New Florida company to offer stratospheric tourist balloon flights

Capitalism in space: A new Florida company dubbed Spac Perspective plans to offer six-hour-long tourist balloon flights to altitudes of 100,000 feet for $125,000 per ticket.

“Spaceship Neptune,” operated by a company called Space Perspective from leased facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, will carry eight passengers at a time on six-hour flights. The passenger cabin, lifted by a huge hydrogen-filled balloon, will climb at a sedate 12 mph to an altitude of about 30 miles high. That will be followed by a slow descent to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean where a recovery ship will be standing by to secure the cabin and crew.

Test flights carrying scientific research payloads are expected to begin in 2021. The first flights carrying passengers are expected within the next three-and-a-half years or so, with piloted test flights before that.

While the company initially will operate out of the Florida spaceport, the system could be launched from multiple sites around the world, with Hawaii and Alaska near-term possibilities.

The co-CEO of this company, Jane Poynter, had been the head of WorldView here in Tucson when that company was first planning to do tourist flights like this. She got pushed out a little over a year ago as the company shifted away from tourist flights to military surveillance, only to reappear now in Florida with a new company proposing the same thing.

All power to her. I hope this new company succeeds. It is offering a product at half the price of Virgin Galactic that is actually far superior (30 miles altitude for six hours vs 50 miles for five minutes).

NOTE: 100,000 feet elevation equals 30 kilometers, not 30 miles. I think the “30 mile” number in the quote is probably a mistake.

Two new multi-wavelength Hubble images of planetary nebulae

Hubble images of the Butterfly and Jewel Bug planetary nebulae
Click for full image.

Cool images from Hubble! Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope’s entire suite of instruments to produce spectacular new multi-wavelength images of two planetary nebulae, stars that for some reasons not yet entirely understood are surrounded by breath-taking jets and cloud-formations of all shapes and sizes.

The two images are to the right, cropped and reduced to post here.

Planetary nebulas, whose stars shed their layers over thousands of years, can turn into crazy whirligigs while puffing off shells and jets of hot gas. New images from the Hubble Space Telescope have helped researchers identify rapid changes in material blasting off stars at the centers of two nebulas — causing them to reconsider what is happening at their cores.

In the case of NGC 6302, dubbed the Butterfly Nebula, two S-shaped streams indicate its most recent ejections and may be the result of two stars interacting at the nebula’s core. In NGC 7027, a new cloverleaf pattern — with bullets of material shooting out in specific directions — may also point to the interactions of two central stars. Both nebulas are splitting themselves apart on extremely short timescales, allowing researchers to measure changes in their structures over only a few decades.

This is the first time both nebulas have been studied from near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light, a complex, multi-wavelength view only possible with Hubble.

The press release suggests that the most likely and popular explanation for the formation of planetary nebula is the interaction of two closely orbiting stars. While this might be true, it remains only one theory among many, all of which explain some of what we see and none of which explain everything. As I noted in my November 2014 cover story about planetary nebulae for Sky & Telescope:
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Three Starship prototypes in line for testing

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s assembly line for building Starship prototypes is heating up, with three such ships completed or under construction in Boca Chica, Texas.

Initially numbered 5 through 7, the goal of the first two will be to do the first full scale vertical hops, flying as high as 7.5 miles.. #7 however has a different purpose:

While stouter than an actual Starship-class methane or oxygen tank, this particular test tank is maybe only 25% shorter than the methane tanks installed on Starship prototypes. According to Musk and effectively confirmed by writing all over the prototype, this particular test tank – formerly Starship SN7 – was built to determine if a different kind of steel could be preferable for future ships.

Shortly after the June 15th test began to wind down, Musk announced that the new material (304L stainless steel) had performed quite well, reaching 7.6 bar (110 psi) before it sprung a leak. The fact alone that it sprung a leak instead of violently depressurizing is already a major sign that 304L is preferable to 301L, as it means that Starships built out of it could fail much more gracefully in the event of a leak instead of collapsing or violently exploding. A step further, SpaceX has already managed to repair the leak on SN7 and will likely test the tank again in the next few days.

SpaceX is once again demonstrating how to properly do this kind of cutting edge development. You test, you fix or, you change, based on what your tests tell you. You don’t lock down design in the early stages, because at that point you really don’t know enough to do so.

Astra schedules next launch attempt

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Astra has scheduled its next launch attempt for July 20.

The company tried twice to launch in March, with the second attempt destroying the rocket and launchpad. They have now rebuilt, though they also admit that this first launch might also fail, and that it is part of a three launch program. By the third launch they expect to reach orbit for sure.

If Astra succeeds, they will leap ahead of Virgin Orbit as the second smallsat rocket company, following Rocket Lab, to become operational.

Enigmatic layering and chasms on Mars

Enigmatic layering and chasms
Click for full image.

Overview map

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on April 28, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (MRO). The science team entitled it “Enigmatic Uplifts in Echus Montes,” indicating a sense of bafflement on their part about this geology.

The features here are certainly somewhat puzzling. At first glance the terrain is reminiscent of Martian chaos terrain, mesas cut by canyons in an almost random pattern. As I explained at the link,

Chaos terrain is typically a collection of mesas separated by straight-lined canyons. It is found in many places on Mars, most often in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might once have existed. It is believed to form by erosion, possibly caused by either flowing water or ice, moving along fault lines. As the erosion widened the faults, they turned into canyons separating closely packed mesas. With time, the canyons widened and the mesas turned into a collection of hills.

What makes this particular image puzzling however is that there seem to be multiple layers of mesas and canyons. Look at the top of the rectangular mesa in the upper middle of the image. It appears to have its own miniature chaos terrain on its plateau. Somehow that first layer of chaos was abandoned when the more prominent larger canyons started to form around it.

The location of this feature is indicated by the black cross on the overview map to the right. It is in the middle of the large and wide northward trending part of the giant valley dubbed Kasei Valles. And as usual, knowing the location helps explain what we are seeing.
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A fast radio burst that beats every sixteen days

Astronomers have now added to the mystery of fast radio bursts (FRBs), of which about a hundred are known, by discovering one in a nearby galaxy that has a regular outburst every 16.35 days.

Earlier this year CHIME worked with astronomers in Europe to pinpoint the origin of a particular FRB emission — called FRB 180916.J0158+65 — to a galaxy located 500 million light years from Earth.

Now CHIME has determined that FRB 180916 pulses at predictable intervals more than two weeks apart. “It tells us that the origin of at least some FRBs is astrophysically regular in nature, but on long enough time scales that they may be tied to something different than a rotating, compact object — perhaps something like an orbiting system,” said Newburgh, whose lab builds instrumentation for collecting data about the history of the cosmos

Or to put it another way, they really haven’t any idea yet what exactly causes these bursts. The new data however will help formulate better theories, that I guarantee will be contradicted by subsequent new data. At the moment there is so little known about FRBs that any theory must be looked at with great skepticism.

U.S. & U.K. sign space agreement

Anticipating the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the Trump administration has signed an new space agreement with the U.K. in order to facilitate the ability of U.S. companies export British technology as well as launch from its spaceports.

I cannot find the actual text of the agreement so my description, based on news reports and the press release (linked above) might be wrong. It does appear however that the agreement is designed to smooth out the regulatory environment that might block commercial space development involving both countries.

It also seems required because of the UK’s exit from the EU. They need to sign bilateral agreements with other nations to replace the EU framework.

SpaceX hiring engineers for building floating Starship spaceport

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has issued advertisements looking for two engineers to help build an offshore floating spaceport for launching its Starship/Super Heavy reusable rocket.

This plan is not really a surprise, as Musk from his first description of Starship said that it would likely launch and land on floating platforms. The rocket is big, so putting its launch and landing in the ocean reduces the risk to populated areas, while giving the company some flexibility about where it will land. The latter point reinforces the company’s stated goal of using this rocket not only to make interplanetary travel affordable but to also provide point-to-point transportation on Earth.

Yutu-2 to resume travels after day of rest

The new colonial movement: After lunar day of no activity, China has reactivated its Yutu-2 rover on its 19th lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The Yutu 2 rover had remained stationary during lunar day 18 (May 16-29), while teams back on Earth upgraded ground stations in preparation for the Tianwen-1 Mars mission, due to launch in late July or early August. Upgrades to the tracking and command facilities at Jiamusi, northeast China, and Kashi in the northwest were completed June 13 according to CLEP, meaning normal roving service can now resume.

While the rover has been stationary, the Yutu 2 science team have identified a nearby crater for examination. The 4-foot-wide (1.3 meters), 8-inch-deep (20 centimeters) crater contains reflective material which may be similar in nature to suspected impact melt glass the rover discovered last year. After checking out the crater, Yutu 2 will continue its journey northwest from the Chang’e 4 landing site. Yutu 2 has driven a total of 1,469 feet (447.68 meters) since setting down on the far side of the moon in January 2019.

Generally Yutu-2 has averaged about a hundred feet for each lunar day of actual travel.

NOAA awards contract to private company for solar observatory

Capitalism in space: NOAA today awarded a contract to the private company Xplore to study development of a commercial solar observatory at the Earth-Sun L1 point.

The press release at the link is somewhat vague about the contract. It appears to be a study to see if Xplore’s proposed Xcraft spacecraft can be used as platform for such a solar observatory, not an actual contract to build the observatory.

Regardless, this award is a strong indicator that the Trump administration is applying pressure at NOAA to get it out of the business of building weather satellites and instead be a customer buying such satellites from the private sector. The weather agency has been, like NASA earlier this decade, resistant to this concept, with its bureaucracy wanting to retain control over everything. Maybe the success of SpaceX at NASA is now helping to fuel the change at NOAA.

Let us hope so. NOAA’s present fleet of solar observatories in space is years past their due date, with no sign of a replacement fleet. The agency just can’t seem to get its act together to build these satellites. For example, NOAA has been trying and failing to build a new solar observatory to monitor sunspot activity now for more than a decade.

Maybe, like NASA, giving the job to private enterprise might get things going.

Astronomers discover giant arc spanning a third of the night sky

Astronomers have discovered a giant arc of hydrogen gas near the Big Dipper that span a third of the night sky and is thought to be the leftover shockwave from a supernova.

Ultraviolet and narrowband photography have captured the thin and extremely faint trace of hydrogen gas arcing across 30°. The arc, presented at the recent virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, is probably the pristine shockwave expanding from a supernova that occurred some 100,000 years ago, and it’s a record-holder for its sheer size on the sky.

Andrea Bracco (University of Paris) and colleagues came upon the Ursa Major Arc serendipitously when looking through the ultraviolet images archived by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX). They were looking for signs of a straight, 2° filament that had been observed two decades ago — but they found out that that length of gas was less straight than they thought, forming instead a small piece of a much larger whole.

This is a great illustration of the uncertainty of science. Earlier observations spotted only 2 degrees of this arc, and thus thought it was a straight filament. Newer more sophisticated observations show that this first conclusion was in error, that it was much bigger, and curved.

I wonder what even more and better observations would reveal.

Persecution is now cool!

We are in a time of oppression. Make no mistake. If you publicly express an opinion that the left does not like, it is now considered perfectly reasonable among our smart set to destroy your business, dox your family, threaten your children, and have your very existence cancelled.

It is happening repeatedly now every moment of every day in communities across America. Dare to speak out against the accepted leftist mantras of the moment and you will be crushed.

Consider for example the orthodox Jewish community in New York. That city’s leftist Democratic mayor, Bill De Blasio, has forbidden them to gather at funerals, has shut down their schools, and has now locked nearby playgrounds so that Jewish children cannot play safely, all in the name of supposedly saving them from the Wuhan flu.

At the exact same moment however that same leftist Democratic mayor had no objection to a gathering of tens of thousands in packed street demonstrations in favor of “Black Trans Lives Matters,” a gay racist group that wants to impose its sexual and racist agenda on everyone. For some reason, De Blasio has decided that the Wuhan flu is no threat to that political movement.

Only Jews can get COVID-19, and must be protected from it, even if that protection is against their will.

The Orthodox Jews in New York have been fighting back. They have repeatedly cut the locks that De Blasio’s police thugs have put on the parks, only to have De Blasio order the park gates welded shut.

Now they have gone to court to force this clear double standard to cease.
» Read more

Antares’ vast blobby atmosphere

The atmosphere of Antares
Click for full image.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), astronomers have been able to map out the gigantic atmosphere of gas that surrounds the red gas supergiant star Antares, the closest such star to our solar system.

The ALMA and VLA map of Antares is the most detailed radio map yet of any star, other than the Sun. ALMA observed Antares close to its surface (its optical photosphere) in shorter wavelengths, and the longer wavelengths observed by the VLA revealed the star’s atmosphere further out. As seen in visible light, Antares’ diameter is approximately 700 times larger than the Sun. But when ALMA and the VLA revealed its atmosphere in radio light, the supergiant turned out to be even more gigantic.

“The size of a star can vary dramatically depending on what wavelength of light it is observed with,” explained Eamon O’Gorman of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland and lead author of the study published in the June 16 edition of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “The longer wavelengths of the VLA revealed the supergiant’s atmosphere out to nearly 12 times the star’s radius.”

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is what these two telescopes detected. As you can see, the outer atmosphere of the star is very uneven, confirming what other observations of both Antares and Betelgeuse has seen.

These stars are giant gasbags. It appears their shape fluctuates depending on the local “weather” in each star’s atmosphere.

The coming final flight of the shuttle’s solid rocket booster segments

Link here. As NASA begins the assembly process for its first long-delayed SLS launch sometime in the next year. the article at the link outlines in detail the space shuttle history of the many reused segments used to build the rocket’s two solid rocket boosters.

All together, the Artemis I solid rocket booster segments previously helped launch 40 space shuttle missions dating back 30 years.

The oldest cylinder, which will fly as part of the booster mounted on the right side of the SLS core stage, first lifted off on the STS-31 mission with the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990. It was then used for six more shuttle flights, including Endeavour’s debut on STS-49 in 1992 and STS-95 in 1998, which lifted off with Mercury astronaut and senator John Glenn as part of its crew.

Other notable missions that are part of the Artemis 1 boosters’ legacy include: STS-71, which marked the first shuttle docking with the Russian space station Mir in 1995; STS-93, which deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory and marked the first spaceflight commanded by a woman, Eileen Collins, in 1999; STS-114, the return to flight after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2005; and STS-133, the final launch of the space shuttle Discovery in 2011.

The hardware also includes new components, including the two forward domes, two cylinders and four stiffeners.

This first SLS launch however will be the last time these segments will fly. Unlike the shuttle, NASA is making no effort to recover and reuse these boosters.

The shuttle effort to reuse these booster segments was never really very cost effective, so not reusing them on SLS might actually save money. Those savings however are chicken feed when compared to SLS’s overall cost. The problem really is with SLS’s fundamental design: cumbersome, slow, expensive, and difficult to use.

SpaceX recovers both reused fairings from most recent launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully recovered both of the reused fairings that were used in its June 13th Starlink launch.

This sets the stage for the first reuse of a fairing for the third time. The article at the link notes this important detail about these used fairings, both of which were not caught prior to landing in the ocean:

Preventing a vast majority of seawater exposure, a catch with [the ships] Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief may always be preferable for fairing reuse but the fact remains that all three successful reuses up to this point have been achieved with fairing halves that landed in the ocean. That success means that SpaceX has found a way to fully prevent or mitigate any potential corrosion that might result from seawater immersion. Given that that problem must have been a showstopper for the ~2.5 years SpaceX was able to recover – but not reuse – intact fairings, it’s safe to say that the company’s engineers have more or less solved the problem of corrosion. [emphasis mine]

In a sense we should not be surprised that the fairings were not seriously damaged by their short exposure to salt water. As designed, the shape of the fairings is essentially that of a boat hull. By landing them controlled by parachute, SpaceX guarantees that the sensitive electronics and equipment inside the fairings remains dry and untouched by salt water.

Trace Gas Orbiter detects oxygen layer in Martian atmosphere

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, has detected for the first time the green atmospheric layer in Martian atmosphere caused by the interaction of oxygen and sunlight.

From what I can tell from the press release at the link, they did not “see” this green glow, they detected it spectroscopically. So, any images you see portraying it are simply artist renditions, not the real thing.

The detection is important, nonetheless. First, it confirms that there is oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. Second, it is the first time this has been detected in the atmosphere other than Earth. Third, the detection matched closely to their computer models, suggesting that the models are a reasonable simulation of this aspect of Mars’ atmosphere.

Next Rocket Lab launch scheduled only three weeks after last launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab yesterday announced that its next launch is now scheduled for July 3, less than three weeks after its previous launch, the fastest turnaround the company has attempted so far.

The July launch will place seven cubesats into orbit. The fast turnaround this time is part of the company’s attempt to complete one launch per month through the rest of the year, a pace they have been promising now since 2019 but have been as yet unable to achieve.

Lego Antikythera Mechanism

An evening pause: From the youtube webpage:

The Antikythera Mechanism is the oldest known scientific computer, built in Greece at around 100 BCE. Lost for 2000 years, it was recovered from a shipwreck in 1901. But not until a century later was its purpose understood: an astronomical clock that determines the positions of celestial bodies with extraordinary precision. In 2010, we built a fully-functional replica out of Lego.

Hat tip Shaun Karry.

Cassini evidence suggests volcanoes on Titan

Scientists are now proposing that. based on a close look at data and imagery of Titan from the Cassini mission archive, that this moon of Saturn might have volcanoes, and that they might even be active today.

Volcano-like features seen in polar regions of Saturn’s moon Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft could be evidence of explosive eruptions that may continue today, according to a new paper by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Charles A. Wood and coauthor Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University.

Morphological features such as nested collapses, elevated ramparts, halos, and islands indicate that some of the abundant small depressions in the north polar region of Titan are volcanic collapse craters, according to “Morphologic Evidence for Volcanic Craters near Titan’s North Polar Region” that appears in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. A few similar depressions occur near the south pole of Titan. “The close association of the proposed volcanic craters with polar lakes is consistent with a volcanic origin through explosive eruptions followed by collapse, as either maars or calderas,” Wood said. “The apparent freshness of some craters may mean that volcanism has been relatively recently active on Titan or even continues today.”

The data being somewhat think, there is a great deal of uncertainty with this theory. Nonetheless, it makes perfect sense, and in fact it would be a surprise if some sort of volcanic activity was not occurring on Titan.

Deciphering the strange geology of Mars — or anything!

Eroding Medusae Fossae Formation ash deposits
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image is for once not taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Instead, the image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Odyssey on April 5, 2020, and shows the scouring and erosion caused by winds over many eons in a region dubbed Zephyria Planum. (Note that the image might fool your eye. Sunlight is coming from the east, and the rough terrain at the top is higher than the smooth plain at the bottom.)

Years ago, when I first started to rummage through the archives of images from the various Mars orbiters, I would have seen this image and posted it because I was completely baffled by what I saw, and thought that mystery made it worth showing to the public. Since then my incessant probing of research papers as well as asking a lot of questions of scientists has taught me a lot more about what scientists now surmise of the Martian geology. This greater knowledge in turn makes it possible for me to look at an image like this and immediately make a reasonable guess as to an explanation. This photo, while still containing much that is mysterious, is no longer completely baffling to me.

This willingness to ask questions and dig deeper is fundamental to all things. To have a deeper understanding and not simply guess about any subject, you always have to recognize that your assumptions are likely wrong, and that to learn anything you have to repeatedly ask what I call “the next question.” The first answer will force you to recognize that your first guesses are wrong, raise more questions, which in turn will lead to more questions, and then more questions, and so forth.

Whether I am researching Mars or early space history or politics, this rule always applies. Don’t leap to a conclusion. Think it possible you could be wrong. Ask the next question. And the next. You will repeatedly find that what you thought you knew was not correct, and in the end you will gain a deeper understanding of what is actually known about any subject, as well as what is unknown. And knowing the unknowns is probably the most important thing you can learn.

To gain a better understanding of today’s particular image, our first questions must start with context. Where is this feature on Mars? What is the surrounding history of that location? And what is already known about this place?

The location immediately reveals a great deal, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

Interstellar suborbital launch ends in failure

Capitalism in space: A suborbital launch attempt today by Interstellar, a private Japanese smallsat rocket company, failed one minute into flight, with the rocket falling into the sea.

It apparently failed at about 12 kilometers elevation, when it began tumbling. I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold, cued to just before liftoff.

This was their fifth launch attempt. Only the third launch reached their target altitude of 100 kilometers.
» Read more

Dozens of scientists forced out because of foreign ties, mostly with China

An investigation by the National Institute of Health (NIH) has resulted in 54 scientists either resigning or being fired because they had illegally kept secret their financial ties to foreign governments, almost all of which were with China.

Some 54 scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of an ongoing investigation by the National Institutes of Health into the failure of NIH grantees to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. In 93% of those cases, the hidden funding came from a Chinese institution.

The new numbers come from Michael Lauer, NIH’s head of extramural research. Lauer had previously provided some information on the scope of NIH’s investigation, which had targeted 189 scientists at 87 institutions. But his presentation today to a senior advisory panel offered by far the most detailed breakout of an effort NIH launched in August 2018 that has roiled the U.S. biomedical community, and resulted in criminal charges against some prominent researchers, including Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology.

“It’s not what we had hoped, and it’s not a fun task,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in characterizing the ongoing investigation. He called the data “sobering.”

The article, from the liberal journal Science, tries to imply that there is something bigoted about this investigation because the bulk of those forced out happened to be Asian, but that is junk journalism. China itself is bigoted, and targets those of Asian ancestry for its spying. If we are to defend our nation from them, we have to accept the fact that the ethnic statistics here will not be balanced.

The bottom line remains: If you want to get an American government research grant, you cannot have financial ties with hostile foreign governments. And if you lie about those ties, than we can safely assume you are an agent for those hostile governments, and are really a spy subject to arrest and prosecution.

Head of NASA’s commercial program picked as chief of manned space

NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine yesterday announced that he has chosen Kathy Lueders to be the new head of the agency’s human exploration program.

In her most recent positions at NASA Lueders has been in charge first of the ISS commercial cargo program, followed by the ISS commercial crew program. She now heads the entire manned program, including Artemis.

This appointment appears to be great news for the emerging new commercial space sector (led by SpaceX), as Lueders’ close contact with them for the past half decade or so means she has seen up front the advantages of both competition and private enterprise. I suspect she will not look kindly at the endless delays at SLS and Orion, even if she has to play the political game of publicly appearing to support those projects. Like her predecessor Doug Loverro, she will be open to awarding contracts to whoever can get the job done best, rather than favoring the traditional big space contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as Loverro’s predecessor Bill Gerstenmaier had often done.

NASA’s shift from being the builder of space systems to the buyer of space systems is going to accelerate.

Successful SpaceX launch

Falcon 9 shortly after launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched 58 Starlink satellites as well as three Planet earth observation satellites. The image to the right looks up at the exhaust from the nine firing Merlin engines of Falcon 9 rocket, about two minutes after launch.

That first stage also successfully landed, the third time this stage has completed a launch. The fairing halves were also reused.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

11 China
9 SpaceX
7 Russia

The U.S. now leads China 15 to 11 in the national rankings.

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