Gehrels/Swift space telescope enters safe mode

The Neil Gehrels Swift observatory ceased science observations and entered safe mode on January 18, 2021, when one of its six reaction wheels experienced a failure.

It appears the other five reaction wheels, which function as gyroscopes to point the telescope accurately, are working properly. If engineers can’t recover the lost wheel, the telescope will still be able to operate with no problems.

Swift was launch seventeen years ago in order to solve the mystery of gamma ray bursts, which it did most successful. The man who most made the observatory possible, its principal scientist, Neil Gehrels, passed away in 2017, and to honor his memory the telescope was then named after him.

Freaky badlands on Mars

Freaky badlands on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated and cropped to post here, was taken on November 18, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Labeled merely as “Danielson Crater Outcrops,” it shows us a perfect example of the strangeness and sometimes very forbidding terrain of Mars.

We are looking at the outcrop tops of many tilted layers, worn into curves semicircles with the convex side all pointing to the southwest. In the hollowed concave-side, dust and sand have accumulated and been trapped, sometimes forming small ripple dunes when there is enough space for the wind to get inside, as seen in the picture’s lower right.

Danielson Crater is 41 miles in diameter. The overview map below provides the context.
» Read more

NATO issues new space policy filled with blather

NATO on January 17th published a new space policy document that with a great deal of bureaucratic blather essentially says that space is important, NATO’s enemies threaten those assets, and NATO recognizes these facts.

You can read the full document here.

This is obviously a policy document so we should not expect it to lay out proposed or planned operational projects. At the same time, it is so filled with generalizations it really says very little. In a sense, the blather is designed to hide how little it says, besides the very obvious or the most common sense goals, such as for example making sure the equipment of all of NATO’s partners is compatible with each other. To give you a flavor, here is one quote:

NATO will identify and, if necessary, develop appropriate mechanisms, based on voluntary participation, to fulfil and sustain requirements for space support in NATO operations, missions and other activities in the above functional areas. Allies’ capabilities, and, if necessary, trusted commercial service providers, should be leveraged to meet these requirements in the most secure, efficient, effective and transparent manner.

In plain English, NATO wants the cooperation of both private and government space entities to make sure it can function fully in space. As I said, stating the obvious.

The language actually tells us more about the foggy and inefficient thinking among DC and Pentagon bureaucrats. They can’t write clearly because they really don’t think clearly.

Still, the policy outlined essentially commits NATO to support a thriving infrastructure in space, from both the private and governmental sectors. The policy’s strong apparent support for “voluntary” private space is especially encouraging.

The policy’s position against aggressive actions by others, such as Russia and China, is also somewhat encouraging, though its expression in such mealy-mouth language suggests a fundamental lack of commitment that could be worrisome. Russia’s response to this new policy statement was not so vaguely put:

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took NATO to task over its space policy paper at a briefing on Thursday, branding it as slanted and incendiary. According to her, the document entitled NATO’s Overarching Space Policy, which was published on January 17, covers the Western-led bloc’s priorities in space. “The document is one-sided and in fact incendiary as it is based on destructive beliefs of the US-led NATO members who have an important role in space,” Zakharova emphasized.

I suspect, based on Zakharova’s comments, that Russia has determined from the new policy statement that NATO’s policy is weak, and that Russia can therefore continue to push the envelope against it and the western powers, just to find out exactly how much it can get away with.

Yutu-2 scientists find soil “cloddy” during its journey

Chinese scientists today published a paper describing results from Yutu-2’s two year journey on the far side of the Moon, with the most interesting discovery being that the soil is “cloddy” there.

They found that the bearing property of the regolith is similar to that of dry sand and sandy loam on Earth, stronger than the typical lunar soil of Apollo missions.

But they estimated, based on the cloddy soil observed in Yutu-2’s wheels, that the soil there is stickier than the landing site of its predecessor Chang’e-3 which soft-landed on the moon’s Bay of Rainbows in Dec. 2013, according to the study.

The researchers attributed the increased soil cohesion to the higher percentage of agglutinates in the regolith, which make the soil particles more likely to hold together when ground by the wheels.

Since the blocky soil has adhered onto the rover’s wheel lugs instead of its meshed surface, they suggested that the lug’s surface could be coated with a special anti-adhesion material in future missions to improve the machine’s ability of traction.

The rover also traveled by the number of small and relatively fresh secondary craters.

Yutu-2 continues to operate. It is at present in hibernation during the lunar night, and will resume operations when the Sun comes up in about a week or so.

Radian raises $27.5 million to develop single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane

Capitalism in space: The startup Radian Aerospace announced yesterday that it has raised $27.5 million in private investment capital to fund the development of a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane it dubs Radian One.

Radian has disclosed few technical details about the Radian One design. The seed round “essentially helps us transition more robustly into the hardware development phase,” Holder said. The company’s work to date has focused on the conceptual design and a few key technologies, such as test-firing “critical elements” of the vehicle’s main propulsion system.

The company said it has launch service agreements for Radian One with commercial space station developers, in-space manufacturers, satellite, and cargo companies, as well as agreements with the U.S. government and selected foreign governments. It did not identify specific customers, value of any such agreements or schedules for delivering those launch services.

Company officials seem confident they can do this. Their chief technology officer worked on the failed 1990s single-stage-to-orbit X-33 project, and is convinced the advances in technology since now make such a spaceplane possible.

We shall see. Radian faces stiff competition, as it is one of more than a hundred new orbital rocket companies. Its advantage, if successful, is its completely reusable airplane-like design.

SpaceX now blocked from Pakistan; OneWeb signs deal to operate in India

Capitalism in space: Two stories this morning suggest that the competition between the internet satellite constellations Starlink and OneWeb is being partly influenced by local politics, with the influence favoring OneWeb and hindering SpaceX.

First, Pakistan ordered SpaceX to stop taking preorders from its citizens for its Starlink system.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said in a Jan. 19 news release that “Starlink has neither applied for nor obtained any license from PTA to operate and provide internet services” in the country. The telecoms regulator advised the general public to refrain from pre-booking the service in Pakistan through Starlink or associated websites.

This order follows a similar decree in India. Like India, SpaceX had apparently not been granted a license or permit to take preorders. SpaceX has now been blocked entirely from the subcontinent by the governments of both countries.

Second, OneWeb and Hughes announced a partnership agreement to distribute its internet service in India.

In the statement, OneWeb’s CEO Neil Masterson said the company would partner with Hughes to “offer high-speed, low-latency satellite broadband solutions and contribute to the Digital India vision”. OneWeb’s constellation, he said, would cover the length and breadth of India, from Ladakh to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to the Northeast and bring secure solutions to enterprises, governments, telcos, airline companies and maritime customers. “OneWeb will invest in setting up enabling infrastructure such as Gateways and PoPs in India to light up the services,” he added.

According to the announcement, OneWeb intends to start offering its service this year.

OneWeb is half-owned by the Indian-based Bharti group. It seems that this connection with India has greased the bureaucratic wheels in that country for OneWeb, allowing it begin offering its services there. It also appears that this same connection with India is likely one reason both India and Pakistan have put a break on SpaceX’s operations.

Flight dates for SpaceX’s next two manned flights to ISS revised

Capitalism in space: A NASA official yesterday announced that the flight dates for SpaceX’s next two manned flights have been firmed up, with the private commercial Axiom AX-1 flight delayed from February 21st to March 31st, followed two weeks later by NASA’s own manned mission on April 15th.

Axiom has also noted that this commercial flight, piloted by a former NASA astronaut and carrying three passengers, will be its only commercial manned flight in ’22.

…Commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, Ax-1 will only carry private citizens. Each paying $55 million for the privilege, the mission’s three customers are Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe – all businessmen who’ve respectively amassed multmillion-dollar fortunes in real estate; entertainment and shipping; and military equipment and venture capitalism.

Their Dragon spacecraft will be Resilience, making its third flight.

Axiom’s next private commercial flight has now been delayed until ’23.

Upper stage of ABL rocket explodes during ground test

Capitalism in space: During a ground test of the upper stage of ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket an “anomaly” occurred that caused an explosion, apparently destroying the stage.

No one was hurt, but the company has released few details about what happened. We do not know if the explosion occurred during an engine static fire test, or during a pressure test of the stage’s tanks.

The company’s first launch was in October supposed to happen in December, then was shifted to January. This incident will certainly delay it further.

Ingenuity’s 19th flight delayed due to Martian weather

Because of the early arrival of the fall dust storm season, the Ingenuity engineering team decided to delay the helicopter’s 19th flight on January 5th, rescheduling it to no earlier than January 23rd.

In the days following the flight delay, the dust storm moved over Jezero crater, and we were able to clearly see its effects in both MEDA data and from orbit (Figure 1). Most notable was a sharp drop in air density – about a 7% deviation below what was observed pre-dust storm. This observed decrease would have put density below the lower threshold of safe flight and would have imparted undue risk to the spacecraft. We also observed the effect of dust in the amount of sunlight absorbed by Ingenuity’s solar array, which fell well below normal “clear sky” levels, a drop of about 18%.

Apparently the storm has now dissipated, allowing the new flight date.

Though this flight postponement occurred two weeks ago, today’s update appears to be the first public announcement, which has been typical of the Ingenuity team. They generally announce planned flights just before take-off, but then provide no detailed update on what happened, sometimes for weeks.

Freedom is under siege, and the besiegers have now told us they have no mercy

Liberty under siege
Liberty under siege.

For many years I deeply and sincerely believed that many rank-and-file Democrat voters honestly did not know how corrupt and power-hungry the political leaders of their party had become. I thought that if I could simply get them to see the clear evidence of misbehavior and abuse of power that has been going on in the Democratic Party without check since Bill Clinton was president, they would reconsider their voting habits and abandon their support of that party.

I thought that the vast majority of Democrats were decent people who opposed oppression and intolerance and simply were unaware that they were voting for it when they supported the Democratic Party.

I now know unequivocally that I was wrong. Two stories in the past week illustrate bluntly that a large number of ordinary Democrats, maybe even a majority, are eager supporters of oppression and intolerance and dictatorship. They like the corruption and abuse-of-power coming from Democratic Party politicians. They even want more of it.
» Read more

Debris apparently cleared from Perseverance’s sample carousel

Mosaic showing the clearing of debris
Click here and here for original images.

Two images taken by one of Perseverance’s cameras and downloaded today appear to show that the bits of debris from the rover’s most recent core sample that had fallen into the sample storage carousel have been dislodged and are now gone.

Those images are above, placed side by side. They were taken a little over an hour apart on January 18, 2022, probably before and after the rover completed two short rotations of the carousel, as planned.

The first image on the left, taken at 12:12:47 local solar time, shows the two small pieces sitting near the bottom inside of the sample storage holder. The second image on the right, taken at 13:20:40 local solar time, shows both pieces gone. There also appears to be less small rubble on the small platform just below this point.

The science team will next take pictures of the ground below, comparing those with pictures taken before the rotations, to see if they can spot this debris and confirm it is completely clear of the rover.

If the debris is gone, as these images suggest, Perseverance will be able to drill another core sample at this location and store it as planned. Expect an announcement by tomorrow or the next day providing more details of this success.

NASA: Russian anti-satellite test in November doubled the threat to ISS

According to a presentation by a NASA official at a conference today, further tracking of the debris from the Russian anti-satellite test on November 15, 2021 suggests that it has doubled the overall chance of a debris collision with ISS.

NASA ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens told a NASA advisory committee today that the November 15, 2021 Russian ASAT test forced the Expedition 66 crew to implement safe haven procedures, closing hatches to parts of the ISS and sheltering in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft that could return them to Earth if worse came to worse.

Russia denied the test imperiled the crew, but Gatens said the threat of a piece of debris penetrating the ISS now has doubled to one chance in 25,000-33,000 orbits, versus one in 50,000 orbits prior to the test. The ISS does about 6,000 orbits a year.

It should be noted that, according to these numbers, the overall threat seems quite manageable. Nonetheless, the Russian anti-sat test was entirely irresponsible, especially because it targeted a defunct satellite in an orbit slightly higher than ISS, which means its debris will over time move into ISS’s orbit. The test also violated the Outer Space Treaty, which Russia has signed, which requires all signatories to control what they do in space so that it does not threaten either the persons or property of anyone else.

Chinese pseudo-company preparing first launch of methane-fueled rocket

The Chinese pseudo-private company, Landspace, is apparently prepping its new launchpad and Zhuque-2 rocket for launch in one of China’s interior spaceports.

Satellite imagery and deleted social media postings indicate that work is progressing on a new complex for facilitating methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicles at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Timelapse and high resolution satellite imagery show the development near the national Jiuquan center in the Gobi Desert and suggest the presence of a Zhuque-2 test article. A recent, now-deleted article indicates a new flame trench has been completed at Jiuquan.

The article at the link also cites statements by the company’s CEO in November, where he claimed they would launch in the first quarter of ’22. If successful, it would be the first orbital launch of a methane-fueled rocket, beating out both SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

The article also says that the company is working on making the first stage reusable, which makes sense in that it will launch from inside China and that first stage if expendable will crash uncontrolled on Chinese territory. A second Chinese pseudo-company, iSpace, also claims it will begin hop tests of its own reusable rocket later this year.

For new readers: I call these companies pseudo because they really are not independent entities, as private companies are in the west. China’s government since 2014 has allowed private investors to create these companies and for the companies to compete against each other for government business, but none of them do anything without the full supervision of the Chinese government. Most have completed their first launches using solid rockets, technology almost always reserved for military use. None could have done so without that government permission and control.

The strategy here of China’s government is nonetheless smart, as the policy is creating competition and thus some innovation within its aerospace industry. The top-down control however will likely prevent these companies from doing anything truly different. Instead, they are apparently latching onto the new ideas, such as methane-fueled rockets and vertically landing first stages, that they have seen demonstrated by the truly independent private companies in the west.

Israel approves Artemis Accords

The Israeli government has apparently agreed to sign the American-led Artemis Accords, making it the fifteenth nation to do so.

While Israel’s foreign ministry has not released an official statement on the issue, local media reports said a signing ceremony involving NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Israel Space Agency Director-General Uri Oron is expected the week of Jan. 23. ISA will host the 17th Ramon International Space Conference on Jan. 25 as part of Israel’s Space Week.

Once Israel officially signs, the full list of signatures will be as follows: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and the United States.

Since the accords are designed to encourage private enterprise and private property rights in space, both Russia and China oppose them. The lack of both France and Germany to sign at this point suggests the politicians presently in charge of those capitalist countries are reconsidering their commitment to free enterprise.

Russian astronauts locate another leak on Zvezda

According to Russia’s state-run TASS press, Russian astronauts have located what it calls “the last air leak” on the Zvezda module of ISS.

Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov discovered the last air leak location in the International Space Station’s Zvezda module, Roscosmos spokesman Dmitry Strugovets said Tuesday, adding that the leak will be eliminated after special equipment is delivered to the station.

Like most of the other leaks previously found, this one was located in the aft transition chamber where the Zvezda docking port is located, once again suggesting that these leaks are the result of stress fractures caused by age and the more than a hundred dockings that have occurred there since Zvezda was launched more than twenty years ago.

The Russians’ belief that no more leaks will be found is probably based on their decision to reduce, even cease the use of this port. The new Prichal docking hub, which two Russians today are doing a spacewalk to finalize its integration with the station, makes the shuttering of Zvezda’s port possible.

At the same time, the existence of numerous stress fractures in an ISS module is not something to be dismissed lightly, as the TASS article attempts to do. It is akin to cracks in the hull of a submarine, and I don’t know anyone who would be willing to send such a vessel deep underwater.

Boeing and NASA still aiming for a May launch of unmanned Starliner test demo

Capitalism in space: Boeing and NASA are still targeting a May launch of Starliner’s unmanned test demo flight to ISS, delayed since August because of a valve issue in the service module.

Though they think they have identified and fixed that sticky valve problem, they have also decided to replace the service module for the demo flight, using the module originally planned for the first manned flight that will follow.

SpaceX launches another 49 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch 49 Starlink satellites into orbit.

The first stage successfully landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its 10th flight. SpaceX now has three four first stages that have completed at least ten flights. (The correction comes from a comment by one of my readers below.)

The 2022 launch race:

3 SpaceX
1 Virgin Orbit
1 China

Pushback: New VA Attorney General shows Republicans the right way to fight the left

The way it has been for decades
The way it has been for decades

All around us the oppressive leftists of the Democratic Party are in control. They dominate the mainstream media, the education and science communities, the bureaucracy, the major social media companies, and the entertainment industry. That monolith of top-down rule now imposes its will everywhere, blacklisting and destroying anyone who dares dissent from its agenda.

For decades these intolerant socialists and communists and hate-filled bigots have steadily gained more and more control and power because no one would truly resist them. Time after time they would do something egregious and never face any consequences. For example, in 1999 a DC bureaucrat was forced to resign because he used the word “niggardly,” properly describing how the political world was sometimes cheap and miserly for the wrong reasons. Several ignorant co-workers accused him falsely of using a racial slur, and DC mayor, Democrat Anthony Williams, quickly forced the man to resign. Shortly thereafter Williams realized his error and arranged for the man’s rehiring, but never did anything to discipline the illiterate fools who caused the furor.

Republicans in this matter are far worse. » Read more

Launch of Kickstarter campaign for Pioneer game delayed till Feb 1

Lunar colony, 2173
From the proposed Pioneer video game: a lunar base in 2173,
part of the independent nation, United Lunar.

Because of a number of issues related to marketing, Aaron Jenkin yesterday made the decision to delay slightly the start of the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for developing his video game based on my science fiction book, Pioneer.

Instead of starting today, Aaron has shifted the date back two weeks to February 1st. From the project’s newsletter, just sent out to those who have subscribed:

To be blunt, we’ve had a surprisingly difficult time in the past few weeks getting the word out about our campaign. And I can tell from looking at the results of our efforts so far, we need to grind away a little longer to solidify our success. With that said, we’ve updated Mr. Zimmerman on where we stand, and we’ve plotted the course that we’ll take over the next two weeks to accomplish our mission.

For a number of reasons, Aaron felt he needed another two weeks to ramp up the marketing campaign. While this means his campaign for funds will coincide with my annual February fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black, we decided to go ahead anyway, figuring the synergy of both might work to our advantage, making 2+2=6.

If you, as a fan of my writing, are thinking of donating to this video game project, I strongly urge you to subscribe to the newsletter. You can do so at the game’s webpage, Aaron uses the subscription numbers as a guide to measure interest.

Philippino presidential candidate meets with SpaceX officials

SpaceX officials have held a virtual meeting with two senators from the Philippines, one of which is running for president, to discuss allowing Starlink service in their country as well as the establishment of a launch site.

TOP executives of SpaceX met with Senators Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd to discuss the use of low-orbit satellites to provide cheap internet to the Philippines. SpaceX is a space exploration company owned by technology magnate and billionaire Elon Musk.

During the virtual meeting on Saturday, the SpaceX executives also talked about the possibility of setting up a spaceship launch pad in the Philippines.

Pacquiao also proposed projects for Musk’s other companies, Tesla and Boring. He seems enthusiastic about bringing SpaceX to the Philippines. The odds right now of him becoming president however is not great, according to recent polling. This meeting with SpaceX was clearly an effort by him to garner attention and increase his poll numbers.

Update on SLS: Still aiming for very unlikely March launch

A detailed update on the work being done by NASA and Boeing engineers to prepare SLS for its first unmanned test launch suggests that though a March launch is still the target, it is likely to be delayed.

The update at the link is very thorough, and outlines a large number of tests that need to be done to get this very cumbersome and complicated rocket ready for launch. They are just about done with the prep work for the core stage, and are now shifting to final testing of the upper stage, followed by some countdown sequence testing and a test of the flight termination system. In addition there are a number of other tests they wish to perform, all of which will take time.

Once these are done they will be ready to roll the rocket out to the launchpad for a final dress rehearsal countdown — dubbed the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), now scheduled for mid- to late-February.

NASA will not set a launch date until after the WDR is completed and they can factor in any additional tasks with already-known work. “We’ve continually said that until we get through WDR we won’t set a launch date, so us getting out in mid-February for WDR allows them to look at March and April as opportunities,” Lanham said.

“I really can’t put my finger on it again until we come back from WDR and see if we have any issues there that we’ve got to go correct.” After the WDR test, the vehicle and Mobile Launcher will be rolled back to the VAB for final pre-launch maintenance and servicing.

Some have said the earliest realistic launch date is May, with the mid-summer more likely. We shall have to wait and see.

Carbon isotope signature detected in Curiosity data suggests possible ancient life, or not

The uncertainty of science: In reviewing data from Curiosity, scientists have detected a faint enrichment on ridge tops in Gale Crater of the carbon isotope carbon-12, normally associated with life on Earth because it is easier for life to process than the heavier carbon-13 isotope.

In order to explain this enrichment, the scientists have concocted several complicated explanations, all of which seem unlikely because of their complexity. The explanations that include life require a series several precise steps to get the enrichment limited to only high ridges. Another that doesn’t involve life requires the solar system to pass through an interstellar cloud.

One proposed explanation is simpler however, and does not require ancient microbes or interstellar clouds.

More prosaically, a few studies suggest UV rays can generate the signal without help from biology at all. UV can react with carbon dioxide—which makes up 96% of the martian atmosphere—to produce carbon monoxide that is enriched in carbon-12. Yuichiro Ueno, a planetary scientist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, says he has recently confirmed the process can occur in unpublished lab results. “The reported carbon isotope ratios are exactly what I have expected,” he says.

Though this explanation must explain why they have seen the enrichment only at high points, it is straight forward and fits all the present data we presently have of Mars

All in all, the data is tantalizing but hardly a indicator that Mars once had life. There is too much uncertainty. We do not yet know enough about Mars’ geological and climate history to come to any consensus on an explanation.

Japan delays launch of JAXA’s new rocket

According to unnamed sources in Japan’s space agency JAXA, the first launch of its new H3 rocket, presently scheduled for the end of March ’22, will be delayed by as much as a year because of “defects” in the rocket’s engine.

…the discovery of defects forced the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to delay it a second time as it remains unclear by when the vehicle’s engine can be redesigned and produced, the sources said Monday.

Some people in the government expressed concerns over the postponement being potentially prolonged, the sources said.

…In May 2020, a test conducted on the H3 rocket’s main engine found holes on the wall of a combustion chamber and a crack on a turbine that feeds fuel to the chamber, prompting the agency to announce the first delay.

Since then, JAXA has reviewed its design and has been reassembling the rocket at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, from where the rocket is planned to lift off.

None of this has as yet been officially announced. If true, this is a serious blow to Japan’s space effort, which has not been very competitive anyway in the global launch industry. The older H2 rocket in use now is very expensive, so that it has garnered few customers outside of the Japanese government. The new H3 was supposed cost less, but it is entirely expendable, so it can’t compete with the reusable rockets of SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Rocket Lab.

It is also apparently being designed and controlled by JAXA, not Mitsubishi, the prime contractor. Government-run programs nowadays routinely experience endless delays and cost overruns, and the H3 project appears to be more of the same.

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