Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Some fake space news

Fake news permeates our modern news sources, but today we have two space-related stories that make me shake my head.

The first comes from Newsweek (which supposedly died years ago): Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Shares Unseen NASA Photo of Moon Landing Crew

Standard Apollo 11 press image

Michael Collins—one of the three crew members of the historic Apollo 11 moon mission—has posted a previously unreleased NASA photo on Twitter of himself, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, which he discovered by chance in a box. The photo—taken in 1969—shows the trio, decked out in full astronaut gear, standing next to a moon prop with Aldrin and Armstrong on one side and Collins on the other. The picture also features Collins’ autograph scrawled over the top in black ink.

“The crew. Found this at the bottom a box. Don’t think it was ever used by @NASA. #TBT @TheRealBuzz,” Collins tweeted.

The release of the photo is a fitting tribute to the mission in the year of its 50th anniversary, especially because it has likely not been seen by human eyes for five decades.

Florida news outlet The Orlando Sentinel—which is about to publish a commemorative book on the 1969 mission—reported that no staff members could remember seeing the photo before either in the NASA archives or the paper’s own records.

I’m sorry, but that photo is hardly news. Nor has it been lost until now. I know I’ve seen it myself at least a few times over the years, though not recently. It was one of dozens of standard public relations photographs taken by NASA leading up to the launch.

Collins himself himself should know better than to suggest this was never used. He doesn’t know that, and in fact is certainly wrong. Worse, neither Newsweek nor the Orlando Sentinel should not expand upon Collins’ statement for the sake of creating clickbait.

The second bit of fake space news today is buried in a news piece from Reuters.
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The Martian North Pole

The Martian North Pole

Since the very beginning of telescopic astronomy, the Martian poles have fascinated. Their changing sizes as the seasons progressed suggested to the early astronomers that Mars might be similar to Earth. Since the advent of the space age we have learned that no, Mars is not similar to Earth, and that its poles only resemble Earth’s in a very superficial way.

Yet, understanding the geology and seasonal evolution of the Martian poles is critical to understanding the planet itself.

This post will focus on the Martian north pole. The map on the right of the north polar regions is based on many satellite images supplemented by a lot of research by planetary scientists. The black circle in the middle is an area with relatively poor image coverage. The green areas are regions of higher elevation where the bulk of the permanent ice cap is located, surrounded by the blue northern lowlands that cover much of Mars’s northern hemisphere and are thought to have once harbored an intermittent ocean.

Olympia Undae dune field
Click for full image.

The reddish regions encircling the permanent ice cap are large seas of sand dunes, with Olympia Undae the largest and most sand-dune-packed. The image on the right, posted initially here on March 25, 2016, was taken by Mars Odyssey and shows the endlessness of this dune sea. Olympia Undae, spanning 120 degrees of longitude, is about 700 miles long, making it bigger than the Grand Canyon. As I noted in that post, “Just imagine trying to travel though this area. It is the epitome of a trackless waste. And without some form of GPS system getting lost forever would be incredibly easy.”

The polar cap itself, surrounded by those sand seas, is 600 miles across and a little less than 7,000 feet deep. It is made up of many seasonal layers, like the icecaps on Earth, with the bulk a mixture of water ice and cemented dust and sand. The very top layers, dubbed the residual icecap, is about three to six feet thick made up of frozen water having a volume about half of Greenland’s icecap. While this water could evaporate away, data suggests it is, like the icecaps on Earth, in a steady state, neither gaining or losing volume with each Martian year.

Above the residual icecap of water is the seasonal icecap made up of carbon dioxide. Unlike the other layers, this seasonal cap of dry ice, also less than six feet thick, comes and goes with the seasons. During the Martian summer it is gone, the carbon dioxide having sublimated away into the atmosphere. As the weather chills however that carbon dioxide begins to freeze again, falling as CO2 snow on the surface at the poles to create a thin cap of dry ice extending down to about 60 degrees latitude and covering practically everything seen in the first map above.

These facts suggest that future Martian colonists will have an interest in this region. While harsher than the rest of the planet, the conditions at the poles are not so much different that it will be impossible to work here. And here they will find a ready supply of carbon dioxide to help their plants grow, as well as a ready supply of water, all easily mined and near the surface.

In order to understand how this dry ice cap comes and goes, scientists have been using the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to repeatedly monitor some of the same locations in these sand seas to track the seasonal changes. In my routine review of the new images downloaded from MRO in May, I came across more than a dozen such images, all of which had been requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and taken just as the Martian winter was ending and spring was beginning. As she explained to me, “The images I’m requesting now follow-up on many of our earlier study sites so that we can study interannual variability. We’re also looking at more places to get a sense of what is similar/different depending on where you are.”

Below are two of these recent images, showing one example of the springtime changes that can be seen on these dunes.
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Sunspot update May 2019: The long ramp down

NOAA yesterday released its May update for the Sun’s sunspot cycle. The graph is posted below, annotated by me to give it some context.

The Sun in May continued to show the exact same amount of activity as it had shown for March and April. This steady uptick in sunspot activity once again shows that the ramp down to full solar minimum will be long and extended.

May 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.

That we are definitely ramping downward to minimum, even with the slight increase in the past three months, is shown by the fact that the Sun has shown no sunspots for the past fifteen days. In fact, all the activity shown in May comes from the first half of the month. This pattern is actually a reflection of the Sun’s 27-day rotation period. As I noted in my February 2017 update,

January’s activity however illustrated a statistical phenomenon that is typical of the sunspot count. That count is determined not by the numbers of sunspots on the entire surface of the Sun, but on the sunspots visible on the side of the Sun facing the Earth. Since it is not unusual for one face to be more active than the other, as we transition from maximum to minimum the sunspot counts will often show a more pronounced up-and-down curve reflecting this fact. Since the Sun’s day equals about 27 Earth days, this means that about every two weeks the active side will dominate our view until it rotates away and the inactive side reveals itself for two weeks.

In 2017 the number of spots were greater, so the period of inactivity was generally less. Now, it is not unusual for the Sun to be blank for weeks at a time. When it does become active, it is also not unusual for that activity to be confined to one hemisphere, so we get two weeks or less of activity, followed by two weeks or more of blankness.

So far there have been no sunspots in June. Expect that to continue for at least another week, when the more active hemisphere of the Sun returns to face us. I would not be surprise however if that other hemisphere arrives with its sunspots gone, so that the present streak of blankness continues unabated.

Meanwhile, solar scientists struggle to figure out what is going to happen next. Unlike climate scientists, who know as little about the climate, the solar science community admits to its ignorance about the Sun, and the uncertainty of its solar models.

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Rover update: May 30, 2019

Summary: Curiosity confirms clay in the clay unit. Yutu-2 begins its sixth day on the far side of the Moon. Three other rovers move towards completion and launch.

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

Clouds over Gale Crater
Clouds over Gale Crater

Curiosity

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

Curiosity’s journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater goes on! On the right is one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

This clay-enriched region, located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, stood out to NASA orbiters before Curiosity landed in 2012. Clay often forms in water, which is essential for life; Curiosity is exploring Mount Sharp to see if it had the conditions to support life billions of years ago. The rover’s mineralogy instrument, called CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), provided the first analyses of rock samples drilled in the clay-bearing unit. CheMin also found very little hematite, an iron oxide mineral that was abundant just to the north, on Vera Rubin Ridge. [emphasis mine]

That two geological units adjacent to each other are so different is significant for geologists, because the difference points to two very different geological histories. The formation process for both the clay unit and Vera Rubin Ridge must have occurred at different times under very different conditions. Figuring out how that happened will be difficult, but once done it will tell us much about both Gale Crater and Mars itself.

With the success of their clay unit drilling campaign, the Curiosity science team has had the rover begin its trek back from the base of the cliff below Vera Rubin Ridge to its planned travel route up the mountain.

An updated description of that route was released by the Curiosity science team last week, while I was in Wales. Below is their image showing that route, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
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The mysterious slope streaks of Mars

Massive flow on Mars
A typical Martian slope streak.

The uncertainty of science: In the past decade or so scientists have documented in detail a number of features on the Martian surface that evolve or change over time. From the constantly changing poles to the tracks of dust devils to landslides to the appearance of seasonal frost, we have learned that Mars is far from a dead world. Things are happening there, and while they are not happening as quickly or with as much energy as found on Earth, geological changes are still occurring with regular frequency, and in ways that we do not yet understand.

Of the known changing features on Mars, two are especially puzzling. These are the two types of changing streaks on the slopes of Martian cliffs, dubbed recurring slope lineae (referred as RSLs by scientists) and slope streaks.

Lineae are seasonal, first appearing during the Martian summer to grow hundreds of feet long, and then to fade away with the arrival of winter. Their seasonal nature and appearance with the coming of warm temperatures suggests that water plays a part in their initiation, either from a seep of briny water downhill or an avalanche of dust begun by. Or a combination of both. The data however does not entirely fit these theories, and in fact is downright contradictory. Some studies (such as this one and this one) say that the seasonal lineae are caused by water. Other studies (such as this one and this one) say little or no water is involved in their seasonal formation.

The answer remains elusive, and might only be answered, if at all, when Curiosity takes a close look at two lineae in the coming years.

Slope streaks however are the focus of this post, as they are even more puzzling, and appear to possibly represent a phenomenon entirely unique to Mars. I became especially motivated to write about these mysterious ever newly appearing features when, in reviewing the May image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found four different uncaptioned images of slope streaks, all titled “Slope Stream Monitoring.” From this title it was clear that the MRO team was re-imaging each location to see if any change had occurred since an earlier image was taken. A quick look in the MRO archive found identical photographs for all four slope streak locations, taken from 2008 to 2012, and in all four cases, new streaks had appeared while older streaks had faded. You can see a side-by-side comparison of all four images below the fold.
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To repeat: No obscenities on Behind the Black

I am getting really tired of saying this: I will not tolerate obscenities or curse words on this website. The rest of the world might want to wallow in barbarism and ill behavior, but it will not happen here. This is my workplace. If you want to participate in the conversation on Behind the Black, I expect you to act like a civilized adult. If you can’t abide by these rules, then go somewhere else.

First time offenders who are new to the site will be warned. Second time offenders or first time offenders who have been here awhile will be suspended for a week. After that, I will ban you. Period.

Civilization might be collapsing all around us, but at least in this tiny corner I wish to try to keep it upright.

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The many pits of Arsia Mons

The many pits of Arsia Mons

When it comes to Mars, it appears that if you want to find a pit that might be the entrance to an underground system, the place to look is on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes between Olympus Mons to the west and the vast canyon Marineris Valles to the east.

To the right is an overview map showing the pits that have been imaged since November by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The black squares show the pits that I highlighted in previous posts on November 12, 2018, February 22, 2019, and April 2, 2019. The numbered white squares are the new pits found in March photograph release from MRO.

And this is only a tiny sampling. Scientists have identified more than a hundred such pits in this region. Dubbed atypical pit craters by scientists, they “generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios” that are much greater than impact craters, facts that all suggest that these are skylights into more extensive lava tubes.

Below are the images of today’s four new pits.
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Honoring elections is no longer the Democratic Party way

During one of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, the Democrats became outraged when Trump said he might not immediately accept the election results should Clinton be declared the winner.

Questioned directly as to whether he would accept the outcome should Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton prevail on Nov. 8, Trump demurred. “I will keep you in suspense,” the Republican nominee said. Clinton called Trump’s answer “horrifying,” saying he was “talking down our democracy.”

The response from Democrats ranged from horror to fury. Articles from the entire liberal press attacked Trump for daring to suggest such a thing. Hillary Clinton response was typical, and quite pointed:

“That is not the way our democracy works,” Clinton said. “We’ve been around for 240 years. We have had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what is expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.”

She continued: “He is denigrating — he’s talking down — our democracy. And I for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.”

Hillary Clinton was correct, but anyone with even an ounce of skepticism would have immediately realized that Hillary Clinton didn’t believe her own words, for a nanosecond. From yesterday:
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Sunspot update April 2019: Not quite minimum

Time for the monthly sunspot update: NOAA yesterday released its the monthly update for the Sun’s sunspot cycle, adding sunspot activity for April 2019 to its graph. As I do every month, I have annotated that graph to give it some context and am posting it below.

While the Sun is clearly at the beginning of what might be an extended or very extended solar minimum, the continuing uptick in activity in both March and April illustrates that we have still not arrived at full minimum.

April 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.

As the Sun ramps down to minimum it will have months where there is no activity, as happened in February 2019, and months, such as in March and April, where more sunspots appear.

Eventually the quiet months will become dominate, and soon thereafter, when activity increases again (assuming it does), the solar science community will then announce the date of true minimum.

We are not there. Normally it can take a year or more for the Sun to settle down. If activity declines as indicated by the red curve, it could take as long four years, which would be a record-long minimum. The difference will tell us whether the eleven-year solar cycle is continuing, or the Sun is heading into a grand minimum, with no significant sunspots for decades.

And as I have said repeatedly in the past five years, a grand minimum could significantly impact the global climate, cooling it. Or not. It is that unknown that will be answered should a grand minimum occur. Circumstantial data suggests an inactive Sun cools the planet, and the arrival of a new grand minimum will allow scientists to confirm or refute that circumstantial data.

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The battle over Trump’s Moon effort exposes Washington’s power-hungry bureaucracy

This analysis by Eric Berger at Ars Technica of the political situation surrounding SLS, Orion, Gateway, and the Trump administration’s desire to quickly get back to the Moon is quite cogent and worth reading in full. It suggests that it will be very difficult for Trump to get his lunar landing, for several reasons. First, the Democrats in the House will likely not fund it. Second, because to get it done by 2024 will likely require switching to private rockets, and that action will be opposed by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama). And third because there are factions in the NASA bureaucracy that are in love with SLS and Gateway and will work to save it.

This quote is most telling:

At NASA headquarters, [human spaceflight chief Bill] Gerstenmaier and this team that plays a central role in developing policy for the space agency are likely content to play a waiting game. Without an increased budget he can continue to spend money on developing the SLS rocket for some future launch date and begin procuring elements of the Lunar Gateway. He can make some small investments in a lunar lander but doesn’t have to commit to its development before the end of next year, which may bring a new president and new priorities.

In other words, Bill Gerstenmaier, an unelected bureaucrat at NASA, has more power to determine U.S. space policy than elected lawmakers.

I ask, how does Gerstenmaier have the right to “develop policy for the space agency?” What legislative authority gives him the right to “play a waiting game” while continuing to “spend money on developing the SLS rocket… and procuring elements of Lunar Gateway?” These are policy decisions that belong solely to Congress and the President, not some hired government bureaucrat.

In a sense this story is only another reflection of the entire Russian collusion scandal. Hired government officials with no legal authority decide that they really know best, and this hubris allows them to supplant the decisions of lawmakers, and even attempt to overthrow them if necessary.

I reluctantly predicted this behavior back in June 2016 when I visited Washington and wrote this essay: The think tank culture of Washington:

What will this elite community do should Trump win the presidency and start demanding that they do things differently? Will they recognize that we are a democracy and work with him, the elected choice of the American people, or will they resist because he isn’t the politician they wanted and wants to institute policies they disagree with?

…I fear that the culture of Washington is becoming increasingly hostile to and insulated against the choices of the American electorate. I fear that they will one day soon decide to team up with the politicians they like to use the concentrated power we have given them in Washington to reject those choices, even to the extent of tossing out the Constitution and the democratic legal system that made the United States once the freest and wealthiest nation in the history of the human race.

I hope I am wrong. I pray that I am wrong. I think we might very well find out in the coming year.

Sadly, what we have learned in the past three years is that this Washington think tank culture is quite willing to overthrow the Constitution and the law, to get what they want. The situation at NASA only gives us another example of this terrible reality.

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Pete Buttigieg: Democratic Party Fascist

If you happen to be one of the many Democrat voters who limits his or her reading to such media sources as the New York Times or Wired, you might believe without doubt that Pete Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-i-edge), the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not only most qualified Democratic politician running for President, he is also John Kennedy reborn, able to lead the nation into a bipartisan paradise of smart liberal polices beneficial to all!

First there is this June 18, 2018 article in the New York Times:

Far from being just the out-gay mayor of a scrappy rebounding Rust Belt city, Mr. Buttigieg is a singular politician: a Democrat in a Republican stronghold; a high school valedictorian who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and who also attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; a political comer who, after winning election at 29, quickly set about reversing an economic decline in this northern Indiana city, where the last Studebaker rolled off a South Bend assembly line in 1963; a Navy veteran who, in 2014, took an unusual leave-of-absence from his civic day job to serve a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He is also one of a handful of Democrats that, in a New Yorker article, were cited by President Barack Obama as the future of the Democratic Party, an anointing whose potential ramped up this spring when, with an eye on the 2020 race, Mr. Buttigieg’s own political action committee began supporting legislative races in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Colorado and Ohio.

This more recent April 11, 2019 article in Wired is equally ebullient.

Buttigieg brought data, flow charts, and McKinsey-esque analysis to city government—as well as a bit of philosophical humanism. Since he became mayor seven years ago, unemployment in the city has fallen, from 13 percent in 2010 to 3.2 percent last fall—below the national rate—and South Bend has seen its first significant population increase in half a century. (Unemployment has since ticked back up, to 4.3 percent.)

The country itself was in recovery from the Great Recession during those years, but Buttigieg undertook specific changes that pushed South Bend up the hill.

Pete Buttigieg however is none of the things these puff pieces say he is. Both articles are the worst and most despicable form of journalism. They tell you nothing really about this Democratic Party candidate, but attempt — for partisan political reasons — to make that Democrat appear to be the second coming of Jesus.

Let’s take a real look at Pete Buttigieg, based on what he claims he wishes to do should he win the Democratic presidential candidacy and then win election. We will find that he is not unlike Andrew Yang, another Democratic Party fascist who thinks he knows best for everyone, and thus should be given the power to rule our lives, down to the most trivial matters. And woe to us should we have the temerity to disagree with his totalitarian demands.
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The Falcon Heavy reported by modern shoddy journalism

Yesterday’s magnificent successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket elicited numerous news stories from the general press, most of which were reasonably accurate if very superficial in their coverage. As a space guy who focuses on this stuff, I find that much of the reporting in the mainstream press reads as if the author has just discovered the subject, and is scrambling to come up to speed quickly.

This CNN article is typical. The journalist gets most of her facts right, but her lack of context because she hasn’t been following the subject closely causes her to not understand the reasons why the Falcon Heavy will fly less than the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.

The basic facts in this quote are entirely true, but it somehow implies that the Falcon Heavy is simply not that much in demand, which isn’t true. The reason Falcon Heavy has approximately one quarter of the missions of the Falcon 9 is because it is still new and it hasn’t yet garnered the customers. Also, as a slightly more expensive rocket than the Falcon 9 ($90 million per launch vs $60 million) fewer customers are going to buy it.

Still, the Falcon Heavy has more than five missions upcoming, with contracts for at least seven launches, by my count, and having this many contracts this quickly is remarkable, considering the rocket’s newness. It is more than the Russians are getting for their Proton rocket, around since the 1960s. And it is almost as many contracts as both Arianespace and ULA are each getting on a yearly basis.

Falcon Heavy is clearly becoming a big financial success, and will in the next few years I think routinely fly three to four times per year. There is a lot of demand for it, which will only grow with time.

This flaw in getting the background right by the CNN reporter is not really a big deal, but it does illustrate why it is better for ordinary citizens to get their news not from generalists in the mainstream press but from specialists in each field (such as myself), who understand the details more closely and can get the context right.

However, every once in awhile the mainstream press publishes a story that is so egregious and badly written that I think it necessary to give it a public pan, if only to make others aware of that this kind of bad journalism is not unusual. I also admit that it can be quite entertaining to highlight this pitifully bad journalism.

Yesterday one of Houston’s local television stations, KPRC-TV, published its own quick report on the Falcon Heavy launch. And boy, was that report a facepalm.
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Rover update: April 11, 2019

Summary: Curiosity successfully drills into the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues its exploration 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 drill hole in clay unit on slopes of Mount Sharp

Curiosity

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

The news this week from Curiosity is that the rover has successfully drilled into the ground in the clay unit valley the rover is presently exploring betweent Vera Rubin Ridge and Mount Sharp’s higher slopes.

The image to the right shows is a close-up of that drill hole.

The rover’s drill chewed easily through the rock, unlike some of the tougher targets it faced nearby on Vera Rubin Ridge. It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock. This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.

Since my last rover update on February 20, 2019, they have been traveling for several weeks to get to a spot where they can do this drilling. The clay unit seems very soft, and almost mudlike, which made finding a good surface to drill somewhat challenging. Most of the terrain seemed too soft to drill into. It almost would be better to have a scoop, as the Viking landers had. Curiosity doesn’t really have this however. It needs to use its drill, which really is a more efficient way to get down deeper into the ground anyway.

The map below shows their recent travels.
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Sunspot update March 2019: An upcoming Grand Minimum?

Even though we are now deep into the beginning of what might become the first grand minimum in sunspot activity since the invention of the telescope, that does not mean the Sun has as yet stopped producing sunspots. Yesterday NOAA released its the monthly update of its tracking of the solar cycle, adding sunspot activity for March 2019 to its graph. Below is that graph, annotated by me to give it some context.

It shows the Sun with a slight burst in activity in March, suggesting that though we are now in the solar minimum that minimum still has the ability to produce sunspots.

At the same time, for me to say that we might be heading to a grand minimum, a time period lasting many decades where no sunspots are visible and the sunspot cycle essentially ceases, is not click bait or hyperbole. It is instead based on what I now think the solar science community is thinking, based on this very graph.

March 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.

For past half dozen or so cycles the solar science community had issued its prediction for the upcoming solar maximum at about this stage in the overall cycle, during the final ramp down to minimum when it was clear that the Sun had entered that minimum.

This cycle’s prediction however has not yet happened, and in fact appears to be late. In fact, the extension of the May 2009 red curve that was made in November 2018 might very well be the only prediction we see. That extension is shown by the differences between the green 2007 prediction and the red 2009 prediction in the graph. Before November 2018 both curves ended at the same place, the end of 2018.

The extension of that red curve is important. As I noted in my December 2018 sunspot update,
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Does the Mueller report suggest there is hope?

I have come to three somewhat contradictory conclusions in thinking this weekend about the unexpectedly reasonable conclusions announced in the final Mueller report, stating that, despite two years of intense investigation which at times bordered on a witch hunt, there was no collusion between Trump and the Russians to win the election.

1. Robert Mueller is a hack who works hard for the liberal Washington swamp, doing their bidding whenever he can. The summary letter of his report by Attorney General William Barr inadvertently reveals this.

In the first paragraph of Barr’s letter he describes Mueller’s report has entitled “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” This would imply that Mueller’s goal was to investigate all possible aspects of Russian interference, including collusion that might have also taken place in the Clinton campaign.

However, in the very next paragraph Barr states,
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Jezero Crater: The landing site for the Mars 2020 rover

Jezero Crater delta
Jezero Crater delta

At this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, there were many papers detailing the geological, topographical, chemical, meteorology and biological circumstances at the landing sites for the 2020 Martian rovers, Jezero Crater for the U.S.’s Mars 2020 and Oxia Planum for Europe’s Rosalind Franklin.

Most of these papers are a bit too esoteric for the general public (though if you like to delve into this stuff like I do, go to the conference program and search for “Jezero” and “Oxia” and you can delve to your heart’s content).

Oxia Planum drainages

These papers do make it possible to understand why each site was chosen. I have already done this analysis for Rosalind Franklin, which you can read here and here. Oxia Planum is in the transition between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands (where an intermittent ocean might have once existed). Here can be found many shoreline features. In fact, one of the papers at this week’s conference mapped [pdf] the drainage patterns surrounding the landing ellipse, including the water catchment areas, as shown by the figure from that paper on the right.

With this post I want to focus on Jezero Crater, the Mars 2020 landing site. The image above shows the crater’s most interesting feature, an impressive delta of material that apparently flowed out of the break in the western wall of the crater.

This image however does not tell us much about where exactly the rover will land, or go. To do that, we must zoom out a bit.
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The Washington Empire strikes back!

In response to the revelation earlier this week by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine that the agency is considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for Orion’s first unmanned lunar test mission in June 2020, the swamp in Washington quickly rallied to SLS’s defense.

Not surprisingly, porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) led the charge:

“While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement to SpaceNews.

This was followed by statements from industry groups and other lawmakers, all supporting SLS. Next came Bridenstine himself, who emphasized his strong support of SLS at a conference yesterday, then issued a memo to NASA employees reiterating that support.

As far as I can tell, the only way SLS will eventually die is when private companies begin doing things that SLS is designed for, for less money and faster, and for profit. And that won’t happen if this Washington swamp has its say. Rather than see an American success, these cronies have made it clear in the past decade that they will work to squelch any such success if poses any threat to their boondoggles. And it appears now that they are moving to block Bridenstine’s suggestion for that first Orion flight.

Whether this new big government campaign against private enterprise succeeds however is not clear.
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Trump’s budget will not “destroy” or “gut” science

Our terrible press does it again. Yesterday the Trump administration released its proposed 2020 federal budget [pdf], and as usual the pro-government propagandists in the media got to work to lobby against it.

This proposed budget will do none of these things.

These articles all fail to apply even the slightest and tiniest bit of context to their analysis. The budget numbers proposed by the Trump administration might reduce the budgets of some science agencies from what they had gotten the year before, but overall the proposed budgets remain gigantic, far more than received by these same agencies only a few years before.

You don’t believe me? Let me open your eyes.
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Martian massive landslides

Though scientists have found some evidence of slow erosion and change on the Martian surface, it is today generally inactive. While the weak wind of Mars’ thin atmosphere continues to work its will, and the likely presence of underground frozen water acts to shift the surface shape as the seasons come and go, none of this happens quickly.

Essentially, Mars is a quiet place.

Once however catastrophic events took place, gigantic floods flowing down to the east from the planet’s huge volcanoes to carve out Marineris Valles, the solar system’s largest known canyon. As that water rushed eastward it ripped the terrain apart quickly, creating deep side canyons, drainage valleys, and chopped up regions now dubbed as chaos terrain, multiple mesas separated by numerous fissure-like canyons.

Overview of Marineris Valles and landslide

The overview map on the right shows Valles Marineris and its drainage to the east and north into the vast northern plains of Mars. It also shows the location of one of the largest regions on Mars of chaos terrain, dubbed Hydraotes Chaos, located close to the mouth of this gigantic drainage system more than 2,500 miles long.

Massive Martian landslide
Click for full image.

Recently scientists have used the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to begin taking images of the massive landslides on the face of the mesa north of Hydraotes Chaos that was hit directly by these floods. The location of the most immediately interesting of these landslide images is also indicated on this overview image.

To the right is that image, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here. The white boxes indicate two full resolution sections that I highlight below at full resolution.

This image shows that full cliff. The total drop from the plateau at the top to the floor where Hydraotes Chaos is located to the south is approximately 8,200 feet, almost exactly comparable to the depth of the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

The image shows numerous evidence of avalanches and erosion, both at its base and at its rim. None of these avalanches likely occurred during those catastrophic floods, but long afterward.
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Waterlike Martian lava flows

Flowing like water
Click for full image.

Each month the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team highlights with captions about four out of the 300-500 new images released that month.

Of the four captioned images in February, the first was entitled “Almost Like Water,” and focused on the waterlike nature of the lava flow. The image on the right is a cropped and annotated section of that featured photograph, with the yellow arrows indicating the flow directions.

The lava appears to have flowed smoothly around obstructions, almost like water, forming streamlined islands. In the southern part of this image, a branch of the flow diverts around a small crater, and eventually rejoins the main part of the flow. [Visible in the full photograph] Irregular-shaped ring structures appear on the northern end and are related to the volcanic activity that formed the flows.

You can see an example of one of those islands near the top of the above image.

This is hardly the only MRO image showing such flows. In fact, the February image release included a bunch, some of the more intriguing of which I highlight below. These lava flows are seen in many different places on Mars, in a wide variety of geological settings, facts that suggest that volcanic activity was once very widespread and ubiquitous on Mars.
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Bad climate science, bad climate journalism

The coming dark age: It appears that the most fundamental concept of science, that all research is subject to skepticism, questioning, and doubt, is no longer followed by the world’s leading science journal Science, in either the research or journalism it publishes.

In reporting today how the Trump administration is establishing a climate review panel that will include global warming skeptics, this so-called science journal describes this effort as follows:

The White House is recruiting researchers who reject the scientific consensus on climate change for its “adversarial” review of the issue.

The proposal to form a “Presidential Committee on Climate Security” at the National Security Council (NSC) has shifted, into an ad-hoc group that will review climate science out of the public eye. Those involved in the preliminary discussions said it is focused on recruiting academics to conduct a review of the science that shows climate change presents a national security risk.

William Happer, a senior director at the NSC and an emeritus Princeton University physics professor not trained in climate science, is leading the effort.

Among those who have been contacted are the relatively small number of researchers with legitimate academic credentials who question the notion that humans are warming the planet at a rapid pace through the burning of fossil fuels. A number of the names the White House is targeting are those frequently invited by Republicans to testify at congressional hearings on climate change where uncertainty is emphasized.

The stated goal of the committee, according to a leaked White House memo, is to conduct “adversarial scientific peer review” of climate science. [emphasis mine]

The article also stated that the panel “will also include scientists who agree with the vast majority in the field of climate science that humans are warming the planet at a pace unprecedented in the history of civilization.”

First of all, it is not clear that “a vast majority in the field of climate science” agree with that global warming hypothesis. And even if it was, it would not matter. Science isn’t determined by consensus or majority rule. It is determined by facts, and if the facts don’t support the beliefs of 97% of all climate scientists, all 97% of those scientists are wrong. That this writer and the editors at Science don’t understand this is shocking.
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Another batch of caves/pits found on Mars

Four new pits on Mars

Overview of February 2019 pits

In the past year the monthly image releases from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) archive have frequently included newly discovered pit entrances. Each time I have written posts highlighting these new pits, in June, July, November 2018 and January 2019. In fact, this is happening so frequently I could almost label it a monthly update!

The November release imaged three pits found on the southern flanks of Arsia Mons. The January 2019 release found several north of the volcano, two of which are very close to the two middle new pits highlighted above. The February release, which is the focus of this post, included four more pits, shown above, all located north and west of Arsia Mons, as shown in the overview map to the right.

Pits 2 and 3 above appear to belong to a cluster of pits all located in the general area between Arsia and Pavonis Mons. (You can see their uncaptioned releases here and here.) Most sit alone on a flat somewhat featureless plain. Sometimes there are flow features nearby, but each pit usually seems to sit unique and unrelated to these other faint features.

Pit 1 is very intriguing in that it sits amid a very long chain of pits and canyons, all aligned, as shown in the image below and to the right.
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Rover update: February 20, 2019

Summary: Curiosity in the clay unit valley. Opportunity’s long journey is over. Yutu-2 creeps to the northwest on the Moon’s far side.

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

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

Curiosity

Curiosity's view to the east on Sol 2316
Click image for full resolution version

Overview of Curiosity's future travels
Click image for original image

Since my January 22, 2019 update, Curiosity finally drove down off of Vera Rubin Ridge into a valley between the ridge and the lower slopes of Mt Sharp. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overview on the right has been annotated by me to show the rover’s travels (shown by the yellow dotted line), with its proposed route indicated by the red dotted line. The yellow lines indicate approximately the terrain seen in the panorama above. The panorama was created from images taken on Sol 2016.

The valley that Curiosity is presently traversing is dubbed “the clay unit” or “the clay-bearing unit” by the geologists, based on its make-up determined from orbital data. So far they have found this terrain to be “some of the best driving terrain we’ve encountered in Gale Crater, with just some occasional sandy patches in the lee of small ridges.” Initially they had problems finding any rocks or pebbles large enough for the instruments to use for gathering geological data. For the past week or so, however, they have stopped at “bright exposure of rock” where some bedrock was visible, giving them much better material to work with.
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Monitoring a fresh-looking Martian landslide

2012 image of Martian landslide
Click for full image

2018 image of Martian landslide
Click for full image

Time for two cool images! To the right are two images taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the top one taken in April 2012, and the bottom taken in December 2018. Both have been cropped and reduced slightly in resolution to post here.

The second image is trying to answer, in only a small way, one of the most fundamental questions of the Martian environment: How fast does it change? The images from orbit have periodically seen evidence of new impacts. MRO images have tracked dust devil tracks. And we know that somehow water, ice, wind and volcanic activity have eroded and reshaped the surface over eons.

What we don’t know truly and with detail is the pace of these changes, with any accuracy. The pace of some things over time seems obvious. For example, Mars’s inactive but gigantic volcanoes suggest that once volcanism was very active, but over time has ceased so that today it is unclear if any is occurring. Similarly, the geological evidence suggests that in the far past water flowed on the surface, producing catastrophic floods. Now that liquid water is all but gone, and this erosion process as ceased.
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Birthday fund-raiser continues!

To my readers: We are now entering the second week of my February birthday fund-raising campaign. Your support is most desperately needed to keep Behind the Black operating.

Unfortunately, because John Batchelor is presently recovering from an illness (recovering well I must add), he was off the air in the first week of February, and will be off the air again this week. Thus, I do not have his aid in publicizing this fund-raiser, and so his normally very generous listeners are unaware it is happening.

I therefore need the help of my readers all the more. Please consider making a donation, or subscribing, as indicated by the tip jar above. Your support will be appreciated deeply, and will make it possible for me to continue to report on space.

This announcement will stay on the top of the page for the rest of today. Scroll down for new posts.

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NASA’s political and corrupt safety panel

After spending the last few years complaining about certain specific issues with the manned capsule efforts of SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s safety panel this past weekend released its annual 2018 report. (You can download the report here [pdf].) Its position now on those certain specific issues can now be summarized as follows:

They make no mention of the parachute issues that forced Boeing to do numerous extra tests, causing probably a year delay in the program, though Boeing has had decades of experience with capsule parachutes and the entire American aerospace industry has never had a parachute failure.

The panel also admits that their concerns about SpaceX’s rocket fueling procedures is really not an issue.

The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] has independently studied the load and go procedure and provided a thorough report that identifies the hazards and available controls. Based on the NESC report, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] has decided that the load and go concept is viable if subsequent analysis is adequate and if verifiable controls are identified and implemented for all the credible hazard causes that could potentially result in an emergency situation or worse.

As Emily Litela said, “Never mind!” Their concerns were never credible, as it really doesn’t matter if you fuel the rocket before or after the astronauts board, because in either case they are there when a lot of fuel is present. All the panel did was delay the first Dragon launch by at least a year by pushing this issue.

The panel is still holding onto its concerns about the installation blankets (COPV) used in SpaceX’s internal helium tanks, the location of the problem that caused the September 2016 launchpad explosion. Despite SpaceX’s apparent fixing of this problem, with 40 successful launches since that failure, they are listing further vague requirements:
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Sunspot update January 2019: The early solar minimum

As I have done every month since 2011, I am now posting NOAA’s the monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for January 2019. They posted this update on Monday, and I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

January 2019 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.

January saw a slight uptick in sunspot activity, but the overall activity remains comparable to mid-2008, when the last prolonged solar minimum began. If you go to my October 2018 update, you can see the graph when it included data going back to 2000 and see the entire last minimum.

That last minimum started in the last half of 2007, and lasted until mid-2009, a full two years. If you look at the red line prediction of the solar science community, it appears that they are expecting this coming minimum to last far longer, almost forever. I expect this is not really true, but that they have simply not agreed on a prediction for the next cycle. Some in that solar science community have hypothesized that we are about to enter a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades and thus no solar maximum. Others do not agree.

Since neither faction really understands the mechanism that causes these sunspot cycles, there is no way now to determine what will happen, until it does so. What we do know from climate data is that the Earth cools when the Sun is inactive. Why remains unclear, though there is at least one theory, with some evidence, that attempts to explain it.

And despite the untrustworthy claims of NOAA and NASA scientists that the last few years have been hot, experience on the ground disputes this. Their data has been adjusted (tampered if one wants to be more blunt) to make it fit their global warming theory. The raw unadjusted data suggests things have instead cooled, which better fits with the brutal winters Americans experienced for the past decade or so.

If the Sun does enter a grand minimum in the coming decades, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult for NOAA and NASA to continue their temperature adjustments and continue claiming things are getting warmer. At a minimum, we will learn something about the Sun and its behavior and its influence on the climate that we never knew before.

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The location for a future Martian colony?

Pit draining into Kasei Valles

Regular readers of this webpage will know that I am a caver, and am fascinated with the pits and caves that have so far been identified on Mars, as illustrated by an essay I wrote only last week.

Some of the cave research I have cited has being led by planetary scientist Glen Cushing of the U.S. Geological Survey. Two weeks ago Dr. Cushing sent me a slew of pictures of caves/pits that he has accumulated over the years, many of which he has not yet been able to highlight in a paper. At least two were images that I had already featured on Behind the Black, here and here.

One pit image however I had never seen. A cropped and reduced close-up is shown on the right, with the full photograph viewable by clicking on the image. In many ways this pit is reminiscent of many pits on Mars. Its northern rim appears to be an overhang several hundred feet deep that might have an underground passage continuing to the north. The southern lip is inviting in that its slope appears to be very accessible for vehicles, meaning this pit/cave might be a good location to build a first colony.

Because of that accessible southern lip, I decided to do more digging about this particular pit. I was quickly able to find the uncaptioned release of complete image by doing a quick search through the image catalog of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera. That image, reduced and cropped to post here, is shown below, on the right.
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Birthday fund-raising time again!

As I do every year during my February birthday month, I ask my readers to please consider donating to Behind the Black.

I admit that I really find it distasteful begging like this, but I really have no choice if I am to continue doing what I love. Moreover, it seems that your direct contribution is sorely needed. In the past year I have discovered that Facebook apparently does not want its users to plug my writing. Every time the number of hits from Facebook begins to rise to a large number, they are suddenly cut off, dropping instantly to zero.

If the drop was smooth and gradual, it could be argued that it is natural, the result of a short decline of interest until I post something new that sparks another wave of hits. This is not what happens. The hits rise steadily, for months, and then suddenly, they vanish, as if someone at Facebook has blocked any reference to past posts at Behind the Black. As new posts appear, however, and ordinary Facebook readers begin to see and pass them along, the hits slowly begin to rise again, until after several months they are once again suddenly cut off.

This pattern could be entirely innocent, but the track record of large corporate and liberally-dominated sites like Facebook suggests otherwise.

So, I am compelled to ask again for your help and support, either by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar above and to the right. Or you could consider buying one of my books, something I heartily recommend. All deal with the first half century of the history of space exploration, and all provide a clear window into why we are where we are today in this epic story.

In either case, your continuing support will make it possible for me to continue to do what I have done for the past twenty-five years, freely writing about science and culture, uninfluenced by outside pressure and able to say exactly what I think must be said, at the exact moment such words are most necessary.

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The many pits/caves of Mars

Sinkhole in Martian northern lowlands with dark seep

Time for many cool images! Over the years I have written frequently about the pits/caves on Mars, in both magazine articles and the many posts here at Behind the Black. The following posts are the most significant, with the June 9, 2015 providing the best geological background to many of these pits, especially the many located near the giant volcanoes of Mars.

As I wrote in that June 9, 2015 post:
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