Category Archives: Behind The Black

Two dead at U.S. Antarctic station

An accident of some kind has apparently killed two individuals at the U.S. McMurdo station in Antarctica yesterday.

The National Science Foundation says two technicians working on a fire-suppression system at an Antarctica scientific station were found unconscious and died.

The foundation said Wednesday the two had been working in a building at McMurdo Station, which is on Ross Island. It says they were found on the floor by a helicopter pilot who had landed after spotting what appeared to be smoke from the building.

Nothing more is as yet known.

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MRO photographs InSight on Mars

The high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has located and photographed InSight, its heat shield, and its parachute.

The pictures themselves are not very interesting. What is important however is for scientists to know exactly where InSight is located so they can better understand the data it sends back of Mars’ interior. They now have that information.

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Trace Gas Orbiter finds no methane on Mars

The uncertainty of science: Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has failed to detect any methane in Mars’ atmosphere, even though data from Mars Express in 2004 had said it should see some.

The Mars Express orbiter first detected hints of methane in the martian atmosphere in 2004. But some scientists said the orbiter’s instruments that found it—at a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb)—weren’t sensitive enough to produce reliable results. Ten years later, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected a methane spike of 7 ppb from its base in Gale crater, which lasted several months. Several years later, Curiosity’s scientists then discovered a minute seasonal cycle, with methane levels peaking at 0.7 ppb in the late northern summer.

To settle this mystery, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016, this year began to scan the atmosphere for methane. Two of the TGO’s spectrometers—a Belgian instrument called NOMAD and a Russian one called ACS—were designed to detect methane in such low concentrations that researchers were sure they would. Both instruments, which analyze horizontal slices of the martian atmosphere backlit by the sun, are working well, scientists on the team said today at a semiannual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. There’s still some noise to clean up, said Ann Carine Vandaele, NOMAD’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels, in her talk. “But we already know we can’t see any methane.”

The team’s initial results show no detection of methane down to a minute level of 50 parts per trillion, with their observations going down nearly all the way to the martian surface.

The data says that any methane seen on the surface (such as by Curiosity) must be coming from below, not from off world, which in itself is a surprise since the scientists expected some methane to be coming from interplanetary dust. TGO has found none..

There are a lot of uncertainties still, so stay tuned.

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Why ULA picked Blue Origin’s engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In an interview of ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, he subtly revealed why his company in the end favored Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in the design of the Vulcan rocket.

Unlike many of the new entrants that you talk about coming in today, we’re not a startup company living off investor capital; we’re a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [Editor’s note: This is a reference to Blue Origin] brought investment as well as schedule, that was a pretty important factor. It became pretty obvious what the right choice was, and we arrived at it with our stakeholders.

In other words, Blue Origin’s willingness to invest its own capital in engine development was a major factor. Aerojet Rocketdyne was using the old model of big space, whereby all development money came from the government. It had been unwilling to commit any of its own funds to engine development. This reluctance implied it wasn’t really committed to the project. If Air Force funding disappeared, they’d back out, leaving ULA in the lurch.

This tidbit from Bruno also suggests that he and the management at ULA are sincerely working to reshape ULA from an old big space company, totally reliant on the subsidies given by the government, into a modern competitive company focused instead on building an affordable product that customers will want to buy.

This story also tells us a lot about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s future, or lack thereof. The rocket industry is changing, and if that company doesn’t change also, it will soon die.

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Cats might be larger now than in the past

The uncertainty of science: A careful analysis of cat bones from numerous Viking archeology sites going back 2000 years suggests that the size of cats increased during those centuries.

After carefully measuring the bones with an electronic caliper, Bitz-Thorsen and Gotfredsen compared them with those of modern Danish cats dating from 1870 to the present. On average, domesticated cats grew by about 16% between the Viking Age and today, they report this month in the Danish Journal of Archaeology.

The study only focused on Danish cats, so the findings may not be generalizable to other parts of the world. However, a 1987 study of a collection of cat bones from Germany bolsters the idea that domestic cats of the medieval age were smaller than modern-day pets.

They think the size increase was due to better food.

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Virgin Galactic finally reaches space, by one definition

Capitalism in space: By one of the definitions of where space begins, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo Unity finally reached space for the first time during a test flight today.

During a flight test today, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo burned its engine for 60 seconds and reached an altitude of 271,268 (51.37 miles/82.7 km), which put the vehicle into space for the first time according to one definition of the boundary.

Pilots C.J. Sturkow and Mark Stucky deployed the spacecraft’s feather system — twin tail booms that re-configure the ship for re-entry — after reaching a top speed of Mach 2.9. They glided the vehicle back to a safe landing on Runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert.

The U.S military initially defined space as beginning at 50 miles altitude. Later the international definition defining space as beginning at 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) became more accepted. In recent years there has been a push to accept the U.S. military’s older definition (partly I think generated by Virgin Galactic itself). Truth is, the U.S. military’s definition actually makes more sense, since it is possible to orbit a satellite at 50 miles, for short periods.

The pressure to change however does suggest that Unity might not be capable of reaching 62 miles.

Regardless, this flight culminates fourteen years of effort at Richard Branson s company to produce a reusable suborbital spaceship that can fly in space. It appears they have finally done it. Whether it will be reliable enough to fly repeatedly, with commercial passengers, remains to be seen. Moreover, the commercial landscape has changed considerably during those fourteen years. Had they flown a decade ago, as Branson repeatedly predicted, they would have been the only game in town. That is no longer the case. They now have a competitor, Blue Origin with its suborbital New Shepard spaceship, and affordable commercial orbital flights are just around the corner.

Still, Virgin Galactic’s achievement here is significant. They have built a spaceship that has taken humans to space (and can do it again), and they have done it with private funds.

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Do tornadoes form top-down or down-up?

The uncertainty of science: New data now suggests that tornadoes might form from the ground upward, not from the clouds downward, as previously and generally accepted believed.

Houser and a team of researchers from the University of Oklahoma happened to be monitoring the storm with a new type of mobile Doppler radar system that collected tornado wind speeds every 30 seconds. Afterwards, Anton Seimon, a geographer at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina who had chased the El Reno storm, collected hundreds of still photos and videos of the epic twister from citizens and fellow storm chasers.

When Houser compared her radar data with images collected by Seimon, she noticed something odd. The images clearly showed a visible tornado at the ground several minutes before her radar picked it up. Puzzled, Houser went back through her radar data and analyzed the data taken at the ground. It is typically difficult to get good radar measurements at or near the ground, but Houser and her team had deployed their instrument on a slight rise and there were no obstructions between them and the tornado, so this time, they had data good enough to work with.

She found clear evidence of rotation at the ground before there was rotation at higher altitudes. Houser then examined other sets of tornado data and found that in many cases, tornado-strength rotation develops at or near the ground first, rather than starting in the cloud itself. In all four datasets she analyzed, none of the tornadoes formed following the classical “top-down” process.

What is really interesting about this research is that it shows that at least some tornadoes develop from the ground up, something no one predicted. The research also illustrates that the formation of tornadoes is very complicated and that we still do not understand it, in the slightest.

While the researchers here try to imply that this data also proves that all tornadoes must form from the ground up, they are wrong. The data shows that some appear to form from the bottom up, but this does not prove that others might do the opposite. We simply do not know enough yet.

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Syria wants its own space program

The new colonial movement: The head of Syria’s ministry of communications and technology said during a visit to that country’s satellite remote sensing facility that their nation should organize a space program, beginning with the construction of an entirely home-built satellite.

I’m not sure how much of this will be possible considering how badly ripped apart Syria presently is because of its civil war. To me, it looks more like a some somewhat ignorant brasshat, while visiting a space facility, sounding off with what he would like done.

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R.I.P. Riccardo Giacconi

The astronomy community is mourning the passing of Riccardo Giacconi, a pioneer in space X-ray astronomy as well as the first director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble.

What made him an especially interesting man is that he initially strongly opposed Hubble, preferring the money be spent on X-ray space telescopes. When, during the writing of The Universe in a Mirror, I asked him what prompted his change of opinion that made him head of Hubble, he explained that he felt he “wasn’t being used.” The money for X-ray astronomy just wasn’t there, and rather than chase rainbows he decided to hitch his wagon to something that was certain to produce new science.

The irony is that it was Hubble’s success that probably helped generate the funding for later X-ray space telescopes, such as Chandra.,

Giacconi was a unique and brilliant man. His early X-ray instruments were built by a private commercial company he ran, not a university or NASA. In a sense he was following the classic and older American model here that was abandoned in the 1970s, and is only now beginning to see a resurgence.

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A detailed look at Chang’e-4

Link here. Lots of nice information, including the fact that Chang’e-3 seems to still be functioning in a limited manner, and that Chang’e-4 is depending not on solar panels but a radioactive thermal electric system, similar I think to the RPGs that NASA uses on its deep space missions. (I am uncertain however about this, based on looking at the video at the link, which seems to show solar panels on Chang’e-4. They could be instead panels to protect the spacecraft from the sun’s heat.)

They enter lunar orbit on December 12, and will likely land in the first week of January.

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Russian astronauts complete spacewalk to inspect drill hole

Two Russian astronauts yesterday successfully completed a difficult spacewalk aimed at inspecting the drill hole that had been found on the Soyuz capsule on ISS.

Around midnight in Moscow (4 p.m. EST), the cosmonauts began cleaning the work place to prepare tackling the micro-meteoroid shielding, which turned out to be easier than work with soft insulation. In around 10 minutes, they cut and peeled off a segment of the shielding, but it took them a few minutes to actually see the hole at the edge of the exposed area and they had to cut a second smaller piece of meteoroid shielding.

They improvised an attempt to pick black material extruding from the hole with forceps, but it was very difficult to do in bulky spacesuit and due to the brittle nature of the material. Around six hours into the spacewalk, they finally proceeded with a pre-planned sampling operation.

The spacewalk was so hard because they were working on the outside of the Soyuz capsule in an area where no spacewalk was ever planned. No handholds. They had to bring them with them, and attach them.

No word yet on any conclusions about the drill hole.

Posted from Buffalo, NY. I am finally back from Israel, only to end up in a very cold and snowy place, not my favorite environments. No matter. There is a lecture for me to give tonight.

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OSIRIS-REx finds evidence of water on Bennu

Bennu from 15 miles

One of OSIRIS-REx’s instruments has now found evidence of water on the rubble-pile asteroid Bennu.

Recently analyzed data from NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has revealed water locked inside the clays that make up its scientific target, the asteroid Bennu.

During the mission’s approach phase, between mid-August and early December, the spacecraft traveled 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) on its journey from Earth to arrive at a location 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. During this time, the science team on Earth aimed three of the spacecraft’s instruments towards Bennu and began making the mission’s first scientific observations of the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

The image on the right, reduced to show here, was created from 12 images taken on December 2, 2018 from about 15 miles. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution photograph, which is quite incredible. While the asteroid’s shape is approximately what was expected from ground-based observations and computer modeling, the giant boulder on the limb on the bottom right is about four times bigger than expected.

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Voyager 2 enters interstellar space

The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has entered interstellar space, becoming the second human spacecraft to achieve this.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

When I first wrote about these spacecraft in the 1990s, it was thought that Voyager 2 would probably not exit the solar system until the 2020s, meaning that its nuclear power source might die before that happened. That it has happened now, so much earlier, helps map the size of the heliosphere as well as the pressure that might be placed upon it by the interstellar medium

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“Just leave me alone.”

They’re coming for you next: The New York City government, in an effort to protect the used and iconic bookstore “The Strand,” is considering giving it landmark status, a designation the owner, wife of a liberal Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), has begged them not to do.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering whether or not to designate the Strand a city landmark, protecting the store from financial marauders who want to scoop up its valuable real estate. But, in a bit of Shakespearean irony, the iconic bookstore is threatened by those charged with its preservation.

Strand’s current owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, wife of Oregon senator Ron Wyden, is not letting her liberalism balance the books. “By landmarking the Strand, you can also destroy a piece of New York history. We’re operating on very thin margins here, and this would just cost us a lot more, with this landmarking, and be a lot more hassle,” Wyden told the Commission during a public hearing.

Wyden also took a shot at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, owner of the great scourge of brick-and-mortar bookstores everywhere. “The richest man in America, who’s a direct competitor, has just been handed $3 billion in subsidies. I’m not asking for money or a tax rebate,” she explained, appealing not to the Commission’s egalitarian instincts, but to the principle of privacy. “Just leave me alone,” Wyden beseeched her would-be viceroys.

It doesn’t matter if you are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, big government bureaucracies always end up abusing their power under the lie that they “are here to help you.” The sad thing is that Senator Wyden and his wife are not going to learn any lessons from this tale. I am certain that the Senator will continue to support the Democratic Party’s modern effort to socialize American society under the banner of an all-powerful federal bureaucracy, so that an even bigger government bureaucracy will have the ability to abuse its power over even more people, under the lie that they “are here to help you.”.

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First test flight of Dragon manned capsule delayed ten days

In order to avoid a conflict at ISS with the Dragon cargo freighter that just docked there, SpaceX has now delayed the unmanned test launch of its first Dragon manned capsule by ten days, to no earlier than January 17, 2019.

The article at the link is mostly focused on describing the experiments and cargo that the cargo freighter just brought to ISS, but it includes these scheduling details involving the unmanned test flight:

The cargo Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning experiments from the International Space Station and is in relatively high demand. Thus, the worms will either return aboard this CRS-16 Dragon or wait until spring when the CRS-17 Dragon departs the orbital outpost. Regardless, once the newly delivered science experiments and cargo are removed from Dragon, the International Space Station crew will pack the craft full of return cargo before closing Dragon’s hatch and releasing it from the Station in mid-January 2019 for return to Earth.

Presently, CRS-16’s unberth and landing date is set for 13 January 2019, which at the time of the mission’s launch set up a potential overlap between CRS-16 and SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) for the Commercial Crew Program.

At the time of CRS-16’s launch, the uncrewed DM-1 test flight had been targeting a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 7 January 2019 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with a docking to the International Space Station to follow on 10 January. That NET 7 January launch date officially slipped on Friday to NET 17 January.

I once again want to emphasize that the only thing that I see that might delay this launch is NASA’s effort to slow it down.

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Delta Heavy launch aborts at T-7.5 seconds

A ULA Delta Heavy aborted its launch of a secret National Security Administration surveillance satellite last night at T-7.5 seconds.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the rocket’s three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines started their ignition sequences, but a statement later released by ULA said the computer-controlled countdown sequencer ordered an abort at T-minus 7.5 seconds.

In the statement, ULA said the abort was “due to an unexpected condition during terminal count at approximately 7.5 seconds before liftoff. “The team is currently reviewing all data and will determine the path forward. A new launch date will be provided when available,” ULA said.

Obviously, there is no word yet on a new launch date.

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Boeing cancels satellite deal involving hidden China funding

Boeing has canceled its sale of a communications satellite to a company that appears largely funded in secret by Chinese sources.

Boeing says it has canceled a controversial satellite order from a U.S.-based startup, which had received the bulk of its funding from a Chinese-government owned financial company. The deal, which critics warned could give China access to sensitive technology, comes amid a period of especially acrimonious relations between Washington and Beijing over a host of issues, including industrial espionage and intellectual property theft.

The Chicago-headquartered aerospace company announced its decision, which it said was only because of non-payment on the part of the customer, to nix the deal, worth more than $200 million, on Dec. 6, 2018. Two days earlier, the Wall Street Journal had published an expose detailing the links between the official buyer, Global IP, and a string of Chinese government operated entities and individuals with significant connections to China’s Communist Party and military establishment.

If carried out, the satellite sale would have provided the Chinese detailed information about the satellite’s technical design.

This story highlights the Chinese way of developing new technology: They generally steal it. Though their engineering upgrades are often brilliant, they have shown little innovation or originality in their work. Their entire manned program is an upgrade of the Russians Soviet-era space station program. Their decisions recently to build smallsat rockets as well as vertically landing reusable first stages only occurred after private commercial companies in the U.S. proved that both will work and can make money.

Boeing almost certainly backed out when it realized that the Chinese involvment was substantial, and exposed it to criminal penalties.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

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New Horizons completes another course correction before flyby

On December 2 New Horizons successfully completed another engine burn to refine its course for its January 1, 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule.

The maneuver was designed to keep New Horizons on track toward its ideal arrival time and closest distance to Ultima, just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1. At the time of the burn New Horizons was 4.03 billon miles (6.48 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 40 million miles (64 million kilometers) from Ultima – less than half the distance between Earth and the Sun. From that far away, the radio signals carrying data from the spacecraft needed six hours, at light speed, to reach home.

The team is analyzing whether to conduct up to three other course-correction maneuvers to home in on Ultima Thule.

The distance to Ultima Thule is still too much to produce detailed images. New Horizons however is going very fast, so in the coming three weeks this will change drastically, and for the better.

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China launches lunar rover/lander Chang’e-4; Saudi satellites

Using its Long March 3B rocket, China on December 7 successfully launched its Chang’e-4 rover/lander, aimed at being the first probe to land on the Moon’s far side.

It will take the probe five days to reach the Moon and land.

The same day China also launched two Earth observation satellites for Saudi Arabia, using its Long March 2D rocket.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

35 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)

China has widened its lead over the U.S. 35 to 32 in the national rankings. China also looks like it is going to come close to meeting its prediction of 40 launches for 2018.

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Calculating Bennu’s future

In order to better constrain Bennu’s future fly-bys of the Earth, including the possibility that it could impact the planet, scientists will be using the data sent from OSIRIS-REx to better understand its orbit, its composition, its surface make-up, and its thermal properties, all factors that can influence its future path in space.

This is really important, as Bennu has a good chance of hitting the Earth in the future.

About a third of a mile, or half a kilometer, wide, Bennu is large enough to reach Earth’s surface; many smaller space objects, in contrast, burn up in our atmosphere. If it impacted Earth, Bennu would cause widespread damage. Asteroid experts at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, project that Bennu will come close enough to Earth over the next century to pose a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting it between 2175 and 2196. Put another way, those odds mean there is a 99.963 percent chance the asteroid will miss the Earth. Even so, astronomers want to know exactly where Bennu is located at all times.

The article provides a good overview of the difficulty of properly calculating Bennu’s orbit into the future, and how the data from OSIRIS-REx will help make those calculations more precise.

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InSight tests its robot arm

InSight has unfolded its robot arm and is beginning to use it to photograph the surrounding area to figure out where to place the spacecraft’s ground-sensing instruments.

With a reach of nearly 6 feet (2 meters), the arm will be used to pick up science instruments from the lander’s deck, gently setting them on the Martian surface at Elysium Planitia, the lava plain where InSight touched down on Nov. 26.

But first, the arm will use its Instrument Deployment Camera, located on its elbow, to take photos of the terrain in front of the lander. These images will help mission team members determine where to set InSight’s seismometer and heat flow probe – the only instruments ever to be robotically placed on the surface of another planet.

They are proceeding carefully, so actually deployment might not occur for several months, just make everything goes well.

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Sunspot update November 2018: Minimum continues

NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for November 2018, was released yesterday. As I have done every month since this website began in July 2011, I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

November 2018 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.

As I have been expecting now for the last three months, NOAA has finally revised this graph to extend it past the end of 2018. The graph below is the graph from October, which follows the layout and design used since 2007. You can see the differences by comparing the two graphs. In extending the new graph to the end of 2022, they fortunately did not change the design significantly. However, because the new graph has a slightly different scale, I have stretched the green and red curves to make them fit properly. While I suspect the poor quality of the 2007 and 2009 predictions is one reason they do not include them on their graph, I think it essential to add them to better understand the limitations of the science.
» Read more

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