Scientists successfully predict resumption of bursts from magnetar

The uncertainty of science: Though they have no real idea why it happens, scientists have now successfully predicted the resumption of energetic bursts coming from a magnetar and according to schedule.

The researchers — Grossan and theoretical physicist and cosmologist Eric Linder from SSL and the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics and postdoctoral fellow Mikhail Denissenya from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan — discovered the pattern last year in bursts from a soft gamma repeater, SGR1935+2154, that is a magnetar, a prolific source of soft or lower energy gamma ray bursts and the only known source of fast radio bursts within our Milky Way galaxy. They found that the object emits bursts randomly, but only within regular four-month windows of time, each active window separated by three months of inactivity.

On March 19, the team uploaded a preprint claiming “periodic windowed behavior” in soft gamma bursts from SGR1935+2154 and predicted that these bursts would start up again after June 1 — following a three month hiatus — and could occur throughout a four-month window ending Oct. 7.

On June 24, three weeks into the window of activity, the first new burst from SGR1935+2154 was observed after the predicted three month gap, and nearly a dozen more bursts have been observed since, including one on July 6.

They made this prediction based on data going back to 2014 that showed the three-month-off/four-month-on pattern.

As to why this pattern exists, they presently have no idea. Theories have been proposed, such as starquakes activated by the magnetar’s fast rotation or blocking clouds of gas, but none are really very convincing, or are backed with enough data.

Today’s blacklisted American: YouTube shuts down conservative channel during its annual conference

banned by YouTube
No free speech for conservatives on YouTube!

Blacklists are back and YouTube’s got ’em! The American Conservative Union (ACU) was banned by YouTube this week, a ban that coincided precisely with the ACU’s annual convention, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), thus preventing it from airing content from the event.

The ACU, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), received “a strike” on their account from YouTube on July 9, preventing them from uploading new content for a week. This includes ACU’s CPAC 2021 Part 2 in Dallas, Texas, and Trump’s CPAC speech scheduled for Sunday, the organization said in a statement.

» Read more

SpaceX unveils third drone ship for landing Falcon 9 boosters

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk yesterday unveiled the completion of its third drone ship for landing Falcon 9 boosters in the ocean and returning them to port.

The new ship will be put in place in Florida to support Atlantic launches of Falcon Heavy and the flagship rocket of SpaceX, the Falcon 9, that regularly sends Starlink broadband satellites to orbit and NASA astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, among other customer requests.

This will give the company two drone ships in Florida and one in California, allowing them to do launches at an even faster pace than the one launch every 2 weeks or so since the beginning of the year. The ship also is designed to be more efficient than the older ships, no longer requiring a tug to take it out into the Atlantic.

House slams military for not reforming contracting for space missions

Government marches on, to nowhere! The House Appropriations Committee has issued a report strongly criticizing the Air Force and the new Space Force for its failure to reform in any way its contract acquisition management, even though that was the prime reason Congress created the Space Force in the first place.

The report dedicates an entire page to detailing the committee’s dissatisfaction with what it sees as foot-dragging on space acquisition reform — which was one of the primary congressional rationales for the creation of the new space service in the first place. Indeed, the [appropriations committee] reiterates: “The Committee believes the Space Force was established to bring greater attention and focus to fixing its acquisition issues because previous attempts to do so did not produce lasting results.”

The [committee’s] concerns include that that Department of the Air Force — which oversees the Space Force much as the Navy oversees the Marine Corp — still has no clear plan for creating a separate management chain for space acquisition. Similar concerns were voiced at a May hearing by both the chair and ranking members of the HAC defense subcommittee, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., respectively.

None of this should be a surprise. The reason the Space Force was advocated by some reformers was to get it out from under Air Force control and allow it to decide for itself what it needed. The belief was that this would streamline contracting and project development.

The fear, which I expressed repeatedly, was that the swamp in Washington would instead use this as an opportunity not to streamline operations but to create a whole new bureaucracy. That is standard operating procedure for government bureaucracies. Any time Congress has mandated a new agency designed to reduce bureaucracy it has for more than a century instead led to a larger bureaucracy, with nothing streamlined.

It appears the latter is what is now happening with the Space Force.

Superheavy passes first tank test

Superheavy after tank test, July 12, 2021
Screen capture from NASASpaceflight.com live stream,
shortly after tank test of Superheavy

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first fullscale complete Superheavy prototype, dubbed #3, passed its first tank test yesterday.

Booster 3 was likely filled with a few hundred tons of liquid nitrogen relative to the more than 3000 tons its tanks could easily hold and the fraction of that total capacity SpaceX’s suborbital launch site can actually supply. Teams have been working around the clock for months to outfit Starship’s first orbital launch site with enough propellant storage for at least one or two back to back orbital launches – on the order of 10,000 tons (~22M lb) – but the nascent tank farm is far from even partially operational. That’s left SpaceX with its ground testing and suborbital Starship launch facilities, which appear to be able to store around 1200 tons of propellant.

Assuming the suborbital pad’s main liquid oxygen and methane tanks can also both store and distribute liquid nitrogen, which isn’t guaranteed, SpaceX thus has the ability to fill approximately 30-40% of Super Heavy B3’s usable volume. Frost lines aren’t always a guaranteed sign of fill level but if they’re close, SpaceX likely filled Booster 3’s tanks just 5-10% of the way during the rocket’s first cryoproof.

While the company still says it is aiming for a July orbital launch, that seems highly unlikely. They still have to do a Superheavy tank test with full tanks, plus static fire tests. They also need to get the orbital launchpad finished, with a full tank farm.

Nonetheless, SpaceX is moving fast towards flight of this heavy lift reusable rocket. I still think the odds are 50-50 it will complete its first orbital flight before SLS, even though its development began more than a decade later and has cost a tenth of the money ($6 billion vs $60 billion).

FAA approves Blue Origin’s license for commercial suborbital passenger flights

Capitalism in space: The FAA has approved the launch license for Blue Origin, allowing it to fly a commercial suborbital passenger flight using its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft later this month.

The company, founded by the former Amazon.com chief, is approved to conduct space flight missions from its Launch Site One facility in West Texas. The license is valid through August. “To gain license approval to carry humans, Blue Origin was required to verify that its launch vehicle’s hardware and software worked safely and as intended during a test flight,” the FAA said in a statement to FOX Business.

Bezos is scheduled to fly into space on July 20 on New Shepard’s 16th flight. Liftoff is targeted for 8 p.m. CDT, the company said. … The launch date marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos assigned himself to the flight just a month ago and asked his brother, Mark, to join him. Accompanying them will be a $28 million auction winner and Wally Funk, one of the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 who was chosen as an “honored guest.”

Expect the same kind of hype surrounding this short suborbital flight that accompanied Richard Branson’s flight this past weekend. The real big deal however will begin in September, when regular orbital tourist flights begin, with one almost every month for the rest of the year.

Virgin Galactic shares crash after Branson flight

Capitalism in space: The price of the stock for Virgin Galactic plummeted 17% shortly after Richard Branson’s flight on July 11th, experiencing its worst day in more than a year.

The drop occurred shortly after the company announced it was going to sell an additional $500 million in new shares.

Virgin Galactic, which trades under the ticker SPCE, fell 17.3% after it filed notice of its stock sale offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Trading in Virgin Galactic was briefly halted Monday morning due to volatility.

The drop in price is likely a reflection of several things, none of which reflects negatively on the overall bright picture for commercial space. First, the release of new stock meant the supply was greater than demand, and thus the price dropped. Second, Branson’s flight, while grand, also highlighted its limitations. While there certainly appears to be a market for suborbital tourism, I suspect the arrival of regular and likely increasingly cheaper orbital flights will cut into this market. In comparison, a short five minutes of weightlessness cannot compare with spending a week in orbit.

Third, Virgin Galactic as a company has nowhere to go. The rocket is essentially an engineering dead end. It can do suborbital flights relatively cheaply and quickly, but the demand for such flights is limited, especially with the arrival of relatively cheaper orbital access.

Today’s blacklisted American: History professor slandered and ostracized for noting the many historical errors of the NY Times 1619 project

Today's modern witch hunt
A witch hunt: What passes for intellectual discussion
at Central Connecticut State University

Persecution is now cool! A tenured history professor is under vicious and slanderous attack by the faculty and administration of his college because he has publicly and privately opposed the use in its history curriculum the New York Times 1619 project.

Jay Bergman, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University [CCSU], wrote to the state’s superintendents earlier in the year asking them to not embed the curriculum, saying it “presents America’s history as driven, nearly exclusively, by white racism” and that “nearly everything else in the 1619 Project, is entirely false, mostly false, or misleading.”

As Bergman also noted,
» Read more

The bell of freedom rings in space

The Liberty Bell
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and the
inhabitants thereof.” Photo credit: William Zhang

Not surprisingly the mainstream press today was agog with hundreds of stories about Richard Branson’s suborbital space flight yesterday on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane.

The excitement and joy over this success is certainly warranted. Back in 2004 Branson set himself the task of creating a reusable suborbital space plane he dubbed SpaceShipTwo, modeled after the suborbital plane that had won the Ansari X-Prize and intended to sell tickets so that private citizens would have the ability to go into space.

His flight yesterday completed that journey. The company he founded and is slowly selling off so that he is only a minority owner now has a vehicle that for a fee can take anyone up to heights ranging from 50 to 60 miles, well within the U.S. definition of space.

Nonetheless, if you rely on the media frenzy about this particular flight to inform you about the state of commercial space you end up having a very distorted picture of this new blossoming industry. Branson’s achievement, as great as it is, has come far too late. Had he done it a decade ago, as he had promised, he would have achieved something historic, proving what was then considered impossible, that private enterprise, using no government resources, could make space travel easy and common.

Now, however, he merely joins the many other private enterprises that are about to fly into space, with most doing it more frequently and with far greater skill and at a much grander scale than Virgin Galactic. His flight is no longer historic. It is merely one of many that is about to reshape space exploration forever.

Consider the upcoming schedule of already paid for commercial manned flights:
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Israeli nonprofit that built Beresheet-1 raises $70 million for Beresheet-2

SpaceIL, the Israeli nonprofit company that built the Beresheet-1 lunar lander/rover that crashed just before landing in 2019 has now raised $70 million of the $100 million it needs to build Beresheet-2.

SpaceIL said the new pledges means that it has raised almost all of the $100 million it estimates is needed for the mission to meet its 2024 launch target. SpaceIL said the funding would come from South African-Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, who bankrolled much of the first mission, French-Israeli billionaire Patrick Drahi and South African philanthropist Martin Moshal, co-founder of venture capital firm Entree Capital.

A number of the engineers who helped build the first Beresheet have since moved on, forming their own company as well as getting hired by the American startup rocket company Firefly. Still, there is no reason Beresheet-2 cannot be built and flown, especially if SpaceIL focuses on rebuilding it rather than redesigning something new. They came very close to a success, and probably only need some tweaking to make the next attempt succeed.

Virgin Galactic finally flies Richard Branson on its reusable suborbital Unity spacecraft

Capitalism in space: After almost two decades of development and almost as many false promises by Richard Branson, Branson today finally flew on his SpaceShipTwo ship dubbed VSS Unity.

Unity was taken to about 45,000 feet by the carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo, where it was released and its engines fired.

Once VSS Unity’s rocket engine cut off, the spacecraft’s momentum took it to an altitude of around 90 kilometers. This is above the minimum altitude of 80 kilometers required by the US Air Force, NASA, and the FAA to grant astronaut wings, and is above the discernible atmosphere. This apogee, or maximum altitude, is below the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognized boundary of space at 100 kilometers, which SpaceShipOne crossed twice to claim the X-Prize in 2004.

The craft spent around five minutes in weightlessness, with the crew evaluating the experience and looking at Earth and space from 17 windows on the craft, before they strapped back into their seats for reentry.

I have embedded below the fold the NASASpaceflight.com live feed, cued to just before Unity was dropped from WhiteKnightTwo. The commentary is far less offensive than the blather on the official live feed, but they end up losing the view from their live feed and switched to the Virgin Galactic live feed, rewinding it to pick it up just before the drop. You then see that feed, with good images and with all the blather, but no interior video during the weightless period. I suspect they want to edit that footage before releasing it, just in case anyone had vomited or Branson looked uncomfortable in any way.

Overall, Virgin Galactic deserves congratulations for finally accomplishing this flight. That it took so long and occurred just before the start of commercial manned orbital flights unfortunately pops the balloon on this achievement. The flight was so short that it now seems somewhat disappointing compared to the upcoming orbital tourist flights.

The next suborbital flight by Blue Origin on July 20th, and unlike today’s Virgin Galactic flight, will carry the first paying passenger, making it the first wholly financed and built private commercial space flight.
» Read more

Northrop Grumman wins contract to build Lunar Gateway’s habitable module

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has awarded Northrop Grumman the construction contract for building HALO, (Habitation and Logistics Outpost), the module where astronauts will live and work on its Lunar Gateway space station.

Combined with earlier development contracts this contract, worth $935 million, brings the total fixed-price cost to about $1.1 billion.

[HALO], one of the first for the Gateway, will serve as a habitat for visiting astronauts and a command post for the lunar orbiting facility. It will have docking ports for Orion spacecraft, cargo vehicles like SpaceX’s Dragon XL and lunar landers, as well as for later modules to be added by international partners. HALO is based on the Cygnus spacecraft that Northrop Grumman uses to transport cargo to the International Space Station, but extensively modified with docking ports, enhanced life support and other new subsystems.

This module is not expected to launch before 2024. Moreover, it is supposed to work in conjunction with what NASA calls its Artemis 3 mission, the third launch of SLS and the first to dock with Gateway. SLS however is so far only funded through its first two flights, and has a schedule that is presently highly uncertain.

There is great irony here. HALO, based on the Cygnus cargo freighter, will be about that size. If the present schedule for SpaceX’s Starship continues as expected, it will be flying to the Moon at about the same time, and will have a cargo bay big enough to store several Cygnus freighters inside. And though no work has yet been done to make that cargo bay habitable, Starship’s cost per launch, about $2 million, is so far below the $1.1 billion cost for HALO that it will certainly cost much less than HALO to make it a habitable station. And it will be gigantic in comparison.

China launches 5 military reconnaissance satellites

Using its Long March 6 rocket, China today successfully launched five military reconnaissance satellites.

This is China’s fourth successful launch in the past week.

Though this newer rocket’s first stage does not use toxic hypergolic fuels — China’s older rockets — that first stage still crashes in China after its job is done and it falls to Earth. No word on whether it landed near inhabited regions.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

22 China
20 SpaceX
11 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. still leads China 29 to 22 in the national rankings.

Today’s blacklisted American: YouTube shuts down channel that routinely broadcasts Trump rallies

The Bill of Rights cancelled at YouTube
No first amendment allowed at YouTube.

Persecution is now cool! One day prior to the July 3, 2021 Trump rally in Florida, YouTube unilaterally suspended Right Side Broadcasting, the channel most well known for live streaming such events.

The suspension was for seven days. YouTube also deleted the channel’s videos from several other Trump events. From Right Side Broadcasting blog announcement:

YouTube has suspended RSBN from live streaming and posting content to their YouTube channel on the eve of President Donald Trump’s Save America rally in Sarasota, Florida.

YouTube has also deleted all of RSBN’s coverage of Trump’s June 26 rally in Wellington, Ohio, along with his June 5 speech to the North Carolina GOP convention.

The videos deleted had several million views.

As is usual for these efforts at censorship, YouTube merely claimed that “The videos contain remarks from President Trump that violate the aforementioned policies and countervailing views on those remarks are not provided.” Of course, YouTube has never demanded any Democrat to provide “countervailing views” during their political rallies, and I am sure the Google-owned video broadcasting service never will.
» Read more

Ingenuity’s view of Jezero Crater during its 9th flight

Ingenuity looks across Jezero Crater
Click for full image.

Overview map
Click for interactive map.

Cool image time! The photo above, cropped, enhanced, and reduced to post here, was taken on July 5, 2021, about thirty seconds after Ingenuity had taken off on its 9th flight on Mars. I have increased the contrast slightly to bring out the features. This is a raw image, so I do not think the colors are accurate, and I also do not know why the middle of the image is brighter than the edges.

The red lines on the map to the right indicates the general area this image captures. Essentially, once the helicopter reached its flying altitude after liftoff the engineers had it tilt so that it could see the route it was about to take to the southwest. As they noted in their description of this flight,

We began by dipping into what looks like a heavily eroded crater, then continued to descend over sloped and undulating terrain before climbing again to emerge on a flat plain to the southwest.

I think that crater is visible on the left edge of this picture.

So far 180 raw images from Ingenuity have arrived at JPL. There might be a few more, but I think this is the bulk from the flight. Of these, all but nine are black and white and point straight down. The nine color images seem tilted up towards the horizon to various degrees, though the image above is the only one that captures the horizon itself and the distance mountains of Jezero Crater’s rim.

Watching Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight on July 11th

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic has now made available the live stream for its planned suborbital flight on July 11th that will also carry the company’s founder, Richard Branson.

I have embedded the live stream below the fold. Though the company has not announced an actual launch time, according to that stream the broadcast is now scheduled to begin at about 9 am (Eastern). The flight itself should last about ninety minutes total, from takeoff of the carrier airplane to landing of both it and the suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity.

The weightless portion of the flight will last about four minutes or so. Unity will get to more than 50 miles altitude, which meets the American definition of space but not the international standard of 67 miles. For more details about the flight, see this Space.com article.

Expect the broadcast to be filled with endless hype and blather about how “spectacular” and “amazing” and “wonderful” Virgin Galactic is. And yes, what the company is doing is very cool, a privately financed manned spacecraft capable of reaching space, returning to Earth, and then flying again. Unfortunately, both suborbital companies (Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin) seem to think they have to convince people of this obvious fact on their broadcasts, and scream it at the viewers endlessly. They would be wiser to take SpaceX’s soft-sell approach: State once what they are accomplishing and then simply report on what actually happens, with no breathless commentary.

I don’t expect that to happen however. Thus, I’m not sure I can stomach hours on end of Virgin Galactic PR hype on Sunday, especially considering that this spaceflight by Branson is more than a decade late. His own endless hype for the last fifteen years, promising over and over again that he would be flying in mere months, has soured me from any desire to listen to more. Maybe I’ll go on a hike instead.
» Read more

British startup rocket company wants to recover only satellite launched by UK

Capitalism in space: Skyrora, a British startup rocket company which is attempting to build the first rocket using hypersonic technology, has now issued a challenge to the commercial space industry to come up with a plan to snatch from orbit the only satellite ever launched by a rocket built by the United Kingdom and bring it back safely to Earth.

Edinburgh-based rocket company Skyrora is issuing a challenge to find a way to retrieve the Prospero satellite. The object was the first and only UK spacecraft to be launched on a British rocket, from Australia in 1971. It’s defunct now, obviously, but is still circling the globe on an elliptical orbit some 1,000km up.

Skyrora, who will soon start sending up rockets from Scotland, regards the satellite as an important piece of UK space heritage. The company has already recovered part of the Black Arrow vehicle that placed Prospero in orbit. This fell back to Australia in the course of the mission where it languished for decades in the Outback until the firm had it shipped home and put on display.

Now, Skyrora is looking for ideas as to how best to approach and grab hold of the 66kg satellite, whose original mission was to investigate the space environment.

After that single successful launch of Black Arrow, the British government decided to abandon it, and in fact for the next half century refused to invest any money in space, at all. While the decision was probably economically wise for the government, it also did not do anything to encourage a private space industry, and for the next half century there was none in the UK. This is now finally changing, but fortunately not as a government space program like Black Arrow but as a competitive private launch industry aimed at profit.

Recovering Prospero would be a nice public relations stunt that might help further encourage that private industry.

NASA to scientists: Don’t expect to use SLS for science missions for at least a decade

In a briefing held by the planetary science community to propose its future missions for the next decade, a NASA official explained that there will likely be no available launches on NASA’s SLS rocket for planetary missions until the late 2020s, and more likely not until the next decade.

While NASA has a goal of being able to launch three SLS missions in a 24-month period, and two in 12 months, the supply chain is currently limited to one SLS per year. That will change by the early 2030s, [the official] said, growing to two per year and thus creating opportunities for additional SLS missions beyond the Artemis program. That will be enabled by changes to at the Michoud Assembly Facility to increase core stage production and a “block upgrade” to the RS-25 engine used on that core stage that will be cheaper and faster to produce.

The official also claimed that the cost of buying a launch on SLS is at best going to be $800 million, but that price won’t be available until the ’30s when SLS’s are launching more frequently. Until then, it appears NASA will charge one billion per launch.

All of this is pure fantasy on NASA’s part. Once cheaper and more usable private commercial rockets come on line, such as SpaceX’s Starship, SLS will go the way of the horse buggy. And this is likely to happen much sooner than 2030, more likely in the next three years.

Moreover, for both cost and practical reasons I cannot see any planetary scientist planning a mission on SLS, ever. There are now much cheaper options that are actually flying, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch. Moreover, SLS’s slow and cumbersome launch pace should scare any planetary scientist away, as such missions must launch on time, and SLS might easily miss their launch windows. In fact, this has already happened. For years Congress mandated that Europa Clipper launch on SLS. When it became clear that SLS would not be available for that mission’s launch window, Congress finally relented and allowed NASA to buy the launch from a commercial company.

China targets 2024 for next lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China’s next robotic lunar sample return mission, called Chang’e-6 and targeted for a 2024 launch, will also attempt to bring back the first samples from the far side of the Moon.

Hu Hao, chief engineer of the China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, announced in a statement released on China’s national space day in April this year that the Chang’e 6 probe, consisting of an orbiter, lander, lunar ascent vehicle and reentry capsule, will target the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin.The SPA basin is a colossal, ancient impact crater roughly 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) in diameter that covers almost a quarter of the moon’s far side. The impact basin, considered to be the oldest on the moon, holds vital clues about the history of the moon and the solar system, according to a new report.

The precise spot for landing has not been revealed. Since the basin is so large and covers the Moon’s south pole, the mission could land in that region where ice is thought to possibly exist in the permanently shadowed floors of some craters. Whether they would attempt a landing in one of those craters is presently unknown, though unlikely because of the technical challenge.

FAA initiates new prelaunch air space clearance system

FAA has now begun using a new prelaunch air space clearance system that is intended to shorten the time airplane travel is disturbed by the scheduled launch of a rocket.

[The FAA] developed the Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to reduce how long ATO must close airspace around space launches and reentries. The system is voluntary. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly, and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation are current partners. SDI was first used operationally for SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch last week and is being used for the SpaceX-22 Cargo Dragon reentry today.

…Space operators now are voluntarily sharing telemetry data including vehicle position, altitude and speed, as well as data if the vehicle deviates from its expected flight path. Asked when additional companies might join, Monteith said he would have to defer to ATO to answer that question.

…Using the automated SDI system coupled with “time-based procedures and dynamic windows,” the FAA expects to be able to shorten airspace closures “from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours” and eventually less.

The article makes no mention whether this new system will allow the FAA to shrink the closure areas as well, which was Elon Musk’s main complaint after SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch near the end of June was scrubbed seconds before launch when a helicopter slipped into that airspace. As Musk wrote in a tweet,

Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the “keep out zone”, which is unreasonably gigantic. There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.

I suspect there is discussion to reduce the size of the closure areas, but I also suspect that the FAA is resisting industry calls to do so.

Curiosity looks across at the alien landscape of Gale Crater

Curiosity's view across Gale Crater
Click for full image.

Most of the images from Curiosity that I have posted recently have been of the spectacular mountain scenery looking south at Mount Sharp itself. Today’s cool image, taken on July 6, 2021 by the rover’s right navigation camera and cropped to post here, instead looks north, out across the floor of Gale Crater to its distant rim about twenty miles away.

The rover is likely not to move for a week or so, as it has just completed drilling its first drillhole since it moved up into the next geological layer, dubbed the sulfate unit. Because of this they have been using the rover’s cameras to take a lot of pictures of the surrounding terrain, including several high resolution mosaics.

The two overview maps below show what the cool image above is looking at.
» Read more

Engineers successful complete simulation of Hubble repair

Though the details released are sparse, engineers working to get the Hubble Space Telescope back in operation since it shut down due to a computer problem in mid-June report today that they have successfully completed a simulation of the procedures they need to do to fix the problem.

This is their entire report:

[The engineers] successfully completed a test of procedures that would be used to switch to backup hardware on Hubble in response to the payload computer problem. This switch could occur next week after further preparations and reviews.

Apparently, because the switch to backup hardware requires switching more than one unit, the sequence is important and following it correctly is critical. It appears they have now determined the correct sequence and will attempt it on Hubble next week.

Today’s blacklisted American: Facebook to punish users who link to peer-reviewed science it dislikes

Modern science!
How Facebook applies science.

Blacklists are back and Facebook’s got ’em! Facebook is now warning its users that it will punish them if they repeatedly link to peer-reviewed science papers that document the long known harmful effects from improper mask use.

Facebook is warning users against sharing a study that found dangerously high carbon-dioxide intake in masked schoolchildren, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics. “Pages and websites that repeatedly publish or share false news will see their overall distribution reduced and be restricted in other ways,” the warning says when users paste the link on Facebook, before confirming they want to share it.

It’s giving the same warning and threat of account restrictions to users who paste a link to Townhall.com article on a University of Florida lab that found dangerous pathogens on children’s face masks, submitted for testing by their parents. [emphasis mine]

Apparently, Facebook’s “‘fact-check’ simply highlight[ed] disagreements between the scientist who conducted the test and other scientists who did not conduct the test. … Instead of acknowledging that more study would resolve the dispute, [Facebook] call[ed] the report false. That’s not science — that’s propaganda.”

The second study about the number of very bad pathogens that gather on masks used during a single day was already discussed by me in an earlier post. That study found that after a single day of use,
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Problems with Blue Origin’s engine force more delays of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket

In a detailed and very informative review of the partnership between ULA and Blue Origin yesterday, Eric Berger at Ars Technica noted these unfolding facts:

For years, United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno had been saying the new Vulcan rocket, powered by two [Blue Origin] BE-4 engines, would launch in 2021. However, he recently told Aviation Week the first launch would slip into 2022. Bruno said this was due primarily to the mission’s customer, Astrobotic, whose Moon lander was not ready. Technically, Bruno said, Vulcan still had a chance to be ready for a 2021 launch.

This seems highly unlikely because it is already July, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) still does not have a pair of flight engines. After receiving the flight engines from Blue Origin, ULA needs to attach them to the Vulcan rocket, roll it to the launch pad, and conduct a lengthy series of tests before a hot-fire ignition. After this hot-fire test, the rocket will be rolled back to the hangar and prepared for an actual launch attempt. As of January, Bruno was saying this hot fire test with the flight engines would take place this summer. That will no longer happen.

In December both companies promised delivery of those flight engines by this summer, but so far nothing has arrived. Moreover, both companies have remained very tight-lipped about the cause of the most recent delays. In October 2020 Bruno said that an issue with the engine’s turbopumps had been identified and fixed, but if so why has the engine not arrived as promised?

A GAO report released last month had described issues with the engine’s “igniter and booster capabilities,” but Bruno himself has denied the igniter was a problem.

Regardless, Blue Origin’s inability to deliver this engine is causing problems at both companies. Both have been forced to delay the launch of their new orbital rockets. Both rockets were initially scheduled to launch in 2020, were delayed to 2021 about two years ago, and now are likely not to launch until 2022.

While ULA can still switch to its Atlas 5 rocket for some planned Vulcan launches (and has already done so), that rocket is more expensive and thus eats into the company’s profit margin. Using the more expensive Atlas 5 in bidding also makes it more difficult for ULA to compete with SpaceX in any head-to-head competition.

Blue Origin does not even have this option. Its proposed New Glenn rocket is grounded until it gets its engine operational.

All told, the failure of Blue Origin to deliver here is essentially grounding all of SpaceX’s potential American competition, a situation that is not healthy for the American rocket industry.

Update on Ingenuity’s 9th flight

Ingenuity's 9th flight
Click for interactive map

Ingenuity’s engineering team late yesterday posted an update on the helicopter’s successful 9th flight on July 5th, describing in detail the changes they made to their software that made the challenging flight possible.

The changes were required because the helicopter flew for the first time over much rougher terrain then initially planned, as shown by the map to the right.

Flight 9 was not like the flights that came before it. It broke our records for flight duration and cruise speed, and it nearly quadrupled the distance flown between two airfields. But what really set the flight apart was the terrain that Ingenuity had to negotiate during its 2 minutes and 46 seconds in the air – an area called “Séítah” that would be difficult to traverse with a ground vehicle like the Perseverance rover. This flight was also explicitly designed to have science value by providing the first close view of major science targets that the rover will not reach for quite some time.

In other words, Ingenuity flew for the first time over terrain that Perseverance cannot drive to, recording images from above of surface features beyond the rover’s range.

We began by dipping into what looks like a heavily eroded crater, then continued to descend over sloped and undulating terrain before climbing again to emerge on a flat plain to the southwest.

The images of that rough terrain have not yet been downloaded to Earth, but will be in the next week.

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