Ice-filled crater on the Martian north polar ice cap

Ice-filled crater on the Martian north pole ice cap
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on September 18, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows a very distinct impact crater on top of the layered deposits of ice mixed with dirt that form the bottom layers as well as surround the visible north pole ice cap on Mars.

I purposely cropped the high resolution image so that the crater is off center to show the dark streaks that appear to blow away from the crater to the northwest, west, and southwest. This asymmetric pattern suggests the wind direction at this location generally flows to the west, but the pattern might also be caused by lighting effects. The location is at 82 degrees north latitude, and the Sun was only 31 degrees high when the picture was taken, causing long shadows. Also, in the full image, you can see a whole strip of similarly oriented streaks, suggesting that these are slope streaks descending a slope going downhill to the northwest.

The overview map below also provides important information about this location.
» Read more

Today’s blacklisted American: Reuters fires long time employee for criticizing BLM

Leftist dictatorship coming to America
What we can look forward to if we all do not
start fighting back, loudly and without fear.

They’re coming for you next: Because Zac Kreigman, Director of Data Science for the Reuters news agency, refused to accept without question the company’s total endorsement of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization in 2020 and instead published detailed fact-based internal memos documenting BLM’s bigoted and Marxist agenda, Reuters fired him.

A chain of events—beginning with the death of George Floyd and culminating with a statistical analysis of Black Lives Matter’s claims—would turn the 44-year-old data scientist’s life upside-down. By June 2021, Kriegman would be locked out of Reuters’s servers, denounced by his colleagues, and fired by email. Kriegman had committed an unpardonable offense: he directly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in the company’s internal communications forum, debunked Reuters’s own biased reporting, and violated a corporate taboo.

Driven by what he called a “moral obligation” to speak out, Kriegman refused to celebrate unquestioningly the BLM narrative and his company’s “diversity and inclusion” programming; to the contrary, he argued that Reuters was exhibiting significant left-wing bias in the newsroom and that the ongoing BLM protests, riots, and calls to “defund the police” would wreak havoc on minority communities. Week after week, Kriegman felt increasingly disillusioned by the Thomson Reuters line. Finally, on the first Tuesday in May 2021, he posted a long, data-intensive critique of BLM’s and his company’s hypocrisy. He was sent to Human Resources and Diversity & Inclusion for the chance to reform his thoughts.

He refused—so they fired him. [emphasis mine]

Of course, Kriegman has been proven right, on all points. The “defund the police” movement pushed by BLM and its allies in the Democratic Party did do great harm to minorities like blacks. Reuters does have a leftist bias, proven not only by Kriegman’s allegations but by his actual firing. He dared express a dissenting view, did not kow-tow to the leftist narrative the company wished to push, and got fired for doing so.

The highlighted words however are the most important. » Read more

More Spaceport America corruption allegations flung about in New Mexico

New allegations of corruption and lawbreaking against Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democrat Party governor of New Mexico, were revealed in a lawsuit filed this week by the former chief financial officer of Spaceport America, Zach DeGregorio.

Zach DeGregorio, the former Chief Financial Officer of Spaceport America, alleges that one of Grisham’s political appointees, Alicia Keyes, encouraged him to falsify an economic impact study. He also alleges that Keyes mishandled a bond refinancing for the purpose of defrauding the state. When DeGregorio attempted to report the wrongdoing, he claimed, he was threatened with investigations and a firing.

…The lawsuit also alleges that Spaceport America’s chief client, Virgin Galactic, and its CEO, Richard Branson, bribed Lujan Grisham in exchange for “essential business” status during COVID-19 shutdowns. The governor’s office met with Virgin Galactic shortly before Grisham “ma[d]e changes to the NM Spaceport Authority board,” “ma[d]e staffing changes at the NM Spaceport Authority,” and “made operational changes at the NM Spaceport Authority that benefited Virgin Galactic at the expense of other customers and the NM taxpayers,” according to the lawsuit.

You can read the actual filing here [pdf].

DeGregorio resigned in 2020 after filing an earlier complaint alleging that the CEO of Spaceport America, Daniel Hicks, had broken several laws in operating the spaceport. In the new lawsuit DeGregorio also alleges that Hicks tried to illegally access his email account to read private emails concerning these allegations.

Spaceport America was established a previous Democratic Party governor, Bill Richardson, based on Richard Branson’s false promises that Virgin Galactic would soon be flying hundreds of tourist flights yearly, thus attracting other space-related business to New Mexico. Since then all the state has gotten from the spaceport is expenses, almost no business, and a lot of scandal. This story is not the first, and I suspect it will not be the last, especially if Virgin Galactic goes bankrupt in the next few years (something I personally expect).

What Spaceport America will likely not get is actual business. It can’t work for orbital flights, being in the interior, and there isn’t enough orbital runway business to sustain it, especially since there are thousands of other runways to choose from.

The very first observations of dying star before, during, and after it goes supernova

Astronomers have, for the very first time, observed in real time a dying red supergiant star prior to, during, and after it exploded as a supernova, thus destroying itself and collapsing into either a neutron star or a black hole.

This discovery is unprecedented because previous observations of the star prior to its explosion were discovered post-supernova, when astronomers went back and found it in archival footage. In this case the astronomers were studying the star before it exploded, and thus got a far more detailed look at its behavior.

Prior to this, all red supergiants observed before exploding were relatively quiescent: they showed no evidence of violent eruptions or luminous emission, as was observed prior to SN 2020tlf. However, this novel detection of bright radiation coming from a red supergiant in the final year before exploding suggests that at least some of these stars must undergo significant changes in their internal structure that then results in the tumultuous ejection of gas moments before they collapse.

This data will require the computer modelers and theorists to completely revise their computer models and theories for explaining the ignition of a supernova.

Space Force wants to pay commercial space to remove space junk

Capitalism in space: In a video released today, the Space Force announced a new program, dubbed Orbital Prime, that asks commercial companies to bid on a new test program for removing space junk.

More info here.

The initial solicitation, due by February 17th, asks for proposals capable of achieving the ability to rendezvous, dock and service a piece of space junk, either by “repairing, repositioning, refueling, deorbiting, reusing or recycling” it. The solicitation is aiming for orbital test flights in no more than two to four years.

This approach by the military is excellent news, and continues the transition by the space-related agencies of federal government from trying to design and build everything itself to acting merely as a customer and buying what it needs from the private sector.

There are a number of companies who have already launched robots capable of doing exactly this, including Northrop Grumman and Astroscale. By taking this customer approach, the military will likely not only get a junk removal capability sooner, it will do so for far less cost.

It would also seem that the Russian anti-satellite test that produced thousands of pieces of orbital junk that now threatens ISS and a number of military satellites also helped prompt this announcement. The military has clearly recognized that it needs the capability to remove space junk now. It cannot afford to follow its past behavior of taking forever to accomplish such tasks.

Engineers replace engine controller on SLS core; launch to be delayed

Engineers have successfully replaced the failed engine controller on the core stage of NASA’s SLS rocket.

Last week engineers and technicians successfully removed and replaced an engine controller from one of four RS-25 engines after the team identified an issue during a power-up test of the rocket’s core stage. Engineers are now performing standard engine controller diagnostic tests and check-outs, including controller power-up and flight software load. Subsequently, the team will work to complete all remaining SLS pre-flight diagnostic tests and hardware closeouts in advance of a mid-February rollout for a wet dress rehearsal in late February. NASA will set a target launch date after a successful wet dress rehearsal test.

The official schedule still lists the launch for February, but NASA has already admitted this is now impossible. Once they complete the wet dress rehearsal on the launchpad they will have to roll the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building to do further tests. While it remains possible for NASA to meet an April launch window, more likely the agency will push back to windows during the summer.

Thus, the race between SLS and Starship for completing the first orbital flight remains neck-and-neck. Starship could launch this spring, but it faces an uncertain schedule determined not by SpaceX but by the bureaucracy in the federal government, which is reviewing the FAA’s environment reassessment for the Boca Chica launch site and really has no requirement to meet any schedule at all. The FAA says it plans to approve the reassessment by the end of February, but that is simply made up deadline. It could revise it at will at any time.

NASA meanwhile is still pushing to launch SLS in April, but this launch date is entirely unrealistic. Expect NASA to announce a new target date sometime in the summer in the coming weeks.

Webb deploys heat radiator

Engineers today successfully deployed the heat radiator on the James Webb Space Telescope, allowing for unfolding of its 21-foot-diameter primary mirror over the next two days, the final step in the telescope’s deployment.

At about 8:48 a.m. EST, a specialized radiator assembly necessary for Webb’s science instruments to reach their required low and stable operating temperatures deployed successfully. The Aft Deployable Instrument Radiator, or ADIR, is a large, rectangular, 4 by 8-foot panel, consisting of high-purity aluminum subpanels covered in painted honeycomb cells to create an ultra-black surface. The ADIR, which swings away from the backside of the telescope like a trap door on hinges, is connected to the instruments via flexible straps made of high-purity aluminum foil. The radiator draws heat out of the instruments and dumps it overboard to the extreme cold background of deep space.

The whole operation took fifteen minutes.

If all goes well, by Saturday night (January 8th) engineers and scientists will have in their hands the world’s largest infrared telescope, and it will be operating in space. Actual scientific observations however will not begin immediately. It will still take several weeks for the telescope to cool down to the very cold temperatures it needs to see faint infrared objects, and then about five more months of additional testing to precisely align the mirrors while figuring out how the telescope itself operates in space.

We should expect the first raw and unaligned infrared images in about a month, with the first official observations released sometime in the very early summer.

NASA finally makes available to the aerospace industry its new flight termination software

After what appears to be about a year and a half delay, NASA finally today made available its new flight termination software so that the aerospace industry can now test it.

“This is a major milestone that enables Rocket Lab and other U.S. launch companies to integrate the software now with their launch vehicle’s hardware and run performance simulations,” said David L. Pierce, Wallops Flight Facility director. “This is a key achievement toward enabling Rocket Lab launches from Wallops, in parallel with the NASA teams’ final safety certification steps, which are currently underway. Rocket Lab’s use of the NASA software will enable a high degree of confidence moving forward toward launch.”

Rocket Lab had hoped to launch from Wallops more than a year ago, but was blocked by NASA because the agency was apparently behind schedule in preparing this software. Now that it is finally available for testing, expect Rocket Lab to move swiftly, with a likely Wallops launch within months.

Webb engineers successfully deploy the telescope’s secondary mirror

Engineers today confirmed that the secondary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope has successfully deployed, its tripod structure unfolding and locking into place.

In addition the cover protecting the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was successfully unlocked. The instrument’s science team did not open the cover yet because the telescope hasn’t yet cooled enough, its sun shield only in place for a day or so.

Today’s blacklisted American: A short list of just a few of the academics fired for having opinions

Lysenko with Stalin
Trofim Lysenko, the person American academia now most admires,
preaching to Stalin as he destroyed Soviet plant research,
persecuted anyone who disagreed with him, and caused famines
that killed millions.

Today at the Daily Signal one of their writers, Douglas Blair, compiled a list of eight college professors whose lives were destroyed by the intolerant left and its effort to silence all opposition, by any means necessary. That list is as follows:

Five of those eight individuals had previously been a subject of my daily column, “Today’s Blacklisted American,” proving that the number of such cases of oppression and blacklisting by the academic left has grown so large that a daily column can’t possibly cover every story.

What struck me about this list however was the petty, ugly, and absurd reasons given for destroying or silencing these individuals. » Read more

Ingenuity’s next flight and the plans beyond

Overview map
Click for interactive map.

In an update posted today written by Ingenuity pilot Martin Cacan, he outlined the engineering team’s goal for the Mars’ helicopter’s next flight, its nineteenth.

This flight, which will take place no earlier than Friday, Jan. 7, takes the scout vehicle out of the South Séítah basin, across the dividing ridge, and up onto the main plateau. The precise landing target for Flight 19 is near the landing site of Flight 8. Images taken during Flight 9 by the rotorcraft’s high-resolution Return-To-Earth (RTE) camera were used to select a safe landing zone.

…Spanning 207 feet (63 meters), this flight will last about 100 seconds at a groundspeed of 2.2 mph (1 meter per second) and altitude of 33 feet (10 meters) while taking 9 new RTE images. The final act of the flight is to turn nearly 180 degrees to flip the RTE camera to a forward-facing orientation for future flights toward the river delta. [emphasis mine]

The green line in the map to the right indicates the exact path, going about 207 feet to the northeast. The red dot marks the location of Perseverance on December 8, 2021, the last time the Perseverance science team updated their map showing the rover’s travels.

The highlighted words are the most important. Cacan also said this in his update:

The current mission goal is to reach the Jezero river delta to aid the Perseverance rover in path planning and scientific discovery.

Assuming the helicopter continues to function correctly, their next flights will apparently be aimed towards the delta. Whether that path will follow the planned route marked by the dashed yellow line, or cut straight across, is not clear. If the latter, that implies they have revised Perseverance’s planned route so that it also cuts straight across from about the point of Ingenuity’s next landing site.

More likely Cacan was not speaking literally, and that the route Ingenuity will take to the delta will follow the planned route, around that crater to the northeast.

Debris from Russian anti-satellite test threatens more than ISS

According to an analysis by a commercial space tracking firm, the debris from the satellite destroyed during a Russian anti-satellite test in November threatens not just ISS but many military weather and spy satellites.

Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the UK’s University of Southampton, on Monday tweeted an analysis of predicted conjunctions, or close approaches, between satellites and the Cosmos 1408 debris for the first week of January. That analysis showed 8,917 likely conjunctions where a sat and a debris fragment would pass within five kilometers of each other — scarily close in terms of collision risk.

The COMSPOC analysis also shows that Russian government claims that the debris would not harm the International Space Station are blatantly not true. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case.

At the time of ASAT test, COMSPOC listed the ISS as 20th on the list of most imperiled spacecraft. But the analysis shows that risks of a catastrophic collision with the ISS will continue to grow as the debris pieces spiral downward from the impact point into the Earth’s atmosphere, Oltrogge said.

More and more it seems this Russian anti-sat test was a deliberate act of sabotage by the Putin government, aimed at harming U.S. assets.

China takes the global lead in fusion research

In setting new records of temperature and running time in its own tokamak fusion experiment, China now leads the U.S. in the field of developing the technology for generating practical fusion energy.

[The U.S.] ITER’s target temperature is 150 million °C (270 million °F). China’s EAST facility, which is a key contributor to the ITER project, has hit this mark already, reaching 160 million °C (288 million °F) for 20 seconds, and holding 120 million °C (216 million °F) for 101 seconds in separate experiments announced last May.

The latest experiment tested the Chinese tokamak’s capability to endure extreme temperatures over longer periods, sustaining a temperature 2.6 times hotter than the Sun’s core for some 1,056 seconds, or 17 minutes and 36 seconds. Nobody’s ever sustained a high-temperature plasma for 1,000 seconds before, so this is an important milestone.

The development of this capability continues China’s effort to lead the world in all areas of research, led I think by the many high government officials in positions of great power after cutting their teeth as managers for China’s space effort. These individuals understand how to build big technology projects at the cutting edge of science, and are likely pushing for more such research in all fields, such as the experiments in fusion energy above.

As big government projects, however, the long term future of such work is very risky. Government projects like this might start out great, which describes China’s status today, but they always end up corrupt and hidebound, as seen in the Soviet Union and at NASA in the U.S.

Nonetheless, this success highlights China’s aggressive effort to lead the world in all things. We would be foolish to ignore this.

Starlink temporarily backs out of India due to regulatory snafu

Capitalism in space: Starlink in India has stopped taking new preorders and is refunding all previous preorders of its internet service because it had failed to get the proper regulatory permits for selling its service.

India’s Ministry of Communications issued a Nov. 26 statement instructing SpaceX to “refrain from booking/rendering” Starlink services “with immediate effect” because the company did not have a license to operate in the country.

In the days that followed, SpaceX appeared to be still accepting $99 preorder deposits via Starlink’s website for addresses in India.

But the website now tells prospective subscribers: “Starlink is not yet available in your area due to pending regulatory approval. As we receive approvals our coverage area will continue to expand, so please check back for future availability in your area.”

The head of Starlink India also announced his resignation today. It appears he not only did not get the proper permissions, he ignored that November 26 order from the government.

SpaceX apparently is now reviewing the legal situation, which is very unclear and might even block the company from selling its services in India entirely. No timeline is presently known for restarting its operations there.

Julie Andrews – My Favorite Things

An evening pause: From the movie The Sound of Music (1965), a song about teaching children to face fear, to push past it, and live boldly and with courage. And to do it with humor. As Ray Bradbury wrote in his book, Something Wicked This Way Comes, you defeat evil and fear by laughing at it. The world needs to recapture this idea, or else we are doomed.

Hat tip Tom Wilson.

Webb: Sun shield deployment completed

Engineers today successfully completed the full deployment of the sun shield of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The unfolding and tensioning of the sunshield involved 139 of Webb’s 178 release mechanisms, 70 hinge assemblies, eight deployment motors, roughly 400 pulleys, and 90 individual cables totaling roughly one quarter of a mile in length. The team also paused deployment operations for a day to work on optimizing Webb’s power systems and tensioning motors, to ensure Webb was in prime condition before beginning the major work of sunshield tensioning.

The process took eight days, and was by far the most complex such remote deployment ever attempted by an unmanned spacecraft. The shield is now in place to shade Webb from sunlight and heat and thus allow it to observe very faint infrared objects billions of light years away.

Next comes the deployment of Webb’s secondary mirror, followed by the unfolding of its main mirror.

Ice canyons at the Martian north pole

Ice canyons at the Martian north pole
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on July 24, 2021 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows one small portion of the edge of Mars’ north pole ice cap.

The many layers in that ice cap are clearly evident, with some darker because they were probably laid down at a time when the Martian atmosphere was more filled with volcanic ash. According to the presently accepted theory, the layers show the cyclical climate patterns of Mars, caused by the large shifts in its obliquity, or the tilt of the planet along its rotational axis, ranging from 11 to 60 degrees. Presently Mars is tilted 25 degrees, similar to Earth’s 23 degrees. The two extremes cause the planet’s water ice to shift back and forth from the mid-latitudes to the poles, causing the layers.

The height of this layered cliff face is probably about 1,500 feet, though that is a very rough estimate. Notice also that this image shows an ice canyon running from the left to the right and flowing into a much larger ice canyon to the right. The top cliff is probably about a third the height of the bottom cliff.

The overview map below shows gives the context, not only in place but also in time.
» Read more

ArianeGroup ships the 1st Ariane-6 core and upper stages to French Guiana

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup today announced that the first completed stages for its new Ariane-6 rocket have been shipped to French Guiana for testing.

The Ariane 6 core stage and upper stage intended for the combined tests on the launch pad in French Guiana have left the ArianeGroup sites in Les Mureaux and Bremen and begun their journey to Europe’s Spaceport. These stages will be integrated by ArianeGroup in the Launcher Assembly Building (BAL) to create the central core for the Ariane 6 combined tests model.

The press release provided no information on the schedule for the tests or the first launch. An earlier release had targeted the second quarter of ’22 for the inaugural launch, but based on today’s press release I would suspect that scheduled is very tentative.

This press release marks another major change in how Europe will launch rockets. No longer is the government-run Arianespace in charge. Instead, the commercial partnership of Airbus and Safran, dubbed ArianeGroup, is running things. In exchange for building this new rocket this partnership demanded a greater share of the profits and full control, something the European Space Agency (ESA) had denied them under Arianespace. This new arrangement was devised in the hope it would give this private partnership a direct interest in making a profit, thus cutting costs and encouraging innovation.

However, because ESA is still very very closely involved in every step, it is uncertain whether this arrangement will achieve its goals. Moreover, there are indications that ArianeGroup itself is somewhat risk adverse. For example, in designing Ariane-6 both decided to forego re-usability. Their rocket is thus more expensive than SpaceX, and has had trouble garnering launch contracts.

Webb deployment resumes, with continuing success

After a day delay to assess the telescope’s earlier operation in space, engineers yesterday resumed the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sun shield.

First they began tensioning the shield’s first of five layers, completing that operation in about five and a half hours.

Next the engineers proceeded to tighten layers two and three, completing that task in about three hours.

Today they have begun tightening the last two layers. A live stream of this slow and relatively unexciting process (as long as nothing goes wrong) is available from NASA here.

Based on what has been done so far, it appears that the deployment of the sun shield, considered the most challenging part of Webb’s deployment, is going to complete successfully. While the unfolding and deployment of the mirror still must be done, getting the sun shield deployed eliminates one of the great concerns that has kept both astronomers and engineers awake nights for decades.

South Korea pinpoints cause of October launch failure

The new colonial movement: South Korea’s space agency KARI has completed its investigation of the launch failure in October of its first entirely home-built Nuri rocket, revealing that the support structures for the rocket’s helium tanks were designed incorrectly, and allowed the tanks to break free during launch.

“The support structures holding helium tanks inside the third-stage oxidizer tank were not properly designed to account for a force referred to as buoyancy,” KARI said in a Dec. 29 statement. Buoyancy, the upward force exerted by a fluid that pushes an object, rises along with a rocket’s altitude, which was not accounted for, according to KARI.

The helium tanks with the faulty anchors were inside the upper stage’s oxidizer tank, which was filled with liquid oxygen needed for the rocket’s ignition. With the helium tanks coming loose, they disrupted pipelines within the oxidizer tank and led the liquid oxygen to leak, resulting in early termination of the ignition, KARI explained.

The helium is used to keep the tank pressurized as it uses up its oxygen so that oxygen will continue to flow to the engine. Thus, they sit inside the oxygen tanks, and when they came loose they damaged its internal pipes.

Though they can fix the problem, it will likely cause a delay in the second Nuri launch attempt, presently scheduled for May.

Update on Starship/Superheavy development

Link here.

The article first provides a detailed review of the past year’s effort, which leads to laying out the possibilities for 2022. Key quote:

With the FAA citing its plans to issue the Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy project no earlier than the end of February, SpaceX can claim the review process is the schedule driver. However, [Superheavy] Booster 4 [intended for Starship’s first orbital flight] has yet to conduct a Static Fire test, likely including an eventual full 29 engine firing. Further evolutions of the Ship and Booster are yet to come online, with a plan to go to nine engines on Ship and 33 engines on the Booster, all moving to the Raptor 2 variant.

In other words, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before SpaceX can actually fly that first orbital flight of Starship/Superheavy, and that even if the FAA rubberstamped the approval of its environmental reassessment of the Boca Chica site today, SpaceX would likely not be able to launch that orbital flight for several months anyway.

The article also suggests that SpaceX has made big progress in rethinking the Raptor manufacturing process, and has aimed those changes for the production of the Raptor-2 engine, which will also be about 20% more powerful than the Raptor engines presently being installed.

2021: The year that private enterprise took over rocketry

The year that just ended, 2021, was for the field of rocketry the most successful year since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. In a year when the world was still racked by COVID panic and its oppressive restrictions on both private and public life, the global launch industry was able to rack up the most launches ever, successfully completing 134 launches and topping the previous best year, 1975, by one.

The chart below shows all successful launches by every nation in the 21st century. It also shows in the U.S. the breakdown of those launches by private companies.
» Read more

Sunspot update: The Sun blasts off!

Over the weekend NOAA posted its monthly update to its graph showing the long term trends in the Sun’s sunspot activity. As I do every month, I have posted that graph below, annotated to show the previous solar cycle predictions and thus provide context.

In December the Sun’s sunspot activity not only continued the pattern of the past two years — whereby sunspot activity has consistently exceeded the prediction of NOAA’s solar scientist panel — the amount of activity shot up like a rocket. December 2021 saw the most sunspots in a single month since September 2015, when the Sun was about a third of the way into its ramp down from the solar maximum in 2014.

» Read more

A review of China’s space program

Link here. The article covers China’s achievements in ’21, then reviews the status of its rocket development program. The key quote to me however was this, describing the upcoming plans for the assembly of China’s space station:

In 2022, China is expected to launch two more crew rotations to the Tiangong station using its Shenzhou spacecraft. The first, Shenzhou 14, is expected in May, while the second one will launch in November. Both missions will launch aboard Chang Zheng [Long March] 2F/G rockets. Two more modules for the space station are also planned to launch in the course of the year.

These new modules are the laboratory cabin modules (LCMs). The first is named Wentian, meaning Quest for the Heavens, while the second is Mengtian, or Dreaming of the Heavens. Both will launch on Chang Zheng 5B rockets, with Wentian currently scheduled to lift off in May or June, with Mengtian planned to launch in August or September.

This means that — assuming China has not reworked the design of its Long March 5B rocket — a large out-of-control core stage will be crashing to Earth in the the spring and late summer.

Biden administration commits to operating ISS through 2030

The Biden administration yesterday announced that it has committed NASA to operating the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030, a six year extension to the previous end date of 2024.

Today’s abrupt announcement on a federal holiday comes one day after Biden and Putin had a “serious and substantive” telephone conversation about the situation in Ukraine where Russian troops are massed at the border. Biden has said that if Russia invades Ukraine the United States and its allies will respond with more economic sanctions. A Russian official told reporters later that Putin warned Biden that any such sanctions “could result in a ‘complete rupture’ of relations” between the two countries, according to the New York Times.

…Asked why the ISS extension was announced today and if it is related to the Biden-Putin call, a NASA spokesperson told only that it has “been in the works for months.”

A White House commitment to 2030 falls short of setting the date in law, but demonstrates U.S. intentions at least as long as Biden is President. Whether the other partners, especially Russia, agree will be interesting to watch. ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher, welcomed the news, but it will be the 11 ESA members who participate in the program who make the decision.

The article gives a good overview of the political issues, and notes accurately that it will be very difficult to operate the station if Russia and the U.S. part ways and Russia leaves the partnership.

What the article did not mention is the fragile state of some of Russia’s modules. Both Roscosmos and NASA know that the Zvezda module, the second oldest on ISS, is showing very worrisome signs of aging, including many stress fractures that have caused small airleaks. The Russians themselves have admitted that the module is failing, and have added that because of this fact the Putin government has begun work on a new and independent Russian station.

It is unclear if ISS could function if Zvezda became unusable. At a minimum its capabilities will be reduced. At worst it might not be safe to occupy.

The Biden administration and NASA can extend ISS on paper as much as they want, but reality suggests that it will be a dangerous challenge to keep the station running until 2030. The real solution is to get as many private commercial American stations launched in the next few years, so that when Zvezda fails, there will be viable options to ISS.

Iran finally admits rocket launch on December 30th was a failure

One day after implying that the test launch of Iran’s Simorgh orbital rocket on December 30th was actually a suborbital flight and was a success, that same official admitted yesterday that this was not true, that the plan had been to put three satellites in orbit, and that the launch was a failure.

Ahmad Hosseini, an Iranian defense ministry spokesman, revealed that the rocket failed to put its three payloads into orbit after the rocket was unable to reach the required speed, according to the news agency.

“For a payload to enter orbit, it needs to reach speeds above 7,600 (meters per second). We reached 7,350,” he said in a documentary broadcast on state TV.

It was Hosseini who claimed the launch was a success the day earlier, implying that the low speed was because the flight was intended to be suborbital. Either he knows nothing about rocketry (very likely), or is merely a mouthpiece who was ordered to change his story when the first story was laughed out of the room (also very likely).

The article at the link focuses on France’s condemnation of the launch, claiming it was a ballistic missile.

France’s foreign ministry said the launch was in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, Reuters reported. “We call on Iran not to launch further ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, including space launchers,” the ministry said.

Simorgh however is not a ballistic missile. Everything I have read about it suggests it is designed to put payloads in orbit, not deliver bombs to other parts of the globe. A ballistic missile is technically a very different thing. It usually uses solid rockets which can be stored for long periods and launched at a moment’s notice. Simorgh uses hypergolic fuels which — though they can be used on ballistic missiles — are rarely used for that purpose because of their toxic nature.

At the same time, these facts about Simorgh should not make us think Iran is not a threat. If you can develop the manpower and technical know-how to built an orbital rocket, you will also have increased your ability to build missiles. Iran is without doubt working to develop both.

The unfurling of Webb’s sun shield begins

Engineers have begun the multi-day unfurling and deployment of the sun shield on the James Webb Space Telescope.

The first step is to deploy two booms on each side of the telescope that draw the shield itself outward.

The deployment of the first boom was held up several hours to give engineers time to make sure the protective covers had, in fact, rolled off to the side of the sunshade pallets as required.

“Switches that should have indicated that the cover rolled up did not trigger when they were supposed to,” NASA said in a blog post. “However, secondary and tertiary sources offered confirmation that it had.”

“The deployment of the five telescoping segments of the motor-driven mid-boom began around 1:30 p.m., and the arm extended smoothly until it reached full deployment,” NASA said.

Engineers then sent commands to deploy the second sunshade boom, which extended smoothly and locked in place at 10:13 p.m., finally giving Webb its iconic kite-like shape.

Next the shield has to be tightened in place, which will also separate and tighten in place the shield’s five layers. According to the schedule, the four layers will be tensioned today, with the fifth tomorrow.

The step-by-step deployment is outlined in detail here, and updates to the most recently completed step after it is finished.

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