Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Honoring the Apollo 8 astronauts

Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell

They are still here. Fifty years after becoming the first humans to leave Earth orbit and travel to another world, a mission that NASA believed only had a 50-50 chance of success, the three Apollo 8 astronauts are still with us, hale and hearty despite the passing of many years.

On October 6 the Museum of Science and Technology honored all three men with a magnificent event. The picture on the right was taken during that event, shortly after the three men, Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell (from left to right) had posed for a typical group shot. It far better reveals their personalities, with Borman looking outward, Anders thoughtful, and Lovell laughing.

Borman and Lovell are ninety years old, while Anders is about to turn eight-five on October 17. Yet, all three remain as sharp as they were in 1968, when they circled the Moon. Only the wear and tear of age and time is slowing them down. It was an honor to see them again and shake their hands. It was also sad, as it was clear that time stops for no one, no matter how deserving. Flying to the Moon on a mission that many thought incredibly risky couldn’t stop them. Time unfortunately will.

We are blessed to still have them. Once again during the dinner presentation they talked of their mission, kidding each other repeatedly about what had happened, and talking about why they went and what they thought the future might hold. Borman was pessimistic about the future of space, but then he remains fixated on the concept of a government program for space. Anders meanwhile was in touch with the rise of private commercial space, and advocated that it is where the future lies.

Lovell was Lovell, as always a space cadet, enthused for the future exploration of space, no matter how we do it.

This event is likely only the beginning. Over the next year there are going to many similar events, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary the 1960s Apollo triumph, right through to the landing in July. To me, however, it will always be Apollo 8 that had the most historical impact. Everything that happened afterward merely reinforced what that flight taught us.

Below the fold are two more pictures from the event.
» Read more

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How one region’s space industry represents the world

bumper sticker

On October 2 I attended for the first time a monthly meeting of the Arizona Space Business Roundtable, an informal gathering put together by Stephen Fleming of the University of Arizona’s Strategic Business Initiatives and designed to allow the various space businesses of southern Arizona to network together as well as highlight what they are accomplishing to themselves and to others.

This particular meeting involved the presentation to the business community of a study that looked into the potential growth possibilities for space within the Tucson region. The study had been financed by the University of Arizona, several local venture capital companies, and the local county government, and had found that southern Arizona’s most likely source of space business in the near future would revolve around the need to track and monitor the large number of satellites expected to be launched in the coming decades. This would also involve substantial military work, as well as related space junk clean-up duties. The study also found that the southern Arizona space industry is well suited to provide much of the growing support services that future space missions, both governmental and private, will need. You can read more about the study’s results and the meeting at this Arizona Star article.

What struck me most about this gathering and the space industry of southern Arizona, however, is how much it resembles the regional space industries in numerous other places throughout the United States and the world. In fact, during a panel discussion after the presentation Fleming specifically asked the panelists — made up of several local companies (Vector, Worldview, Paragon) and two venture capital companies — what other regions in the U.S. posed the most competitive threat to southern Arizona. The panelists quickly listed Denver-Boulder, Silicon Valley in California, Huntsville in Alabama, the Space Coast in Florida, and New Mexico. They also made it clear that this list was not complete.

All of these regions are presently prospering and, more important, growing. All see a bright future in space, and all are aggressively competing to grab as large a market share in this future as they can. Even more significant, there appears to be more than enough business to go around. With numerous new countries pushing their own space efforts (China, India, UAE, Great Britain, Luxembourg, to name only a few), and both the American government as well as private companies attempting their own missions to the Moon and beyond, the possibilities appear endless. A lot of government money and investment capital is presently being poured into space, and numerous regions throughout the world are reaching for that money and the future profits it will bring.

And all of these regions are stock full of numerous independent and private companies and individuals, all pushing their own ideas about how space should be explored and conquered.

There are many aspects of the present charge to explore and settle the solar system that I do not like and believe will actually hamper and slow that exploration and settlement. Nonetheless, this charge is happening worldwide, and with amazing and increasing vigor. Even the worst proposals, such as NASA’s Gateway project, are going to eventually lead to new space technologies and capabilities that will sooner or later make it possible for the human race to routinely travel throughout the solar system.

It appears that the next two decades will lay the groundwork for the next few centuries of space exploration. And much of that groundwork will take place out of sight of the general public, with small companies located in regions like these. As with all great endeavors, the structure is that of a pyramid. At the top is the leader (such as SpaceX) that everyone watches and admires. Below it however is a vast subculture that provides the foundation for that leadership, even as it pushes upward to compete against it.

These are exciting times. I suggest if you love space you climb on the rocket now, before it picks up so much speed it will be beyond your reach.

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Celebrate Earthrise Day!

In only a little less than three months we will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the December 1968 flight of Apollo 8 — first manned mission to another world. During that mission three humans spent 20 hours in orbit around the Moon, during which they read the first twelve verses of the Old Testament on Christmas Eve and became the first humans to witness an Earthrise and to photograph it.

To celebrate that achievement, a new website has been created, dubbed Celebrate Earthrise Day.

The website provides some great background material. You can listen to the astronaut’s Christmas telecast as well as see a recreation of the moment when the astronauts saw that Earthrise and Bill Anders took his famous color photo. The site also includes many photos from before, during, and after the mission, with many pictures coming from the personal family pictures of the astronauts. There is also audio of an 1988 Bill Anders’ interview, as well as a video of a fascinating presentation made by Bill and Valerie Anders, describing their life journey leading up to Apollo 8 and afterward.

Finally, and I think of most interest to my readers here, the site includes the audio of my introduction from the new audio edition of my book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8.

The site also includes the audio of one of the best radio interviews I have ever done, broadcast in 1998, on the subject of Apollo 8, our American culture, and the importance of each person choosing their path in life wisely. You can find that audio at the bottom of this webpage.

Check it all out. I think you will find it worth your while.

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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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SpaceX’s first BFR passenger is Yusaku Maezawa, owner of Japanese fashion company

Yusaku Maezawa

Capitalsm in space: SpaceX’s first BFR passenger will be Yusaku Maezawa, the owner of Japanese fashion company, shown on the right.

Maezawa began his statement by echoing John Kennedy with these words, “I choose to go to the Moon.” He purchased the entire first flight, and will invite six to eight artists to join him on the flight and ask them to create art afterward inspired by the flight. They are aiming for a launch in 2023.

BFR

Musk began the presentation tonight with an overview of the status of BFR, noting that they plan unmanned test launches before putting humans on the rocket. The image an the right shows the habitable upper stage.

During the question and answer session after the announcement Musk was asked questions about the present stage of BFR design, and whether it has been finalized. He said they plan “a lot of test flights” and are aiming for first orbital flights in 2 to 3 years, “if things go really well.”

Musk made it clear that Maezawa chose SpaceX for the flight, rather than the other way around. Musk also said that Maezawa was paying them a lot of money for the flight, though they were not going to reveal the amount. Musk did note that the price was not trivial, and that Maezawa has already made a significant deposit. Maezawa had first approached them for a Dragon/Falcon Heavy flight, but because of the limitations of of those spacecraft, they decided it better to go with the bigger rocket.

Musk noted that the first test hops of the upper stage to test its landing capabilities will take place at Boca Chica in Texas. The launch site for the orbital missions is not yet decided.

Musk estimated that the cost for developing BFR is going to probably be around $5 billion, which he also noted rightly is quite small for this kind of project. He also said that right now they are only devoting 5% of SpaceX’s resources to this mission. As they complete the crew Dragon project, they will then begin to shift resources to BFR. He estimated that will happen sometime late next year.

Overall, it strikes me that they really do not have all the details yet worked out, with the rocket or their flight schedule. As Musk openly admitted when asked if they are sure about the schedule, “We are definitely not sure.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it is often better to keep an open-mind in planning something this ambitious. At the same time it tells us not to expect any of this to happen, as described.

One final point: Musk at one point said he wants a base on the Moon. “It’s 2018, why don’t we have a base on the Moon?” To me, this was an almost direct dig at NASA’s Gateway/FLOP-G project, which isn’t a base but locks us in lunar orbit. Musk was being very careful to avoid criticizing NASA, his biggest customer, but anyone who knows what is going on will quickly recognize that BFR is in direct competition with SLS/Orion/Gateway.

Based on SpaceX’s history, going from first orbit flight to flying the world’s largest rocket in only ten years, I am very confident that this company could get that first base on the Moon, long before NASA even gets Gateway launched.

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Leftist election terrorism

They’re coming for you next: The level of hatred and insanity coming from the partisan left has in the past two years steadily moved from mere vicious hyperbole to increasing violence. The upcoming midterm elections is now fueling this increase in violence, as seen by these stories from yesterday:

The first two stories were generated mostly by Twitter threats, a sewer of such vicious evil. They might not result in violence, but such leftist threats on Twitter are definitely becoming more common. And interestingly, even as Twitter is shutting down conservative speech it seems to have little problem with death threats against conservatives.

The third story however is more worrisome. It is part of a pattern where the insane over-the-top statements by Democratic Party elected officials is fueling a hatred among those who are less than stable themselves, resulting in acts of violence. Nor is this the only story recently where an unstable person attacked something or someone because they were perceived as conservative.

And the craziness on the left shows no signs of letting up, as indicated by the decision of leftist Las Vegas professor to shoot himself in the arm “in protest of President Donald Trump.” Though I have no evidence to support this theory, it appears to me from the story that he might have planned on suicide, but chickened out.

I am very worried that in the next two months we will see at least one attack against Republicans similar to the attempted mass murder last year of Republican congressmen at a charity baseball practice. In fact, I fear that such violence is almost certain.

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Armstrong filmmakers purposely obscured American flag

The filmmakers for the Neil Armstrong biography film, First Man, made a conscious decision to hide or obscure the American flag in certain situations.

This new information has been provided to me by a Washington consultant who, because of his own outrage over their decision to not show the planting of the American flag during the lunar landing, had been given the opportunity to see selected clips from the movie as well as ask questions to the production team.

First Man movie flightsuits, without American flag

According to that meeting, he learned that they had consciously made the decision to either reposition or remove American flags from the blue flight suits that the astronauts wore from day to day so that it would not be visible. The image on the right, from the movie, illustrates this, as the American flag was almost always sewn into the upper left shoulder of these suits.

The filmmakers also purposely repositioned the flag or filmed angles for many scenes that acted to obscure the flag on the astronauts’ white pressure suits.

The reasons the filmmakers gave for doing this was to enhance their foreign ticket sales.

To this I say, baloney. They might have had this financial excuse, but I think this holds little or no weight. By willingly admitting that they hid the flag in this petty way they have confirmed their political agenda, their desire to convince the world that this mission was not an American achievement but a “human achievement.” Both the film’s Canadian star as well as its director have made it clear they have a globalist vision of the Apollo program, and wanted to spread the credit of its achievement to all humanity. Consciously hiding the flag in this small-minded manner demonstrates their political motives.

Moreover, even though the director, Damien Chazelle, might have wanted to focus on “Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours,” removing or obscuring icons of the United States serves no purpose other than to remove the United States from this decidedly American moment. Showing the flag on the flightsuits and pressure suits does not make this a jingoistic pro-American propaganda film. Nor does it do anything to prevent Chazelle from telling Neil Armstrong’s personal story. In fact, if anything, hiding the flag detracts from that goal, as Armstrong was very much doing this for his country (as numerous people who knew him have said), and to de-emphasize that reality is to rewrite history in a very dishonest way.

The pettiness of this entire action further outrages me. There is no doubt that sales would not have suffered in foreign countries, in the slightest, had the American flag been left where it belonged on these suits, and had been shown appropriately in other scenes. It accomplishes nothing positive for the film. What it does do is tell us what these Hollywood “artists” think of America.

So that there is no misunderstanding, I must add that neither my source nor I have as yet seen the entire film. It is still possible that these criticisms are unfair, and that the filmmakers might have shown the American flag appropriately in other scenes, and might even have shown it prominently.

Nonetheless, what we now know is that these filmmakers did made a conscious effort to rewrite history so that the United States no longer appeared as prominent in these events as it should have. Once again, it appears to me that these Hollywood filmmakers did this to express their disdain, almost hatred, of the United States and all that it stands for.

For this fact alone I think Americans should reconsider spending any of their hard-earned money on seeing this propaganda piece.

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Sunspot update for August 2018: The slide to minimum

As it does the first Sunday of each month, yesterday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for August 2018. And as I do every month, I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

The Sun in August had a slight uptick in sunspot activity, but not a very significant one. As such, the slide to solar minimum continues. Right now the lack of sunspot activity in 2018 is heading to match or even exceed 2007, the year in which the previous solar minimum began.

August 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.

If you look at the original graph at NOAA, you will see that we are getting very close to the right edge of the graph. I expect that sometime in the next few months NOAA will update the graph, a necessary act that will in one sense be a shame, as they have been adding monthly updates to this graph since the beginning of the last solar minimum. This has allowed everyone to see a standard visual, month to month, for comparing solar activity. It has also allowed me to annotate the graph properly to show how the 2007 and 2009 predictions held up against actual activity. Once the graph changes it will be more difficult to do this.

Anyway, it is very clear we are entering solar minimum, and that the solar cycle we are now completing will be both a short and weak cycle. What happens next is really the big question. Will the Sun sunspot activity recover? Or will we enter the first grand minimum since the 1600s? Either way, for solar scientists the coming years are going to be very exciting.

Posted on interstate 10 going from Tucson to Phoenix, on the way to the wooded northern forests of Arizona, where Diane and I will spend a couple of days visiting friends at their upstate cabin/home.

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Audiobook of Genesis: the story of Apollo 8 now available

I am pleased to announce the release of the audiobook edition of Genesis: the story of Apollo 8. From the official press release:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of mankind’s boldest adventures, the first manned flight to another world. To mark the occasion, an audio version of the first book about the mission of Apollo 8 has been released, narrated by Grover Gardner, a legend in the ears of fans of audiobooks all over the planet.

Says Valerie Anders, wife of Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders, “When I first read this excellent account, published before the end of the space shuttle era, I was delighted.”

Now, with the advent of high quality audio books and online merchants like iTunes and Audible, and the resonant and expressive voice of narrator Grover Garner, everyone can enjoy this recording of this pivotal moment in space history.

While more recent books have been published on the mission of Apollo 8 (most of which rely heavily on Zimmerman’s work), none has captured the impact the Apollo program had on the families of the astronauts nearly so well as “Genesis – the story of Apollo 8.” The new forward to “Genesis,” by Valerie Anders, contains a moving tribute to those pilots who never returned from their missions – not as faraway as the moon, but just as dangerous and far more frequent.

This audio presentation also includes a preface and afterward recorded by the author, Robert Zimmerman, noted science journalist, a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and winner of numerous awards. Grover Gardner has been the narrator of more than 500 books, including many of the most popular audio books ever recorded, including the three part biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. AudioFile magazine refers to him as “one of the best voices of the century.”

“Genesis – the story of Apollo 8” was produced for audio distribution by space fan and Army Lt Colonel William Hartel, who spends his work days as a professor of dentistry at the University of Tennessee. It is available wherever audiobooks are sold and runs 9 hours and 33 minutes.

Contact info: William Hartel, whartel123@aol.com 314-402-5227

You can listen to Grover Gardner’s reading of the foreword by Valerie Anders here.

The audiobook can be purchased directly from all the standard vendors. Or you can get it free with a 30-day trial membership in Audible for $19.99. This costs $2 more than buying the book direct, but this free trial deal will give me a much bigger cut per sale. If you support what I am doing, consider it.

And as always, for those who prefer to read, the ebook edition is also available.

Genesis cover

The ebook edition of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 includes a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 

Available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the publisher, Mountain Lake Press.

 

“Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America’s quest for the moon… Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America’s greatest human triumphs.”
–San Antonio Express-News

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Hollywood once again reveals its distaste for America

The just released new Hollywood movie detailing the life of Neil Armstrong, First Man, has so far gotten rave reviews.

Sadly, however, there is one detail about the Apollo 11 mission that the filmmakers decided they couldn’t include, even though it was in many ways the entire point of the mission. They made a conscious decision to exclude any mention of the planting of the American flag on the surface of the Moon.

Star Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, defended director Damien Chazelle’s decision to omit the star-spangled moment when asked about it in Venice. “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it, ” Gosling said per the Telegraph. “I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.”

The Canadian actor added that based on his own interviews with Armstrong’s family and friends, he doesn’t believe the pioneering astronaut considered himself an American hero. “I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero,” Gosling said. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.” [emphasis mine]

This is bunk. All the astronauts who flew to the Moon were very aware that they were warriors in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and communism, and did it very consciously so that the U.S. could win that space race, for the U.S. Planting the flag was thus for them a very important aspect of the mission, maybe in many ways the most important.

That these Hollywood filmmakers purposely excluded that moment only illustrates to me once again the hostility, even hate, that the modern elitist culture has for the United States and everything it has stood for since 1776: freedom, blind justice before the law, and individual responsibility. Here it appears they are making an effort to separate that very decidedly American culture, which made the lunar landing possible, from that achievement. They want to honor Armstrong as an individual, but do not want to give any credit to the country and culture that sent him to the Moon. Instead, they want to claim that the Apollo landings were merely “a human achievement.”

For shame.

This makes me very unwilling to spend any money to see this movie. Why should I support the work of such intellectually dishonest people?

I must add that I have already been emailed by several readers who are similarly outraged. I wonder therefore if this will turn into something that will actually hurt ticket sales. I suspect not, as too many Americans today do not care very much about these issues. They will go to be entertained, and many will buy into the lie that the Apollo missions was an achievement not of America but of the entire global world, working together in love and peace.

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The search for Mars Polar Lander

A small section where Polar Lander might have crashed

In December 1999 the U.S. lander Mars Polar Lander was to set down near the southern polar cap of Mars. After an almost routine eleven month journey to Mars, all efforts to contact the spacecraft after its landing failed. A NASA review eventually concluded that the spacecraft had prematurely shut down its landing engines while the spacecraft was still far above the surface, and had therefore crashed to the ground.

Since then there have been extensive efforts to locate the lander’s remains on the surface, all to no avail. Though Mars Global Surveyor, in orbit at the time, tried to find it, its resolution was not sufficient. In recent years Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has taken several dozen high resolution images of the estimated landing area, two of the most recent were included in the August 2018 image release. The image on the right is a cropped section of one of those images, illustrating the difficulty of the search. (If you click on the image you can explore the full version.) The other image is quite similar.

As the southern polar cap shrinks and grows seasonally, it produces endless numbers of black spots from the release of underground dust as the carbon dioxide dry ice sublimates into gas. Moreover, the growth and retreat of the dry ice cap changes the landscape, periodically covering any remains of the rover as well as quickly removing many of the ground disturbances that the crash might have caused. In the almost two decades since the lander’s crash landing, about ten Martian years have passed, meaning that cap has melted and frozen ten times over this region in that time.

Images taken by MRO of Mars Polar Lander landing area

The image on the right shows the footprint of all the images that MRO has so far taken of the Mars Polar Lander landing area. If you are ambitious and want to get your name in the news, all you have to do is spend some time combing through those images and find the lander there. Every one of these images is available for public download at full resolution. Go to HiRise image archive, hover your mouse over latitude 77 degrees south, longitude 166 degrees east, and click several times to zoom in. You then change the selector icon at the top from “+” to “the arrow”. When next you click on any portion of that footprint it will show you a bunch of the images taken, all of which you can now download and inspect.

If you are successful and find the lander, please let me know. It would be nice to make that announcement here on Behind the Black.

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Trump administration goes all in for LOP-G

The swamp wins! In a speech today Vice President Mike Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is giving its full endorsement to the construction of the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), as well as SLS and Orion. These big boondoggles, which will trap us in lunar orbit while the Chinese set up lunar bases and take possession of the surface and its resources, are going forward, with both the president’s support as well as Congress’s.

Providing further evidence that the Trump administration has bought into these projects, in his introduction of Pence NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a big public endorsement to the executive secretary of the National Space Council, Scott Pace, a man who has been a big supporter of these projects of the bureaucracy. Pace believes we need these projects, despite the fact that they have been under construction for two decades, have cost an ungodly amount, and have literally flown nowhere.

Pence also said that they intend to have the space force a reality by 2020, and also hinted that the Trump administration is making a careful review on the future of ISS.

Overall, the speech was a big endorsement for government space, in every way, with the private sector designed not to lead as free Americans following their personal dreams but to follow, servants of the desires of the government and its wishes.

If you want to listen to about 30 minutes of pro-government promotion, I expect it will be posted here at some point.

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Oblique mosiac of bright spot on Ceres

Cerealia Facula on Ceres

Cool image time! With the Dawn spacecraft now swooping with 22 miles of the surface of Ceres every 27 hours, the science team has assembled a spectacular oblique image of Cerealia Facula, one of the dwarf planet’s bright spots thought to be brine deposits that at some point erupted up from below the surface.

The image on the right, reduced in resolution to show here, shows that mosaic. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution version. From the image webpage:

This mosaic of Cerealia Facula combines images obtained from altitudes as low as 22 miles (35 km) above Ceres’ surface. The mosaic is overlain on a topography model based on images obtained during Dawn’s low altitude mapping orbit (240 miles or 385 km altitude). No vertical exaggeration was applied.

There are a lot of intriguing details in the full resolution image. I have highlighted one feature, indicated by the white box and shown in full resolution below.
» Read more

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3D-printed solar panels for cubesats!

A solar panel for a cubesat

The image on the right was sent to me last night by engineer Joe Latrell. It shows a 3D-printed solar panel designed for use on a cubesat. As he wrote,

[This is] the first integration of a solar panel with the 3D printed material. The panel is not attached but rather embedded in the plastic during the printing process. This helps protect the panel from transport damage and makes it easier to assemble the final satellite. This design needs a slight adjustment but is almost there.

What makes Joe’s work most interesting is where he is doing it. Last week, in posting a link to a story about a Rocket Lab deal that would make secondary payloads possible on its smallsat rocket Electron, I noted that things were moving to a point where someone could build a satellite for launch in his garage.

This in turn elicited this comment from Joe:

As a matter of fact, I am building a PocketQube satellite for launch in Q3 2019. Yes, I am working in a small shop – just behind the garage. Nothing fancy but the price was right. I am working with Alba Orbital and the flight is scheduled on the Electron. These are very exciting times.

Alba Orbital is smallsat company aimed at building lots of mass produced smallsats weighing only about two pounds.

Anyway, Joe then followed up with another comment with more information:

This first [satellite] is just to see if it can be done. I plan to have it take a couple images and relay data regarding the orientation methods I am planning to use (gravity and magnetic fields). If it works, I am hoping to get funding to develop a small series of satellites to track global water use.

It is also a good way to test some of the materials I think would make spacecraft lighter and cheaper.

Yesterday he sent me the above image. This is the future of unmanned satellites and planetary probes, small, light, cheap, and built with 3D printers by single entrepreneurs. And because of their inexpensive nature, the possibilities for profit and growth are truly almost infinite, which in turn will provide developments that make space travel for humans increasingly smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to build as well.

To repeat Joe’s comment, these are very exciting times.

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Roscosmos in the news!

Three news stories from Russia, two from today and one from last week, provide us a flavor of the kind of space stories that come out of Russia almost daily, either making big promises of future great achievements, or making blustery excuses for the failure of those big promises to come true.

In the first the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, rationalizes the failure of Russia to compete successfully with SpaceX.
» Read more

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Sunspot update for July 2018: The Sun flatlines!

Yesterday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for July 2018. As I do every month, I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

This might be the most significant month of solar activity that has been observed since Galileo. Except for two very short-lived and very weak sunspots that observers hardly noted, the Sun was blank for entire month of July. This has not happened since 2009, during the height of the last solar minimum.

What makes this so significant and unique is that it almost certainly signals the return of the next solar minimum, a return that comes more than a year early. The solar cycle the Sun is now completing has only been ten years long. It is also one of the weakest in more than a hundred years. This combination is unprecedented. In the past such a weak cycle required a long cycle, not a short one.
» Read more

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Landslide on Mars

Landslide on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on May 30, 2018. It shows the remains of a landslide where it appears a huge chunk of the cliff face broke off and then flowed downward, pushing ahead of it more material to produce a tongue of debris more than four miles long. (If you click on the image you can see the full photograph.)

The picture invokes a spectacular single event. When the cliff broke off, it hit the ground below it like a rock would in wet beach mud. Like wet sand, the ground was pushed away in a muddy gloppy mess.

Is this terrain wet however? The location of this landslide provides some intriguing geological context. Below are two context images, showing this landslide’s location on Mars.
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A vegetable grater on Mars

A vegetable grater on Mars

Cool image time! I honestly can’t think of any better term but “vegetable grater” to describe the strange surface in the image on the right, cropped from the full sized image that was released with the July 11, 2018 monthly release of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

If you click on the image you can see the whole image, which merely shows more of the same terrain over a wider area. When I cropped it, I literally picked a random 450×450 pixel-sized area, since other than slight variations the entire terrain in the full image is as equally rough. The resolution captures objects as big as five feet across.

Looking at the full image there does seem to be flow patterns moving across the middle of the image, but if so these flow patterns had no effect on the surface roughness, other than indicating a very slight difference in the size of the knobs and pits. Overall, very strange.

The location of this place on Mars is in the cratered southern highlands, to the southwest of Hellas Basin, as indicated by the black cross in the image below.
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“They’re coming for you next.”

This week we had a number of really ugly examples of the hate the left has for anyone who might dare express an opinion that might suggest even the slightest support for President Donald Trump.

But then, how is this week different from any other week since Trump was elected president in 2016?

The top example however is how Judge Jeanine Pirro was treated when she appeared on the The View. I have embedded the video below. You must force yourself to watch. It is painful and ugly, but the hate and very clear close-mindedness of those who disagreed with her, especially from Whoopie Goldberg, illustrates well the terrible state we are in.

Pirro was a guest on this show. Does anyone remember what the word “guest” stands for, and how one is supposed to treat such a person? It is very clear that Goldberg and her leftist allies on The View do not.

Pirro cannot finish practically one sentence before she is interrupted and attacked, and then thrown off the show because she dared, dared to disagree with the leftwing partisan Democrats in charge. She wanted to defend Trump from the slanders being thrown against him, false slanders of racism that the left loves to throw but have no basis in fact. Trump might be coarse. He might be a fighter. But a careful calm review of everything he has done, in the past, since his campaign began for president, and since he took office, shows no evidence of bigotry.

It is not permitted however to make this case in the modern intellectual world. You cannot, and if you dare, the dominate leftist culture will do whatever it can to shut you down. Consider for example what happened this week to actor Mark Duplass. I have no idea who he is, or what parts he has played that gives him fame. However, this week he had the nerve to express, in a tweet, some sympathetic words about conservative Ben Shapiro.

Within hours a twitter mob (and that’s what twitter is, a mob) descended upon him, accusing him of supporting a white supremacist, even though Ben Shapiro happens to be an orthodox Jew. Within 24 hours Duplass was forced to retract his tweet. It is simply forbidden for someone on the left to say a nice thing about a conservative, mainly because, to the left today, every conservative is a white supremacist, a bigot, and a racist, and therefore must be silenced, with violence if necessary.

These stories are only two in an increasingly violent and hateful atmosphere of cultural oppression. It is only getting worse. Scott Adams, author of Dilbert, said it best in one of his recent video posts.

I’m actually considering voting for the first time, and I wouldn’t even be voting for candidates. I would just be voting for a side. I would just say ‘Republican’ — and I’m not a Republican. It’s not even about policy [or] anything. It would be about pure self-defense because I would want the safest situation for the country.

Here’s the ‘Get Out The Vote’ slogan that I think is the strongest for Republicans: ‘They’re coming for you next.’ You know it’s true. They are coming for you next. If you want to be safe, then you want to keep the system in tact as long as possible. [emphasis mine]

I have embedded Adams’ video post below the fold, just so you can see how calmly but forcefully he expresses this fear. Watch. Take it seriously. Adams appears, unlike too many Americans, to be making an attempt to come to grips with the reality that one of our political parties in America wants to destroy all opposition to it, and that party must be stopped, for his, and our, own personal safety.
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Mars rover update: July 17, 2018

Summary: Curiosity climbs back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge to attempt its second drillhole since drill recovery, this time at a spot on the ridge with the highest orbital signature for hematite. Opportunity remains silent, shut down due to the global dust storm.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the almost two months since my May 23, 2018 update, a lot has happened, much of which I covered in daily updates. Curiosity found a good drill spot to once again test the new drilling techniques designed by engineers to bypass its stuck drill feed mechanism, and was successful in getting its first drill sample in about a year and a half. The rover then returned uphill, returning to a spot on Vera Rubin Ridge that, according to satellite data, has the highest signature for hematite on the entire ridge. The light green dotted line in the traverse map to the right shows the route Curiosity has taken back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge. The red dotted line shows the original planned route off the ridge and up Mount Sharp.
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A science journal describes how evil Trump is destroying EPA

Link here.

If you have no idea why we have Trump, and why we are likely to get more of him, read this article from the science journal Nature. It is a carefully written screed, written entirely from the point of view of those hostile to Trump and his effort to rein in the EPA’s regulatory culture. No one is interviewed to give the Trump perspective, and even if some had been, the author is so certain that Trump is evil and wrong in his efforts that I am sure the Trump perspective would have been misinterpreted, or even slandered. (This I am sure is why the article says that EPA management did not “respond to requests to comment on the article’s allegations.” The allegations were already set. Nothing anyone said from the administration would change those conclusions.)

Still, I am certain the author could have gotten opinions from some of the skeptical scientists whom the Trump administration has brought in to advise EPA. None however were interviewed.

What is most embarrassing about the article is its description of two of the main changes the Trump administration has imposed on EPA to widen and make more transparent the scientific work it does. First,
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The mysterious chaos terrain of Mars

In one of my weekly posts last month (dated May 14th) delving into the May image release from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera, I featured an image of what planetary geologists have labeled chaos terrain, a hummocky chaotic terrain that has no real parallel on Earth but is found in many places on Mars.

This month’s image MRO release included two more fascinating images of this type of terrain. In addition, the Mars Odyssey team today also released its own image of chaos terrain, showing a small part of a region dubbed Margaritifer Chaos. Below, the Mars Odyssey image is on the right, with one of the MRO images to the left. Both have been cropped, with the MRO image also reduced in resolution. The full MRO image shows what the MRO science team labels “possibly early stage chaos” on the rim of a canyon dubbed Shalbatana Vallis.

young chaos in Shalbatana Vallis

Margaritifer Chaos

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Too much hate

I will admit that my posting right now is somewhat lax, mostly because I am depressed and appalled at the level of hate and vitriol coming from the left, against Trump, against his family and children, against Republicans, against anyone who dares express an opinion or take an action that the left disagrees with.

The stories below are only a very very very small sample of similar stories in the past two weeks.

The last story has one further important detail: One of the thugs who harassed Nielsen in the restaurant also works at the Department of Justice.

Civilized people do not act this way. It is beyond the pale, and if it doesn’t stop some very bad things are going to happen, and happen very soon.

Much of this recent hate is centered on Trump’s tough immigration policy, and is generally based on ignorance and emotion, or downright disinformation. Somehow, all the problems we face are Trump’s fault, even though Trump’s arrest policy for illegal immigrants is merely the same policy followed by the Obama administration, but enforced in a more aggressive manner. (Unlike under Obama, no one is being released under their own recognizance.) It is also a policy that is following laws written and passed back in 2008, and signed by Republican president George Bush.

It is perfectly reasonable to disagree with Trump’s approach on immigration and to try to get it changed. Readers of this website know that I myself disagree strongly with Trump on many issues, and have had decidedly mixed opinions so far about the success or failure of his presidency.

To threaten, harass, shout curses, and menace the children of lawmakers over these issues however is unacceptable. It does not solve anything, and can only lead to worse injustices.

I find this situation even more depressing because I do not see anything changing for the better. Instead, I see it getting worse, day by day. The left will simply not accept the results of the 2016 election, and appears willing to do anything to overturn it. Nor do I see the type of voter groundswell necessary that will tell the leaders on the left that this behavior must stop. Their voters remain firmly on their side, and if anything, quite willing to endorse the hate and invective being spouted by their leaders.

So, forgive me if I am “going Galt” over this. I am an optimist at heart, and like to write about positive human endeavors. Unfortunately, it is harder to spot these positive endeavors when the culture is overwhelmed by a dust storm of hate.

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The epic lava flows of Olympus Mons

Lava flows off of Olympus Mons

The eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii has garnered a lot of deserved press coverage, having added at least a 200 acres of new land and destroyed at least 700 homes. Similarly, the recent violent eruption of a volcano in Guatemala, killing 100 people in its wake, has also gotten much deserved news coverage.

The magnitude of both however would pale in comparison to the stupendous eruption that occurred several hundred million years ago at the solar system’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons on Mars. While Kilauea is about 100 miles across, Olympus Mons is about 370 miles wide, and is so large that because of the curvature of Mar’s surface it is literally impossible for a viewer on the ground to actually see the volcano, in its entirety.

Both volcanoes are shield volcanoes, however, which means the lava flows don’t necessarily come from the caldera, but often from vents on the volcano’s slopes. Eruptions might be violent, but they generally do not involve the powerful explosive force of the sudden eruption, as seen in Guatemala and at Mount St. Helens in 1980 in the U.S. Instead, the lava seeps out steadily and continuously, an unstoppable flow that steadily overwhelms the surrounding terrain.

Olympus Mons

The flows that created Olympus Mons however were an epic event probably lasting millions of years, which brings us to this post. In the June release of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter high resolution images, I found the image above, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here. It shows lava flowing down off one of the many escarpments on the slopes of Olympus Mons. This is not at the edge of the volcano’s shield, but just inside it. The map at the right, created using the archive of MRO’s high resolution camera, indicates the location of this flow, shown by the left light blue rectangle on the southeast slope of the volcano’s shield. The red rectangles show all the other images MRO has taken of Olympus Mons.

The scale of the MRO image above gives an indication of how big that eruption at Olympus Mons was.
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What yesterday’s National Space Council meeting really reveals

Link here. While most news articles about yesterday’s third public meeting of the National Space Council are focused on Trump’s apparently off-the-cuff announcement that he wants a new military branch dubbed the “Space Force,” the story at the link provides a nice summary of the entire meeting, including a look at the presentations by four astronauts, two scientists, and one businessman.

The panel of former astronauts also offered some more general advice, including the importance of international and commercial partnerships, seeking bipartisan support to ensure the long-term viability of NASA’s exploration plan, and more outreach to the public. “We have got to get the support of the American people by getting the message out to people,” Collins said.

That panel came after another panel of two space scientists and one businessman who has flown payloads on the ISS. They argued for the importance of both human and robotic exploration, rather than one taking precedence over the other.

One of the astronauts came out against LOP-G, but his alternative suggestion was not really very different from that proposed by the other astronauts, calling for a massive NASA-run Apollo-style government space project:

Appearing on a panel during the meeting at the White House, Terry Virts said that the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, wasn’t an effective next step in human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit after the International Space Station. “It essentially calls for building another orbital space station, a skill my colleagues and I have already demonstrated on the ISS,” he said. “Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars.”

Virts wasn’t specific on what should replace the Gateway as that next step but called for an Apollo-like model of stepping-stone missions to return to the moon, with ISS, he said, serving well as the Mercury role.

Meanwhile, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave his full endorsement of LOP-G.

Virts’ comments came after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Gateway played an essential role in developing a long-term, sustainable human presence at the moon. “This is our opportunity to have more access to more parts of the moon than ever before,” he said of the Gateway, a reference to its ability to shift orbits using its electric propulsion system. He also played up the role of the Gateway in bringing in international and commercial partners while taking a leadership role in space exploration.

“The goal is sustainability,” he said. “When we’re going to the moon, as the president said in his speech, this time we’re going to stay, and the Gateway gives us that great opportunity.”

What we can glean from these presentations, all very carefully staged by the council to support what it wants the government to do in space, is that the Trump administration is going full gang-busters for another big Kennedy-like government space program, launched by SLS. They haven’t announced it yet, but they are definitely moving to propose such a program.

And such a program will cost billions, take forever to do anything (if it does anything at all), and accomplish nothing but spread pork to congressional districts while sustaining the big space companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing and possibly reshaping the new space companies — tempted by the big cash being offered by the government — into becoming as bloated and as uncreative.

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The modern non-debate over climate, or anything

Last week there was a much bally-hooed public event where several very well known scientists from both sides of the global-warming debate were given an opportunity to make their case before the public. Though they were not the only speakers, the two names that were of the most interest were Michael Mann (global warming advocate) and Judith Curry (global warming skeptic).

Mann’s appearance was especially intriguing, because he has very carefully insulated himself from any unpredictable public questioning in the decade since the climategate emails were released (revealing that his objectivity and rigor as a scientist could be considered very questionable). With Curry as an opposing panelist it seemed to me that this event could produce some interesting fireworks.

The event was in West Virginia, too far away for me to attend. However, one of my caving buddies from back when I lived in DC and caved monthly in West Virginia, John Harman, lives in West Virginia and as the owner of a company that builds space-related equipment I knew he’d be interested. I let him know about the event, and he decided to make the two and a half hour drive to watch.

Below is John’s detailed report on the event. You can see Judith Curry’s full presentation and script here.

I only have one comment, indicated by my headline above. The way this event was staged was specifically designed to prevent a real debate. There was no vibrant give and take between participants. Instead, the speakers were each given time to make their presentation, and then were faced with what appeared to be preplanned questions. Very staged. When Curry was given a question she didn’t expect, she said so, and was surprised.

This is not how real science is done. Michael Mann strongly pushes the theory that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused by human-activity, is warming the climate. His work has been strongly challenged by qualified scientists like Judith Curry. For science, and the truth, to prosper, Mann has to be willing to face those challenges directly, and address them. Instead, this event as well as every other public forum that Mann has participated in for the past decade have all been designed to protect him from those challenges. Nor has Mann been the only global warming enthusiast protected in this way.

The result is a decline in intellectual rigor and the rise of politics and propaganda within the climate science community, as noted by Curry in her last slide. She calls this “The Madhouse effect”:

The madhouse is characterized by

  • Rampant overconfidence in an overly simplistic theory of climate change
  • Enforcement of a politically-motivated, manufactured ‘consensus’
  • Attempts to stifle scientific and policy debates
  • Activism and advocacy for their preferred politics and policy
  • Self-promotion and ‘cashing in’
  • Public attacks on other scientists that do not support the ‘consensus’

Curry notes that she was forced out of academia expressly because of these factors, merely because she expressed skepticism concerning the hypothesis of human-caused global warming.

The worst part of this lack of debate is that it now permeates our society. In every area of importance to our nation’s future, debate is now impossible. The left, to which global warming activists like Michael Mann routinely belong, will not tolerate it, and will do anything to avoid it, even so far as to destroy the careers of anyone who dares challenge them. This is what Mann advocated in the climategate emails, and this is exactly what happened to Judith Curry.

Anyway, take a look at John’s very fair-minded report of the event. You will find it quite edifying.
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Landslides on Ceres

Landslides on rim of Occator Crater

Cool image time! With Dawn completing its descent into its final low orbit only about 30 miles above the surface of Ceres, it is beginning to take some very spectacular images. Above is a cropped section from a full image taken on June 9th of the rim of Occator Crater from an altitude of 27 miles. It shows evidence of landslides on the crater’s rim, as well as at least two bright patches. If you click on it you can see the entire picture.

Crater on Ceres

Nor is this the only cool image released As Dawn descended to its new orbit, it took one very cool oblique image of the planet’s horizon. On the right I have cropped a small section out of one such image, taken on May 30th from an altitude of 280 miles. If you click on it you can see the full image, showing numerous other small craters all around it, to the horizon.

Note the bright streaks on the crater walls, suggestive of more landslides as well as seepage of the thought-to-exist brine from below the surface.

For the next year or so, as Dawn winds down its mission, expect a lot more very intriguing pictures of Ceres. I am especially eager to see close-ups of the bright spots at the center of Occator Crater.

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The two candidate landing sites for ExoMars2020

The June release of new images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) included three images of the two candidate landing sites for Europe’s 2020 ExoMars rover mission. All three images provide us as hint at what that rover might see when it arrives a few years from now.

ExoMars 2020 landing sites

The two candidate sites are locations on Mars dubbed Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Palas. The map to the right shows their general location to the east of Mars’s giant volcanoes and giant canyon Valles Marineris. The red splotches indicate the large number of images taken by MRO of these locations, partly to help the ExoMars science team choose which site to pick and partly to study the geology in these Martian locations. As you can see, both candidate sites are in the transition zone between the northern low plains and the southern highlands.

At first glance Mawrth Vallis seems the more spectacular site. Mawrth (Welsh for Mars) is one of the gigantic drainage canyons near Valles Marineris. Though tiny in comparison to Valles Marineris, on Earth it would easily rival the Grand Canyon in size, and in fact is slightly longer (400 miles versus 300 miles). Unlike the Grand Canyon, however, Mawrth Vallis doesn’t appear to have a distinct or obvious rim. This video, produced by the European Space Agency using images from its Mars Express orbiter, gives a sense of the canyon’s terrain as it flies upstream from the northern lowlands to the canyon’s high point in the southern highlands. The highlands on either side of the canyon more resemble the broken geology of Mars’s chaos regions that are found scattered about in this transition zone than the flat generally level Kaibab plateau that surrounds the Grand Canyon.

Mawrth Vallis

The image on the right is a tiny crop from the most recently released MRO image. The full image shows a strip of the upper plateau south of canyon and near its inlet from the southern highlands. This crop reveals a surface that is a wild mixture of colors and complex geology. In fact, in a 2017 MRO image release showing a different place in Mawrth Vallis, the canyon was dubbed a “painted desert.” To quote that release:

The clay-rich terrain surrounding Mawrth Vallis is one of the most scenic regions of Mars, a future interplanetary park. …The origin of these altered layers is the subject of continued debates, perhaps to be resolved by a future rover on the surface. We do know that these layers are very ancient, dating back to a time when the environment of Mars was wetter and more habitable, if there were any inhabitants.

Other MRO images of Mawrth Vallis here and here emphasize this description.

As for Oxia Palas, the other candidate landing site for ExoMars 2020, in the June MRO image release there were two images.
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Another intriguing pit on Mars

pit on Mars

Cool image time! In the June release of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, I came across the image on the right, cropped slightly to post here, of a pit in a region dubbed Hephaestus Fossae that is located just at the margin of Mars’s vast northern plains.

Below and to the right is an annotated second image showing the area around this pit. If you click on it you can see the full resolution image, uncropped, and unannotated.

wider view of pit

The scale bar is based on the 25 centimeter per pixel scale provided at the image link. Based on this, this pit is only about ten to fifteen meters across, or 30 to 50 feet wide. The image webpage says the sun was 39 degrees above the horizon, with what they call a sun angle of 51 degrees. Based on these angles, the shadow on the floor of the pit suggests it is about the same depth, 30 to 50 feet.

The shadows suggest overhung walls. This, plus the presence of nearby aligned sinks, strongly suggests that there are extensive underground passages leading away from this pit.

For a caver on Earth to drop into a pit 30 to 50 feet deep is nowadays a trivial thing. You rig a rope (properly), put on your vertical system, and rappel in. When you want to leave you use that same vertical system to climb the rope, using mechanical cams that slide up the rope but will not slide down.

On Mars such a climb would be both easier and harder. The gravity is only one third that of Earth, but the lack of atmosphere means you must wear some form of spacesuit. Moreover, this system is not great for getting large amounts of gear up and down. Usually, people only bring what they can carry in a pack. To use this Martian pit as a habitat will require easier access, preferable by a wheeled vehicle that can drive in.

The pit’s location however is intriguing. The map below shows its location on a global map of Mars. This region is part of the Utopia Basin, the place with the second lowest elevation on Mars.
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Sunspot update for May 2018: Solar activity hangs on

NOAA yesterday posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for May 2018. As I do every month, I have annotated the graph and posted it below.

The small uptick in sunspots that we saw in April after the low in March continued.

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