Monthly Archives: December 2019

White House slashes National Security Council staffing

No more leaks of Trump phone conversations: Under the leadership of National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien,the White House is reducing the staffing of the National Security Council, returning it to numbers similar to what it was prior to the Obama administration.

Under President Obama, the NSC staff mushroomed to as many as 450 people. Mr. O’Brien plans to cut the staff to fewer than 120 policy officials by early next year. The downsizing will be carried out by consolidating positions and returning officials to agencies and departments such as the CIA, the State and Defense departments and the military.

Mr. O’Brien noted that the NSC had a policymaking staff of 12 in 1962 when President Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. During the 2000s and the George W. Bush administration, the number of NSC staff members increased sharply to support the three-front conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.

However, it was during the Obama administration that the NSC was transformed into a major policymaking agency seeking to duplicate the functions of the State and Defense departments within the White House. “The NSC staff became bloated during the prior administration,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The NSC is a coordinating body. I am trying to get us back to a lean and efficient staff that can get the job done, can coordinate with our interagency partners, and make sure the president receives the best advice he needs to make the decisions necessary to keep the American people safe.”

Though unstated by O’Brien, a side benefit of these cutbacks is that it will remove Obama holdovers from the NSC, many of whom have been implicated or even admitted to leaking the contents of several of Trump’s private phone conversations with foreign leaders.

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The state of the global rocket industry in 2019

With 2019 ending, it is time once again (as I did for 2016, 2017, and 2018) to review the trends in the global launch industry for the past year.

Below is my updated graph, showing the launch numbers for 2019 as well as for every year going back to 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. That range I think covers all recent trends, while also giving some perspective on what happened in 2019.

The graph is worth reviewing at length, as it not only gives a sense of recent trends, it also summarizes well the history of the entire global space industry during the past thirty years. For example, it shows the transition in the U.S. in the past two decades from government-owned launchers to private rockets, a change that has revitalized the American space industry in more ways than be counted.
» Read more

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NY, Illinois, California populations in decline

According to several different analyses of census data, all released in the past few days, the Democratically-controlled liberal states of New York, Illinois, and California are seeing either historic drops in population or historic drops in population growth.

For these major states to experience reductions in population growth or declines at this time, during an economic expansion, suggests that other factors are driving people from them. Could it be their leftist socialist policies, which routinely bring high taxes, heavy regulation, and an oppressive political climate? I suspect so, especially because in the past century such socialist/communist policies have routinely caused the same result repeatedly in other countries. People fled the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in Europe (controlled by the Soviet Union), they fled North Korea, they fled China for Hong Kong, they fled Cuba, and they have been fleeing from Venezuela.

And where do they go? Foreign refugees in large numbers clamor to enter the U.S., but if that destination is unavailable they then favor other capitalist nations, where freedom and private enterprise are honored. And in the U.S. the populations continues to generally shift toward more conservative states, places where those same concepts are also honored.

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U.S. embassy in Iraq attacked

Militia linked to Iran today attacked the U.S. embassy in Bagdad, breaking into the compound while chanting “Down, Down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.

Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily-fortified Green Zone after a funeral held for those killed in the U.S. airstrikes, letting them pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.

The mob of marchers, many of them in militia uniforms, shouted “Down, Down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” outside the compound, hurling water and stones over its walls. The mob set fire to three trailers used by security guards along the wall. AP journalists saw some try to scale the walls.

Others then smashed the gates used by cars to enter and dozens pushed into the compound. The protesters stopped in a corridor after about 5 meters (16 feet), and were only about 200 meters away from the main building. Half a dozen U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns were pointed at the protesters. Smoke from the tear gas rose in the area. [emphasis mine]

The protests were apparently in response to the Sunday U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq, launched in retaliation for the killing of an American contractor by those same Iranian militia.

That Iraq security allowed the protesters through their security checkpoints is a very bad thing. It suggests that Iraq, caught between the U.S. and Iran, is shifting its alliance toward Iran.

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Betelguese fades a full magnitude

Long term observations of the red giant star Betelguese have found it to have faded a full magnitude in the past few months, dropping it from 6th brightest in the sky to the 21st.

You will see a lot of bad journalism related to this story, hyping the fact that Betelguese is considered one of the top nearby stars to someday in the far future go supernovae. However, the recent change in brightness is unlikely related to this and is nothing unusual, as the star fluctuates regularly.

The current faintness of Betelgeuse appears to arise from the coincidence of the star being near the minimum light of the ~5.9-yr light-cycle as well as near, the deeper than usual, minimum of the ~425-d period.

The star is definitely interesting, because it is so large (if placed in our solar system its surface would be around the orbit of Jupiter) and so defuse, more like a partly filled gasbag. However, the odds of it going supernovae in the near future is quite unlikely.

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Russia’s population to shrink?

The coming dark age: According to a report from Russia’s national statistics office, the country’s population could drop by as much as 12 million by 2035.

The report outlined three scenarios, based on present trends, with only the most optimistic predicting any population increase, though even that saw population growing by only about four million by 2035. Meanwhile, the numbers the last two years were stark:

Russia’s overall population dropped for the first time in a decade last year, totaling 146.8 million as migration inflows hit record lows. It totaled 146.7 million so far in 2019, the State Statistics Service Rosstat said this month, as Russia experienced its highest natural population decline in 11 years.

These numbers are very disturbing, for they carry terrible consequences for both Russia and the rest of the world.

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Protesters continue to shut down TMT

Mob rule: Though an agreement has been reached between the anti-telescope protesters and the mayor of the Big Island to move a tent blocking the access road to Mauna Kea, the deal also provided that no construction will proceed, even though the consortium that is building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has gotten legal permission to do so.

They agreed to move the so-called “kupuna tent,” referring to the Hawaiian word for elder, as part of a deal announced by Big Island Mayor Harry Kim.

In exchange, Kim promised protesters there will be no attempts to deliver construction equipment to the telescope site “anytime soon,” according to Kim’s offer letter to Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the protest leaders who is considered a kupuna. “I, Mayor Kim give you my personal assurances that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months,” his letter said.

Legally Kim doesn’t really have the right to do this, unless Hawaii has decided to completely abandon the rule of law. Then again, Hawaii has decided to abandon the rule of law, as it now lets mobs, not the law, determine who can build where and when.

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ExoMars2020 passes new parachute tests

Revisions to Europe’s ExoMars2020 parachutes have successfully passed tests at JPL in California.

Working with Nasa, ESA made modifications to the way the parachutes are released from the bag, which avoids creating so much friction. Using a special rig at JPL, the parachutes have now been tested up to their expected extraction speed of just over 200km/h with no sign of damage. Further confirmatory tests will now take place.

Time remains very short however. The launch window for ExoMars2020 is this coming summer.

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Rockot launches three communications satellites

The last Russian Rockot this morning successfully placed three communications satellites and a cubesat into orbit.

The Russians are abandoning Rockot, a repurposed ballistic missile, because it uses Ukrainian hardware.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

32 China
22 Russia
13 SpaceX
8 Arianespace (Europe)

China still leads the U.S. 32 to 27 in the national rankings. At this moment no other launches are scheduled for 2019, though an unannounced military launch could still happen.

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China’s Long March 5 rocket successfully launches

In what appeared to be a picture perfect launch, China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, successfully placed a test communications satellite into orbit.

This success follows two previous launch failures in 2016 and 2017, and a redesign of the rocket’s first stage engines that caused a two year delay in China’s space program. It now opens the door for China’s entire manned and planetary program, as they require the Long March 5 (or variations thereof) to lift their space station modules and all their planetary probes. I have embedded an english broadcast of the launch below the fold. The launch is about 54:00 minutes in.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

32 China
21 Russia
13 SpaceX
8 Arianespace (Europe)

China now leads the U.S. 32 to 27 in the national rankings.

At this point there is only remaining one launch for this year that is publicly scheduled, from Russian.
» Read more

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Landslide primary win for Netanyahu

In a primary election today for the leadership of the conservative Israeli Likud Party, in advance of another general election on March 2nd, Benjamin Netanyahu won a landslide victory over his party challenger.

The primary election saw 49% of all Likud party members show up to vote in spite of the stormy weather, a slight increase over the last time a primary election was held by the Likud. Of the nearly 60 thousand people that cast a ballot, 72.5% did so for the incumbent Netanyahu and 27.5% for his challenger Gideon Sa’ar.

Netanyahu’s win was expected, but the landslide proportions of it were not and thus the primary challenge itself had most assuredly worked to Netanyahu’s advantage. It reaffirmed his complete hold over the Likud party and gave him a reason to re-energize his base ahead of the March 2nd general election.

While the article touts the election victory as an indication that Likud’s position is strong in the coming election, I would not be so sure. This is the third general election in Israel in less than a year, all because the voters have refused to chose a clear leader. Though they have favored the conservative parties, those parties have not been able to form a government because one party refuses to join a coalition that includes the orthodox religious parties.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu faces a court fight, as he is under indictment and there is the possibility that the high court in Israel will rule that under those conditions he cannot form a government.

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China has a shortfall of jet engines

Apropos of the engine problems on the Long March 5, it is reported today that China has a serious manufacturing shortage of the jet engines it needs for its new stealth fighters and bombers.

Aviation website Alert 5 spotted a stock-exchange filing by the Hebei subsidiary of China’s Central Iron & Steel Research Institute. The filing including production projections for military engines for the next decade, and reveals some startling shortfalls. Production and development gaps could result in the latest Chinese warplanes flying with older engine models, including imported Russian motors that might be underpowered and unreliable. The mismatch between airframes and engines could be a drag on the overall performance of Chinese military aircraft.

Perhaps the biggest shortfall is in the production of WS-15s and WS-19s, the custom motors respectively for J-20 stealth fighters and FC-31 export stealth fighters. “Data provided by Hebei Cisri Dekai Technology Co. Ltd. shows a maximum of only five WS-15 and WS-19 engines each year from 2020 ‘til 2026,” Alert 5 reported.

Apparently China will be flying these jets and bombers using inadequate Russian engines for the next five to eight years, as the country’s own industry seems unable to make them.

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A minor eruption on the Sun

How about another cool image, this time a movie taken by Solar Dynamics Orbiter (SDO) back in August 13, 2018 of what they call a minor eruption on the surface of the Sun.

Because the movie is a somewhat large file, I have embedded it below the fold. Or you could go here to see a higher resolution version. This is the description by the SDO science team:

This close-up of the Sun from a two-hour period on Aug 13, 2018 shows a minor eruption of charged particles rising up and twisting about before falling back into the Sun. Imaged in extreme ultraviolet light, these kinds of events are difficult to see except when they occur along the sun’s edge, also known as the limb. At its peak the plasma rises several times the diameter of Earth. [emphasis mine]

» Read more

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Giant scallops on Mars

Scallops on Mars
Click for full image.

It’s a slow news week, with the too much partying only real space news today the expected third launch of China’s Long March 5 rocket (supposedly scheduled for this morning but so far no word). (To my gentle reader: For some reason I have been losing a day during this whole week, always thinking that Christmas was on Thursday and that today was Friday. Thus my error in thinking the Long March 5 flight was today. It is tomorrow morning. Forgive me for my absent-mindedness.) So let’s look at a cool image!

The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken my the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 8, 2019. Entitled “Scalloped Depressions in Utopia Planitia,” it shows a strangely eroded surface in the northern lowlands of Mars, where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

The location of these scallops is shown to the right.

Location of scallops in Utopia Planitia

I have taken the same overview map used from two recent cool image posts, showing how these scallops relate in location to the strange crater in Utopia Planitia as well as the glacial-surrounded mesa in Protonilus Mensae.

In caves, scallops like this form from water or wind flow, but when they do, they are all oriented the same way. Here the scallops are at different orientations, terracing down from the center of the image. In this case it appears that scientists believe [pdf] the formation process is related to the sublimation of underground ice at this location.

According to [one hypothesis] scallop formation should be ongoing at the present time. Sublimation of interstitial ice could induce a collapse of material, initially as a small pit, then growing southward because of greater solar heating on the southern side. Nearby scallops would coalesce together as can be seen to have occurred.

What is most cool is that the geologists think the process that forms these scallops is related to the same processes that cause the formation of the swiss cheese landforms in the south polar regions.

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A Christmas Carol

An afternoon pause: As I have done for several years on Christmas day, I bring you the classic 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim. To my mind this movie is still by far the best adaption of the book. It is also a truly wonderful movie.

As I wrote last year,

Dickens did not demand the modern version of charity, where it is imposed by governmental force on everyone. Instead, he was advocating the older wiser concept of western civilization, that charity begins at home, that we as individuals are obliged as humans to exercise good will and generosity to others, by choice.

It is always a matter of choice. And when we take that choice away from people, we destroy the good will that makes true charity possible.

Enjoy, and have a Merry Christmas!

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Repost: The real meaning of the Apollo 8 Earthrise image

I wrote this essay last year, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon. I think it worth reposting, especially because stories about Apollo 8 still refuse to show the Earthrise image as Bill Anders took it. Note that they took the picture on Christmas Eve, not Christmas day.
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Earthrise, as seen by a space-farer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the moment when the three astronauts on Apollo 8 witnessed their first Earthrise while in orbit around the Moon, and Bill Anders snapped the picture of that Earthrise that has been been called “the most influential environmental picture ever taken.”

The last few days have seen numerous articles celebrating this iconic image. While all have captured in varying degrees the significance and influence of that picture on human society on Earth, all have failed to depict this image as Bill Anders, the photographer, took it. He did not frame the shot, in his mind, with the horizon on the bottom of the frame, as it has been depicted repeatedly in practically every article about this image, since the day it was published back in 1968.

Instead, Anders saw himself as an spaceman in a capsule orbiting the waist of the Moon. He also saw the Earth as merely another space object, now appearing from behind the waist of that Moon. As a result, he framed the shot with the horizon to the right, with the Earth moving from right to left as it moved out from behind the Moon, as shown on the right.

His perspective was that of a spacefarer, an explorer of the universe that sees the planets around him as objects within that universe in which he floats.

When we here are on Earth frame the image with the horizon on the bottom, we immediately reveal our limited planet-bound perspective. We automatically see ourselves on a planet’s surface, watching another planet rise above the distant horizon line.

This difference in perspective is to me the real meaning of this picture. On one hand we see the perspective of the past. On the other we see the perspective the future, for as long humanity can remain alive.

I prefer the future perspective, which is why I framed this image on the cover of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 the way Bill Anders took it. I prefer to align myself with that space-faring future.

And it was that space-faring future that spoke when they read from Genesis that evening. They had made the first human leap to another world, and they wished to describe and capture the majesty of that leap to the world. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Yet, they were also still mostly Earth-bound in mind, which is why Frank Borman’s concluding words during that Christmas eve telecast were so heartfelt. He was a spaceman in a delicate vehicle talking to his home of Earth, 240,000 miles away. “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” They longed deeply to return, a wish that at that moment, in that vehicle, was quite reasonable.

Someday that desire to return to Earth will be gone. People will live and work and grow up in space, and see the Earth as Bill Anders saw it in his photograph fifty years ago.

And it is for that time that I long. It will be a future of majesty we can only imagine.

Merry Christmas to all, all of us still pinned down here on “the good Earth.”

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Merry Christmas!

I have found myself being very lazy today. Rather than posting, I’ve been watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and videos on how to wrap your cat for Christmas.

All silliness, but the music for that Magoo film remains top-notch and worth listening to.

Regardless, a Merry Christmas to my many readers. And a Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish readers. May we all have good will to all, even when we disagree.

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Crater in the Martian northern lowlands

Crater in Utopia Planitia
Click for original full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 26, 2019. It shows a crater in the western edge of Utopia Planitia, the largest and deepest region of the Martian northern lowlands where it is theorized that an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

My first uneducated guess at looking at this image is that the impact occurred in some sort of wet slushy mud or ice, which then melted and filled the crater interior, ponding in the crater’s center as it froze.

A more educated guess, based on what I have learned in the past year, is not much different. The crater is located at 40 degrees north latitude and therefore sits in the middle of the mid-latitude band where scientists think there are a lot of buried inactive glaciers.

Overview map

The map to the right, revised from my December 20, 2019 post about glaciers flowing off the slopes of a mid-latitude mesa, illustrates this even more clearly.

This crater, indicated by the white cross, sits at approximately the same latitude as that mesa and its glaciers in Protonilus Mensae. It also sits at in an area where accumulated data from several spacecraft have mapped a lot of water ice, close to the surface.

Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the impact that made this crater pushed into that ice-table, melting the water which subsequently froze and then subsided downward into the ground to form the crater’s central ponded features.

Or to put it as I did initially, the impact smashed into some wet slushy mud/ice, melting it so that it filled the crater interior to then freeze as we see it.

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SpaceX completes new round of crew Dragon parachute tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this week completed a new round of crew Dragon parachute tests, meeting a goal they had announced in October.

This clearly paves the way for the January 11th launch abort test, followed by the first manned flight, as soon as February or March 2020, according to the article at the link.

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Russia’s Proton launches weather satellite

Russia today used the Proton-M version of their Proton rocket to place a geosynchronous weather satellite into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

31 China
21 Russia
13 SpaceX
8 Arianespace (Europe)

China still leads the U.S. 31 to 27 in the national rankings.

Right now there are only two more launches scheduled for 2019, a Russian Rockot launch and China’s third launch of its big Long March 5 rocket. Look for my global launch report for 2019 soon after the New Year.

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A deep dive into Valles Marineris

Dunes on the floor of Valles Marineris
Click for full image.

The vastness of Mars is sometimes hard to fathom. While the planet is much smaller than Earth, its entire global surface is approximately the same as the Earth’s land area. This is a lot of territory. It took humanity many tens of thousands of centuries to expand outward to settle all of it. It took even longer before humanity was successfully able to map all of the Earth so that its entire surface was known to all humans, a task that was only completed a handful of centuries ago.

While we now have the technology to quickly map the entire globe of a planet like Mars, the devil is always in the details. At this time the resolution of our global maps give us only a glimpse of the Martian surface.

The image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is a good example. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 30, 2019, it shows a set of large dunes on the northern floor of a side canyon on Mars that is part of Coprates Chasma, a canyon that forms only a small part of the vast Valles Marineris canyon system east of the giant volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge.

The sand of these dunes is mostly volcanic material, dark basalt that was deposited as lava from those giant volcanoes, then later ground down in landslides and erosion to be recycled as sand that formed dunes trapped within the canyon bottom. The dunes themselves are slowly moving eastward, driven mostly by the predominate west-to-east winds that blow down this side canyon of Coprates Chasma. The motion is very slow, so slow that even though the image title is “Coprates Chasma Dune Changes”, I was unable to spot any changes when I compared this 2019 image with a photo taken in June 2019.

To find out what had changed, I contacted Matt Chojnacki of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who has been studying the nature of the sand dunes in Valles Marineris. After making a quick preliminary blink test using more sophisticate tools than I have available, he found “minor advancements. The rocks move a bit too in places.” Without a full analysis he also added, “I can tell some dune crests have moved to the east.”

The research by Chojnacki and others has found that the dunes within Valles Marineris are in many ways different than dunes found elsewhere in the mid-latitudes on Mars, suggesting that being trapped within this giant canyon has produced some specific regional features. They tend to be darker, the canyon contains several sand dune seas, called ergs (only seen elsewhere on Mars in the polar regions), and the dunes tend to be more hardened, so that they change relatively little when compared to similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

These particular dunes in Coprates Chasma however are not hardened, since if so they would have been covered by the landslides and material that comes down from the canyon’s nearby northern slopes. Instead, they move, but appear to move far slower than similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

To me, this image provides a good vehicle for getting a sense of the size of Valles Marineris. Coprates Chasma itself only one of about a dozen named sections of the entire Valles Marineris canyon system, and this particular image shows only the floor of a side canyon of Coprates. The map below gives an overview of the entire system.
» Read more

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