Category Archives: Behind The Black

Mountains on the Moon

Mountains on the Moon

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced slightly to post here, shows several high mountains on the far side of the Moon. If you click on the image you can see it at full resolution.

The summit of the unnamed peak in the foreground (50.2° S, 236.6° E) has an elevation of 6710 meters, about 7000 meters (about 23,000 feet) of relief relative to the low point at the bottom of the image. The two peaks on the horizon, 200 kilometers in the distance (about 125 miles), have summit elevations of 4320 meters (14,200 feet) and 4680 meters (15,350), respectively and both rise more than 6000 meters (almost 20,000 feet) above their surroundings.

In the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team release in June, they noted that the high peak here is actually taller than Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest peak within the U.S. And it has no name. They also note that the peak is likely 4 billion years old, and has experienced extensive erosion in that time, meaning that it is also likely shorter than it once was.

I don’t have anything to add, other than this would be an amazing place to put up a resort, with trails taking you to the top of the mountains. In the lighter gravity, the hike would actually be somewhat easy, even wearing a spacesuit. And you wouldn’t have to worry about a thinning atmosphere as you climbed higher, as you do on Earth. You’d be carrying it with you.

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Want to look at every planetary map ever made? You can!

Two Polish academics have created a web-available catalog intended to contain every planetary map ever created, beginning in 1600 through the present.

“Our catalogue is being updated regularly with both newly resurfaced historic maps and new additions. For the future, we plan to add maps that have been published in journal articles and digitize maps that do not yet include GIS formats,” added Hargitai. “We live in a transition period where static maps that characterized the last 400 years may become extinct, replaced by dynamic digital map services and tools. In the digital platforms it is becoming difficult even to define what we consider to be a ‘map’, and not just layers of spatial data. Maps are used for mission planning, surface operation, and post-mission analysis. In the near future, they will be key components of planning and operating new human missions.”

The website is here. At the moment the catalog seems significantly incomplete, with only several hundred maps available. Hopefully this will expand with time.

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Stratolaunch considering launching hypersonic rocket tests from its Roc airplane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch is now considering building and launching hypersonic rocket test program using its giant Roc airplane.

In the concept study presented this week, Corda and his colleagues provide a detailed description of a delta-wing testbed plane called the Hyper-Z. It would be 83.4 feet long, with a wingspan of 32.4 feet and a launch weight of about 65,000 pounds.

Stratolaunch’s hydrogen-fueled PGA rocket engine would serve as the plane’s main propulsion system, but it could also be equipped with an air-breathing propulsion system, such as a scramjet engine. The flight profiles could accommodate a maximum speed of Mach 11, or a maximum altitude of 477,000 feet.

Hyper-Z would be launched from Stratolaunch’s mammoth twin-fuselage carrier airplane [Roc], which has a record-setting wingspan of 385 feet.

I must emphasize that this is only a concept proposal at this point. The company still has to verify the operation of Roc.

What this proposal does suggest to me is that the company is still struggling to find a profitable use for Roc, and customers to go along with it. This concept appears to be a lobbying effort to both the military and NASA, offering them Roc as a testbed for such flight tests.

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NOAA awards three more experimental commercial weather contracts

Capitalism in space: NOAA this week awarded three commercial companies contracts to provide the agency weather data in its expanding effort to get this data not from government satellites but from private sources.

In the Sept. 17 announcement, NOAA said it was issuing contracts to GeoOptics, PlanetIQ and Spire to provide GPS radio occultation weather data from satellites currently in orbit or planned for launch in the coming months. That technique measures the refraction of GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere and are received by the companies’ satellites, which can provide temperature and pressure profiles to support weather forecasting models.

The awards represent round two of NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, an effort by the agency to experiment with buying data from commercial providers to determine its usefulness, as well as to examine various technical and programmatic issues with such data buys.

NOAA’s management bureaucracy has resisted this transition to private enterprise, much as NASA’s bureaucracy has. Nonetheless, NOAA’s inability to built and launch weather satellites at a reasonable cost and in a practical timeframe is forcing it to change.

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More details about Sunspot Observatory closure confirms child porn investigation

News stories this morning provide further confirmation that the closure of the Sunspot Observatory in New Mexico occurred in connection with a child porn investigation. The key quote that explains why the FBI closed the facility:

The search warrant provided to a judge the justifications for agents to search computers, cellphones or tablets owned by the janitor, Joshua Lee Cope, and the house trailer where he lives. An FBI agent seized the laptop at the observatory on Aug. 21, 2018, and took it to the FBI office in Las Cruces, court documents said. FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said Thursday that no one has been charged and the investigation is ongoing.

Cope, 30, lives on property owned by his parents in La Luz, the search warrant said. A phone message left for Cope at a telephone number listed for his parents seeking comment was not immediately returned.

After Cope could not find his laptop, the court documents said, he began to act frantically and told the chief observer that there was a “serial killer in the area, and that he was fearful that the killer might enter the facility and execute someone.”

The observatory closed, without consulting FBI agents, after Cope’s comments about the serial killer and his erratic behavior, the warrant said.

My guess is that the observatory became concerned about Cope’s behavior, and closed to protect itself and its other employees, forcing everyone to leave. This also explains the cryptic nature of their closure announcement, as they also did not want to implicate anyone and risk a lawsuit.

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Creeping into Ryugu

Ryugu

Cool images! As Hayabusu-2 creeps to its closest approach to Ryugu in preparation to releasing its first two mini-landers, dubbed MINERVA-II-1 and 2, the images coming down about once every half hour show the asteroid increasingly closer, with the spectacular shadow of Hayabusa-2 with its solar panels clearly visible.

The image on the right was downloaded about 10 pm (Pacific) tonight. The boulder-strewn field of Ryugu is also clearly visible. The black areas are where data has not yet been downloaded. The bright area under the shadow is merely an optical illusion.

UPDATE: A look at this webpage provides some details. When this image was taken the spacecraft was about 60 100 meters above the surface, its closest approach yet. This was also when the MINERVA-II landers were to be deployed.

All later images at the first link above were from a greater distance.

UPDATE: I have corrected the post. They released both MINERVA-II rovers, and they did it about 100 meters distance from the asteroid, not 60. We will not know the mini-landers’ status until late today.

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Nordic Choir – Sure on this Shining Night

An evening pause: From a James Agee poem:

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

Hat tip Danae.

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Rocket Lab signs another satellite launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has signed another satellite launch contract, this time with the Luxembourg-based company Kleos Space.

US orbital launch provider Rocket Lab has signed a contract with Luxembourg-based satellite technology company Kleos Space to launch the scouting mission satellites that will geolocate maritime radio to guard borders, protect assets and save lives.

The multi-satellite system of the Kleos Scouting Mission (KSM) will form the cornerstones of a 20-system constellation that will geolocate VHF transmissions from marine vessels to provide global activity-based intelligence data as a service. The Kleos Space constellation will detect radio transmissions and pinpoint their origin and timing, enabling governments and organizations to detect activity such as drug and people smuggling, illegal fishing and piracy, and also identify those in need of search and rescue at sea.

The contract is for launches in mid-2019, which suggests that Rocket Lab is increasingly confident that it will be able to ramp up operations significantly once it makes its next two launches in November and December.

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Hayabusa-2 sees its shadow

Ryugu, with Hayabusa-2's shadow

During its aborted landing rehearsal last week Hayabusa-2 imaged its own shadow as it approached within 600 meters of Ryugu.

The shadow is only a little dot on the surface of the asteroid, but to have resolved it is quite impressive. The image on the right has been annotated by me to indicate the shadow.

They have not said when they will do another landing rehearsal. Meanwhile, two of the spacecraft’s mini-landers are expected to be released sometime in the next few days.

Update: Based on the raw navigation images being released in real time from Hayabusa-2, the release of the MINERVA-II-1 has begun, with Hayabusa-2 moving in towards Ryugu in preparation for that release.

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Curiosity has problem sending back its stored data

The science team running Curiosity found this week that the rover is suddenly unable to send back its stored data.

Over the past few days, engineers here at JPL have been working to address an issue on Curiosity that is preventing it from sending much of the science and engineering data stored in its memory. The rover remains in its normal mode and is otherwise healthy and responsive.

The issue first appeared Saturday night while Curiosity was running through the weekend plan. Besides transmitting data recorded in its memory, the rover can transmit “real-time” data when it links to a relay orbiter or Deep Space Network antenna. These real-time data are transmitting normally, and include various details about the rover’s status. Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue. Because the amount of data coming down is limited, it might take some time for the engineering team to diagnose the problem.

On Monday and Tuesday, engineers discussed which real-time details would be the most useful to have. They also commanded the rover to turn off science instruments that were still on, since their data are not being stored. They’re also preparing to use the rover’s backup computer in case they need to use it to diagnose the primary computer. That backup computer was the rover’s primary one until Sol 200, when it experienced both a hardware failure and software issue that have since been addressed.

In other words, the rover is functioning, they can communicate with it in real time, but any data stored on board for some reason is not being transmitted.

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Astronomers detect matter falling into black hole at 30% of the speed of light

Using the XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope astronomers have detected matter falling into the central supermassive black hole at 30% of the speed of light in a galaxy a billion light years away.

Using data from XMM-Newton, Prof. Pounds and his collaborators looked at X-ray spectra (where X-rays are dispersed by wavelength) from the galaxy PG211+143. This object lies more than one billion light years away in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, and is a Seyfert galaxy, characterised by a very bright AGN [active galactic nucleus] resulting from the presence of the massive black hole at its nucleus.

The researchers found the spectra to be strongly red-shifted, showing the observed matter to be falling into the black hole at the enormous speed of 30 per cent of the speed of light, or around 100,000 kilometres per second. The gas has almost no rotation around the hole, and is detected extremely close to it in astronomical terms, at a distance of only 20 times the hole’s size (its event horizon, the boundary of the region where escape is no longer possible).

Astronomers have theorized for several decades that the reason Seyfert galaxies have such active nuclei is exactly because matter is falling into the central black hole. This observation appears to confirm that theory.

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September 19, 2018 Zimmerman Beyond Reality appearance

If you want to listen to my appearance yesterday on Beyond Reality Radio, the podcast is now available on youtube here, cued to the start of the segment.

This appearance was a real pleasure, because it was very clear the hosts had not only researched things beforehand so they could come up with good questions, they also listened to what I actually said. I hope to appear again on their show.

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Sunspot observatory shut down for child porn investigation?

According to one New Mexico television station, the Sunspot Observatory was shut down last week in connection with a investigation into child porn.

A federal search warrant reveals that Sunspot Solar Observatory was shut down as FBI agents conducted computer forensic searches for child pornography.

The source of child pornography was traced to an IP address used at the observatory and a source within the building observed a computer with “not good” images on it, the warrant states.

An investigation by the FBI revealed that a janitor is the main suspect in the search, however he has not been charged with a crime even though his name in on the warrant.

This might also explain why the post office was searched, assuming they were trying to trace further porn material there.

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On the radio + September 18, 2018 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

The Batchelor podcast is embedded below the fold in two parts. Meanwhile, I will be on the radio for extended appearances both tonight and tomorrow night. Tonight I make what I think will be my first appearance on Beyond Reality Radio from approximately 12 midnight to 2 am (eastern). Tomorrow I make another one of my long appearances on Coast to Coast from 12 midnight to 2 am (pacific).

Every one of these should be a blast.
» Read more

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The volcano Llullaillaco

Llullaillaco volcano in South America

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows a volcano not on Mars or the Moon or any of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, but here on Earth in South America!

Llullaillaco is a stratovolcano at the border of Argentina and Chile. It lies on a high plateau close to the Atacama Desert. At an elevation of 6723 m ASL, it is the second highest active volcano in the world. About 150,000 years ago the volcano’s southeastern flank collapsed, producing a debris avalanche that traveled 25 kilometers. The youngest dated rocks are about 5600 years old; but there are local reports of activity from the 1800s. The perspective image looking east was acquired December 19, 2014.

If you click on the link you can see the full image. It was taken by one of the instruments on the Earth-observation satellite Terra, launched in December 1999. Though the website for this image does not state so, I suspect that some of the colors we see here are false colors, as some of the data comes from the infrared.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

Link here. The key piece of news is that both companies now believe they meet NASA’s safety requirements.

[D]uring a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection. “Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

It should be understood that the requirements being discussed here really have nothing to do with actual engineering, but are based on a statistical analysis that estimates the risk to any passenger. In other words, it is a pure guess, and can be manipulated any way anyone wants. This is why NASA’s manager above is so vague. What she is really saying is that NASA is slowly being forced to accept the analysis of the contractors.

The article at the link also details the present schedule, which appears mostly unchanged (though Musk indicated there might be a slight delay in Dragon during his BFR presentation earlier this week), and the efforts by both companies to make their capsules reusable.

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British test satellite uses net to capture target

A British test satellite has successfully used a net to capture a cubesat target, demonstrating the technology that someday could be used to clean space junk from Earth orbit.

“It worked just as we hoped it would,” said Prof Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre. “The target was spinning like you would expect an uncooperative piece of junk to behave, but you can see clearly that the net captures it, and we’re very happy with the way the experiment went.”

If this were a real capture, the net would be tethered to the deploying satellite, which would then tug the junk out of the sky. As this was just a demonstration, the net and the box (which was actually pushed out from RemoveDebris to act as a target) will be allowed to fall to Earth on their own. Their low altitude means it should take only a couple of months before they burn up in the atmosphere.

I have embedded below the fold a video showing the net capture. It is quite spectacular. This was one of three different experiments on RemoveDebris that are testing space junk removal methods. The next is the use of a harpoon.
» Read more

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China’s Long March 3B rocket successfully launches two GPS-type satellites

The new colonial movement: China today successfully launched two more of its Beidou GPS-type satellites, using its Long March 3B rocket.

The rocket launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China, and almost certainly dropped its stages near habitable regions, as happened in June. The question is whether China has successfully clamped down on the distribution of any images of such events, taken by local residents. It failed to do so in June.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

25 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
5 Europe (Arianespace)

This launch puts China once again in the lead over the U.S. in the national rankings, 25 to 24. Moreover, with every launch this year China extends its new record for the most launches by that nation in a year.

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All instruments check out on the Parker Solar Probe

The initial check out of the Parker Solar Probe, now on its way to the Sun, has shown all instruments are functioning properly.

“All instruments returned data that not only serves for calibration, but also captures glimpses of what we expect them to measure near the Sun to solve the mysteries of the solar atmosphere, the corona,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland.

The mission’s first close approach to the Sun will be in November 2018, but even now, the instruments are able to gather measurements of what’s happening in the solar wind closer to Earth.

The spacecraft will make its first fly-by of Venus in October.

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New data says going to Mars involves significant radiation exposure

New data from Trace Gas Orbiter, part of Europe’s ExoMars project, says a journey to Mars will expose humans to significant radiation.

The results imply that on a six-month journey to the Red Planet, and assuming six-months back again, an astronaut could be exposed to at least 60% of the total radiation dose limit recommended for their entire career.

The ExoMars data, which is in good agreement with data from Mars Science Laboratory’s cruise to Mars in 2011–2012 and with other particle detectors currently in space – taking into account the different solar conditions – will be used to verify radiation environment models and assessments of the radiation risk to the crewmembers of future exploration missions.

This data was gathered during the spacecraft’s journey to Mars during a time of falling solar activity. Thus, the radiation exposure came more from cosmic rays than from solar activity.

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Republican wins special election in black/Hispanic district in Texas

Is this significant? A Republican today won a special election for a Texas state senate seat in a predominately black and Hispanic district that was won by Hillary Clinton by 12% and hasn’t been held by a Republican for more than a hundred years.

It is dangerous to extrapolate the results from a single state legislative district to the wider nation. Nonetheless, for a Republican to win such a seat in a district whose two biggest demographics are Hispanic and black suggests we might yet see a historic shift this coming election. If the Democrats can no longer depend on these voters, they will find it difficult to win any national elections.

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A Martian shoreline?

Collapsing cliff in Tempe Fossae

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, was part of the August 31 image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (Click on the image to see the full image.) It shows a slowly separating cliff feature in a region dubbed Tempe Fossae

As part of that monthly mass release, no caption was provided for this image. However, we can gain some understanding by looking at the larger context.

Tempe Fossae is located at the margins between the low flat northern plains and the high southern highlands. The location is also part of the vast drainage region to the east of Mars’ gigantic volcanoes. This is obvious from the overview image below and on the right. The location of this image is indicated by the white cross.

Mars overview

In this area of that drainage the canyons appear to follow southwest to northeast trending fault lines. Tempe Fossae is one of the smaller of these canyon complexes. All however appear to drain out into the northern plains.

Most of the MRO images of features in this area focus on the canyon cliffs. This image however focused on this one isolated small cliff in the middle of the canyon. To my eye it appears that these features document the slow drying of that vast intermittent ocean in Mars’s northern plains. The cliff is actually two steps, with the higher one appearing to mark an older shoreline. The lower cliff is abutted by a low flat area where it appears as if there had once been ponded water, now dried.

close-up of cracked area

The cracks in the cliff itself suggest it is slowly breaking apart and falling down towards that low flat area. In fact, the entire feature reminds me of the sand cliffs that are sometimes found along shorelines. The sand is not very strong structurally, and with time sections will separate and then fall down. The image to the right zooms in on this cracked region. The presence of sand dunes reinforces my impression.

I imagine that as the water drained down from the glaciers on the sides of the volcanoes and filled that intermittent sea, the shoreline regions would have had the most water. At Tempe Fossae the canyons might have been partly filled. As the water level drained out and lowered, first the upper cliff edge was exposed, then the lower. The draining water probably helped created these cracks as it flowed down through them.

Finally, the last remaining pits of water ponded at the base of the cliff, eventually drying out. With time, the weakly structured sand cliffs, already carved partly by the flowing water, began to slump apart and fall downward, producing the cracks we now see. I expect that some time in the near future, on geological time scales, there will be a landslide and the outer section will collapse downward.

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Vulcan found?

Scientists have found a super-earth orbiting 40 Eridani-A, a star located sixteen light years away and proposed by Gene Roddenberry in 1991 as the home star for his race of logical Vulcans.

It turns out the letter authors’ prediction was right — a world really does orbit the primary star of the three-star 40 Eridani system. (Whether it’s home to a logic-based alien society, though, is anyone’s guess!)

The world is a super-Earth, the most common type of planet in the galaxy (though a type that’s missing from our solar system). At twice Earth’s radius and eight to nine times its mass, 40 Eridani b sits on the line that divides rocky super-Earths from gaseous ones. The planet orbits its star every 42 days, putting just inside the system’s habitable zone — in other words, where it’s nice and hot. At 16 light-years away, it’s the closest super-Earth known and therefore a good potential target for followup observations.

The discovery was made by a survey taking place using a relatively small telescope right here in the Tucson area, on top of Mount Lemmon. Most cool!

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Instrument on GRACE-FO fails

The U.S/German science two-satellite constellation, launched in May, has not gathered any science data since July because one instrument on one satellite has shut down.

It appears the problem is related to an electrical problem. The article provides little information, though they say they will switch to a back up system later this month. I wonder why this has taken so long.

The article at the link calls this “a glitch.” That is a lie and bad journalism. Any failure that shuts down a spacecraft for months and requires the use of a back up is a major failure, not a mere “glitch.” I wish news organizations would stop using that word, as it only exists to help minimize the seriousness of a problem.

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Air Force estimates Space Force cost at $13 billion for first 5 years

Pork! Air Force has now released its first estimate for establishing a Space Force, with an estimated cost of $13 billion for first five years.

A copy of the Air Force memo was obtained Monday by The Associated Press. The memo says the first-year cost of a Space Force would be $3.3 billion, and the cost over five years would be an estimated $12.9 billion.

As I have said, this is nothing more than pork. At this stage all that needs to happen is a reorganization that would put all space activities in a single office in the Air Force. This is also what the Air Force has wanted to do. Creating a whole new military branch at this time is overkill, and will merely result in too much bureaucracy, for only one reason, to spend money.

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Kenya creates space agency

The new colonial movement: Kenya today announced the official establishment of its own space agency, the Kenya Space Agency Board (KSAB).

KSAB was established by President Uhuru Kenyatta through a March 2017 gazette notice and will be headed by the Kenya Defence Forces’ Major General (Rtd) James Aruasa.

The array of KSAB’s responsibilities include co-ordinating space-related activities, recommending national space policies and establishing centres of excellence in space science.

It appears to me that there a power struggle is going on in Kenya over space, with the wrong people winning. A university team recently built the nation’s first cubesat, getting it launched as a secondary payload. This space board however seems entirely run by the government and its military. I fear that this turf war is going to squelch any future Kenyan space development.

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