Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

OSIRIS-REx preps for final rehearsal of sample grab

The OSIRIS-REx science and engineering team is getting ready for its August 11th final rehearsal of the sample grab-and-go at the asteroid Bennu that it plans to do in October.

If the rehearsal goes right, the spacecraft will descend to within 131 feet of the surface of Bennu as it deploys its equipment as if it would continue down to the surface. It will also fly in formation above the Nightingale sample site when it does this, taking the highest resolution images yet of the surface of the asteroid.

It will then back off, returning to its home orbit farther from Bennu. Engineers will then review what happened, and use that data to prepare for the actual sample grab-and-go, set for October 20, 2020.

SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully put two commercial satellites for another customer plus another 57 of its own Starlink satellites into orbit, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was reusing a first stage flying for the fifth time.

This brings the total number of Starlink satellites now in orbit to 595. They also successfully landed the first stage, making it now available for a sixth flight.

19 China
12 SpaceX
9 Russia
4 ULA

The U.S. has retaken the lead from China in the national rankings, 20 to 19.

Slushy floor of southern Martian crater?

Knobby floor of southern crater
Click for full image.

The cool image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows the northwest section of the floor of a crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, in a mountainous region dubbed Claritus Fossae, located south of Valles Marineris. The photo was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 14, 2020.

The entire crater floor appears to be covered by these strings of closely-packed knobs, reminiscent of the brain terrain found in the mid-latitude glacial regions of Mars and thought to be the result of underground ice sublimating upward.

Below is the area in the white box, in full resolution.
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California & Space Force to encourage private launches at Vandenberg

Capitalism in space: The state government of California has signed an agreement with the U.S. Space Force to expand private launches facilities at Vandenberg Space Force Base

It appears that the Space Force is aggressively trying to encourage new private launch operations to take flight out of Vandenberg. The article however is very unclear about exactly what this new agreement accomplishes. I could not find its actual text, and from the story all we get is typical government blather:

[Chris Dombrowski, acting director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development] said the organizations under the [agreement] will develop a “master plan that identifies the required infrastructure, human capital development, governance and financing necessary to support the United States Space Force mission and position California as a leader in the future of the commercial space industry.”

“This MOU serves as a critical investment in California’s innovative economy as we work to safely recover from the COVID-19 induced recession,” he said.

If anything, it appears that California’s Democratic and very power-hungry government is using this agreement to take control of any new private operations, so that it can dictate how they operate, according to its whims. If so, don’t expect much private enterprise to prosper at Vandenberg.

Study: Lava tubes on Mars and the Moon will be gigantic

A new study comparing lava tubes on the Earth with those detected from orbit on Mars and the Moon now suggests that tubes on those other worlds will be many times larger than on Earth.

Researchers found that Martian and lunar tubes are respectively 100 and 1,000 times wider than those on Earth, which typically have a diameter of 10 to 30 meters. Lower gravity and its effect on volcanism explain these outstanding dimensions (with total volumes exceeding 1 billion of cubic meters on the Moon).

Riccardo Pozzobon adds: “Tubes as wide as these can be longer than 40 kilometres, making the Moon an extraordinary target for subsurface exploration and potential settlement in the wide protected and stable environments of lava tubes. The latter are so big they can contain Padua’s entire city centre”.

Moreover, the data suggests their roofs, even at this size, will be very stable because of the lower gravity, making them excellent locations for large human colonies.

The researchers also suggest that there are many intact such lava tubes under the mare regions on the Moon, their existence only hinted at by the rare skylights created due to asteroid impact.

SpaceX and ULA get launch contracts from SES

Capitalism in space: The satellite communications company SES yesterday announced the award of new launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA.

It appears that the contract was for one launch from each company, each putting up two satellites. Previously SES’s satellites were generally too large for either the Atlas 5 or the Falcon 9 to launch two at one time. This suggests that the satellite company is slimming down the design of its satellites.

Jeff Bezos sells $3 billion more in Amazon stock

Jeff Bezos this week sold another $3 billion in his Amazon stock, bringing the sales this year along to more than $7 billion.

Amazon stock has soared since mid-March as millions of customers rely on the e-commerce giant amid the pandemic for online shopping, cloud computing, and more. Last week the company posted $88.9 billion in revenue, up 40% from the year-ago quarter, with profits far ahead of Wall Street expectations at $5.2 billion.

Bezos said in 2017 that he was selling $1 billion a year to fund his Blue Origin space venture, but he has been increasing the size and frequency of the stock sales. He sold $2.8 billion worth of Amazon stock a year ago, and around $4 billion earlier this year.

Since 2017 Bezos has now raised more than $11 billion from sales of his Amazon stock. Initially he had said such sales were to finance his space company Blue Origin, but more recently he has indicated he wants to use the bulk of this cash to fight climate change, with portions also devoted services for the homeless and early childhood education.

In fact, it appears that Blue Origin is likely getting only a very small portion of this money, though at several billion this isn’t chicken-feed. At a minimum it likely matches what SpaceX has raised through private investment capital for its Starship/Starlink projects, and more likely exceeds it.

Yet, SpaceX continues to outpace Blue Origin, several times over. If anything, as the cash from Bezos has rolled in Blue Origin’s pace of test flights with New Shepard as well as the development of its BE-4 rocket engine and New Glenn orbital rocket seemed have slowed. Initially New Glenn was going to make its first orbital launch this year. Now they say it will launch next year but we hear little about any development progress. And the company only delivered a test engine of the BE-4 (not flight worthy) to ULA only about a month ago, far later than first promised.

Though the lack of news could simply be Blue Origin’s more secretive way of doing things, compared to SpaceX, I have my doubts. Rockets are big things, and building and testing them is not something easily kept under wraps, especially by private companies. The lack of news from Blue Origin continues to suggest that simply having lots of money does not necessarily guarantee success.

Astronomers use Hubble to detect ozone on Earth

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have shown that it will be possible to detect ozone in the atmospheres of exoplanets, using larger telescopes while observing transits of those exoplanets across the face of their star.

What the scientists did was aim Hubble at the Moon during a lunar eclipse. Moreover, they timed the observations so that the sunlight hitting the Moon and reflecting back to Earth (and Hubble) had also traveled through the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the Moon.

They then looked at the spectrum of that light, and were able to glean from it the spectral signal of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere. When giant ground-based telescopes under construction now come on line in the coming decades they will have the ability to do this with transiting exoplanets.

The measurements detected the strong spectral fingerprint of ozone, a key prerequisite for the presence – and possible evolution – of life as we know it in an exo-Earth. Although some ozone signatures had been detected in previous ground-based observations during lunar eclipses, Hubble’s study represents the strongest detection of the molecule to date because it can look at the ultraviolet light, which is absorbed by our atmosphere and does not reach the ground. On Earth, photosynthesis over billions of years is responsible for our planet’s high oxygen levels and thick ozone layer. Only 600 million years ago Earth’s atmosphere had built up enough ozone to shield life from the Sun’s lethal ultraviolet radiation. That made it safe for the first land-based life to migrate out of our oceans.

“Finding ozone in the spectrum of an exo-Earth would be significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is a byproduct of life,” explained Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Colorado, USA, lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Ozone does not guarantee the presence of life on an exoplanet, but combined with other detections, such as oxygen and methane, would raise the odds significantly.

Filled and distorted craters on Mars

A very distorted and filled crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated and cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 25, 2020. The entire image was dubbed “Cluster of Filled Craters”, but I decided to highlight the crater of the cluster that was most strangely distorted of them all. The material that fills all the craters in the full image is almost certainly buried ice and is dubbed concentric crater fill by scientists.

This crater is located in the northern lowland plains the mid-latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees, where planetary scientists have found ample evidence of many such filled craters and glaciers.

Not only does the crater’s interior seemed filled with glacial material, its distorted rim suggests that it has been reshaped by glacial activity that might have covered it entirely over the eons as the mid-latitude glaciers of Mars waxed and waned with the extreme shifts that happen regularly to Mars’ rotational tilt. Moreover, there is strong evidence that in these lowland northern plains an underground ice table exists close to the surface, allowing for more distortion over time.

The overview map below provides some location context.
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Lightning and mushballs on Jupiter

Artist's illustration of Jupiter lightning
Click for full illustration.

Using data from Juno, scientists now theorize that Jupiter produces what they dub “shallow lightning” as well as ammonia-water hailstones dubbed “mushballs.”

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is only an artist’s illustration of the lightning. Sadly Juno’s camera doesn’t have the resolution to capture such flashes.

An unexpected form of electrical discharge, shallow lightning originates from clouds containing an ammonia-water solution, whereas lightning on Earth originates from water clouds.

Other new findings suggest the violent thunderstorms for which the gas giant is known may form slushy ammonia-rich hailstones Juno’s science team calls “mushballs”; they theorize that mushballs essentially kidnap ammonia and water in the upper atmosphere and carry them into the depths of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

As with the InSight results below, there is much uncertainty with these results, especially the hypothesis of mushballs. These features fit their present data from Juno, but we must remember that the data is still somewhat superficial.

Scientists make first rough estimate of Mars’ internal structure

Artist's cutaway showing theorized Martian interior
Artist’s cutaway of theorized Martian interior

Using data from InSight’s seismometer, scientists have made their first approximation of the internal structure of Mars.

The first boundary Deng and Levander measured is the divide between Mars’ crust and mantle almost 22 miles (35 kilometers) beneath the lander.

The second is a transition zone within the mantle where magnesium iron silicates undergo a geochemical change. Above the zone, the elements form a mineral called olivine, and beneath it, heat and pressure compress them into a new mineral called wadsleyite. Known as the olivine-wadsleyite transition, this zone was found 690-727 miles (1,110-1,170 kilometers) beneath InSight. “The temperature at the olivine-wadsleyite transition is an important key to building thermal models of Mars,” Deng said. “From the depth of the transition, we can easily calculate the pressure, and with that, we can derive the temperature.”

The third boundary he and Levander measured is the border between Mars’ mantle and its iron-rich core, which they found about 945-994 miles (1,520-1,600 kilometers) beneath the lander. Better understanding this boundary “can provide information about the planet’s development from both a chemical and thermal point of view,” Deng said.

Because they only have one seismometer on the planet, this approximation has a great deal of uncertainty. Only when we have multiple such seismic instruments, scattered across the entire Martian globe, will scientists be able to hone their models more accurate of the planet’s interior.

Government routinely warned against mask use — before it was political

Link here. The article gives numerous examples of state health departments noting the uselessness of masks as well as their potential harmful aspects. For example,

…the California Department of Health, which now obsesses about the use of masks, warned about the inherent harm in wearing masks, especially outdoors:

“Mask use may give the wearer a false sense of security, which might encourage too much physical activity and time spent outdoors. Also, wearing a mask may actually be harmful to some people with heart or lung disease because it can make the lungs work harder to breathe.”

How come nobody is raising any concern about universal masking given the obvious observation that covering one’s face makes the lungs work harder? [emphasis mine]

For anyone who does any research at all into this subject, and is willing to be even slightly honest about it, the data is pretty clear: Masks are likely to provide you no protection from COVID-19, while carrying health risks that are real.

What makes me depressed about all this is that I know I am wasting my breath. My readers might read this, but they mostly agree with me. For the general American populace, no one is interested in hearing anything negative about masks. They want them required by law, as shown by this poll, because it makes them feel safe.

And in our shallow society — plunging headlong into a dark age — feelings must always trump reality. Always. And don’t you dare say otherwise.

Never in my entire life have I ever lived in a culture that demanded such things of others. The country that once existed here was a country that respected the rights of others to live freely as they wished.

No more. Now people see it their right to demand that others agree with them, and follow orders, or else. And the criteria is always what makes them feel good, not what makes sense.

Fifth Starship prototype flies!

Starship #5 in flight
Shortly after take-off.

Right after landing
Right after landing.

Shortly after landing
After the smoke has cleared.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s fifth Starship prototype today successfully completed a 150 meter hop at its Boca Chica facility in Texas, landing vertically.

I have embedded a video of the flight below the fold.

The screen capture to the right shows it in flight. It is canted slightly because its one Raptor engine was not centered at its base but offset.

The next image shows the prototype standing vertical on the ground to the left of Starhopper, which flew one year ago. All told the flight lasted only about a minute.

The final image shows a close-up of the prototype after the smoke has cleared. Why it is canted on the ground is not clear. Its legs are not visible (they apparently are relatively small), so it is hard to say whether one buckled or not.

The launch platform might have sustained damage but they have another ready to go. It is even conceivable that they could fly this prototype again, though they already have prototype #8 waiting in the wings.

Regardless, expect SpaceX to keep its fast development pace going. I would not be surprised if they attempt another test flight in less than two weeks.

Screen captures courtesy of the LabPadre live stream.
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The dry barren plains of Tyrrhena Terra

Tyrrhena Terra badlands
Click for full image.

In a sense today’s cool image is a replay of one I posted in March, showing the dry barren terrain in the vast rough cratered highlands of Tyrrhena Terra, located along the equator of Mars between the giant basins of Isidis and Hellas.

Today’s image on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 26, 2020, and shows well the barrenness of this region. The surface appears quite solid, like bedrock, rather than the squishy soft surface of the northern lowland plains. Moreover, there is a lot of dust trapped in the low areas between the ridges, forming ripples that new data suggest move slowly across the surface. If you click on the full image, you will see that this terrain is far from local, and goes on in this manner for quite a distance in all directions.

This is a dry and forbidding place, about the size of the American southwest, from Texas to California.

The overview map below provides some context of Tyrrhena Terra’s location on Mars.
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Virgin Galactic again delays first commercial flight

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic, which has been repeatedly delaying its first commercial flight for more than a decade, has done so again, stating that it will not occur until 2021.

The company, in its fiscal second quarter financial results released Aug. 3, said it expected to perform two more test flights of SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America in New Mexico, both of which will be powered flights. The vehicle has made two glide flights since moving to the spaceport early this year.

The first of those powered flights, scheduled for the fall, will have two pilots on board. It will also carry payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program that arranges flights of experiments on suborbital vehicles, said George Whitesides, chief space officer and former chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in a company earnings call.

If that flight goes as expected, Virgin Galactic will then perform a second flight, this time with four mission specialists on board along with the two pilots. Those mission specialists “will evaluate the performance of our full customer cabin and associated hardware,” he said. The company unveiled the design of the cabin July 28, although Whitesides said they were still completing the installation of the cabin on the company’s current SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity.

“Presuming things go as expected on this fully-crewed flight, we would then plan to fly Sir Richard Branson on the third powered flight from New Mexico,” he said. That flight would take place in the first quarter of 2021 and mark the beginning of commercial service, although Whitesides said it will also be a test flight of sorts. “Sir Richard is in a unique position to provide the ultimate cabin and spaceflight experience evaluation, as a visionary of the Virgin customer experience.”

The company also announced that it intends to sell stock shares to raise more capital. Right now the stock is selling for about $20.

I am no expert on the stock market, but to my mind this company’s chances of making big profits from suborbital flights is slim to none. They might make some money, but hardly enough ever to repay their investors. Virgin Galactic’s window for making big money in suborbital tourism closed forever with the success of SpaceX’s manned Dragon flight to ISS. The space tourism market is shifting to orbital space, something Virgin Galactic cannot provide. Worse, the cost for getting to orbit continues to drop, while this company can’t reduce its prices much.

Virgin Galactic provides a weak product in the present market, one that can only become weaker when compared to its competitors.

Starship hop today?

UPDATE: They are close to trying again. If you refresh your screen, you will now have two iterations of the live stream. This will allow you to have two cameras visible at the same time, You can show the main “nerdie” camera on one, with their commentary, and show the wider “sapphire” camera on the second. You pick cameras by clicking on the camera icon in the menu bar at the bottom of the screen.

UPDATE: First attempt apparently aborted. No word yet if they will attempt again today.

UPDATE: Scrubbed on August 3rd, attempting again on August 4th.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Starship team has scheduled the first 500 foot hop of the fifth Starship prototype today, after canceling yesterday’s attempt.

The window for Starship SN5’s 150m hop debut now stretches from 8am to 8pm CDT (13:00-01:00 UTC) on Monday, August 3rd. It’s currently unknown if SpaceX will offer its own live coverage of the test flight but several unofficial streams will likely be available from NASASpaceflight.com, LabPadre, SPadre, and more. Stay tuned for updates!

I have embedded LabPadre’s live stream below the fold, if you wish to run it in the background. They will have commentary when they note a “pad clear” signal.
» Read more

Masks, social distancing, and mass hysteria

This past weekend Diane and I went hiking, as we try to do at least once a week. With the gyms closed by our petty dictator governor, Republican Doug Ducey, we need to find a way to get out and exercise, both for our sanity and to strengthen our immune systems, since outdoor exercise is probably the most effective way to prevent yourself from getting sick from any respiratory illness.

As we were hiking along a single male hiker, probably in his mid- to late- twenties, approached us from the other direction. When he saw me in the lead, he immediately cringed off to the side of the trail in what seemed literal terror, holding a bandana to his face.

I looked at him in irritation. “You don’t need the mask, we don’t have cooties and we won’t make you sick.”

“I don’t want to make you sick,” he said as I passed him.

“What makes me sick,” I responded as I continued past him down the trail, “is the irrational terror and fear I see in everyone’s eyes, over something that really is not much more different than the flu.”

I will admit to have become somewhat of a cranky grump these days when I see everyone wearing masks. And I feel this way because of the utter mindlessness of mask-wearing. This healthy young hiker, who almost certainly was not contagious in any way with any illness, including COVID-19, was only within four feet of me for about one second. Even if he had COVID-19 and was infectious to me and tried to pant in my face as I went by it would have been almost impossible for him to infect me. We were just not in close enough contact for long enough.

Moreover, he stood there holding the bandana to his mouth and nose, with his hand. That its exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to protect yourself, as your hands are the most likely transmission point for infection, and by pressing his bandana against his face with his hand he risked placing that infection at the very place he breathed.

He might have reduced my chances of getting infected by an infinitesimal amount, but he increased his own risk substantially.

Mask-wearing is just plain irrational, and for intelligent Americans to go along with this silliness is beyond shameful, especially because in almost every jurisdiction, even those that mandate mask use, you can opt out by simply stating you have medical reasons for not wearing a mask, and are not required under HIPPA regulations to even show documentation proving that statement in any way. It must be accepted on its face, without question.

Let’s review the absurdity of this situation, and maybe remind people why it is foolish.
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Sunspot update: Hints of the next maximum

It’s time for another monthly sunspot update! NOAA yesterday updated its monthly graph for tracking the Sun’s monthly sunspot activity, and as I do every month, I am posting it below with additional anotations by me to show the past and new solar cycle predictions.

July 2020 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for both the previous and upcoming solar maximums. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007 for the previous maximum, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The blue curve is their revised May 2009 prediction. The red curve is the new prediction, first posted by NOAA in April 2020.

July continued the trend from June, with a slight uptick in activity. The SILSO graph below for July illustrates this.
» Read more

Study: Mars’ meandering canyons formed under ice

A new study comparing Mars’ meandering canyons with those found in the Arctic regions on Earth suggests that the Martian valleys were formed by water melting under large ice sheets, not flowing water on the surface.

A large number of the valley networks scarring the surface of Mars were carved by water melting beneath glacial ice, not by free-flowing rivers as previously thought, according to new research published in Nature Geoscience. The findings effectively throw cold water on the dominant “warm and wet ancient Mars” hypothesis, which postulates that rivers, rainfall and oceans once existed on the red planet.

To reach this conclusion, lead author and postdoctoral research scholar Anna Grau Galofre of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration developed and used new techniques to examine thousands of Martian valleys. She and her co-authors also compared the Martian valleys to the subglacial channels in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and uncovered striking similarities. The western edge of the Devon ice cap on the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

I have noted previously on Behind the Black my sense that the planetary science community was beginning to shift away from the hypothesis of flowing liquid surface water on Mars as an explanation for the planet’s riverlike and oceanlike features to some form or ice/glacial activity. For a half century the scientists have tried and failed to come up with some scenario that could allow water to flow on the surface in Mars’ cold climate and thin atmosphere.

Ice or glacial activity rather than flowing liquid water might solve this problem, and today’s paper is a push in this direction.

Private Japanese lunar lander redesigned, flight delayed one year

Capitalism in space: The privately financed Japanese lunar landing company Ispace has redesigned its lander and delayed the first flight by one year, to 2022.

Since a preliminary design review in 2018, ispace has reduced the size of Hakuto-R. Previously 3.5 meters high and 4.4 meters wide with its landing legs deployed, the lander is now 2.3 meters high and 2.6 meters wide. The spacecraft’s mass has decreased from 1,400 to 1,050 kilograms, primarily by reducing the amount of propellant on board.

A smaller lander is less expensive to develop, said Ryo Ujiie, manager of the lander system engineering group at ispace, during a call with reporters July 30. It also reduces the size and complexity of the landing legs. The spacecraft will use a different trajectory to go to the moon, employing a low-energy transfer orbit that requires less propellant but takes roughly twice as long as previously planned. “We had to pick a more propellant-efficient orbit” given the reduction in propellant, said Chit Hong Yam, manager of the mission design and operations group. “We’re confident that, with enough checking, we should be able to execute this orbit.”

While the overall lander is smaller, it still maintains a payload capacity of 30 kilograms. Once on the surface, likely at one of several mid-latitude sites on the moon under consideration by ispace, it will operate for 12 days.

That first flight will launch on a Falcon 9. The company raised $95 million in private capital in 2017, and still plans a second lander launch in 2023.

Endeavour safely splashes down

Splashdown of Endeavour

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Endeavour Dragon capsule has successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, returning two humans back to Earth safely after completing the first two month long manned commercial space mission.

If you go to the live stream to watch recovery operations, note that the boats and ships and persons involved are all property and employees of SpaceX. This is entirely an operation of the private company. The government is not involved, other than NASA’s justified monitoring as SpaceX’s customer.

One cool tidbit for the future. Endeavour is scheduled to fly again, in the spring of 2021. On that flight will be Megan McArthur, the wife of astronaut Bob Behnken, and she will likely sit in the same place he did on his flight.

Russians sign deal to fly two tourists to ISS

Capitalism in space: Now that their Soyuz capsule is no longer required to fly NASA astronauts to ISS, the Russians have spare seats, and have now signed a deal with Space Adventures to fly two tourists to ISS in late 2021.

They will announce the tourist’s names later this year.

Space Adventures also has a deal with SpaceX to fly two tourists on a Dragon capsule on a week-plus long orbital mission (not docking with ISS). SpaceX also has a deal with the space station company Axiom to fly tourists to ISS. Next year could thus see two or three tourist flights to space.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

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