Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

The Democratic Party: Elections are bad, let’s end them!

So, have you all been closely hooked to your televisions or computers, watching nonstop the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump going on in the Senate this week?

Yup, me neither. No one in their right mind and with the freedom to avoid it would spend eight-plus hours each day watching this obscene impeachment effort by the out-of-control and power-hungry Democratic Party. They have nothing to offer but lies and policy differences, hardly sufficient to justify their campaign to remove a duly elected president, merely because he has the audacity to oppose them. Better to read summaries and commentary afterward.

In fact, the ratings of the impeachment trail in the Senate bear this out. On the first day the ratings showed a 20% decline in viewership from the numbers seen during the House impeachment vote, from 13.8 million to 11 million. This trend continued on day two, when the ratings plunged another 19% to 8.9 million.

Nor is this drop in ratings surprising. Everyone knows that there no chance Trump will be convicted by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Not only are the charges against him bogus, the Democratic managers appointed by the House to argue their case in the Senate have done a terrible job making their case. Instead, they have offended the few Republican senators who might have considered conviction. Both Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were considered unreliable Republicans, willing to listen to the Democrats’ line of reasoning, with the possibility that they might even have voted against Trump.

Instead, manager and congressman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) offended both deeply with his accusations that anyone who voted for blocking the introduction of new witnesses was participating in a “cover-up.”
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Another pro-gulag Bernie Sanders campaign organizer reveals the increasingly fascist Democratic Party

In the third installment of Project Veritas’s undercover series exposing revolutionary, pro-gulag, Marxists within the Bernie Sanders campaign structure, we get to watch Martin Weissgerber, a Sanders field organizer, who seems to know more about the history of the Soviet Union than he does of his own country. Worse, that knowledge appears limited solely to Soviet-era propaganda, which Weissgerber seems to take entirely on faith.

He is also all for the idea of suspending Congress and the Judiciary and making a Sanders presidency a dictatorship ruled by decree. He also says, with great enthusiasm, “Guillotine the rich!”

Note also that in my comments about the second installment, I predicted Project Veritas was not finished, and would reveal more such violent, murderous people within the Sanders campaign. I am sure they are not done yet, especially because the Sanders campaign has not only not commented on the first two videos and has done nothing in response. As James O’Keefe says, “Perhaps the reason the [Sanders campaign] has not issued a response is that they know that these are not isolated incidences, they know that these people are not unique in their thinking, they know that more is coming.”

I have embedded the video below the fold. As before, I am on my knees pleading with the decent liberal Democrats in my readership. Watch this video and the first and second installments. These people represent what the power structure in the Democratic Party has become. It is not the party you might think it is. In fact, it is likely far worse than you can imagine.
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The long term ramifications of SpaceX’s crew Dragon on the future of the human race

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed
Crew Dragon soon after its parachutes had deployed
during the launch abort test.

The successful unmanned launch abort test by SpaceX of its crew Dragon capsule today means that the first manned flight of American astronauts on an American rocket in an American spacecraft from American soil in almost a decade will happen in the very near future. According to Elon Musk during the press conference following the test, that manned mission should occur sometime in the second quarter of 2020.

The ramifications of this manned mission however far exceed its success in returning Americans to space on our own spacecraft. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine touched upon this larger context with his own remarks during the press conference:

We are doing this differently. NASA is going to be customer, one of many customers. I want SpaceX to have lots of customers.

Bridenstine is underlining the real significance of the entire commercial program at NASA. Unlike every previous manned space project at the space agency, NASA is not doing the building. Instead, as Bridenstine notes (and I recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space), it is merely a customer, buying a product built entirely by a private company. And while NASA is involving itself very closely with that construction, it is doing so only as a customer, making sure it is satisfied with the product before putting its own astronauts on it.

NASA also does not own this product. As Bridenstine also notes (and I also recommended in Capitalism in Space), SpaceX owns the product, and once operational will be free to sell seats on crew Dragon to private citizens or other nations.

This different approach also means that NASA is not dependent on one product. From the beginning its commercial crew program has insisted on having at least two companies building capsules — Dragon by SpaceX and Starliner by Boeing — so that if there is a launch failure with one, the second will provide the agency with redundancy.

Bridenstine was very clear about these points. He wants multiple manned spacecraft built by competing American capsules, both to provide the government with redundancy but also to drive innovation and lower costs.

SpaceX of course is the quintessential example of how to lower costs.
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Curiosity climbs a hill

Overview map of Curiosity's journey through sol 2643

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

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

Since my last Curiosity update on November 6, 2019, the science team has sent the rover climbing up what they call Western Butte, the butte directly to the west of Central Butte and part of the slope/escarpment that separates the clay unit from the Greenheugh Piedmont and the sulfate unit above that.

The overview map to the right gives a sense of the journey. The thick yellow line indicates its route since it climbed up from the Murray Formation onto Vera Rubin Ridge in 2017. The thick red line indicates their planned route, which they have only vaguely been following since their arrival in the clay unit.

Below the fold are two panoramas that I created from a sequence of images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera from the high point on Western Butte, the first looking north across the crater floor to the Gale Crater rim approximately 30 miles away and indicated by the thin yellow lines on the overview map. The second looks south, up hill towards Mount Sharp, and is indicate by the thin red lines.
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Sunspot update: The record flatline continues

In the month of December 2019 the Sun continued its longest stretch of overall sunspot inactivity ever recorded, reaching seven months in length. At no point since the last grand minimum in the 1600s have scientists ever seen so few sunspots over so long a time period.

Below is NOAA’s December 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, it is posted below, with annotations:
» Read more


The state of the global rocket industry in 2019

With 2019 ending, it is time once again (as I did for 2016, 2017, and 2018) to review the trends in the global launch industry for the past year.

Below is my updated graph, showing the launch numbers for 2019 as well as for every year going back to 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. That range I think covers all recent trends, while also giving some perspective on what happened in 2019.

The graph is worth reviewing at length, as it not only gives a sense of recent trends, it also summarizes well the history of the entire global space industry during the past thirty years. For example, it shows the transition in the U.S. in the past two decades from government-owned launchers to private rockets, a change that has revitalized the American space industry in more ways than be counted.
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Repost: The real meaning of the Apollo 8 Earthrise image

I wrote this essay last year, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon. I think it worth reposting, especially because stories about Apollo 8 still refuse to show the Earthrise image as Bill Anders took it. Note that they took the picture on Christmas Eve, not Christmas day.

Earthrise, as seen by a space-farer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the moment when the three astronauts on Apollo 8 witnessed their first Earthrise while in orbit around the Moon, and Bill Anders snapped the picture of that Earthrise that has been been called “the most influential environmental picture ever taken.”

The last few days have seen numerous articles celebrating this iconic image. While all have captured in varying degrees the significance and influence of that picture on human society on Earth, all have failed to depict this image as Bill Anders, the photographer, took it. He did not frame the shot, in his mind, with the horizon on the bottom of the frame, as it has been depicted repeatedly in practically every article about this image, since the day it was published back in 1968.

Instead, Anders saw himself as an spaceman in a capsule orbiting the waist of the Moon. He also saw the Earth as merely another space object, now appearing from behind the waist of that Moon. As a result, he framed the shot with the horizon to the right, with the Earth moving from right to left as it moved out from behind the Moon, as shown on the right.

His perspective was that of a spacefarer, an explorer of the universe that sees the planets around him as objects within that universe in which he floats.

When we here are on Earth frame the image with the horizon on the bottom, we immediately reveal our limited planet-bound perspective. We automatically see ourselves on a planet’s surface, watching another planet rise above the distant horizon line.

This difference in perspective is to me the real meaning of this picture. On one hand we see the perspective of the past. On the other we see the perspective the future, for as long humanity can remain alive.

I prefer the future perspective, which is why I framed this image on the cover of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 the way Bill Anders took it. I prefer to align myself with that space-faring future.

And it was that space-faring future that spoke when they read from Genesis that evening. They had made the first human leap to another world, and they wished to describe and capture the majesty of that leap to the world. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Yet, they were also still mostly Earth-bound in mind, which is why Frank Borman’s concluding words during that Christmas eve telecast were so heartfelt. He was a spaceman in a delicate vehicle talking to his home of Earth, 240,000 miles away. “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” They longed deeply to return, a wish that at that moment, in that vehicle, was quite reasonable.

Someday that desire to return to Earth will be gone. People will live and work and grow up in space, and see the Earth as Bill Anders saw it in his photograph fifty years ago.

And it is for that time that I long. It will be a future of majesty we can only imagine.

Merry Christmas to all, all of us still pinned down here on “the good Earth.”


A deep dive into Valles Marineris

Dunes on the floor of Valles Marineris
Click for full image.

The vastness of Mars is sometimes hard to fathom. While the planet is much smaller than Earth, its entire global surface is approximately the same as the Earth’s land area. This is a lot of territory. It took humanity many tens of thousands of centuries to expand outward to settle all of it. It took even longer before humanity was successfully able to map all of the Earth so that its entire surface was known to all humans, a task that was only completed a handful of centuries ago.

While we now have the technology to quickly map the entire globe of a planet like Mars, the devil is always in the details. At this time the resolution of our global maps give us only a glimpse of the Martian surface.

The image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is a good example. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 30, 2019, it shows a set of large dunes on the northern floor of a side canyon on Mars that is part of Coprates Chasma, a canyon that forms only a small part of the vast Valles Marineris canyon system east of the giant volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge.

The sand of these dunes is mostly volcanic material, dark basalt that was deposited as lava from those giant volcanoes, then later ground down in landslides and erosion to be recycled as sand that formed dunes trapped within the canyon bottom. The dunes themselves are slowly moving eastward, driven mostly by the predominate west-to-east winds that blow down this side canyon of Coprates Chasma. The motion is very slow, so slow that even though the image title is “Coprates Chasma Dune Changes”, I was unable to spot any changes when I compared this 2019 image with a photo taken in June 2019.

To find out what had changed, I contacted Matt Chojnacki of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who has been studying the nature of the sand dunes in Valles Marineris. After making a quick preliminary blink test using more sophisticate tools than I have available, he found “minor advancements. The rocks move a bit too in places.” Without a full analysis he also added, “I can tell some dune crests have moved to the east.”

The research by Chojnacki and others has found that the dunes within Valles Marineris are in many ways different than dunes found elsewhere in the mid-latitudes on Mars, suggesting that being trapped within this giant canyon has produced some specific regional features. They tend to be darker, the canyon contains several sand dune seas, called ergs (only seen elsewhere on Mars in the polar regions), and the dunes tend to be more hardened, so that they change relatively little when compared to similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

These particular dunes in Coprates Chasma however are not hardened, since if so they would have been covered by the landslides and material that comes down from the canyon’s nearby northern slopes. Instead, they move, but appear to move far slower than similar dunes elsewhere on Mars.

To me, this image provides a good vehicle for getting a sense of the size of Valles Marineris. Coprates Chasma itself only one of about a dozen named sections of the entire Valles Marineris canyon system, and this particular image shows only the floor of a side canyon of Coprates. The map below gives an overview of the entire system.
» Read more


Spygate from a scientific perspective

Back in February 2018, Republican-controlled committees in both the House and the Senate released detailed memos, dubbed the Nunes and Grassley memos respectively, accusing the FBI and the Obama Justice Department of using unverified and false information that was nothing more than opposition research paid for by the Clinton campaign to illegally obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), warrants that allowed them to spy on the campaign of Donald Trump as well as his administration following his election victory in 2016.

Put more bluntly, the Republicans accused the Clinton campaign, with the help of the Obama administration, of weaponizing the surveillance powers of the FBI and the Justice Department in order to defeat their political opponents.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats and former Obama officials denied these allegations, calling both memos partisan and false. In the House the Democrats issued their own memo, claiming the Republican memos left out key information that made their arguments invalid.

Who was right? What was true? How was an ordinary citizen going to determine which of these competing political positions properly described what had actually happened?

At the time I admit my instincts and own personal biases led me to believe the Republicans. Even so, the allegations were so horrifying — suggesting a clear abuse of power and a willingness of people in Washington to subvert an American election — that some skepticism of the Republican accusations was certainly reasonable.

In fact, the best thing one could do in this situation is to take a scientific approach to the problem. The Republicans had put forth a theory, citing some data that suggested the Obama administration, the Justice Department, and the FBI had abused their power in the worst possible manner. To prove that theory the Republicans would require both corroborating evidence as well as independent reviews that confirmed their conclusions.
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The importance of small telescopes to science and civilization

The main cluster of telescopes, on Mount Lemmon
Largest cluster of telescopes on Mount Lemmon, six visible with three just out of view.

On December 11, 2019 I was kindly given a personal tour by Alan Strauss, director of the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, of the telescopes located on the mountaintops of the Santa Catalina Mountains overlooking Tucson. Strauss runs the educational outreach program for the University of Arizona astronomy department and the Steward Observatory, both of which operate the mountaintop facility.

The telescopes, numbering almost a dozen, are in two groups, two telescopes on the peak of Mount Bigelow and the rest clustered on the higher peak of Mount Lemmon. None are very gigantic by today’s standards, with their primary mirrors ranging in size from 20- to 61-inches. For comparison, the largest operating telescope in the world on the Canary Islands is 409 inches across. Hubble has a 94-inch mirror. And the new giant telescopes under design or being built have mirrors ranging from 842 inches (Giant Magellan) to 1,654 inches (European Extremely Large Telescope).

Thus, the small telescopes in the Santa Catalinas generally don’t make the news. They are considered passe and out-of-date, not capable of doing the kind of cutting edge astronomy that all the coolest astronomers hunger for.

Yet, without them, we likely would not have future astronomers. » Read more


A new map of the water ice on Mars

Annotated water ice map of Mars
Click for full resolution image.

In a new science paper planetary scientists have produced a new global map of the water ice of Mars, based on data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey.

The image above is a lower resolution version of that map, annotated by me. The black areas are regions covered with a thicker layer of dust, so no good data was obtained. As you go from red to green to blue to purple the ice is thought to be closer to the surface, with the depth as small as an inch in the dark purple areas. The white rectangular represents the region best for human settlement, as it has ice near the surface and is at lower latitudes.

The red box indicates the location in Arcadia Planitia that is SpaceX’s candidate landing zone for Starship. Based on this new water ice map it appears that SpaceX has chosen very well. And the scientists who wrote this paper agree, as noted in the press release: “A large portion of a region called Arcadia Planitia is the most tempting target in the northern hemisphere.”

The map also confirms the existence of the 30 to 60 degree latitude bands where scientists believe a lot of buried glaciers exist. Both bands are both very evident in this new map.

To provide some further context, below is a global map of Mars labeled to show its major geographic features as well as the locations of all previous and upcoming landers/rovers, rearranged to match the water ice map above.
» Read more


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.
» Read more


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.


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.


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.
» Read more


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.
» Read more


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.
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