The edge of Martian chaos

Overview map of end of Kasei Valles

For today’s cool image, we are going to start from afar and zoom in, because I think that might be the best way to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the strange geology visible at this one particular Martian location.

The first image, to the right, is the overview map. The red cross indicates our target, a chaotic canyon that flows into the larger Kasai Valles, one of Mars’ largest and longest canyons and possibly only exceeded in size by Valles Marineris. This part of Kasai is near its end, where it drains out into the vast northern lowland plains of Mars.

The second image, below, comes from the wide angle camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
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The big lie of “systematic racism” in America

In June, shortly after George Floyd met his tragic death while in the hands of arresting police officers, former vice president and Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden was asked by a television reporter, “Do you believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement?” Biden responded as follows:

“Absolutely,” Biden responded. “But it’s not just in law enforcement, it’s across the board. It’s in housing, it’s in education, and it’s in everything we do. It’s real. It’s genuine. It’s serious.”

The absurdity of Biden’s response is immeasurable. What he says here is a lie, a lie so absurd it is both astonishing and horrifying that anyone believes it. There has been no systematic racism in America for generations, and anyone who thinks so is either lying to themselves, or trying to spread lies to others.

The biggest irony is that those who apparently believe this lie the most, our younger college-aged generation, have grown up in a society where for decades blacks with talent and determination have had no problem achieving success in all sorts of business and fields, with some even becoming the dominate figure in their field. (Think of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as only two examples.) They can also marry anyone they want, can go anywhere they want, and achieve anything they want. Nothing stops them but their own limitations.
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Russian astronauts repair oxygen regeneration unit

Russian astronauts on ISS have successfully repaired the oxygen regeneration unit on the Zvezda module.

From the TASS article was this additional information:

The Elektron-VM oxygen supply system developed by Russia’s Research and Design Institute of Chemical Machine-Building (NIIChimMash) has been operational aboard the space station since its creation. The system can generate from 25 to 160 liters of oxygen per hour and additionally from 50 to 320 liters of hydrogen per hour. In April 2010, it took the ISS crew several days to fix the broken system.

No word yet on any new information on the “fracture” that is causing the slow leak.

SpaceX launches another 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, raising the constellation to more than 800 satellites.

The first stage successfully landed, for the sixth time, on a drone ship. The company also recovered both fairings, which were making their third flight. With one fairing’s recovery however the net broke on the ship, which might have damaged it this time.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

26 China
17 SpaceX
11 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. had regained the lead over China, 27 to 26, in the national rankings.

Another high altitude balloon company enters the space tourism market

Capitalism in space: Another high altitude balloon company, this time from Spain, is now vying for the space tourism market.

EOS-X Space, a Spanish startup, wants to take 10,000 people to the frontier of space within the next 10 years. With EOS-X Space, the journeys won’t be in rockets or ultrasonic planes. They’ll instead take place in a pressurized capsule propelled by a balloon that will rise to an altitude of up to 40 kilometers, or nearly 25 miles.

This means space tourists won’t have to wear a suit for the duration of the trip, nor will they have to do any physical preparation. Depending on the weather, each trip is set to last four or five hours.

They are targeting the same market as the American company Space Perspectives, which hopes to begin flying tourists on its stratospheric balloon, dubbed Neptune, by ’24.

Spaceport America in New Mexico fires its head

The board of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s launchsite for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital manned spacecraft, yesterday fired its long time Executive Directory Dan Hicks, at the same time governor of New Mexico removed one board member.

Hicks, the spaceport’s CEO since 2016, has been on administrative leave since June while allegations of mismanagement and abuse of authority have been under investigation by the New Mexico State Auditor and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the public body governing the spaceport.

The McHard Accounting Consulting firm, a forensic accounting firm based in Albuquerque, conducted an investigation which was then referred to the state auditor. Keyes informed a state legislative committee this summer the allegations included potential criminal activity.

Spaceport American had been made gigantic promises by Richard Branson back in the mid-2000s, including hundreds of tourist flights per year on SpaceShipTwo, all of which would bring lots of cash to the spaceport and to New Mexico. All came to naught. I suspect those failed promises are somehow connected to the accusations here.

Delta 4 Heavy launch now delayed indefinitely due to launchpad issues

ULA has now delayed indefinitely the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite using its Delta 4 Heavy rocket because of ongoing issues in the swing arms on the launch tower.

According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno:

..ULA was “working through an issue with pad hydraulics” associated with the swing arm retraction system at the Delta 4 launch pad. Three swing arms feeding propellants and conditioned air to the rocket and its satellite payload are designed to retract as the Delta 4-Heavy lifts off.

“Fixing is always easy,” Bruno tweeted. “Making sure something stays fixed takes more work and lots of discipline.”

This launch has been delayed numerous times in the past two months, almost always because of a variety of different problems, most related to the launchpad, with two scrubs occurring as launch aborts at launch. As the article at the link correctly notes,

The repeated problems with different parts of the Delta 4-Heavy’s launch pad have raised questions about aging infrastructure at pad 37B, which was originally built to support Saturn rocket launches in the 1960s, then mothballed until Boeing took over the facility in the 1990s for the Delta 4 program.

Boeing built the towering mobile gantry for the Delta 4 rocket, along with a then-new fixed umbilical tower with huge swing arms designed to pull away from the launcher as it climbs away from the pad.

The age of the launchpad, combined with the expensive complexity of the Delta 4 Heavy that results in very few launches spread over many years, cannot result in reliable operations.

Joshua Wong – The New Politics

An evening pause: Hat tip Jim Mallamace, who accurately describes this as “a mildly amusing short sci-fi film.”

My thought in watching this short film is that I have been watching and reading sci-fi movies and books about a oppressive future imposed by technology for almost sixty years. All were written as warnings of a future to avoid. Instead, it appears we have taken them all as instruction manuals.

Modern science: Celebrating a “high priestess” instead of data

The corruption of modern science and our intellectual class was well illustrated today by the following headline and article in the peer review journal Science:

Act now, wait for perfect evidence later, says ‘high priestess’ of U.K. COVID-19 masking campaign

From the article’s lead:

In May, when several prominent U.K. scientists pushed back against a Royal Society report recommending face masks to help control the spread of COVID-19, Trisha Greenhalgh was furious. The scientists argued there was insufficient support in the scientific literature for the efficacy of masks, and the U.K. government, following their lead, declined to mandate masks for the general public.

“The search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy,” Greenhalgh, a physician and expert in health care delivery at the University of Oxford, fumed in the Boston Review. “As with parachutes for jumping out of airplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomized controlled trial evidence.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words have been the typical argument of the global warming crowd for decades. “We can’t wait for evidence! We need to act now before it’s too late!”

Moreover, she — along with the writer of this Science article — also copies another global warming dishonest tactic, posing a false argument by claiming that the opposing scientists requried a “randomized controlled trial” to demonstrate the usefulness of masks. This is an absurd misstatement, as it ignores decades of research that already exists and was referenced by those opposing scientists, that showed that mandating widespread mask use was generally a bad idea, and would accomplish nothing good.
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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 23rd lunar day on far side of the Moon

The new colonial movement: China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have both been reactivated for their 23rd lunar day on far side of the Moon.

Yutu 2 is set to continue its journey northwest from the landing site and will target a roughly 12-inch (30 centimeters) rock on the rim of a nearby crater for analysis with a spectrometer. The rover has used that instrument to analyze a range of specimens in Von Kármán crater, notably causing a stir when it discovered an impact melt breccia initially described as “gel-like.”

It is the hope of the Chinese scientists that this rock will be ejected material from that crater and will have come from the lunar interior.

Also, though you need to read Chinese to understand how to access it, the project has released to the public another batch of data from both spacecraft.

ArianeGroup completes testing of all three Ariane 6 rocket engines

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup, the joint private partnership that is building Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket, has successfully completed all testing of the three different engines the rocket will use.

The first stage has a core engine with side strap-on solid rocket motors, while the upper stage has a different engine entirely. All three have now passed qualification tests, allowing full design and construction of the rocket itself.

Old launch tower burns down at Firefliy launchpad at Vandenberg

Capitalism in space: Apparently workers dismantling the old launch tower at Firefliy’s new launchpad at Vandenberg started a fire that burned the tower down.

A photo showing the former Delta II rocket’s Space Launch Complex-2 facility with flames and a huge column of black smoke rising from the distinctive blue tower began circulating on social media sites on Thursday night.

The launch site, most recently used for liftoffs of United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rockets, has been handed over to Texas-based Firefly Aerospace, which is developing a new family of rockets as an economical way to carry small- to medium-sized satellites into space.

The firm has a long-term lease to use the site with hopes of saving money by using some of the existing facilities. Firefly has plans to dismantle the historic tower, and a contractor armed with welding equipment reportedly sparked the blaze Thursday.

No word yet on whether this fire will delay Firefly’s planned first launch in the spring.

Leak on ISS traced to “fracture”

Not good news: According the Russian news source TASS, Russian astronauts have pinpointed the location of the slow leak on ISS to ” a fracture in the intersection compartment of the Russian Zvezda module.”

The astronaut also called it a “scratch,” which means the fracture is not yet confirmed. They will do more testing to find out if this is the leak source in the coming days.

If it is a fracture, the ramifications could be very serious. It appears the “intersection compartment” is the area where the aft docking port is located, which is also the area where many Progress freighters have docked in the twenty years since Zvezda was launched. Thus, this could be a stress fracture that can only get bigger with time. Its location might also preclude further dockings at this port, limiting arrivals of future Progress cargo ships.

Fun fact: They pinpointed this location using a floating tea bag.

The tea bag’s sway in zero gravity conditions towards the air leak overboard the space station was registered by cameras, the cosmonaut said. “We believe that we have really identified the probable leakage area. We have distributed a tea bag [in the Zvezda module] before closing the transfer chamber,” Ivanishin said.

The tea bag’s movement was recorded, the Russian cosmonaut said.

Update on InSight’s mole: It is now underground

InSight's mole now completely buried
Click for full image.

An update today on the mole digging tool on the Mars lander InSight has revealed that the mole appears to finally be completely buried, though it remains unclear whether its most recent digging effort had succeeded in digging downward.

We found that during the first two rounds of hammering and during the first half of the third round of hammering, the scoop went further into the sand. Since the Mole was hidden under the scoop, the penetration of the probe itself could not be observed directly.

During the hammering, the flat tether running to the probe moved considerably, but these could only be clearly identified as forward movements during the hammering on 22 August. Overall, we could estimate from the movements of the scoop that the Mole moved at most one centimetre further into the ground. It was interesting to observe that during the second half of the round of 250 hammer blows on 19 September, the scoop did not go any further, probably because it encountered duricrust. This was certainly a desired outcome, as it allowed a second Free Mole Test to be conducted. In fact, the probe continued to move according to the movements of the tether, but it could not be clearly determined that these movements brought the Mole deeper into the ground.

The image shows InSight’s arm above the filled hole, with the mole’s flat tether coming out of the ground.

They are now going to fill the hole more, and then press down with the scoop during later drilling efforts to see if this allows the mole to proceed downward. If it fails I’m not sure if there is anything else they will be able to do to get the mole to work.

Threatened collision between two big pieces of space junk does not happen

Follow-up observations of the two big pieces of space junk, a Soviet-era defunct satellite and a Chinese upper stage, that had a high chance of colliding yesterday has confirmed that no collision occurred.

Shortly after the time of probable collision, the CZ-4C stage passed over the Kiwi Space radar tracking station in New Zealand. According to LeoLabs, “Shortly after [time of probable collision], we will have a direct pass of CZ-4C R/B over our Kiwi Space Radar in New Zealand. We have scheduled a search mode scan during this time to ensure we only see two objects as expected and hopefully confirm that no new debris is detected.”

This is exactly what happened, with the only observed object being the single CZ-4C stage — indicating no collision had occurred.

It is fortunate nothing happened. Though the collision point was about 360 miles higher than the orbit of ISS, the debris from a collision would have been flung in all directions, some of which might have crossed the space station’s path.

Study: Almost impossible to contract COVID-19 on an airplane

New research into the air filtration systems on commercial passenger jets has found that it is almost impossible to contract COVID-19 while on an airplane.

A new military-led study unveiled Thursday shows there is a low risk for passengers traveling aboard large commercial aircraft to contract an airborne virus such as COVID-19 — and it doesn’t matter where they sit on the airplane.

Researchers concluded that because of sophisticated air particle filtration and ventilation systems on board the Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 aircraft — the planes tested for the study — airborne particles within the cabin have a very short lifespan, according to defense officials with U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and Air Mobility Command, which spearheaded the study.

You can read the report [pdf] here. I especially like this quote from their conclusions:

For the 777 and 767, at 100% seating capacity transmission model calculations with a 4,000 viruses/hour shedding rate and 1,000 virus infectious dose show a minimum 54 flight hours required to produce inflight infection from aerosol transmission.

In other words, you can fly around the world more than twice on the same plane, without stopping, without any real risk of getting infected.

Need I add that the use of a mask will likely make no difference either, while probably increasing your chances of catching some disease simply because the long term use of any single mask is unsanitary and almost guarantees it will be carrying pathogens on your face where you breathe?

Fingerprints on Mars!

Fingerprint terrain on the Martian south pole icecap
Click for full image.

No, today’s cool image is not a variation of the absurd “face on Mars” that our alien-obssessed fantasy culture focused on for more than twenty years that turned out to be nothing more than a mesa whose shadows in one image made it look very vaguely like a face.

Instead, today’s cool image is of a very weird Martian geological feature that strongly resembles the whorls and curls seen in all fingerprints, and is thus apply named “Fingerprint Terrain.”

The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on August 26, 2020. It shows part of the surface of Mars’ south pole residual icecap, about 130 miles from the south pole, at a place where the temporary thin dry ice mantle that arrives every winter with the bulk of it sublimating away with the coming of spring.

The fingerprint in this image shows that sublimation process, with the gaps in dry ice mantle getting wider and larger as you move north, until the ridges between disappear altogether.

But why does it look as it does, like a fingerprint? In other places this sublimation process does not look like this at all. Sometimes we get spiderlike formations. Sometimes we get splatters that suggest geysers. Sometimes the surface sublimates to produce swiss cheese shapes. But why a fingerprint here?

I asked this question of Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who had requested this particular image, hoping he and other planetary scientists had investigated this geology and come up with an explanation. His answer illustrates how little we yet know about Mars.

It’s almost definitely some sort of sublimation process, but it hasn’t been well investigated. There are some papers that talk about sublimation landforms on the cap in general and map out where different types are, but nothing that I know that’s specific to the fingerprint terrain.

In other words, why the dry ice cap sublimates away in this manner, at this and other locations, remains unexplained.

I’ll say it again: Mars is strange, Mars is alien, and Mars is therefore a place humans must go.

The real reason most polls in this election are not trustworthy

Trump at a press conference

An event happened yesterday in our home that I think illustrates forcefully why no one can trust any poll being conducted during this election season.

The phone rings. As I now do on all calls, I pick it up, say “Hello?” and wait to see if it is a live person on the other end. If it is a recording of any kind, spam, political, poll, whatever, I immediately hang up. My life is too short to waste on robots or crooks. (I should add that if Diane picks up she does the same, though she doesn’t even offer them a “Hello.” She also often screens calls with caller ID, and thus often does not even bother to pick up.)

Sadly, a large majority of all in-coming phone calls now are from these robots, with the political and pollster robocalls coming more and more frequently, sometimes ten to twenty times a day.

If it is a live person, I listen to find out what they are calling about. If the call is for a commercial product or a scam, I tell them to stop calling us and hang up.

If it is a from a political campaign office or a survey I also say I am not interested in talking, and say good-bye. If the call is from a survey but specifically asks for my wife, I tell her about the call so she can decide what to do.

This happened yesterday. Her answer: “Please tell them to go away.” I then told the guy on the line her exact words, adding that I agree entirely with her. He laughed, and said good-bye, ending the call.

A lot of political experts have wondered whether the refusal of shy Trump voters to answer poll questions might be skewing the poll totals in favor of Biden and the Democrats. This may be so, but I think something more fundamental is happening that makes all poll results untrustworthy.
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Biden-Harris campaign staffers test positive for COVID-19

Two campaign staffers in the Biden-Harris presidential organization have now tested positive for COVID-19.

Kamala Harris has suspended in-person events until Monday after two campaign staffers tested positive for COVID, reports the Associated Press. Harris was supposed to travel to the battleground state of North Carolina on Thursday.

The campaign insists that Joe Biden was not exposed to the virus, but he and Senator Harris spent several hours together last week while campaigning in Arizona. According to the report, Kamala’s communications director and a traveling staff member tested positive after that trip.

My purpose in reporting this really very non-news story is to make two points:

One: Despite so-called strict regimens to protect its campaign people from getting infected, including masks, social distancing, and any number of other procedures now popular in our fear-crazed society, none worked. The infection still arrived, as such infections are guaranteed to do.

Two: No one will die from this outbreak. In fact, it is not even clear anyone will get sick. The Wuhan virus does not kill healthy people. Like the flu, the worst it does is make a healthy person sick for a week or so, after which they recover completely and return to normal life.

We need to stop being so afraid of this virus. It is not the boogie-man it is made out to be, no matter what some people say. It is a variation of the flu, worse for the old who are already very sick, but more harmless for the young and the healthy. With that knowledge in mind we should focus on protecting that very narrow threatened population, while letting everyone else return to a normal life that involves no masks, no social distancing, and above all, no fear.

FAA releases new commercial space licensing rules

The FAA today released its new streamlined commercial space licensing rules, aimed at simplifying the process for launch companies. According to the press release,

The new rule consolidates four regulatory parts and applies a single set of licensing and safety regulations for all types of vehicle operations. It also provides flexibility for operators to meet safety requirements. The rule improves efficiency by encouraging launch and reentry operators to suggest and implement design and operational solutions to meet the regulatory standards.

You can read the rule here [pdf].

Though it appears the FAA and the Trump administration truly wish to streamline this licensing process, it is not clear yet that these new rules do it. Some aspects, such as the rule that allows a single license to cover multiple launches, appear effective. The effect of others however remains murky. I would love to get feedback from anyone in commercial space directly impacted by these new rules. Are they as good as the FAA claims?

First full static fire test of SLS’s core stage scheduled for November 14

NASA has now scheduled the first full static fire test of the core stage of its SLS rockt for no earlier than November 14th.

Currently installed in the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the massive 212-foot-tall core stage has completed six of eight planned green run tests before it can be shipped to KSC by barge as the final piece of the first mission of the Artemis program, slated for launch in November 2021.

Officials with NASA as well as contractors Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne gave an update on the core stage progress on Tuesday, stating the tentative date for the hot fire test is Nov. 14, and the target for it to be loaded onto the Pegasus barge for the trip to Florida is Jan. 14.

“So far the design has held together extremely well. We’ve not really had any surprises,” said John Shannon, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System.

Unlike SpaceX, which uses tests like this to figure out how to build its rockets, NASA uses these tests to confirm its designs and construction at the very end of development. This difference in approach, now so clearly illustrated by simultaneous tests going on from both, I think shows the advantages of SpaceX’s approach. By testing during development, SpaceX can quickly fix any problems it finds, and move forward fast with better designs. This approach also results in a less expensive final result.

NASA instead must make sure its designs are perfect on the drafting board, which therefore requires their engineers to include gigantic design margins, resulting in long construction schedules and an expensive final product. Worst of all, should SLS fail during this final test, NASA will face some very difficult and expensive choices, none good.

Mercury probe BepiColombo probe flies past Venus

Venus during BepiColombo fly-by
Click for full image.

The two-pronged European and Japanese probe BepiColombo today has completed its first of two fly-bys of Venus on its way to an arrival at Mercury in 2025.

The image to the right is one of 64 taken during the fly-by. The science team has created a movie from those images, showing Venus slide past as the spacecraft slewed to view it. During the fly-by the instruments on board its Japanese and European orbiters, both of which will separate and operate independently once they reach Mercury, gathered data of Earth’s sister planet.

The spacecraft still needs one more Venus fly-by plus six past Mercury to get it on a trajectory that will put it in orbit around Mercury. It has also already completed one fly-by past Earth in this complicated route.

NASA awards $370 million to 14 companies to develop new space capabilities

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday issued fifteen development contracts to fourteen private space companies, totaling $370 million, to help them develop a variety of new space capabilities.

The funding is spread across 15 contracts to 14 different companies, including SpaceX, Astrobotic, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and Intuitive Machines.

Nearly 70% of the money is earmarked for the management of cryogenic fluids such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. SpaceX, for example, will get $53 million for an in-space demonstration that will transfer 11 tons (10 metric tons) of liquid oxygen between tanks on one of its next-gen Starship vehicles.

What makes these contracts different from past NASA development contracts is fundamental. First, the design work comes from the companies, not NASA. Therefore products will be designed with the company’s needs in mind, not the government’s, and will also likely be designed faster and more efficiently.

Second, the companies will own what they build, and will be able to sell or use it however they wish. SpaceX for example wants this capability to give Starship the ability to leave Earth orbit, for its own commercial flights.

Possible collision today of two big pieces of space junk

A space junk tracking company is predicting a “more than 10%” chance that two large pieces of space junk with a combined mass of more than 6,000 pounds might collide tonight over the south Atlantic just before 9 pm (eastern).

The two pieces, one a defunct Russian satellite and the other a Chinese upper rocket stage, will be moving at more than 32,000 miles per hour relative to each other at the moment when impact might occur.

If they do hit, the collision will break both pieces into many new smaller pieces of space junk. Not a good thing.

Russia oxygen regeneration system on ISS fails

Russian new sources today reported that their oxygen regeneration system on the ISS module Zvezda has failed.

A Russian cosmonaut told a specialist from the Mission Control Centre in the Moscow Region that the Electron-VM OGS installed in the Russian Zvezda module had failed.

Essentially this information was overheard by Russian sources during communications between mission control and the Russians on-board ISS.

Whether this failure is related to the rise in temperature this week in Zvezda is unknown. Also, the failed unit itself might be one that came with the station when it was launched 20 years ago, or it might be an upgraded unit launched later.

This unit is designed to recycle oxygen on board so as to reduce the need to haul up new supplies. Its failure poses no immediate threat to the station or its crew, since there is plenty of oxygen store on board and the U.S. has its own regeneration unit. However, if it isn’t repairable and can’t be replaced quickly it likely means future cargo manifests will require larger stocks of oxygen. It also might mean a reduction in total crew on ISS, which only now is returning to more than three for long periods because of the initiation of American private ferrying serves.

Meanwhile the location of the leak on Zvezda remains unknown. It needs to be pinpointed and hopefully solved, because if it is a more serious age issue ISS managers need to know.

First scientist chosen to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Planetary scientist Alan Stern, who is also the principal scientist on the New Horizons mission, has been chosen to be the first scientist to fly on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo, should it ever begin commercial flights.

One SwRI experiment on the just announced flight will involve Stern operating a former space shuttle and NASA F-18 low light level camera to determine how well space astronomical observations can be conducted. In addition, Stern will be fitted with instrumentation that continuously monitors human vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing as a biomedical experiment. The results of both experiments will be published.

I hope it happens, but personally I have great doubts. We now have more than fifteen years of similar big announcements about what Virgin Galactic will do with its suborbital spaceship, with nothing to show for it. Right now I see these stories as mere fodder by people like Richard Branson to push up the stock’s price so he can make more money selling it as he eases his way out of the company.

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