Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Hawaiian activists say “No!” to smallsat spaceport

The coming dark age: At a meeting to obtain public feedback on a proposed smallsat spaceport in Hawaii, activists were almost all hostile or opposed to the project.

There might be justified reasons to oppose the spaceport, but since the environmental assessment is not yet published, it is unclear at this point what those reasons might be. The reasons cited by these opponents, noise and pollution, don’t seem serious. The spaceport being proposed is for smallsat rockets, rockets that are very small (only a few times larger than the biggest model rockets). Even if they launch weekly these rockets will not cause serious noise or pollution issues.

Thus, what I see here are a bunch of close-minded luddites afraid of new things, and determined to block those new things from happening.

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Rare asteroid orbiting near Venus discovered

The Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a new sky survey telescope whose main goal is to find Near Earth asteroids, has discovered a rare asteroid orbiting near Venus.

A state-of-the-art sky-surveying camera, the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, detected the asteroid on January 4, 2019. Designated 2019 AQ3, the object has the shortest “year” of any recorded asteroid, with an orbital period of just 165 days. It also appears to be an unusually big asteroidal specimen. “We have found an extraordinary object whose orbit barely strays beyond Venus’ orbit—that’s a big deal,” said Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at IPAC, a data and science center for astronomy at Caltech. Ye called 2019 AQ3 a “very rare species,” further noting that “there might be many more undiscovered asteroids out there like it.”

…The orbit, as it turns out, is angled vertically, taking 2019 AQ3 above and below the plane where the planets run their laps around the sun. Over its short year, 2019 AQ3 plunges inside of Mercury, then swings back up just outside of Venus’ orbit.

The telescope, in operation since March 2018, and so far found

nearly 60 new near-Earth asteroids. Two of these were spotted in July 2018 mere hours before they gave Earth quite a close shave. Designated 2018 NW and 2018 NX, the duo of bus-sized asteroids whipped past at a distance of about 70,000 miles, or only a third of the way to the moon. Fortunately, the newfound 2019 AQ3 poses no threat; the closest it ever comes to Earth is about 22 million miles.

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First SLS launch faces more delays

No surprise here: The scheduled June 2020 first unmanned launch of NASA’s Space System Launch (SLS), already delayed by three years, appears threatened by more delays.

[NASA needs to perform]a similar structural test of the liquid oxygen fuel tank before what is known as a “green run” test. For this exercise, NASA will assemble the two large tanks and then integrate them with the rocket’s four main RS-25 engines. Then, at a test stand in southern Mississippi, the rocket will fire its engines through a standard launch of the rocket.

NASA has yet to formally set a date for this “green run” test, but whenever it does occur will be a key indicator for when we will see the first actual launch of the SLS rocket. If the green run test is conducted late in 2019, there would still be a chance for a 2020 launch. However, the agency and its prime contractor for the core stage, Boeing, are on a tight timeline that has little margin for technical problems that might occur during the structural tests of the tank or the green run tests. Historically, during this integration and test process with other large rocket programs, major problems have often occurred.

It is not clear how deeply the shutdown affected the SLS timeline, even though core stage work did proceed. “The shutdown impacted at least day for day,” one source said of the schedule. “But I am sure it was more than that.”

NASA originally planned to launch the SLS rocket on its maiden flight in November 2017, so the rocket will now be at least three years later than originally anticipated. The program’s budget is more than $2 billion a year, so these delays have cost the agency considerably.

The article also outlines the problems NASA is having developing the rocket’s upper stage.

I predict that the June 2020 launch will slip, maybe as much as six months, into 2021. This means the first manned flight will also be delayed into 2024, at the earliest.

That means it will have taken NASA more than twenty years and more than $60 billion to build and fly a single manned mission. Moreover, the cost and difficulty of operating SLS will make it impossible to get the second manned flight off the ground any earlier than three to four years later, at the earliest.

There is no chance the U.S. will put new footprints on the Moon if it continues to rely on this boondoggle. Worse, a continued reliance on SLS will force the government, for political reasons, to use its power to squelch competing private efforts, something we are seeing with the endless delays NASA has imposed on the commercial crew program.

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Auditor condemns Ariane 6

Capitalism in space: France’s independent government auditor has issued a new report that badly slams Arianespace’s next generation rocket, Ariane 6, accusing its design as being too cautious and too expensive, thus guaranteeing it will fail to compete with the reusable rockets now in use as well as being developed in the U.S.

This is the scathing assessment of France’s independent state auditor in a report that picked apart the flawed economic model behind Ariane 6, the next generation of rocket-launchers set to start operating in 2020.

It made the point that Europeans, who have taken part in developing the launcher, went for a “cautious” approach and invested in the kind of controlled technology that potential clients in the continent had no faith in, even back in 2014. This means that Ariane 6 is stuck in the past and “risks not being competitive over the long term.” Its U.S. rivals are way ahead and already testing future disruptive technologies. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text is proven by the apparent unwillingness of Arianespace’s European partners to sign contracts for Ariane 6.

This isn’t really news. See for example this February 13, 2018 report on Behind the Black. Or this one from September 2017, where ArianeGroup first outlined the prices they expected to charge for Ariane 6. Then, I predicted what France’s auditor has only now realized:

Will these prices be competitive in 2020s? I have my doubts. I estimate, based on news reports, that SpaceX is charging about $40 million today for a launch with a reused first stage, and $62 million for a launch with an entirely new rocket. Give them another five years of development and I expect those prices to drop significantly, especially as they shift to entirely reused first stages for almost every launch and begin to demonstrate a routine launch cadence of more than one launch per month.

This quote…explains how ArianeGroup really intends to stay alive in the launch market: “The price targets assume that European governments — the European Space Agency, the European Commission, Eumetsat and individual EU nations — agree to guarantee the equivalent of five Ariane 62 missions per year, plus at least two missions for the light-lift Vega rocket.”

In other words, ArianeGroup really doesn’t wish to compete for business. It wants to use government coercion to force European space agencies and businesses to buy its product. They might get that, but the long term result will be a weak European presence in space, as everyone else finds cheaper and more efficient ways to do things. [emphasis mine]

Based on recent stories, it seems that ArianeGroup has been unable to force European space agencies to buy Ariane 6. Thus, the rocket faces failure, before it even launches.

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A look at SpaceX’s upcoming launch schedule

Link here. It appears that the launch dates for both Falcon Heavy launches depend entirely on when the first Falcon 9 manned Dragon test flight takes place.

With Demo-1 having priority, the final preparations for Arabsat [using Falcon Heavy] will not be able to begin until the Demo-1 launch has occurred as there is only so much space in the Pad 39A hangar. With that in mind, Arabsat 6A will likely occur in the second half of March at the earliest, as NASA announced on Wednesday that Demo-1 is now targeting no earlier than March 2nd, 2019.

While the March 2nd launch date for Demo-1 is still tentative, it is understood that the Space Station’s Visiting Vehicle Schedule does have availability for a launch on that date should the NASA and SpaceX teams be ready.

Once Demo-1 and Arabsat are out of the way, Pad 39A will not be done supporting high profile missions. SpaceX will work to quickly turnaround the first stage boosters from the Arabsat 6A flight in order to reuse them for the STP-2 mission – the second Falcon Heavy launch of the year. STP-2 is a mission for the U.S. Air Force which will feature several technology demonstration payloads. According to FCC filings, the launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than April 30th, 2019. However, since this mission requires boosters from the Arabsat 6A launch, SpaceX will require several weeks between the two flights to refurbish the cores.

Therefore, STP-2 is directly connected to the launch schedule for Arabsat 6A which is in turn connected to Demo-1’s schedule. Consequently, the odds of a slip with STP-2’s date are high, as two major dominos currently stand in front of it.

In addition, the date for SpaceX’s launch abort test of Dragon depends entirely on the completion of the Demo-1 flight, since they plan to use that same capsule in the abort test.

Though there are a handful of other launches described in the article through April, but much of SpaceX’s schedule for the spring depends entirely on whether NASA can get off its duff and allow the Dragon test mission to fly. If NASA continues to drag its feet, everything else will get delayed. It would seem that at some point SpaceX might even have the right to demand financial compensation from NASA for the loss of income NASA is causing it. They don’t get paid for any of these launches until they fly, and thus NASA is preventing them from earning money from other customers.

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New Hubble images of Uranus and Neptune

Uranus (top) and Neptune

The Hubble Space Telescope’s new annual images of Uranus (top) and Neptune (bottom) has revealed new atmospheric features for both, a giant north pole cloud cap on Uranus and a new dark storm developing on Neptune.

For Neptune:

The new Hubble view of Neptune shows the dark storm, seen at top center. Appearing during the planet’s southern summer, the feature is the fourth and latest mysterious dark vortex captured by Hubble since 1993. Two other dark storms were discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989 as it flew by the remote planet. Since then, only Hubble has had the sensitivity in blue light to track these elusive features, which have appeared and faded quickly. A study led by University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate student Andrew Hsu estimated that the dark spots appear every four to six years at different latitudes and disappear after about two years.

Hubble uncovered the latest storm in September 2018 in Neptune’s northern hemisphere. The feature is roughly 6,800 miles across.

For Uranus:

The snapshot of Uranus, like the image of Neptune, reveals a dominant feature: a vast bright cloud cap across the north pole.

Scientists believe this feature is a result of Uranus’ unique rotation. Unlike every other planet in the solar system, Uranus is tipped over almost onto its side. Because of this extreme tilt, during the planet’s summer the Sun shines almost directly onto the north pole and never sets. Uranus is now approaching the middle of its summer season, and the polar-cap region is becoming more prominent. This polar hood may have formed by seasonal changes in atmospheric flow.

The images are part of an annual program that monitors both planets with images every year when the Earth is best placed to view them. This allows scientists to track atmospheric changes over time.

The sharpness of both images matches that of previous Hubble images, so these photographs do not show any decline in the telescope’s image capability. However, when they lose that next gyroscope and shift to one gyroscope mode, I believe it will be very difficult to get images even this sharp of the outer planets. In fact, I suspect this monitoring program will likely have to end, or will be badly crippled.

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UK names rover for 2020 ExMars mission

The United Kingdom has named its rover for 2020 ExMars mission in honor of Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the helix structure of DNA.

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Her data was a part of the data used to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. Her work supported the hypothesis of Watson and Crick and was published third in the series of three DNA Nature articles. After finishing her portion of the DNA work, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses. Franklin died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.

Though this isn’t entire clear from the press release, it appears that they will refer to the rover as either “Rosalind Franklin” or “Rosalind.”

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Sunspot update January 2019: The early solar minimum

As I have done every month since 2011, I am now posting NOAA’s the monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for January 2019. They posted this update on Monday, and I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

January 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

January saw a slight uptick in sunspot activity, but the overall activity remains comparable to mid-2008, when the last prolonged solar minimum began. If you go to my October 2018 update, you can see the graph when it included data going back to 2000 and see the entire last minimum.

That last minimum started in the last half of 2007, and lasted until mid-2009, a full two years. If you look at the red line prediction of the solar science community, it appears that they are expecting this coming minimum to last far longer, almost forever. I expect this is not really true, but that they have simply not agreed on a prediction for the next cycle. Some in that solar science community have hypothesized that we are about to enter a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades and thus no solar maximum. Others do not agree.

Since neither faction really understands the mechanism that causes these sunspot cycles, there is no way now to determine what will happen, until it does so. What we do know from climate data is that the Earth cools when the Sun is inactive. Why remains unclear, though there is at least one theory, with some evidence, that attempts to explain it.

And despite the untrustworthy claims of NOAA and NASA scientists that the last few years have been hot, experience on the ground disputes this. Their data has been adjusted (tampered if one wants to be more blunt) to make it fit their global warming theory. The raw unadjusted data suggests things have instead cooled, which better fits with the brutal winters Americans experienced for the past decade or so.

If the Sun does enter a grand minimum in the coming decades, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult for NOAA and NASA to continue their temperature adjustments and continue claiming things are getting warmer. At a minimum, we will learn something about the Sun and its behavior and its influence on the climate that we never knew before.

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NASA confirms new Dragon launch date

Confirmed: NASA today announced a new launch date, March 2, for the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule.

The agency now is targeting March 2 for launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on its uncrewed Demo-1 test flight. Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test is targeted for launch no earlier than April.

These adjustments allow for completion of necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers.

This is actually the first time that NASA itself has specified a launch date, which suggests to me that they finally have admitted that they cannot hold things up any longer. Based on this announcement and assuming the weather and everything else cooperates, the launch will likely happen then, which will also allow time for SpaceX to get the launchpad reconfigured for its Falcon Heavy launch a week later.

The announcement also listed the remaining test schedule for commercial crew, as it stands now:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

The manned flights have not been pushed back significantly from the dates that NASA announced in October, June for SpaceX and August for Boeing. I would expect that the delays now will force these dates to get delayed as well.

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One smallsat satellite company hires another

Capitalism in space: One smallsat satellite company, Exolaunch, has hired another smallsat company, Momentus, to provide it with in-space transportation capabilities.

Exolaunch, the German launch services provider formerly known as ECM Space, signed a contract to pay in-space transportation startup Momentus more than $6 million to move satellites in low Earth orbit in 2020 with a service called Vigoride and from low Earth to geosynchronous orbit in 2021 with Vigoride Extended.

With Vigoride, Exolaunch will send “cubesat and microsatellite constellations to multiple orbits, giving clients an unprecedented flexibility of satellite deployment, reducing the price of launch, and giving access to orbits not typical for ridesharing vehicles,” Dmitriy Bogdanov, Exolaunch chief executive, said in a statement. “We also plan to deliver smallsats to geosynchronous orbit using the Vigoride Extended service. Momentus will enable us to service a larger segment of the market by enabling our customers to reach custom orbits in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”

Essentially, Momentus is building a cubesat-sized rocket engine that can be used to transport other cubesats from one orbit to another. The engine apparently uses water as the fuel in a ion-type engine, and will be tested in space for the first time in the next few months.

Momentus’s business plan seems quite clever. Up until now smallsats, especially those launched as secondary payloads, have not had a way to change their orbits, once deployed from their rocket. Momentus is offering this capability, at the very moment we are about to see a boom in the number of smallsats launched.

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Hayabusa-2 to attempt asteroid landing on February 22

JAXA, Japan’s space agency, today announced that Hayabusa-2 will attempt a landing on the asteroid Ryugu on February 22.

The landing was delayed from October because of the unexpected roughness of Ryugu’s surface, which literally has no spot smooth enough and large enough for Hayabusa-2, as planned. This landing will therefore be attempted in one of two places that are almost large enough, but not quite. It thus carries some additional risks.

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NASA delays unmanned test of manned Dragon again

While not yet confirmed, industry rumors for the past twenty-four hours are saying that NASA has once again forced a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s unmanned test of manned Dragon, pushing it back into March.

I have linked to one article, but I have been hearing these rumors from a number of sources.

This delay, if true, will cause SpaceX scheduling problems in numerous ways. First, it will conflict with the second Falcon Heavy launch, presently planned for March using the same launchpad. Second, it forces a pushback on the manned Dragon launch. Because SpaceX will use this capsule to fly its launch abort mission, it needs at least three months to prep this capsule for its reuse. Assuming that is a success, it will then need three more months to assess that launch abort flight and prepare for the manned flight. This means the manned flight cannot happen prior to October.

Why the delays? Nowhere in this article or in any of the rumors I have heard has any real reason been given. The article says the following, with the important words highlighted:

As of the first week of December 2018, SpaceX was reportedly planning towards a mid-January 2019 launch debut for Crew Dragon. By the end of December, DM-1 was no earlier than the end of January. By the end of January, DM-1 had slipped to from late-February to NET March 2019. Put in slightly different terms, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch debut has been more or less indefinitely postponed for the last two months, with planning dates being pushed back at roughly the same pace as the passage of time (i.e. a day’s delay every day).

Admittedly, DM’s apparently indefinite postponement may well be – and probably is – more of an artifact than a sign of any monolithic cause. While the US government’s longest-ever shutdown (35 days) undoubtedly delayed a major proportion of mission-critical work having to do with extensive NASA reviews of SpaceX and Crew Dragon’s launch readiness (known as Readiness Reviews), much of the 60+ day DM-1 delay can probably be attributed to the complexity of the tasks at hand. Being as it is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted a launch directly related to human spaceflight, as well as the first time NASA has been back at the helm (more or less) of US astronaut launch endeavors in more than 7.5 years, significant delays should come as no surprise regardless of how disappointing they may be. [emphasis mine]

The first paragraph above outlines the endless delays that appear to me to be entirely caused by NASA’s endless review process, much of it designed solely to delay things, for political reasons. SpaceX has clearly been ready to launch since December. Moreover, NASA is somewhat irrelevant to this launch, as it is run by a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX-run launchpad. The delays are all paperwork related, imposed by NASA bureaucrats hostile to this commercial private spacecraft because it is showing the world NASA’s own inability to build its own manned rocket and spacecraft, SLS/Orion.

These NASA bureaucrats are clearly putting their own interests ahead of the interests of the nation. While they play petty political games with this launch, their delays risk putting us in the position next year of having no way to ferry our own astronauts to and from our own space station. The contract with Russia runs out this year, and Russia has said that it would be very difficult for them to quickly schedule more flights beyond that.

Meanwhile, what is Trump doing? Nothing. He is allowing this, even though he has the power to prevent it.

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Chinese cubesat snaps picture of Earth and Moon from deep space

The Moon and Earth

A interplanetary cubesat, Longjiang-2, launched with China’s communications relay satellite that they are using to communicate with Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the far side of the Moon, has successfully taken a picture of both the Moon and Earth, as shown in the picture on the right.

Longjiang-2 is confirming what the MarCo cubesats proved from Mars, that cubesats can do interplanetary work.

And the picture is cool also. This was taken on February 3, when the entire face of the Moon’s far side is facing the Sun, illuminating it all. This timing also meant that the globe of the Earth would be entirely lit.

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Ariane 5 launches two communications satellites

Arianespace today successfully completed its first launch in 2019, using its Ariane 5 rocket to put two communication satellites into orbit.

The 2019 launch race:

2 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 India
1 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. and China remain tied at 2 in the national rankings.

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Boeing partners with commercial supersonic jet startup

Boeing today announced that it is partnering with startup Aerion Corp to build a 12-passenger commercial supersonic jet, dubbed the AS2.

Boeing said it would provide engineering, manufacturing and flight-test resources to bring the AS2 to market. The amount of the investment wasn’t disclosed.

The first flight for the plane — which, at about 1,000 miles per hour, will cruise 70 percent faster than today’s quickest business jets — is scheduled for 2023. Launch customer Flexjet, a fractional aircraft operator, has ordered 20 of the models. The 12-passenger aircraft has a list price of $120 million.

This isn’t the first or only private effort going on right now to develop supersonic jets for commercial travel. Another company, Boom Supersonic, has raised significant capital and already has its own orders for planes, though as far as I can tell it did not fly its initial test flights in 2018, as they had promised.

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MarCO interplanetary cubesats likely dead

More than two months after they provided relay communications for the landing of InSight on Mars, and more than a month since any contact has been heard from them, engineers now consider the two MarCO cubesats to likely be dead.

Now well past Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit. It’s been over a month since engineers have heard from MarCO, which followed NASA’s InSight to the Red Planet. At this time, the mission team considers it unlikely they’ll be heard from again.

MarCO, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft called CubeSats. The MarCOs – nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film – served as communications relays during InSight’s landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight’s first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the CubeSats.

WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29; EVE, on Jan. 4. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

Their loss of contact more than a month after the November landing of InSight actually shows their incredible success. Both MarCO cubesats functions well past Mars, demonstrating that these tiny satellites can do much of the same things bigger satellites costing billions do.

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The location for a future Martian colony?

Pit draining into Kasei Valles

Regular readers of this webpage will know that I am a caver, and am fascinated with the pits and caves that have so far been identified on Mars, as illustrated by an essay I wrote only last week.

Some of the cave research I have cited has being led by planetary scientist Glen Cushing of the U.S. Geological Survey. Two weeks ago Dr. Cushing sent me a slew of pictures of caves/pits that he has accumulated over the years, many of which he has not yet been able to highlight in a paper. At least two were images that I had already featured on Behind the Black, here and here.

One pit image however I had never seen. A cropped and reduced close-up is shown on the right, with the full photograph viewable by clicking on the image. In many ways this pit is reminiscent of many pits on Mars. Its northern rim appears to be an overhang several hundred feet deep that might have an underground passage continuing to the north. The southern lip is inviting in that its slope appears to be very accessible for vehicles, meaning this pit/cave might be a good location to build a first colony.

Because of that accessible southern lip, I decided to do more digging about this particular pit. I was quickly able to find the uncaptioned release of complete image by doing a quick search through the image catalog of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera. That image, reduced and cropped to post here, is shown below, on the right.
» Read more

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The story of an American family that moved to Russia

Link here. Russia has enormous problems, and I would be the last person to suggest leaving the United States to live there. Nonetheless, it is very instructive to read this article and the detailed explanation given by the father, Hal Freeman, as to why they moved.

The traditional values, the loss of which many in America are lamenting, are largely the values of the Russian culture in which I live. I do not write as someone who has been told this. I live here. The Russian Orthodox Church has a strong influence on local life. There are also active Catholic and Protestant churches in my town. The Church and State work together at a national level. For example, both want to reduce the numbers of abortions which skyrocketed during the Communist era because abortion was commonly used for birth control. The Church has made a strong commitment to help women in “crisis pregnancies.” The laws are more restrictive now about when and for what reason abortions can be performed. Watching the news here after Gov. Cuomo signed the bill in New York permitting late term abortions, I was struck by the contrast between the agony of my Christian friends’ posts on Facebook and the smiles and celebrations of the governor and legislators in New York. Abortions are still performed in Russia, but the numbers are steadily declining and no one smiles, laughs or brags about them.

I realize many in America are very glad that the American government is intervening and the understanding of “morality” has changed radically. They applaud freedoms won for gay, lesbian, trans-gender and many other Americans who have been oppressed. They have the right to rejoice: They won. The Benedict Option is one way for those on the other “side” to adapt. Many have been and are living it out. Others, like me, decided it was not in our family’s best interest to risk the future of our children to stay. After the New York decision on abortion I received an e-mail from an American Orthodox mother asking questions about moving to Russia. She realized the struggles involved in such a move. She wrote, however, “We have to move. No matter how well we are doing in home schooling and church, we cannot keep the government out of the lives of our children.”

If you wish to be an adult, it requires you to be brutally honest about life, pushing aside your emotions to rationally think about the world around you. This article places that demand upon ordinary but moral Americans, especially those living in leftist-controlled regions on the coasts and big urban cities. Are the political policies being pursued in those places going to make the future good or bad for your children? Freeman decided they would not, and for the sake of his kids he moved.

Not everyone can move, or should. Instead, I would advocate Americans look hard at these modern leftist policies and begin the fight to stop them, here and now. Our children’s future depends on it. If we do not, they will find themselves starving in a place not unlike today’s bankrupt socialist Venezuela.

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Decline continues in 2018 in geosynchronous satellite industry

Capitalism in space: According to this article from Space News, 2018 saw a continuing decline in orders for the construction of new large geosynchronous communications satellites.

Last year’s poor harvest of five commercial orders for large geostationary communications satellites proved even worse than 2017’s surprise low of just seven orders. Manufacturers continue to vie for fewer such contracts as satellite operators hold off buying new spacecraft while they wait for breakthrough advances in high-throughput technology and assess the potential of small-satellite constellations. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text provides the explanation. The decline isn’t because the use of space for communications is going away, but because the technology is shifting from a handful of large geosynchronous satellites to many tiny low orbit constellations. What this means for the launch industry is that the smallsat rocket companies (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector) are in the driver’s seat, while the big rocket companies (SpaceX, Arianespace, ULA, etc) might be left holding the bag. These big rockets won’t go away either, but will become much more dependent on government contracts, either for the military or for civilian manned space.

The article provides a very detailed overview of 2018 and is definitely worth a full read.

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SpaceX test fires next generation rocket engine

Capitalism in space: This week Elon Musk tweeted pictures of the first static test firing of the first flight Raptor engine, to be used on SpaceX’s next generation rocket, the Super Heavy first stage and the Starship upper stage.

The billionaire entrepreneur also tweeted out several videos of the 3-second test, which took place at the company’s development facility in McGregor, Texas.

Starship is the 100-passenger stainless-steel vehicle SpaceX is building to take people and cargo to Mars and other distant destinations. Starship will launch atop a giant rocket SpaceX calls Super Heavy. Both of these vehicles will be reusable and Raptor-powered. Starship will sport seven of the new engines, and Super Heavy will use 31 Raptors to get off the ground.

A “hopper” prototype that SpaceX will use to test the Starship design on short flights within Earth’s atmosphere will have three Raptor engines. This hopper will debut soon, Musk has said — perhaps within the next month or so, if everything goes according to plan.

This engine appears to be the first built with the intention to actually fly, and is likely going to be used in that “hopper” prototype.

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Plumbing leak on ISS

During necessary power cabling rearrangement in the U.S. toilet area of ISS, the astronauts needed to disconnect some plumbing, and in doing so sprung a leak.

“While demating the QD (Quick Disconnect) that supplies potable water to WHC [toilet] at the rack the crew reported a sticky QD that caused potable water to leak into the cabin,” noted L2 ISS Status Information.

“Initial troubleshooting of the QD leak did not resolve the issue and the crew ultimately remated the QD, however not before ~11 L[iters] of water was leaked. The crew was able to clean up the water using a significant number of towels, and after isolating the potable bus at the PWD [?] the crew demated the QD at the outlet.” [emphasis mine]

Isn’t it lovely how NASA uses acronyms to make everything clear? Seriously, in plain language what appears to have happened is that, in order to prepare the toilet for the future arrival of a new urine recycling unit, they needed to reroute a power cable, and to do that they needed to disconnect the toilet from its plumbing. When they did that disconnect, however, water poured out. The highlighted and very vague language above is designed to disguise what appears to have been a very dumb error that caused the leak: They forgot to shut off the water before doing this, what I think is the “potable bus at the PWD”.

The report also says “It is not believed that any significant amount of water made its way behind any of the racks during the cleanup.” This might be true, but I bet that astronauts are going to finding tiny blobs of water in all kinds of nooks and crannies for quite a while. I hope these blobs don’t cause other problems, such as mold (a constant concern on space stations), corrosion, or electrical issues.

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The Milky Way is warped?

The uncertainty of science: Distance data of more than 1,300 Cepheid variable stars gathered by the Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) space telescope now suggests to astronomers that the disk of the Milky Way galaxy is warped.

Trying to determine the real shape of our galaxy is like standing in a Sydney garden and trying to determine the shape of Australia. But, for the past 50 years there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way are warped. The new map shows that the warped Milky Way disc also contains young stars. It confirms that the warped spiral pattern is caused by torque from the spinning of the Milky Way’s massive inner disc of stars.

This research is good and helpful in getting us closer to a real picture of our Milky Way galaxy. However, need I say that this result carries with it a great deal of uncertainty? Or should I let my kind readers outline for me the many aspects of this research that leave me with doubts?

I think I want to do the latter. Where do you think the uncertainties are in this research? What assumptions are they making? Where is their data sparse or weak? Feel free to list them in the comments.

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Birthday fund-raising time again!

As I do every year during my February birthday month, I ask my readers to please consider donating to Behind the Black.

I admit that I really find it distasteful begging like this, but I really have no choice if I am to continue doing what I love. Moreover, it seems that your direct contribution is sorely needed. In the past year I have discovered that Facebook apparently does not want its users to plug my writing. Every time the number of hits from Facebook begins to rise to a large number, they are suddenly cut off, dropping instantly to zero.

If the drop was smooth and gradual, it could be argued that it is natural, the result of a short decline of interest until I post something new that sparks another wave of hits. This is not what happens. The hits rise steadily, for months, and then suddenly, they vanish, as if someone at Facebook has blocked any reference to past posts at Behind the Black. As new posts appear, however, and ordinary Facebook readers begin to see and pass them along, the hits slowly begin to rise again, until after several months they are once again suddenly cut off.

This pattern could be entirely innocent, but the track record of large corporate and liberally-dominated sites like Facebook suggests otherwise.

So, I am compelled to ask again for your help and support, either by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar above and to the right. Or you could consider buying one of my books, something I heartily recommend. All deal with the first half century of the history of space exploration, and all provide a clear window into why we are where we are today in this epic story.

In either case, your continuing support will make it possible for me to continue to do what I have done for the past twenty-five years, freely writing about science and culture, uninfluenced by outside pressure and able to say exactly what I think must be said, at the exact moment such words are most necessary.

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Oh no! Trump’s wall to block butterflies!

The bankruptcy of our modern intellectual culture, including its increasingly insane hatred of anything-Trump, might best be illustrated by this story today in the San-Antonio Express-News: First signs of border wall construction spotted at National Butterfly Center.

The full article might be behind a paywall, but let me quote from the teaser text:

A gigantic yellow earth mover arrived on National Butterfly Center land Sunday afternoon, the first sign of the beginnings of border wall construction in that protected habitat.

The steel-and-concrete levee wall is expected to slice through the center, placing 70 of the sanctuary’s 100 acres of land south of it.

Oh my! Isn’t Trump evil! This wall will prevent the illegal immigration of butterflies!

First, any sane rational person will immediately recognize that putting a wall through a butterfly sanctuary is going to do nothing to interfere with the butterflies that use that sanctuary. Butterflies are smarter than the average news reporter, and know that they can simply fly over a wall.

Second, the use of hyperbole in the article’s text reveals the reporter’s bias. The wall will “slice” through the center. And the earth mover is “gigantic” (which anyone can clearly see it is not, simply by looking at the picture at the top of the story). The writer used these absurd emotionally charged words to accentuate the disaster of this “slicing” by the “gigantic” earth mover.

Finally, the article’s timing also reveals the author’s biases. She is acting as a PR agent for Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who last week introduced amendments to the Democratic house budget bill that would have forbid any wall from being built inside or around this or other Texas border parks.

Cuellar’s proposal, however, is clearly not meant to protect the park, but to prevent the border patrol from protecting the U.S. border, as it is constitutionally required to do. It might make sense to require any border wall to skirt the southern edge of these parks in order to prevent harm to the parks, but Cuellar’s proposal specifically outlaws any wall “within, south of, or north of the National Butterfly Center,” essentially making this park a guaranteed gap in the wall which in turn could very well attract illegals in great numbers. Based on what I have seen of illegal trash in federal lands here in southern Arizona, that intrusion would do far more harm to the park than a simple wall.

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Strange fernlike ridges on Mars

Fernlike ridges on Mars

Cool image time! The two images on the right, cropped, rotated, and reduced in resolution to post here, were both taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). To see the full resolution version of each, go to the 2009 and 2018 releases.

The 2009 release was a captioned release, whereby scientist Alfred McEwen of the science team provided his explanation of these strange features.

The dark branched features in the floor of Antoniadi Crater look like giant ferns, or fern casts. However, these ferns would be several miles in size and are composed of rough rocky materials.

A more likely hypothesis is that this represents a channel network that now stands in inverted relief. The channels may have been lined or filled by indurated materials, making the channel fill more resistant to erosion by the wind than surrounding materials. After probably billions of years of wind erosion the resistant channels are now relatively high-standing. The material between the branched ridges has a fracture pattern and color similar to deposits elsewhere on Mars that are known to be rich in hydrated minerals such as clays.

These strange fernlike features do not appear to be very common on Mars. In fact, I suspect that while Mars does have many inverted channels like this, the fernlike nature of these particular channels is unique on Mars. They are located on the floor of Antoniadi Crater, a large 240-mile-wide very ancient and eroded crater located in the Martian southern highlands but near the edge down to the northern lowlands.

In seeing the new 2018 image, I was immediately compelled to place it side by side with 2009 image to see if anything had changed in the ensuring near-decade. There are color differences, but I suspect these are mostly caused by different lighting conditions or post-processing differences. Still, the dark center to the crater in the upper left of both images suggests a change in the dust dunes there, with the possibility that some of the dust has been blown from the crater over time. Also, you can see two horizontal tracks cutting across the center of the 2018 image, which I would guess are dust devil tracks, with one more pronounced.

I can imagine some planetary geologists have spent the last few months, since the second image was taken, pouring over both photographs, and have might even located other interesting changes. And if they find no significant changes, that in itself is revealing, as it gives us a sense of the pace at which the Martian surfaces evolves.

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InSight’s seismometer now fully operational

The InSight science team has completed the deployment of the spacecraft’s seismometer by the placement of its protective domed shield over it.

The Wind and Thermal Shield helps protect the supersensitive instrument from being shaken by passing winds, which can add “noise” to its data. The dome’s aerodynamic shape causes the wind to press it toward the planet’s surface, ensuring it won’t flip over. A skirt made of chain mail and thermal blankets rings the bottom, allowing it to settle easily over any rocks, though there are few at InSight’s location.

The shield also helps protect the instrument from temperature changes.

With this deployment completed they will next deploy the heat flow package to the surface, where it will begin to drill its probe sixteen feet into the ground.

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