Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Sunspot update Nov 2019: The longest flatline in centuries

The Sun is now in what appears to be the longest stretch ever recorded, since the 11-year solar sunspot cycle reactivated in the 1700s after the last grand minimum, of sunspot inactivity. This record-setting dearth of practically no sunspots has now stretched to six months in a row.

On December 8 NOAA released its November update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. As I have done now every month since this webpage began in 2011, I have posted it below, with annotations:

November 2019 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. 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, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

In November the Sun saw two official sunspots (here and here) and one active area that never received an official sunspot number, with two of these three weak events having a polarity linking them to the next solar maximum.
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A crack in the Martian crust

Crack in the Martian crust
Click for full image.

Cerberus Fossae

The photograph to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, was imaged on October 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a spectacular thousand-foot-deep canyon in the region of Cerberus Fossae, an area of Mars crossed by numerous deep east-west fissures and depressions.

Hidden in the small white box on the eastern end of that canyon are Martian geological features, small and at first glance not that interesting, that are of great significance and the focus of intense research.

The map to the right shows an overview of the region. The yellow cross shows the location of this particular crack.

In my previous post about Cerberus Fossae, I had incorrectly assumed that these cracks and similar lines of pits or depressions were caused by the sinking of surface material into underground lava tubes. While this is possible in some cases, it is not the main cause of these cracks. Instead, they were formed due to the pressure from below caused by the rise of the surrounding giant volcanoes, Elysium Mons to the north and Olympus Mons to the east. That pressure stretched the crust until it cracked in numerous places. In Cerberus Fossae this produced a series of parallel east-west fissures, some more than seven hundred miles long.

The young age of Cerberus Fossae is dramatically illustrated by the wider mosaic below, showing the entire crack.
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Further explorations at candidate Starship Mars landing site

Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit near candidate Starship landing sites
Click for full image.

Close-up on exposed lower layer

Cool image time! Even though it appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of images of its candidate landing sites surrounding the Erebus Montes mountains in the Arcadia Planitia plains in the Martian northern lowlands, this does not mean that other planetary scientists are not asking for more images of this region, for their own scientific research.

The photograph on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released in the early November image download from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned but dubbed “Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit,” it shows what appears at first glance to be a relatively featureless area south of Erebus Montes, out in the flat plains.

A closer look suggests otherwise. For one, the full image shows darker and lighter areas. The close-up to the right, its location indicated by the white box in the wider image above, also shows several intriguing depressions that appear to be revealing a knobby lower layer. In fact, in the full image it appears that the darker areas are areas where material has covered that knobby lower layer. Where it is bright the ground resembles the floors of these depressions, knobby and complex.

I do not know why they label this the “beginning” of a glacial unit. What I do know is that the research of this region has consistently found evidence of a lot of buried ice. To quote Donna Viola of the University of Arizona noted, “I think you could dig anywhere to get your water ice.” The knobby features to me suggest a surface that is showing signs of sublimation, where the exposed ice is slowly eroding. Think of what happens to a block of ice when you spray warm water on it. As it melts it leaves behind just these kinds of strange formations.

Overview of all MRO images at Starship candidate landing site

The red box in the map on the right shows the location of this photograph relative to the other images taken for SpaceX. The white boxes are the company’s images taken for Starship. The black boxes are the images it obtained in 2017 when it was thinking of sending a Dragon capsule to Mars.

This map does not show all images taken by MRO’s high resolution camera in this area, but the coverage is very scattered, with many gaps. Over time I suspect these gaps will be filled more quickly than other northern plain regions, because the scientists know that SpaceX has an interest in this area. That interest means there is an increased chance that a mission will fly here in the relatively near future, which in turn is going to generate more scientific interest as well.

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A society run by mob rule

In the past week several ugly events have illustrated forcefully how mob rule now dictates who can or cannot speak freely in America. Worse, these events show that we are no longer a civilized social order run by reason. Instead, we have become a culture where whoever can throw the loudest tantrum dictates policy.

First we have the horrible events last week at the State University of New York-Binghamton.

To understand how disgusting and despicable the first story above is, it is necessary for you to watch the video below. Pay special attention to the taller girl in the fur-lined parka who at about four minutes keeps looking at the camera-person (whom I think is also a girl) and aggressively and repeatedly asking, “Why are you shaking so? Why are you shaking so?” The reason is obvious. The girl filming is one the conservative students, and she is justifiably frightened. The taller girl, hostile and irrationally angry because a conservative dared to advocate opinions she doesn’t like, is clearly being physically threatening. As are all of her leftist compatriots.

The response of the administration to this atrocious behavior was even more vile, essentially endorsing the actions of the mob:
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Thank you!

My quickie one-week-long fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black has ended.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated, subscribed, bought books, and in general expressed their bountiful support for the work I do here. I would thank you all personally, but there are too many and if I did I wouldn’t have time for anything else. Consider this message as my personal thank you!

This post will remain at the top of the page for the rest of today. Scroll down for updates.

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A journey into the depths of Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris

Cool image time! Rather than start with the cool image, let’s begin with the long view. To the right is a wide mosaic of Valles Marineris on Mars, the largest known canyon in the solar system. About 2,500 miles long and 400 miles wide, this canyon is so large that it would cover most of the United States if put on Earth. The Grand Canyon, 500 miles long by 19 miles wide, could easily fit within it and not be noticed. In depth Valles Marineris is equally impressive, with a depth of more than four miles, about four times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

A closer view of the central regions of Valles Marineris

The white cross in the mosaic above is where we are heading. You can see it as the white box in the zoomed in overview to the right. This central part of Valles Marineris is named East Melas Chasma, and the red boxes indicate locations where the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has already taken images.

As you can see, we do not yet have many high resolution images of this part of the canyon floor. The white box is the most recent image, and is the subject of today’s post.
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SpaceX completes 1st round of Starship’s Mars landing site images

All locations photographed of the candidate landing region for SpaceX's planned Mars missions

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It now appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of Starship requests from MRO. In the image releases from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) since September, only three new Starship locations were taken, and all three were the unreleased candidate sites I noted in my September 16, 2019 update.

Below is the full list of all of the Starship images, their locations indicated on the map above by the numbered white boxes:

With the release of these last photographs, the initial list of proposed images of candidate Starship landing sites on Mars has apparently been completed. No additional images at any other locations appear to have been suggested. The MRO science team has taken stereo images of each one of the nine locations, eight of which were in Amazonis Planitia, and one in Phlega Montes.

This however is not the first round of pictures requested by SpaceX of the Arcadia Planitia region in connection with the company’s desire to land spacecraft on Mars.
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Mars’ seasonally vanishing carbon dioxide polar cap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
Click for full image.

Since the onset of the Martian spring in the northern hemisphere back in March of this year, scientists have been busy using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor the expected sublimation and disappearance of the cap of dry ice that falls as snow to become a winter layer mantling both the more permanent icecap of water 7,000 feet deep as well as the giant dune sand seas that surround that northern icecap.

The image on the right was first posted here on Behind the Black on June 6, 2019 as part of a long article describing that northern polar icecap and its annual evolution. It shows a set of dunes that Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who requested the image, has dubbed “Buzzell.” When that picture was taken in March, the frozen dry ice layer of translucent carbon dioxide still coated the dunes. The image’s darkness is because the Sun has just begun to rise above the horizon at this very high latitude location (84 degrees). The circular feature is likely a buried ancient crater, with the streaks indicating the prevailing wind direction blowing both sand and frost about.

On August 9, 2019 I provided an update on this monitoring, when new images of this same location were downloaded from MRO in April and June. MRO has now taken a new image of Buzzell, on October 2, 2019. Below the fold are all these images so that you can see the sublimation and disappearance of that dry ice layer over time.
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Bennu & Ryugu: Two very old and strange asteroids

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Bennu’s equatorial ridge. Click for full image.

This week the science team operating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at the asteroid Bennu hosted a joint conference in Tucson, Arizona, with the scientists operating the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft at the asteroid Ryugu. Both gave up-to-date reports on the science so far obtained, as well as outlined upcoming events. I was fortunate enough to attend.

First an overview. Both Bennu and Ryugu are near earth asteroids, with Bennu having an orbit that might even have it hit the Earth in the last quarter of 2100s. Both are very dark, and are rubble piles. Both were thought to be of the carbonaceous chondrite family of asteroids, sometimes referred to as C-type asteroids. This family, making up about 75% of all asteroids, includes a bewildering collection of subtypes (B-types, F-types, G-types, CI, CM, CV, CH, CB, etc), all of which were initially thought to hold a lot of carbon. We now know that only a few of these categories, the CI and CM for example, are carbon rich.

Even so, we actually know very little about these types of asteroids. They are very fragile, so that any that reach the Earth’s surface are not a good selection of what exists. About 90% of the material gets destroyed in the atmosphere, with the remnant generally coming from the innermost core or more robust nodules. We therefore have a biased and limited sample.

It is therefore not surprising that the scientists are finding that neither Bennu nor Ryugu resembles anything else they have ever seen. Both have aspects that resemble certain types of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, but neither provides a very good fit for anything.
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Sunspot update October 2019: Sunspot activity continues to flatline

For the fifth month in a row the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, possibly the longest such stretch since astronomers began recording the sunspot cycle in the 1700s.

This flatlining is very obvious in NOAA’s October update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, released yesterday, and posted below, with annotations:

October 2019 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. 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, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

SILSO October graph

As it has done in previous four months, in October the Sun produced practically no sunspots. The graph on the right, produced by Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations (SILSO), shows only one weak sunspot at the beginning of October.

Even though the previous 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded, the lack of sunspots in the past five months has significantly beaten it for inactivity, as shown on the first graph above. That previous minimum never had a period of even two months with so few sunspots. Furthermore, the Sun has now been blank 74% of the time in 2019, a record of blankness that beats the yearly record of either 2008 or 2009. If the Sun continues to be as blank as it has been for the next two months, 2019 will easily set the record for the year with the fewest sunspots ever recorded.

The big question remains: Are we heading for a grand minimum with no sunspots for decades? We still do not know. Even these unprecedented trends prove nothing, as we really do not yet have a clear understanding of why the Sun undergoes these various cycles of sunspot activity/inactivity. The Sun could still come back to life in the coming years. We can only wait and see. As I noted however in last month’s sunspot update, the arrival of a new grand minumum, the first since the 1600s, could have important consequences:

During past grand minimums there is evidence that the Earth also cooled, though the link between the two phenomenon remains circumstantial and unproven. If we see another grand minimum, and the Earth once again cools, then we might be able to finally tie these two phenomenon together.

It is essential that climate scientists pursue this question. Answering it might very well defuse the fears presently expressed by leftist politicians and the leftist press of an oncoming period of global warming.

At the same time, it might also present us with the possibility of an oncoming period of significant global cooling, during which it will be so cold that we might face crop failures (as happened in the previous grand minimum in the 1600s).

We need to know what is going on with the Sun, and its consequences for Earth, as soon as possible. Whether we can find out this solar cycle is unlikely, but a cold hard look at the data would do much to answer the question.

I wonder however if there any climate scientists around willing to do so. Questioning human-caused global warming carries great career risks. In fact, taking any position counter to the prevailing wisdom on any scientific issue appears to carry risks, as demonstrated by the experience recently when a journal decided to publish a paper that questioned modern gender politics:
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Rover update: October 28, 2019

Summary: Curiosity finally on the move after several months drilling two adjacent holes in the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues roving west, has it now operates during its eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity's present location in Gale Crater
Click for original full image.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

I have not done any of my regular rover updates since May 30, 2019 because it was simpler to do individual updates for both Curiosity and Yutu-2, the only working rovers presently on other worlds. (If things had gone well, which they did not, we would have had two other lunar rovers in the past six months, one from Israel and one from India, but both crashed during landing.)

However, since Curiosity is finally on the move after spending several months at one location, where it drilled two holes in the clay unit (the material from one used in a wet cup experiment to look for organic life) it is time to update my readers on where Curiosity is and where it is heading.

The first image above and to the right is an annotated overview of Curiosity’s present position, moving south to a line of buttes which scientists have determined delineates the transition from the clay unit to a new geological layer they have dubbed the Greenheugh Pedimont. The yellow lines indicate the area seen in the panorama below, created from two photographs (here and here) taken by the rover’s navigation camera.
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Non-stories from NASA reveal mainstream press corruption

The mainstream press coverage of three NASA press releases in the past two days reveals quite starkly the fundamental corruption that permeates both the Washington establishment and the mainstream press.

First we have NASA’s announcement about its new Artemis spacesuits: Orion Suit Equipped to Expect the Unexpected on Artemis Missions.

I have spotted almost a dozen major news articles, from the New York Times to NPR to the Guardian, all buying into the spin put forth from NASA, that these spacesuits are another grand achievement by the space agency, and that with them NASA will take Americans to the Moon and Mars!

All balderdash. The suit might be real, but NASA’s planned lunar and Mars missions right now are nothing more than Powerpoint presentations. They do not exist, either with funding or with hardware. Any major news source that makes a big deal about this NASA press announcement while playing along with NASA’s Moon and Mars fantasies is not doing its job.

And sadly, not doing its job describes exactly what these mainstream news organizations are doing.

Next we have the quiet announcement by NASA that it has finally picked someone to run its manned bureaucracy: » Read more

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Ice! Ice! Everywhere on Mars ice!

Ice scarp in Milankovic Crater
Click for full image.

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of exposed ice in a number scarp cliff faces found in the high-mid-latitudes of Mars.

These scarps, which have so far been found in one southern 50-55 degree latitude strip and in one crater, Milankovic, at the same latitude in the north, are important because they are one of the first places on Mars in its lower latitudes where we have found ice actually exposed and visible, not buried like the many buried glaciers very near the surface found in the 30 to 60 degree northern and southern latitude bands.

Since that press announcement, scientists have been monitoring these sites for changes, as well as expanding their survey to see if they can locate more of these scarps.

Overview map

My previous posts on this subject were mostly focused on that southern strip near Hellas Basin, as shown on the map on the right. In reviewing the most recent image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I noticed that the only new images of ice scarps were taken in the northern location, in Milankovic Crater, as indicated by the white dot north of Olympus Mons. The first image above shows the north-facing scarp of one of these images, cropped to focus in on the color section where, if you look close, you will see a strip of blue across the base of the scarp. That’s the ice layer, exposed as the scarp sublimates away over time from the north to the south.

over view of all MRO images taken so far in Milankovic Crater

This scarp, labeled #2 on the overview map of Milankovic Crater on the right, is located inside the crater’s eastern rim. The second image, posted below and labeled #1 on the overview map, shows a wider area of several ice scarps located on the inside of the crater’s southwestern rim.

The red boxes in the overview map indicate all the images taken by MRO inside this crater. If you go to the camera’s archive and focus in on Milankovic Crater at 54.5 degrees north latitude and 213.3 degrees longitude, you can then click on each red box to see the high resolution image. In practically every image along the crater’s inside rim can be found numerous scarps.
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Ulysses S. Grant

In my leisure reading these days I have been very focused on the life and history of Ulysses S. Grant, the man who more than any single person made it possible for the north to win the Civil War in the 1860s..

More importantly, Grant’s unwavering offensive strategy in war, to never retreat, to always take the battle to the enemy, to always demand, as he wrote after winning his first major battle at Donelson, “complete and unconditional surrender,” and to always follow up that victory with grace and mercy, became the central tenet of American military and political strategy for the next eighty years, through the end of World War II. It is for this reason Grant in many ways could be considered among the four or five most influential individuals in American history.

In this leisured effort I have read a number of classic histories, including Shelby Foote’s three volume The Civil War: a Narrative and Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox. I also, as I always do when I am trying to learn something about history, read the original sources, and for this Grant’s own memoirs came next. (Historians such as I might try to get things right, but for any non-historian it behooves you to read some original sources as well. This will help you distinguish between the historians who succeed in getting it right, and those who don’t.)

I then followed most recently with Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 biography, Grant. The previous writing had focused only on the Civil War. This book gave me the story before and after.

Grant is a remarkable figure. He appears to have been an astonishngly honest and straightforward man, coldly rational about war and what must be done to win. He also was amazingly unambitious, even as he strove hard to succeed. It was his belief never to aim for a promotion, because he believed that effort would warp his judgment. Instead, he tried to do the best he could at any moment, and hoped that by his good works he would rise.

One story I think not only epitomized the character of Grant, but of the America of his time. After the war and the completion of his two terms as president, he went on a world tour, where he was greeted everywhere with honors and adulation. Upon his arrival in Berlin Chancellor Bismarck immediately invited Grant to come and visit.
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Sunspot update Sept 2019:
The blankest Sun in decades

With the release yesterday by NOAA of its September update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, we find ourselves in what might be the longest stretch of sunspot inactivity in decades, part of what might become the most inactive solar minimum in centuries.

In the last four months the Sun has produced practically no sunspots. There were two in June, two in July, and one in August. The September graph, posted below with additional annotations by me to give it context, shows that the past month was as weak as August, with only one sunspot again.

September 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. 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, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

The 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded. Yet, it never produced a stretch of four months with so few sunspots, as shown in the graph above. Moreover, during that minimum the Sun was blank 71% of the time in 2008 and 73% of the time in 2009 (a record). Right now, with almost three months to go in 2019, the Sun has already been blank 73% of time, with every indication that it will top that number before the year is out.

Furthermore, the trend continues to suggest we are heading for a period of very few sunspots. Though one of the six sunspots seen since June 1 had a polarity that belonged to the next solar cycle, we have seen no further such next-cycle sunspots since July. There was one active region on October 6 with a next solar cycle polarity, but it was never able to gather enough magnetic energy to mature into a sunspot.

As I noted in my July 8 sunspot update,
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Ukraine: The Democratic Party’s effort to overthrow the elected government

In the past two weeks the mainstream media, working for the Democratic Party, has blasted us with a new anti-Trump scandal, accusing the president of using his influence during a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pressure the Ukraine to instigate an investigation of Joe Biden.

As I usually do with big political stories such as this, I let them play out a bit before drawing some conclusions. I will admit that I immediately thought this was all balderdash, comparable to the same fake accusations against Trump in connection with Russian collusion. Those were never creditable, and after almost two years even Robert Mueller, the FBI hack chosen by DC insiders to frame Trump, found he had no evidence and came up empty.

The Trump-Ukraine accusations seemed at first glance to be the same garbage, but I decided to watch and wait, to see if they had substance.

Not surprisingly, they don’t.

First we have the accusation itself, coming from an anonymous whisteblower. Not only is the accuser anonymous, so are all his or her sources. All.

Even more significant, the accusation is not based on first hand knowledge. The accuser was not witness to Trump’s phone call. His claim is based entirely on hearsay and rumor, which would be laughed out of any court in the land. That anyone in the press is taking these accusations seriously based on this evidence proves they are, as Glenn Reynolds often says, merely Democratic operatives with bylines.

Second, soon after the press and the Democrats (I repeat myself) began to make a big deal about this feeble accusation, Trump went ahead and released the transcript of his conversation.

The transcript shows absolutely nothing scandalous. » Read more

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Cave pits in the Martian northern lowlands

New pits in Hephaestus Planitia

I could call this my monthly Martian Pit update. Since November 2018 I have each month found from two to five new and interesting cave pits in the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). My previous posts:

All except the last August 12 post were for pits on the flanks of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the line of three giant volcanoes to the southeast of Olympus Mons, and were thus almost certainly resulting from lava flows.

The August 12 post instead showed pits found in Utopia Planitia, one of the large plains that comprise the Martian northern lowlands where scientists think an intermittent ocean might have once existed. All of these pits are found in a region of meandering canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae.

In the most recent MRO release scientists once again focused on the pits in or near Hephaetus, imaging four pits, two of which have been imaged previously, as shown in my August post and labeled #2 and #4 in this article, and two (here and here) that appear new. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows the two new pits, dubbed #1 and #3. In the full image of #1, it is clear that this pit lines up nicely with some other less prominent depressions, suggesting an underground cave. Pit #3 however is more puzzling. In the full image, this pit actually runs perpendicular to a long depression to the west. There are also no other related features around it.

What makes all four of these pits intriguing is their relationship to Hephaestus Fossae and a neighboring rill-like canyon dubbed Hebrus Valles, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

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Has the leftist smear machine begun to crack?

Several stories in the past week suggest that cracks might finally be appearing in the leftist/Democratic/media smear machine that since 2008 has used lies and slanders to destroy the reputations of its opponents.

What makes the first five stories above different from everything I have seen in the past two decades, since Bill Clinton’s perjury and impeachment in the late 1990s, is the willingness of people on both the right and left, within the entertainment community, to come out publicly and condemn the leftwing blacklisting efforts that have normally been supported blindly and in mass by those same communities.

In the past the support for such blacklisting threats against conservative entertainers would have been monolithic, and any conservatives in Hollywood would have been silent, out of fear they own careers would have been destroyed.

Now we not only have a number of conservative entertainers fearlessly blasting this fascist blacklisting, they are being joined by many liberal entertainer icons.

The last story is similar, but instead of the entertainment community the story involves a rebellion by a Democratic politician. Since Bill Clinton’s presidency I have practically never seen a Democratic politician resist this blacklist culture. Yang might be the very first. And I say that despite the fact that I definitely oppose his politics.

We are also seeing some of the same thing with this week’s New York Times slander of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While the right has justly blasted the newspaper for its partisan lying and incompetence, so have some liberal outlets.

It could be that the leftist smear machine has finally gone too far, and has become so vile and despicable that even many ardent leftists can no longer tolerate it.

Then again, I am a forever optimistic person, and sometimes see hope where none exists. These might merely be the exceptions that prove the rule. Only time will tell us whether this is a new positive trend, or a minor blip in left’s never-ending quest to persecute its opponents.

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More potential Starship landing sites on Mars

Starship landing sites

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Many news sources, skilled in their ability to rewrite press releases, saw my article and immediately posted stories essentially repeating what I had found, including my geological reasoning. Some did some more digging and, because they came out a few days later they were able to take advantage of the next MRO team image release, issued on August 30th, to find a few more candidate site images.

Those additional images included the remaining stereo images for all the images in my August post, indicated by the white boxes in the overview map above. They also included two new locations, indicated by the black boxes. One was of one more location in the easternmost hills of Erebus Montes. The other was a stereo pair for one entirely different landing location, farther to the west in the mountains dubbed Phlegra Montes, a location that SpaceX had previously been considering, but until this image had not been included in its MRO image requests.

The grey boxes in the map above show the approximate locations of images not yet officially released by MRO. Though unreleased, their existence is still public knowledge, as they are listed as already acquired images in the HiWish database. Below are links to the three upcoming new images (the second stereo images for locations #1 and #2 are not included)

Both the Phlega Montes location and #3 above appear to be looking at soft slushy material that might have a lot of water just below the surface.
» Read more

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The Democratic/Media smear machine

This past weekend we got to once again see the workings of the Democratic/Media smear machine, designed to not only destroy the reputation of anyone who opposes them, but to give that machine justification for removing all such individuals from any position of power.

All without any evidence. None.

First the New York Times published a new unsubstantiated smear against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. The allegations were made by a Democratic Party operative who had acted as one of Bill Clinton’s lawyers, and who claimed to have seen the incident.

Then Democratic politicians pile on, demanding the impeachment of Kavanaugh. They do this despite the fact that there are absolutely no other confirmed witnesses to that Democratic operative’s accusations. Nor is there any record anywhere or evidence that the vile incident ever happened.

Then, when the damage has already been done, and this new Big Lie has been properly spread throughout the world, the New York Times finally corrects its initial report, adding two significant details that discredits the report entirely. First, the so-called victim had refused to be interviewed for the report, and second, according to her friends, has no recollection of the incident itself.

None of these corrections will matter. From now on Democrats, and their willing allies in the press, will repeatedly use this new smear as evidence that Kavanaugh is a bad person who must be removed from office.

This is the same pattern we have seen them use repeatedly for the past decade. First they make unsubstantiated accusations of racism (the Tea Party, some children from Kentucky), of murder (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown), of encouraging violence (Sarah Palin), of treason (Trump), of sexual deviancy (Kavanaugh and Roy Moore), and then when those accusations are unequivocally proven to be lies and smears, ignore this fundamental evidence to continue spreading the lies and the slanders.

Yet, when it came time to vote in 2018, the American public shrugged its shoulders, ignored this vile behavior, and rewarded these Democrats with more power in Congress. It seems that a very large percentage of the American public — maybe even a majority — approves of this smear machine, likes what it is doing, and wants to use it to make sure all opposition to the Democratic Party is destroyed, by any means necessary.

Bad times are coming, unless something changes in the 2020 election.

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Buy dumb!

The dumb washing machine we hunted for and got
The used “dumb” machine we
paid $285 for that actually
cleans our clothes.

The smart washing machine we threw out
The “smart” machine that we
paid $923 for and sold for $40.

Two years ago our old Kenmore Series 80 washing machine broke down. The repair guy said it would be so expensive to fix that he recommended it was time to buy something new.

So off we went to Sears, where we ended up buying one of today’s modern “smart” machines for a mere $923. As the LG website proudly exclaims,

A Smarter Way to Wash: 6Motion™ Technology uses up to 6 different wash motions to provide a smart cleaning experience that is gentle on clothes and maximizes washing performance.

The problem was the machine never got any of our clothes clean. It also refused to provide enough water. The way it worked was to sense the weight of the clothes you put inside, and determine the needed amount based on this. Routinely, it wasn’t enough, so Diane did web searches to discover numerous owners faking out the machine’s brains by pouring several buckets of water on top of the clothes before turning on the machine, making them weigh more.

The machine also did not have an agitator, the new in-thing among washing machine manufacturers two years ago, probably forced on them by new federal regulations. And though the tub itself did shake, it did it so gently that the clothes hardly moved.

There were also other issues with the machine’s smart technology that frustrated Diane. The machine was boss, and would not allow for any flexibility to its predetermined wash and rinse cycles, even when they made no sense.

Last week Diane had had enough. She did some research, found a local used appliance store in Tucson, Rosano’s & Sons Appliances. Not only did they have a comparable washing machine to our old Kenmore, they gave their workmanship a six month warranty, and would buy our “smart” machine for $40. They wouldn’t pay more, because they explained that no one really wanted these new “smart” machines. The demand was for the older ones, the ones that while “dumb” worked.

And yes, they were right. Since getting the “new” used machine installed it’s like the good ol’ days, when washing machines were washing machines, and the dirty clothes you put in came out clean. Wonder of wonders!

The moral to this story is this: Buy dumb! The modern obsession with adding computer technology to what should be a very simple machine is not necessarily a good thing. Moreover, the regulations imposed by the federal government in the past decade to make many of our appliances “more efficient” and “environmentally friendly” has only served to make them useless.

So, if any of your old appliances break, and there is any possibility of fixing them, do it. It is worth the cost. The used Kenmore Series 70 we just bought cost less than a third of the LG “smart” machine, and does a better job. We would have saved money and had clean clothes for the past two years had we simply fixed the old machine. And if you can’t get the old machine fixed, find a used appliance place and buy used. It will also save you money, and you will also get an appliance that will do the job.

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Avalanche season at the Martian north pole

Avalanche on-going at the edge of Mars' north pole icecap
Click for full resolution image.

As the Martian spring started to unfold in April 2019, the focus of many Martian planetary scientists immediately shifted to the northern polar icecap, where they fully expected, based on previous experience, some spectacular events to occur.

I have already reported on this year’s initial observations of the sublimation of the carbon dioxide frost layer. That frost layer, generally less than six feet thick, falls as dry ice snow with the coming of winter, then sublimates away each spring. Since the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006 and its discovery of this process by its high resolution camera, these scientists have been monitoring the disappearance of that frost layer from Martian year to Martian year.

That sublimation process also brings with it other spectacular changes, including the coming of frequent avalanches along the high cliff scarps, ranging in heights from 1,500 to 3,000 feet, that comprise the edge of that north pole icecap. The image above, reduced to post here, shows one of the many avalanches found this spring and photographed as they were actually happening. It looks down at the cliff that runs from the left to the lower right of the image, with its top being the flat plateau in the lower left. From the caption, written by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

Every spring the sun shines on the side of the stack of layers at the North Pole of Mars known as the north polar layered deposits. The warmth destabilizes the ice and blocks break loose.

When they reach the bottom of the more than 500 meter tall cliff face [about 1,600 feet], the blocks kick up a cloud of dust. (In the cutout, the top layer of the north polar cap is to the lower left.) The layers beneath are different colors and textures depending on the amount of dust mixed with ice.

The linear many-layered look of that cliff face is due to the many layers believed to exist within the permanent water icecap of Mars. To give some perspective, this cliff is several hundred taller than the World Trade Center after completion. Those falling blocks are dropping farther than the bodies that horribly fell from the Trade Center the day it was hit by airplanes flown by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.

The map below shows most of the eastern half of that icecap, with the white boxes showing the various places MRO has spotted such avalanches.
» Read more

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Swamp attacks Trump over hurricane forecasts

Last week, as Hurricane Dorian approached the Florida coast, President Trump held a press briefing where he showed a graph with extra markings that suggested that Alabama might be impacted by the hurricane.

Unfortunately for Trump, this path for Dorian — though initially considered a possibility in the National Weather Service models — was also considered very unlikely, and had been quickly dismissed from those models, making Trump’s graph out-of-date when he showed it.

Since then the Democratic mainstream media has put out hundreds of stories claiming some sort of corruption on Trump’s part for adding those extra markings. Trump has himself responded aggressively, defending his action and saying it was justified. The New York Times even reported — based on anonymous sources — that Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire three people at the National Weather Service if they didn’t issue a statement defending Trump.

Now, three former Democratic NOAA heads, D. James Baker (appointed by Bill Clinton), Jane Lubchenco (appointed by Barack Obama), and Kathryn D. Sullivan (appointed by Barack Obama), have issued a statement condemning Trump, claiming his actions are threatening the scientific integrity of these agencies.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has always been a model of scientific integrity, ensuring that weather science is not politically driven, regardless of the administration. But the recent misleading statements by President Donald Trump about a NWS hurricane forecast and cover-up actions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), its parent agency, have violated those norms.

Forgive me if I don’t take very seriously this smug, self-righteous posturing by these former NOAA officials, all partisan Democratic Party political appointees. Scientific integrity suddenly means a lot to them when they can use it to attack Trump. However, when NOAA repeatedly tampered with its climate data for the past dozen years, and has provided no good explanation for that tampering, I don’t remember these high and mighty officials, all in charge of NOAA at the time, commenting then about the importance of scientific integrity.

Trump is no saint here. He as a politician wanted to cover all bets, so he added Alabama in discussing Dorian’s threat, even though his weather scientists considered that threat slim if nonexistent. He should have relied more on those scientists and not improvised.

For him however to be attacked relentless for this minor addition is absurd, since it is perfectly reasonable for weather scientists to get their predictions wrong, and as president Trump has a responsibility to try to prepare for all eventualities.

These NOAA critics are far less credible however. There are questionable things going on at NOAA in connection with its global climate dataset that requires either an explanation or a correction. This is a far more serious issue than whether a politician expanded the threat of a hurricane in one press briefing in order to cover his ass. The tampering threatens to discredit the entire NOAA climate dataset, making all research based on it untrustworthy. If these former NOAA officials really cared about scientific integrity, they would have taken action at NOAA to deal with this tampering, when they ran those agencies. They would have either gotten it stopped, or provided the public and the rest of the scientific community a reasonable explanation for it.

They did neither, proving that their sanctimonious statement today is nothing more than partisan politics. They don’t care about scientific integrity. What they care about is defeating Trump, helping the Democratic Party, and enhancing the power of the Washington swamp.

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Charles Walker: the first commercial astronaut

Charles Walker on the Space Shuttle in November 1985

Last night I attended another one of the monthly Arizona Space Business Roundtable events held here in Tucson to bring together the business-oriented space community of this city.

The speaker was Charles Walker, who had flown three shuttle missions in 1984 and 1985, but not as a NASA-employed astronaut but as an employee of McDonnell-Douglas, making him the first astronaut to fly in space under the employ of a private commercial company.

Walker’s job then was to monitor and maintain a drug-processing unit designed to produce large quantities of pure biological hormones that on Earth were simply not possible. Gravity polluted the process, while weightlessness acted to purify things. If successful the hormone produced could be sold to fight anemia, especially in individuals taking radiation treatments. The image on the right shows him on his third and last shuttle mission, launched November 26, 1985. He is working with a handheld protein crystal growth experiment, with the larger hormone purifying experiment on the wall behind this.

According to Walker’s presentation yesterday, this third flight in November 1985 demonstrated the process worked and could produce as much as one liter of hormone, enough to easily make back the cost of the project and leave room for an acceptable profit. They were thus ready for fullscale production on future shuttle flights, only to have the entire project die when the Challenger shuttle was lost on January 28, 1986. With that failure President Reagan declared that the shuttle would no longer be used for commercial flights.

Their business plan had been dependent on the artificially low launch prices NASA had been charging them for shuttle flights. Without the shuttle there was then no affordable alternative for getting into orbit.

The process is still viable, and the need for these drugs still exists. Whether they could now be flown on the new cheaper private rockets, on board future private space stations like Bigelow’s B330, remains unknown. A new company would have to pick up the pieces, as McDonnell-Douglas no longer exists, having been absorbed into Boeing.

I personally suspect there is real money to be made here, should someone decide to go for it.

What struck me most while watching Walker speak was the same thing that has struck me whenever I have seen or interviewed any astronaut: He appeared to be such an ordinary down-to-earth human being. He could have been anyone you meet anywhere.

What made him stand out, as he described his upbringing and how he became an astronaut, was not his intelligence or any physical attribute, but his clear willingness to stay focused on his goals, to work has hard as possible to make them come true. What made him succeed was an unwavering commitment. He wanted to get to space, and by gum he was going to do it!

Charles Walker on first flight, August 1984
Walker on his first flight in 1984.

For example, he was too young to fly in the initial space race in the 1960s. When he finally was old enough and ready in the 1970s, NASA’s space program was being shut down. That option seemed dead. So instead, he began looking for another route into space, and found it with private industry and possibility of making money by using weightlessness to produce medicines in space that could not be produced on Earth.

Obviously, luck is always a factor. Had his project been a little delayed, only a year, it would have never flown, and he would never have gone into space. Similarly, he needed to be in the right place at the right time to get this particularly job in the first place.

At the same time, “Luck is a residue of design,” as said by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodges in the 1950s. Walker didn’t give up when the Apollo program died in the 1970s, and thus he put himself in the right place at McDonnell-Douglas when this opportunity arose.

We should all pay close attention. If you have a dream, you need to follow it, with a fearless wholehearted commitment. If you do, you still might not get it as you dreamed, but you will increase your chances, and regardless, you will end up doing far better for yourself and everyone around you.

And you still might end up like Walker, bouncing around in weightlessness out in the vast reaches of outer space.

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Mars’ mysterious slope streaks become even more mysterious

Bright slope streaks in Arabia Terra
Click for full image.

Mars is an alien planet. This fact needs to be restated over and over, because we humans have an uncontrolled and unconscious tendency to view the things we find on Mars and assume they are caused by and resemble phenomenon we see all the time here on Earth.

Not. Mars has a very different climate, a significantly weaker gravitational field (about one third of Earth’s), and a geological and environmental make-up very alien from Earth’s. While many phenomenon there might have parallels on Earth, it is very dangerous to assume they are the same, because more often than not, they are exceedingly dissimilar and mysterious.

The image on the right is another example of this, reduced and cropped to post here. It is of some slope streaks in the Arabia Terra region on Mars, the largest most extensive region in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern highlands. I found it in my review of the August 30th release of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

As I already noted in my previous article about the mysterious slope streaks of Mars:

The bottom line, as noted in one paper, “The processes that form slope streaks remain obscure. No proposed mechanism readily accounts for all of their observed characteristics and peculiarities.”

Mars is strange. Mars is alien. Mars epitomizes the universe in all its glory.

The image above only reinforces this conclusion.
» Read more

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The modern academic view of the future

Samsung has just released a new report, dubbed Samsung KX50: The Future in Focus, where the company asked “Six of Britain’s leading academics and futurists” to give their prediction of what the world will be like fifty years hence.

According to the report [pdf], people will be living mostly in very dense urban environments consisting of giant, self-sufficient skyscrapers that grow their own food, huge underground complexes, and even undersea colonies. Travel will be by self-driving pods that can double as hotel rooms on long trips, with travel possible between places like Britain and Scandinavia by aquatic highways. Alongside these will be autonomous air taxis that use rivers as commuter routes, hyperloops, and hypersonic airliners.

Not that there will be much traveling. For environmental reasons, most food will be grown close to home, if not in the home itself. Manufacturing will be equally local thanks to 3D printing. And, thanks to automation and artificial intelligence, most people will work in their self-cleaning homes with most of their professional and personal interactions with others conducted through means of full-feedback holographs.

That means that most people will live very sedentary lives, but they’ll also be monitored by biosensors throughout the day as virtual digital companions assess their health, help doctors to prescribe treatments to keep them at peak fitness, dispense health advice, and even custom tailor diets and medicines. [emphasis mine]

The last paragraph immediately stood out to me. These academics saw no moral or ethical problem with such monitoring and supervision. Nor it appears were they aware of the political ramifications of such technology.

Similarly, the report also envisioned “TV and movies beamed directly to your brain via optoelectronic devices” and “Living forever with our memories uploaded to the Cloud.” And from introduction in the report [pdf] itself:

One of the first things that struck me, reading their submissions, was how much consensus there seems to be between all our futurologists, on matters such as direct brain-to-internet connection being a very real possibility before 2069.

The essays in the report itself confirmed this impression. The predictions of all these academics are all focused on imposing their hot-button leftist agenda, including preventing global warming, allowing gender fluidity, pushing environmental activism, and eliminating of meat as food (to name a few), and doing so by the use of technology that is implanted directly into each human being. The world they envision will have every human a pawn in their interconnected robotic-controlled society, with brain implants eliminating our ability to think independently because we are now part of a kind of hive mind.

Samsung then asked British citizens to rank these predictions by what they would most like to see come true. Self-cleaning robotic homes was by far the most popular prediction at 63%, with “Body implants that monitor our health and translate any language” coming in second at 44%.

This poll however was rigged, as it did not ask anyone if they opposed some predictions. I wonder what response Samsung would have gotten had they asked that question.

Nonetheless, the number of people enthused by the idea of monitoring by body implants make me fear for the future. Today young people are addicted to their smart phones and that hive mind. They see nothing wrong with Google monitoring their lives and even acting to control them. I fear that when more convenient but invasive monitoring and control become technologically possible, future generations will be quick to accept it, while they simultaneously lose their individuality and ability to create uniquely.

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SpaceX begins hunt for Starship landing sites on Mars

Candidate landing sites for SpaceX's Starship

In the August image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) were five images whose title immediately caught my interest:

The overview map on the right shows the location on Mars for these five photographs. The second and third images are of the same location, taken to produce a stereo pair.

To put it mildly, it is most intriguing to discover that SpaceX is beginning to research a place where it can land Starship on Mars. I immediately emailed Nathan Williams, the JPL scientist who requested these images from SpaceX, but he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement with SpaceX and could not comment. I have since tried to get some information directly from SpaceX but so far the company has not responded. A 2017 news story had indicated the company’s interest in this Mars’ location, but gave no details either.

Based on what we now know of Mars, however, it is possible to figure out why they favor this location, on the border between the two large northern lowland plains Arcadia and Amazonis Planitia.
» Read more

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What Starhopper achieved

Starhopper in flight
Click for full image.

Captalism in space: While most news reports (including mine yesterday) have focused on the spectacular 150-meter flight of Starhopper, the real story here is the Raptor engine. As one of my readers said most succinctly in a comment:

As impressive as the flight was, there is so much more going on here. This is the most efficient rocket engine ever, with all fuel and LOX running through the combustion chamber – including exhaust from the turbopumps. The Russians tried it, and NASA tried it, but this is the first time such a design has flown. It’s also the first major engine using methane, so SpaceX is learning all the ground support processes for storing, fueling, and detanking methane (mostly) safely. (Still causing grass fires at launch…) They’re aiming for production cost below $2M per Raptor, and they’re about ready to go full production on the engines, around 500 engines per year.

In fact, Musk himself reveals the truth of Diane Wilson’s comment in a tweet, found in this news story about yesterday’s flight:

Starhopper’s flying days may be done, but the stubby prototype will be retasked rather than put out to pasture.

“Yes, last flight for Hopper. If all goes well, it will become a vertical test stand for Raptor,” Musk said via Twitter on Saturday.

In a sense, yesterday’s flight was no different. Starhopper was essentially a flying test stand for Raptor, which is in itself an incredible concept, when you think about it. Now it will continue to be used as a test stand, but will no longer fly.

I have been told by rocket engineers more than once that you need to build and test your engine before you can really start your rocket design. Once you know its capabilities you can then design and construct the rocket.

This is why Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has generally been a failure. They built the ship before the engine, and when the engine had issues they had to improvise redesigns that have limited the ship’s capability and seriously delayed its launch.

SpaceX now has its engine ready. Construction on its two prototype Starships, in Boca Chica and Florida, will now proceed quickly. Based on how quickly it took SpaceX to do the first Starhopper test flights (announced in late 2018 and flying in about eight months), expect test flights within six to eight months. (Note that in this last link I expressed doubt they could get those Starhopper flights off in 2019. SpaceX proved me wrong.)

Finally, a minor news note: SpaceX today successfully brought a Dragon cargo capsule back to Earth after a month at ISS, completing its third flight in space. That this multi-use flight is hardly mentioned in the news illustrates how far SpaceX has reshaped space engineering in only a few years.

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Curiosity’s future travels

Curiosity's planned route up Mt Sharp
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has released a new map showing an update of their planned route for Curiosity in the coming year or so, showing how they plan on leaving Gediz Vallis Channel after spending some time exploring the numerous geological layers exposed on its eroded surface.

The new information in this map is the route near the bottom of the image, showing more precisely the route up the canyon and then their retreat through the gap in the canyon’s western wall.

To get a better idea of what this means, I have updated my annotations on this Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Gediz Vallis Channel, posted previously in my May 30, 2019 rover update.
» Read more

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Washington’s spectacular effort to crush the American space effort

Three stories today illustrate once again the incompetence, idiocy, and inability of practically anyone in our federal government to get anything done sanely and efficiently and with success.

In the past half century that federal government has saddled the American people with a debt that is crushing. In that time it has also failed to do its job of properly enforcing the law to control the borders. It has spent trillions on social problems, only to have those social problems worsen exponentially.

I could go on. The problems imposed on American society by our failed ruling class in Washington since the 1960s is myriad. In the area of aerospace and space exploration, my specialty, the following three stories today alone demonstrate again that continuing track record, with no sign that anyone in Washington recognizes how bad a job they are doing.

First we have incompetence and idiocy by Congress. The first story outlines how our sainted lawmakers have mandated by law that the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon must fly on NASA’s SLS rocket and “launch no later than 2023.”

This legal requirement, written into the appropriations bill, was imposed because the SLS project is being managed from Alabama, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) wants that rocket to get some work to justify this pork to his state. The requirement was further pushed by former Texas Congressman John Culbertson, who has a special place in his heart for Europa, and has specifically imposed that mission on NASA.

Shelby’s demand is especially egregious and makes little sense. First, even after twenty years of effort, NASA will likely not have that rocket available in 2023. Second, the cost to use SLS is about $4 billion per launch (not the fake $1 billion number cited in the article). A Falcon Heavy rocket could do the job for $100 million, which would more than pay for the extra operating costs incurred because it will take the three more years to get to Jupiter.

To deal with this conflict, NASA is presently doing as much lobbying as it can to get Congress to change the time limit, or to allow them to fly the spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy. Not surprisingly, Congress is resisting, even though their position makes no sense and will likely cost the taxpayer billions unnecessarily while likely delaying or even impeding the mission itself.

The article as usual for the mainstream press is filled with misconceptions and errors that are all designed to make any change in this Congressional act seem a mistake. These mistakes were all fed to the reporter by the powers in and out of Congress who oppose changing things, and the reporter sadly was not informed enough to realize this.

Next we have the incompetent and power-hungry federal bureaucracy, as described in the second article.
» Read more

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