Monthly Archives: September 2019

Retired engineer builds giant and revolutionary train, in his backyard

An evening pause: This story is not simply some cutsy human-interest tale about how some guy makes something cool in his backyard. Max Schlienger built this scale model prototype to demonstrate his concept for better and more efficient type of train.

Hat tip Cotour.

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Martian impact into lava crust?

Impact crater north of Pavonis Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on April 23, 2019. It shows a quite intriguing impact crater on the northern lava slopes of Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the chain of three gigantic volcanoes to the west of Valles Marineris.

What makes this image cool is what the impact did when it hit. Note the circular depression just outside the crater’s rim. In the southeast quadrant that ring also includes a number of additional parallel and concentric depressions. Beyond the depression ground appears mottled, almost like splashed mud.

What could have caused this circular depression? Our first clue comes from the crater’s location, as shown in the overview map below and to the right.
» Read more

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First data suggests Comet Borisov resembles solar comets

The first spectrum obtained from Comet Borisov suggests that it is quite similar to comets in our solar system.

The gas detected was cyanogen, made of a carbon atom and a nitrogen atom bonded together. It is a toxic gas if inhaled, but it is relatively common in comets.

The team concluded that the most remarkable thing about the comet is that it appears ordinary in terms of the gas and dust it is emitting. It looks like it was born 4.6 billion years ago with the other comets in our Solar system, yet has come from an – as yet – unidentified star system.

It is still very early, so drawing any firm conclusions at this point is risky.

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Musk’s speech: Starship is coming on fast!

Musk standing at base of Starship Mk1

Elon Musk has begun his speech. The image to the right shows him as a tiny figure at the base of the just completed Starship Mk1 prototype. I will be adding details here as the speech proceeds.

First, he wants to inspire and thinks making humanity a multi-world species is the way to do it.
Then, to make us multi-world species requires a completely reusable rocket, what he called “the holy grail of space.”
Next, he goes back to the beginning of SpaceX, the first launch of Falcon 1 on this date years ago. “Getting to orbit is hard. We were very naive.”

From here he discussed Grasshopper, and noted that Starship Mk1 will do the a bigger version of that “in one to two months.” To repeat, they will be doing that quickly, and will be aiming for orbital flights in six months.

He is interspersing the speech with videos, of Falcon 1 launching, of Grasshopper, of Falcon Heavy, I think to illustrate how far SpaceX has come in such a short time. For example, he notes that Falcon Heavy’s first launch was only last February.

He is now outlining Starship as planned. Starship is now expected to be at 120 tons in mass, more than first planned. It will be able put 150 tons in orbit with full reuseability.

Next, getting it back to Earth in reusable form: It will return in many ways like the shuttle, but with its own uniqueness. “It will fall like a skydiver, then become vertical, and land.”

Next, the Raptor engines: Starship will have six, three able to adjust their nozzle and three fixed and optimized for efficiency. The Mk1 prototype has the three adjustable, since these will be used for landing. The other three engines will be for getting into orbit.

The heat shield and hull: They are going to use hexagonal ceramic tiles in the thermally critical areas. Everything else will use stainless steel, which he says is actually stronger when hot them some traditional rocket materials. It also has a high melting point. “You don’t need any shielding on the leeward side.” It is also much cheaper than carbon fiber, and much easier to use, shape, weld, install.

Super Heavy booster: Now estimating it will have 37 Raptor engines, but this number will be changeable, even when it is operational. The fins will be legs (just like the 1950s sci-fi movies!).

Final complete stack, both Starship and and Super Heavy, will be 2 1/2 times taller than Starship Mk1, as shown in the image above. They then showed a simulation of a launch, which I am sure will be online very shortly.

To get to either the Moon or Mars Starship will require refueling in orbit. This technology he considers essential. It will require rendezvous and docking, a skill they are learning with their manned Dragon.

He is also outlining the need to go to both the Moon and Mars, and then beyond. However, his first focus is on finding “the fastest path to building a city on Mars.”

His larger focus is making us multi-planetary, in order to preserve both our existence and all life on Earth. “And we should do it now!”

To sum up, the gist of the speech was to outline how far the entire company has come in a very short time, where they think they are going in the near future with Starship — and that’s the very near future — and then to conclude with Musk’s longer term vision for space exploration. Overall, it appears the goal was to once again sell Starship and the magnificent possibilities it might achieve.

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Sweden is no leftist utopia

Link here. This quote gives the flavor:

‘Nowhere else has the direct link between individual and state evolved as far as in Sweden,” Asbrink writes. “You don’t expect your family or relatives or friends or charity organizations to help if you become vulnerable,” she said. “You expect the state to help you.” Swedish parents have no obligation to their children once they turn 18. The elderly turn to the state rather than their adult offspring for support.

“This of course means freedom from family bonds or ties,” Asbrink said. “But it also means isolation. People feel lonely. There is a built-in depression that comes with this deal with the state.”

From the 1950s through the 1970s, that translated into some of the developed world’s highest suicide rates and had a noticeable impact on Sweden’s artists.

There’s more in the article, including detailing how in the past few decades Sweden has been moving back to individual responsibility and private enterprise. This information is important in connection with American politics, as Democrats routinely tout Sweden as the paradise they wish to build in America. The article questions their assumptions.

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Movie of Juno’s 22 close fly-by of Jupiter

As he has done previously, citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt has created a movie using Juno images of the spacecraft’s twenty-second fly-by of Jupiter.

I have embedded the movie below the fold. This fly-by included the images of Io’s shadow posted by other citizen scientists earlier. Because the movie shows this shadow in the context of the fly-by (near its lowest altitude), it illustrates why the shadow appears far larger than it is, relative to the entire planet.

» Read more

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NASA awards 14 companies small development contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced the issuing of fourteen small contracts totaling $43.2 million to a variety of big and small new space commercial companies, all aimed at developing technology for exploring the solar system.

The link has a detailed list, which includes Blue Origin and SpaceX, though most of the companies are relatively unknown.

NASA’s public statements in connection with these awards suggest they are support for Artemis, but that’s not true as is merely being done to sell Artemis, falsely. As designed these contracts will do more to accelerate the alternatives to Artemis. For example, the contract to SpaceX is “to develop and test coupler prototypes – or nozzles – for refueling spacecraft such as the company’s Starship vehicle.” Similarly, the contract to the small company ExoTerra will

build, test and launch a 12-unit CubeSat with a compact, high impulse solar electric propulsion module. Once flight-ready, the system will be demonstrated in-space as the CubeSat moves from low-Earth orbit to the radiation belts surrounding Earth. This small electric propulsion system could open up the inner solar system for targeted science exploration missions, using affordable spacecraft that range from 44 to 440 pounds.

Both might be applicable to Artemis, but won’t be, as NASA’s SLS, Orion, and Gateway contractors are likely uninterested in such things. Moreover, these technologies will be owned by the companies developing them, as the contracts are designed like the Space Act Agreements that fueled the Dragon and Cygnus commercial cargo capsules. The companies are to pay 25% of the cost, and then get to keep whatever is developed. NASA in turn gets access to this new technology, almost all of which appears designed to encourage alternatives to Artemis.

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Planet X a small black hole?

In one of the wilder theories attempting to explain the orbits of the outer objects found beyond Neptune, two physicists have proposed that the reason Planet X has not been located is because it might be a small black hole.

Previous studies have suggested Planet Nine, which some astronomers refer to as “Planet X,” has a mass between five and 15 times that of Earth and lies between 45 billion and 150 billion kilometers from the sun. At such a distance, an object would receive very little light from the sun, making it hard to see with telescopes.

To detect objects of that mass, whether planets or black holes, astronomers can look for weird blobs of light formed when light “bends” around the object’s gravitational field on its journey through the galaxy (simulated image above). Those anomalies would come and go as objects move in front of a distant star and continue in their orbit.

But if the object is a planet-mass black hole, the physicists say, it would likely be surrounded by a halo of dark matter that could stretch up to 1 billion kilometers on every side. And interactions between dark matter particles in that halo—especially collisions between dark matter and dark antimatter—could release a flash of gamma rays that would betray the object’s presence, the researchers propose in a forthcoming paper posted on the preprint server arXiv.

Anything is possible, but some things are certainly less likely than others. If these scientists turn out to be right, however, they will have achieved one of the biggest coups in the history of science.

And yes, the undiscovered planet out there should be referred to as “Planet X”, not “Planet Nine.” Not only is Pluto a planet, so are a lot of other objects in the solar system that up to recently were not considered so.

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LRO scientists release image of Vikram landing site

Overview of Vikram landing area
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team yesterday released their high resolution image taken of the area where it is believed India’s lunar lander Vikram crashed.

The image to the right is not that image, but an oblique overview showing where that landing region is, the center of which is indicated by the white cross. Vikram was aiming for this flat region between the Simpelius N and Manzinus C craters.

In releasing the image, the scientists explained what they thought were the reasons they have so far failed to find Vikram.

We note that it was dusk when the landing area was imaged and thus large shadows covered much of the terrain, perhaps the Vikram lander is hiding in a shadow. The lighting will be favorable when LRO passes over the site in October and LROC will attempt to image the lander at that time.

You can explore the actual image at the link. It is quite large, though their viewer there allows you to zoom in and move about, inspecting each grid area very closely. As they note, there are a lot of shadowed areas.

LRO’s high resolution camera can see objects as small as Vikram, even if broke up somewhat on landing. The key for discovery will be timing. LRO will have to pass over at a time when the lander is not in shadow.

UPDATE: Below the fold is a side-by-side comparison of this region, with mid-day on the left and the dusk LRO image on the right, created by Rex Ridenoure of Ecliptic Enterprises.and graciously provided to me.
» Read more

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Stratolaunch has begun hiring again

Capitalism in space: After a retrenchment where the company trimmed its staff last year, Stratolaunch has now begun hiring again.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says. The pilot positions are among nine openings in Mojave, with two openings (for a purchasing agent and a contract specialist) based in Seattle.

It however remains unclear the exact manner in which their giant plane Roc will be used. So far there appears little interest in using it, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, to launch satellites. It could be that the plane might instead be used in connection with ground-based operations.

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A big planet circling a small star

The uncertainty of science: In contradiction of every existing stellar and planetary formation model, astronomers have found a half-sized Jupiter exoplanet orbiting a tiny red dwarf star.

The red dwarf GJ 3512 is located 30 light-years from us. Although the star is only about a tenth of the mass of the Sun, it possesses a giant planet – an unexpected observation. “Around such stars there should only be planets the size of the Earth or somewhat more massive Super-Earths,” says Christoph Mordasini, professor at the University of Bern and member of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS: “GJ 3512b, however, is a giant planet with a mass about half as big as the one of Jupiter, and thus at least one order of magnitude more massive than the planets predicted by theoretical models for such small stars.”

It appears the universe does not care what this and other scientists think “should” happen. The universe will do what the universe wants to do.

This discovery only underlines how little we understand of the formation of stars and their solar system. Be prepared for many more like surprises in the coming decades and centuries.

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More Starship teasers from Musk

Musk continues to tweet out tiny teasers about the construction and design of the first Starship prototype being built at Boca Chica, dubbed Mk1.

[T]his prototype — the second Starship test vehicle, after the single-engine Starhopper, which was retired last month — will stand 165 feet (50 meters) tall and weigh 1,400 tons when fueled up (and 200 tons when “dry”). But that weight should come down in subsequent iterations, Musk added. “Mk1 ship is around 200 tons dry & 1400 tons wet, but aiming for 120 by Mk4 or Mk5. Total stack mass with max payload is 5000 tons,” he said in one of yesterday’s tweets.

In another tweet, Musk revealed the number of landing legs the Mk1 will have: “Six. Two windward, one under each fin & two leeward. Provides redundancy for landing on unimproved surfaces.”

Musk has previously said that the Mk1 and the Mk2 — a similar prototype being built at SpaceX’s Florida facilities — will be powered by at least three of the company’s next-generation Raptor engines. And today (Sept. 26), he tweeted three photos showing what that three-engine alignment looks like.

Both the Mk1 and Mk2 will start out making suborbital flights, but the goal is to get them to orbit eventually, Musk has said.

He will be giving a major speech on Starship tomorrow at Boca Chica. I have not been able to find any information as yet detailing the time and where to watch, but this will come clear I am sure very soon.

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Adventures in TSA fantasyland

Another airplane journey, another idiotic example of the stupidity of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).

I am in the airport in Panama City, Florida, waiting for my flight home. As I was putting my shoes and belt back on at the security conveyor belt, I watched as an older couple was having their carry-on bags opened and inspected. The woman was wearing an Islamic scarf. (Despite this I am sure neither posed any threat, because both were somewhat elderly, and had been given passes that I think signified this, since anyone over 75 years old is allowed to keep shoes and belts on.)

What was amazing to me was what happened when the TSA officer discovered that the women had brought a take-out lunch with her, as well as a full set of metal silverware to eat it. The officer hardly glanced at silverware, seeming more interested in her lunch in a plastic food container. While he inspected this the woman put the silverware back in her purse, and after the officer was satisfied that the take-out food was not dangerous, he allowed them to leave, silverware and all.

As they left I was right there, putting my wallet and keys back in my pockets, with that officer only about two feet away. I couldn’t help it. I said, “Excuse me, it is now permissible to bring metal silverware, forks, knives, so forth, on an airplane?”
» Read more

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Curiosity to use first of nine “wet chemistry cups”

two drill holes in clay layer
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has decided to use the first of its nine “wet chemistry cups” to test a recently obtained Martian drill sample for organic material.

Searching for organic molecules in rocks on Mars is no easy task. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument is designed to analyze the chemical composition of gases, which it creates by slowly heating rock samples in an oven. The volatile gases that are driven off the heated rock sample get sent to SAM’s gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS), which can identify the different gaseous compounds. However, organic molecules are tough to detect with this technique, because instead of transforming straight into gases when heated, they can decompose into simpler molecules.

But if organic molecules are “derivatized” before they’re heated – meaning that they react with other chemicals first in order to become more volatile – then the compounds are more likely to enter the GCMS without breaking down, and SAM has a better chance of detecting them. This derivatization process uses solvents of chemicals, so we call it a “wet chemistry” experiment. Curiosity only has nine cups containing these solvents, so we are careful to save our wet chemistry experiments for only the most interesting rock samples.

The “Glen Etive” site, which we have been studying for the past month, is enticing enough for this special experiment!

They are performing this operation today. This is a big deal, because they only have nine of these cups. They have been saving them for the right time, and when the drill had problems two years ago and looked for awhile like it would never work again, they were horrified at the possibility they would never get to use them at all. While I would not be surprised if NASA issues a press release today touting this decision, do not expect any announcement of results for quite awhile, as I suspect the scientists in charge will want to publish their paper on the subject first.

This location, in the clay unit in the foothills of Mount Sharp, is a spot where they have drilled twice, as shown by the two drill holes visible near the center of the the picture above.

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More delays for New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed this week that the first manned flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard spacecraft will likely not happen in 2019, as previously announced.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission for at least two more New Shepard test flights from its test and launch facility in West Texas. These would be the 12th and 13th flights of the New Shepard test program.

On Tuesday, Blue Origin sought reauthorization of the next test flight for a six-month period running from Nov. 1 to next May. The existing authorization is set to expire on Dec. 1, which suggests that the company wants to reserve more time to prepare for the test.

Whether those next two test flights will use the capsule they have flown previously, or a new capsule, dubbed “RSS First Step”, that they intend to put the first people on, could determine how much of a delay to expect. That new capsule is built but it has never flown. If the next two flights use the previous test capsule, this would guarantee even more delays before Blue Origin flies people.

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Soyuz launches military surveillance satellite

Russia today completed its second Soyuz launch in twenty-four hours, launching the third in a constellation of military satellites designed to detect incoming missiles.

With this launch Russia has topped its total from 2018, and looks very likely finish the year with the most launches since 2016.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

18 China
16 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. continues to lead China 19 to 18 in the national rankings.

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UK company buys space on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Spacebit, a United Kingdom company, has signed a deal to put an instrument on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine-1, set for launch by 2021.

Astrobotic was one of the three private companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers to carry NASA instruments to the Moon. In addition, these companies could sell additional space to other private companies. According to the press release, Astrobotic already has a manifest of sixteen such contracts.

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Proton commercial launch delayed

One of the last few commercial launches for Russia’s Proton rocket has been delayed because the satellite “was not attached correctly to the upper stage.”

This is likely not as serious a blunder as the story makes it sounds. They had detected some “electromagnetic interference” in the upper stage’s control system during prechecks, which suggests a wire got crossed somewhere.

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Three launches today, including launch of three astronauts and UAE’s first spaceman

Three launches today, by China, Japan, and Russia. China launched a Yunhai-1 weather satellite using its Long March 2D rocket. Japan in turn successfully launched, on its second attempt, its HTV cargo freighter to ISS. This was Japan’s second launch this year.

Finally, Russia has just successfully put three astronauts into orbit using its Soyuz rocket, including the first astronaut of the United Arab Emirates.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

18 China
15 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. lead over China in the national rankings is now 19 to 18.

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LauncherOne shipped to Mohave for launch prep

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has shipped its first LauncherOne rocket to Mohave for final tests prior to its first launch, planned for sometime this year.

Virgin Orbit didn’t give a schedule for completing those tests and performing that orbital flight. Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris Sept. 11 that he expected those final tests be completed in a matter of weeks. “It will take a handful of weeks to get through a number of wet dress rehearsals, crew training, and verification of the system,” he said. “We’ll do one flight test with that rocket and then we’ll get to orbit.” He estimated the company would be ready for launch “in the middle of this fall.”

If that first orbital test flight is successful, they hope to do their first operational commercial launch before the end of the year.

My 2016 prediction that a LauncherOne will complete its first commercial launch before SpaceShipOne, continues to look likely, even though SpaceShipOne began development more than a decade before LauncherOne..

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New York Mets – September 24, 1969

An evening pause: This pause was first posted by me back in 2011. As tonight is the fiftieth anniversary of that grand moment, I post it again, if only to remind the jaded and pessimistic youth of today that miracles really can happen. As I wrote then,

In 1969 the lowly New York Mets, doormats in the National League from the moment the team was created in 1962, came out of nowhere to win the pennant and the World Championship of baseball. … I and my friend Lloyd attended the game in which the Mets clinched first place in the National League Eastern Division. Below is video showing highlights of the game plus the final out, with the crowd pouring onto the field. Though you can’t see me, I am in that crowd, jumping for joy at this most unlikely sports miracle. There was no rioting, only happy fans chanting “We’re number one!” in exuberant disbelief.

And I still have that small piece of turf from Shea Stadium, collected on that night, proof that the unexpected and improbable is always possible.

The unlikeliness of the Mets championship in 1969 cannot be overstated. Before 1969, the team had never finished higher than next to last, each season losing more games than they won. Then, in 1969 they posted a 100-62 record, while coming from far back to overtake the favored Chicago Cubs for the pennant. Moreover, during that 1969 season all kinds of unusual things kept happening. To give just one example, they won a double header by scores of 1-0, with the pitcher in both games driving in the winning run.

As their first manager and Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up!”

In 1973 the Mets won the pennant again, following the motto “You gotta believe!” pushed by their relief pitcher Tug McGraw. McGraw was so right. Combine talent, dedication, hard work, and an unwavering belief that all things are possible, humans can sometimes do amazing things.

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Astronomer: Look for monolith on co-orbiting asteriods

According to one astronomer in a paper published this week, the most likely place to find alien artifacts would be on the co-orbital asteroids, objects whose orbit is very similar to the Earth and thus always nearby but mostly unseen.

In this context, a co-orbital is an asteroid that goes around the Sun on the same, or similar, orbital path to Earth. Co-orbital objects approach Earth very closely every year at distance is much shorter than anything except the moon.

Consequently, co-orbitals could be a great place to watch Earth from. Not only would any alien probes on co-orbital objects be concealed, but they would also be anchored and able to access solar energy. They could possibly sustain themselves for many thousands of years.

According to this paper, if aliens have visited the solar system in the past they would place their long-term alien probes on such an asteroid, or even give it a comparable co-orbit. And if we look and don’t find anything, that would strongly imply that we are alone in the universe.

Fun stuff, but need I say that not finding alien artifacts at these locations proves nothing.

Hat tip Jeff Bliss.

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Comet Borisov is now 2I/Borisov

Because the comet that amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered in August is actually the second interstellar object ever discovered that is entering the solar system, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided to dub it 2I/Borisov, honoring its discoverer as is traditional with comets but indicating its interstellar nature in the name.

The orbit is now sufficiently well known, and the object is unambiguously interstellar in origin; it has received its final designation as the second interstellar object, 2I. In this case, the IAU has decided to follow the tradition of naming cometary objects after their discoverers, so the object has been named 2I/Borisov.

As my regular readers know, I am not a fan of the IAU’s effort to claim the right to name every object in the universe. In this case it has at least made the proper decision.

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