Category Archives: Behind The Black

Actor wins Ukraine election

Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won the Ukrainian elections, beating the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko 73.2 to 25.3 per cent.

The official returns have not been released. These results come from exit polls. However, Poroshenko has already conceded defeat.

What happens next will be most interesting. We shall find out if Zelenskiy is the reformer he claims to be.

This article, describing a sense of frustration in Russia and Belarus because such a free election could not happen in their countries, suggests the peaceful transition of rule in Ukraine could have ramifications in its neighboring countries.

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Dragon capsule suffers problem during engine test

Bad news: A SpaceX man-rated Dragon capsule suffered an “anomaly” during an engine test today.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson told Space.com in a statement. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

At the moment we do not have much information. We do not know if this capsule was the one that flew in March and was going to be used in the launch abort test prior to the manned mission, or whether it was another capsule planned for the manned mission itself.

Nor do we know what the problem was, or if it was a SuperDraco thruster that failed.

Regardless, this is going to cause a significant delay in SpaceX’s flight schedule. While they might be able to complete an investigation and resume flying within months, NASA will insist on a NASA-type investigation, drawn out for far longer, possibly years.

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How last year’s global dust storm changed one spot on Mars

One spot on the western flank of  Olympus Mons, August 2017
Click for full image.

To the right is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back in August 2017, cropped, rotated, and reduced to post here. It shows a particular spot on the western slope of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. The uncaptioned image release is entitled “Dark and Possibly Stationary Ripples in Anomalous Terrain.” The image was probably taken as a follow-up to this 2009 image to see if the the dark patches near the peaks and mounds as well as the strange wavy bands of light and dark had changed in eight years. As of 2017 however little had changed. The patches in the 2009 image seem darker, but that is almost certainly due to the lower sun angle causing longer shadows.

The slope goes downhill to the left. The wavy bands are thought to be geological layers exposed by erosion. The cause of the dark patches remain unknown.

I stumbled upon these two early images because of a third new image of this location, taken in February 2019 and spotted by me during my review of April 2019 images downloaded from MRO. That uncaptioned new image was titled “Change Detection in Olympus Maculae.” Had scientists spotted some new volcanic activity at this spot? To find out I dug into the MRO archive at this location and found both the 2009 and 2017 images.

The 2019 image is below. It is cropped, rotated, and reduced to match exactly with the image above in order to highlight any changes that might have occurred.
» Read more

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Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

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China announces plans for asteroid/comet sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced plans to fly an ambitious mission to both an asteroid and comet, which would also bring back a sample from the asteroid.

The current plan, which is still under discussion, calls for a probe to visit and collect samples from the small near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3 (also known as Kamo’oalewa). “Then, the probe will fly back to the proximity of Earth, and a return capsule will be released to bring the samples back to Earth,” Xinhua reported today (April 18), citing a China National Space Administration official. “After that, the probe will continue its journey. With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit the Comet 133P to explore it.”

Both objects are unusual. The asteroid is in a strange solar orbit that almost makes it a moon of the Earth, while the comet appears to be a main-belt asteroid with comet-like activity.

The mission is not finalized yet, so expect some revisions.

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ESA agrees to subsidize Ariane 6 should it fail to sell

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with ArianeGroup, the private company building its next generation rocket Ariane 6, to provide subsidizes to the company should the rocket’s inability to get launch contracts continue.

The problem is that ESA had promised ArianeGroup seven launch contracts from its various governments during the rocket’s development, but only three so far have been signed. Ariane 6, though less expensive than Ariane 5, still costs too much (it is not going to be usable), and it appears that too many member nations in ESA don’t want to pay the extra bucks when they can get the same service cheaper from SpaceX.

This lack of contracts has caused ArianeGroup to slow development.

The new agreement gives the company a financial guarantee should the additional four launch contracts not materialize.

“If seven launch service contracts are not signed by the ministerial at the end of November, then the ESA DG [Director General Jan Woerner] will propose for decision to member states to complement the revenues needed for the first Ariane 64,” said [Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation].

In other words, Ariane 6 is going to turn out just like Ariane 5, an expensive rocket that never makes a profit. Moreover, if ESA requires its members to use its cost will handicap Europe’s future space efforts.

This isn’t a surprise. I predicted this likelihood back in September 2017 when ArianeGroup first announced the prices it planned to charge for Ariane 6 launches. Those prices, for launches in the 2020s, were higher than what SpaceX charges now, and were certainly going to be more uncompetitive in the future.

It seems that Europe’s aerospace industry, both in and out of government, can’t seem to understand these basics of the free market. You have to be competitive, and if you are not, the worst way to fix the problem is pour more money into an uncompetitive product. From the get-go they designed Ariane 6 as if it was 1990, when the industry said reusable rockets were impossible. The result is a rocket no one wants to buy, because everyone knows that by the mid-2020s they will have many inexpensive reusable rockets to choose from. Why buy an overpriced dinosaur?

So, instead of pouring subsidies into Ariane 6, as designed, ESA should be demanding for its money new designs from ArianeGroup that make the rocket cheaper to launch.

Europe does not appear to be doing this, however, so expect Europe to be badly crippled in the upcoming 21st century space race.

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Hubble celebrates 29 years in orbit

Hubble's 29th anniversary image

Click for full image.

In celebration of the 29th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that operates the telescope has released a new image of one of the more spectacular astronomical objects in the southern hemisphere, what astronomers have dubbed the Southern Crab Nebula. I have cropped and reduced the image slightly to post it to the right.

The nebula, officially known as Hen 2-104, is located several thousand light-years from Earth in the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus. It appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a burned-out star, a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers. Some of this ejected material is attracted by the gravity of the companion white dwarf.

The result is that both stars are embedded in a flat disk of gas stretching between them. This belt of material constricts the outflow of gas so that it only speeds away above and below the disk. The result is an hourglass-shaped nebula.

The bubbles of gas and dust appear brightest at the edges, giving the illusion of crab leg structures. These “legs” are likely to be the places where the outflow slams into surrounding interstellar gas and dust, or possibly material which was earlier lost by the red giant star.

The outflow may only last a few thousand years, a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the system. This means that the outer structure may be just thousands of years old, but the inner hourglass must be a more recent outflow event. The red giant will ultimately collapse to become a white dwarf. After that, the surviving pair of white dwarfs will illuminate a shell of gas called a planetary nebula.

Hubble first revealed this nebula’s shape in a photograph taken in 1999.

The telescope was initially designed for a fifteen year mission. It is about to double that, assuming its last remaining gyroscopes can hold on through next year.

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Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has finalized a lease agreement with NASA to refurbish and use one of its old engine test stands, sitting idle since 1998.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of their BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998.

According to the press release, Blue Origin gets this stand essentially for cost. It will pay for the refurbishment and any costs incurred by NASA, but other than that NASA is not charging them a fee.

While I strongly support the concept of the government helping private enterprise, this deal has some aspects that concern me. Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do. If Blue Origin’s work will make this stand useful again for everyone else, great. If instead NASA is essentially giving it its own private test stand for practically free, then not so great.

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International payloads will fly on China’s Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced that it is reserving space on its Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission for international experiments.

The orbiter and lander of the Chang’e-6 mission will each reserve 10 kg for payloads, which will be selected from both domestic colleges, universities, private enterprises and foreign scientific research institutions, said Liu Jizhong, director of the China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the CNSA, at a press conference.

I suspect that the majority of these experiments will be Chinese, but I am also sure that China will get at least one international partner.

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Five exoplanets discovered with orbits from 15 to 40 years long

Twenty years of observations have now resulted in the discovery of five exoplanets with long solar orbits ranging from 15 to 40 years.

“As early as 1998, a planetary monitoring programme was set up and carried out scrupulously by the many … observers [using the EULER telescope belonging to Geneva University, Switzerland,] who took turns every two weeks in La Silla [Chile] for 20 years”, says Emily Rickman. The result is remarkable: five new planets have been discovered and the orbits of four others known have been precisely defined. All these planets have periods of revolution between 15.6 and 40.4 years, with masses ranging approximately from 3 to 27 times that of Jupiter. This study contributes to increasing the list of 26 planets with a rotation period greater than 15 years.

The press release is very poorly written. It does not explain how 21 years of observations pinpointed the orbit of an exoplanet of forty years. I suspect they have seen enough of the star’s wobble to extrapolate that orbit, but the press release should have explained this.

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U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived crash

Scientists for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have revealed that the small U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived the spacecraft’s crash onto the lunar surface.

The NASA payload, known as the Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA), is a technology demonstration composed of eight mirrors made of quartz cube corners that are set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. These mirrors are intended to serve as markers for other spacecraft, which can use them to orient themselves for precision landings. The entire instrument is smaller than a computer mouse and lightweight. But it’s tough, radiation-hardened and designed to be long-lived, so the LRA may not have been destroyed by Beresheet’s hard landing.

“Yes, we believe the laser reflector array would have survived the crash, although it may have separated from the main spacecraft body,” said David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, principal investigator of the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

“Of course, we do not know the orientation of the array,” Smith, who’s also an emeritus researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Inside Outer Space. “It could be upside down, but it has a 120-degree angle of reception, and we only need 1 of the 0.5-inch cubes for detection. But it has certainly not made it any easier.”

They are going to use LOLA to try to find LRA. If they get a reflection, that experiment will essentially be a success, despite Beresheet’s failure.

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NASA announces ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020

In announcing its planned ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020, NASA revealed a schedule that calls for one female astronaut to spend almost eleven months in orbit, a new record, but no planned commercial manned launches during that period.

The planned record-setting mission would have Christina Koch spend 328 days in space.

Koch, who arrived at the space station March 14, and now is scheduled to remain in orbit until February 2020, will set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, eclipsing the record of 288 days set by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson in 2016-17. She will be part of three expeditions – 59, 60 and 61 – during her current first spaceflight. Her mission is planned to be just shy of the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – 340 days, set by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his one-year mission in 2015-16.

Part of the reason that NASA will do this is to gather more data on the long-term effects of weightlessness. Much of this research is repeating and confirming what the Russians already did on Mir more than two decades ago, but with today’s more sophisticated knowledge. It is also exactly what we should be doing on ISS, from the beginning. That NASA has only started to do it now, two decades after ISS’s launch, is somewhat frustrating.

NASA is also extended Koch’s stay to give itself breathing room should the first manned flights of its commercial manned capsules, Dragon from SpaceX and Starliner from Boeing, get delayed. This schedule does not include manned missions from either, but that only illustrates the difference between NASA’s operational and test schedules. I expect that the first manned Dragon flight will occur in 2019, and that SpaceX will be able to begin manned operations before Koch returns.

Boeing is farther behind. It is unclear right now when it will do its first manned launch.

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Antares launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched a Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first launch in 2019. The company hopes to complete 4 launches this year.

Meanwhile the leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. however has widened its lead in the national rankings, 8 to 4.

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Mercury’s core is solid

By comparing computer models with data gathered during the closest orbits of the Messenger spacecraft when it was in orbit around Mercury scientists have concluded that the planet’s inner core is solid like the Earth’s, though much larger than the Earth’s relative to the planet’s size.

Genova and his team put data from MESSENGER into a sophisticated computer program that allowed them to adjust parameters and figure out what the interior composition of Mercury must be like to match the way it spins and the way the spacecraft accelerated around it. The results showed that for the best match, Mercury must have a large, solid inner core. They estimated that the solid, iron core is about 1,260 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide and makes up about half of Mercury’s entire core (about 2,440 miles, or nearly 4,000 kilometers, wide). In contrast, Earth’s solid core is about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) across, taking up a little more than a third of this planet’s entire core.

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All high resolution images from Rosetta now available

The Rosetta science team has now made available to the public all 70,000 images taken by the spacecraft’s high resolution camera.

Between 2014 and 2016, the scientific camera system OSIRIS onboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft captured almost 70000 images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They not only document the most extensive and demanding comet mission to date, but also show the duck-shaped body in all its facets. In a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), head of the OSIRIS team, has now published all of these images. The OSIRIS Image Viewer is suited to the needs of both laymen and expert and offers quick and easy access to one of the greatest scientific treasures of recent years.

The Rosetta archive can be found here.

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SpaceX booster damaged on barge but not lost

According to an Associated Press report today, the Falcon Heavy core stage was damaged when it toppled over in heavy seas, but was not entirely lost.

The company confirmed Tuesday that the unsecured core booster toppled onto the platform over the weekend, as waves reached 8 to 10 feet. SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the engines seem OK. There’s no immediate word on how many of the booster pieces remain on board.

Musk says custom devices to secure the booster weren’t ready in time for this second flight of the Falcon Heavy.

From this report it sounds like the engine part of the stage remained on the barge. We shall see. Also, this report might explain the lack of a robot to secure the stage. The robot wasn’t ready, but rather than delay the launch for this reason they went ahead.

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Did an interstellar meteor hit the Earth in 2014?

By analyzing the speed in which it traveled through the atmosphere, astronomers propose that a meteor that hit the ground in 2014 was probably an interstellar object.

The scientists analyzed the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies’ catalog of meteor events detected by U.S. government sensors. They focused on the fastest meteors, because a high speed suggests a meteor is potentially not gravitationally bound to the sun and thus may originate from outside the solar system.

The researchers identified a meteor about 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide that was detected on Jan. 8, 2014, at an altitude of 11.6 miles (18.7 kilometers) over a point near Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in the South Pacific. Its high speed of about 134,200 mph (216,000 km/h) and its trajectory suggested it came from outside the solar system, the scientists said. “We can use the atmosphere of the Earth as the detector for these meteors, which are too small to otherwise see,” Loeb told Space.com.

The meteor’s velocity suggested it received a gravitational boost during its journey, perhaps from the deep interior of a planetary system, or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of uncertainties about this conclusion. Nonetheless, their approach and hypothesis is very intriguing, and seems logical.

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Beresheet failure linked to ground command

SpaceIL’s investigation into the landing failure of its Beresheet lunar spacecraft now suggests that a ground command to reactivate a balky inertial measurement unit (IMU) might have caused the main engine to shut down.

A command intended to correct a malfunction in one of the Beresheet spacecraft’s inertial measurement unit (IMUs) led to a chain of events which turned off its main engine during landing, according to a preliminary investigation conducted by SpaceIL.

…A chain of events caused by a command sent from the SpaceIL control room turned off the spacecraft’s main engine and prevented proper engine activation, Anteby said, rendering a crash-landing on the Moon inevitable.

It is still unclear how a command to one shut down the other, but the investigation is still on going. I suspect they will pin this down to a software design issue.

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SpaceX loses Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas

SpaceX announced today that it lost the Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas on its way back to port.

“Over the weekend, due to rough sea conditions, SpaceX’s recovery team was unable to secure the center core booster for its return trip to Port Canaveral,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright.” “While we had hoped to bring the booster back intact, the safety of our team always takes precedence. We do not expect future missions to be impacted,” he said.

While SpaceX does have hardware on its drone ship designed to secure first stages – often referred to as a flat “robot” that holds them in place – it was not used for this mission, which successfully took an Arabsat satellite to orbit last Thursday. The connections between the robot and center core aren’t compatible like they would be with a standard Falcon 9 booster, but SpaceX is expected to upgrade both in the future.

This is unfortunate. At the same time, it illustrates how far ahead of its competitors SpaceX is. While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.

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Seasonal frost in a gully on Mars

Frost in a gully on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped, reduced, and brightened slightly to post here, was part of the April image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). According to the titled of this release, it purports to show visible frost on what looks like an avalanche debris slope on the rim of a large crater. The frost is the bright streaks on the upper left of the slope.

I wonder. During last month’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, there was one paper that I reported on that showed something very similar to this, and proposed that white streaks like this in a gully were actually exposed snow/ice. They proposed that the snow/ice was normally covered by dust, and the white streaks were where the dust had blown away to reveal the ice below. This in turn would then sublimate into gas, which in turn would cause the gully avalanches over time.

Below is a close-up of the white streaks on this rim.
» Read more

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