) say little or no water is involved in their seasonal formation.

The answer remains elusive, and might only be answered, if at all, when Curiosity takes a close look at two lineae in the coming years.

Slope streaks however are the focus of this post, as they are even more puzzling, and appear to possibly represent a phenomenon entirely unique to Mars. I became especially motivated to write about these mysterious ever newly appearing features when, in reviewing the May image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found four different uncaptioned images of slope streaks, all titled “Slope Stream Monitoring.” From this title it was clear that the MRO team was re-imaging each location to see if any change had occurred since an earlier image was taken. A quick look in the MRO archive found identical photographs for all four slope streak locations, taken from 2008 to 2012, and in all four cases, new streaks had appeared while older streaks had faded. You can see a side-by-side comparison of all four images below the fold.
» Read more

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NASA IG finds both Europa missions a mess

Our incompetent federal government: A report released today [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general has found that the management of the Europa Clipper orbiter and the later Europa lander missions, both mandated by Congress, are facing serious budget and schedule risks, despite being given more than three-quarters of a billion dollars more than requested.

Congress has taken a strong interest in the project and since fiscal year (FY) 2013 has appropriated about $2.04 billion to NASA for a Europa mission—$1.26 billion more than the Agency requested.

…Despite [this] robust early-stage funding, a series of significant developmental and personnel resource challenges place the Clipper’s current mission cost estimates and planned 2023 target launch at risk. In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. [emphasis mine]

The lander meanwhile is in even worse shape, especially because its congressionally-mandated launch date on SLS in 2025 seems impossible.

It seems to me that this entire project could be the poster boy for the overall incompetence of our so-called “betters” in Washington, who in the past three decades have failed spectacularly in practically every major project they have undertaken. The project was mandated on NASA by Congress, led by former congressman John Culberson (R-Texas), who was then the chairman of the House subcommittee that was in charge of funding the agency. It was his pet project. Though the planetary science community were glad to have this mission, it was listed as their second priority in their 2011 decadal survey. Culberson made it first, and also made sure it got a lot of money, far more than NASA ever requested.

Despite this strong support, the inspector general has now found that the project is being badly mismanaged and faces budget overruns and scheduling problems. The scheduling problems partly result from the project’s bad management, but mostly because of Congress’s demand that the spacecraft fly on SLS. Our vaunted elected officials wanted to give that boondoggle (they own pet project) a mission, something it didn’t have, and Europa Clipper and Lander were therefore given that task.

The problem, as I have documented endlessly, is that SLS is woefully behind schedule. It appears it will likely not be ready for Europa Clipper’s launch window in 2023.

But hey, let’s give our federal government more responsibility and power! Let’s go socialist!

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Hayabusa-2 has begun approach to Ryugu

Ryugu during approach

Hayabusa-2 has begun its approach to the man-made impact site on Ryugu in order to drop a reflective reference target there in preparation for a later touch-and-go landing.

The link provides real time delivery of the images taken by the spacecraft’s navigation camera, released approximately once every thirty minutes. The image on the right, brightened slightly to post here, is the most recent image as I write this post.

The approach will take almost twenty-four hours, so viewing the changes at the link will be somewhat equivalent to watching paint dry. I suggest returning every few hours to see the closer images of the asteroid.

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NASA releases industry studies of future commercial viability of low-Earth orbit

NASA today released summaries of the studies it had asked twelve private space companies to write looking into the future commercial viability of low-Earth orbit.

I’ve looked at those summaries, and found them nothing more than single view-graphs from each company selling its wares to NASA and the public. This overall analysis is quite accurate:

ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens told the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) committee today that the companies are “counting on NASA still to be an anchor tenant. Our desire is not to be an anchor tenant.”

She conceded that based on these studies, it does not appear that “we’ll see a dramatic reduction in what NASA will spend.” Her conclusion matches a 2017 independent analysis by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) that concluded “it is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025.”

In other words, at the moment everyone in this industry remains too dependent on government money. A private commercial industry in low-Earth orbit, including private space stations , might be possible, but it can’t get a foothold as long as NASA and ISS are in the game.

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Launch failures in the past decade cost Russia almost a billion dollars

According to a Russian news report today, a Russian government financial study has found that the eleven Russian launch failures that occurred from 2010 to 2018 cost the government almost a billion dollars.

“During this period (2010-2018), 11 emergency launches took place. The losses of Russian to more than 35 bln rubles (which is almost 13 times higher than insurance costs),” the document said.

At the same time, due to the insurance tool, Russia returned almost 20 bln rubles ($309.62 mln), which is more than seven times the insurance costs.

“It should also be noted that during this period there were a number of emergency that were not insured. The result of these accidents was the losses of Roscosmos State Corporation in the amount of over 10.5 bln rubles ($162.55 mln), the sources of compensation are not established,” according to the explanatory note to the draft resolution of the Russian government.

The report also noted that insurance for launches from 2019 to 2021 will cost the Russians about 15% per launch. I don’t know the normal per launch insurance rate, so it is unclear if this is a heavy burden or not.

What is clear is that the failures in the past decade not only cost Russia dearly in money, it also lost them their international commercial market share. Right now almost all their launches are for the government, which brings them no outside profit, something they need desperately to help finance their future space effort.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 wake up for sixth lunar day

China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have been reactivated this week to begin observations during their sixth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

According to the Chinese news source,

For the sixth lunar day, the lander’s neutron radiation detector and low-frequency radio detector will be restarted to conduct scientific tasks including particle radiation observation and low-frequency radio astronomical observation.

The rover’s panoramic camera, detection radar, infrared imaging spectrometer and neutral atom detector will be restarted during the sixth lunar day.

That’s about all we know. They have not released much information about the rover’s travels, nor have they released any detailed information about the data they have obtained.

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