Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

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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Well water likely available across Mars

Conceptual model of Martian deep basin evolution

A science paper released today and available for download [pdf] cites evidence from about two dozen deep impact craters located from the equator to 37 degrees north latitude that Mars has a ground ice table at an elevation that also corresponds to other shoreline features. From the abstract:

Observations in the northern hemisphere show evidence of a planet‐wide groundwater system on Mars. The elevations of these water‐related morphologies in all studied basins lie within the same narrow range of depths below Mars datum and notably coincide with the elevation of some ocean shorelines proposed by previous authors.

The image above and on the right shows the middle stage of their conceptual model for the evolution of these deep basins and how that evolution results in many of the geological features seen in many places on Mars, such as the features I have highlighted on Behind the Black previously here and here.

From their conclusion:
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The absolute uncertainty of climate science

Even as the United States is being plunged right now into an epic cold spell (something that has been happening repeatedly for almost all the winters of the past decade), and politicians continue to rant about the coming doom due to global warming, none of the data allows anyone the right to make any claims about the future global climate, in any direction.

Why do I feel so certain I can make this claim of uncertainty? Because the data simply isn’t there. And where we do have it, it has been tampered with so badly it is no longer very trustworthy. This very well documented post by Tony Heller proves this reality, quite thoroughly.

First, until the late 20th century, we simply do not have good reliable climate data for the southern hemisphere. Any statement by anyone claiming to know with certainty what the global temperature was prior to 1978 (when the first Nimbus climate satellite was launched) should be treated with some skepticism. Take a look at all the graphs Heller posts, all from reputable science sources, all confirming my own essay on this subject from 2015. The only regions where temperatures were thoroughly measured prior to satellite data was in the United States, Europe, and Japan. There are scattered data points elsewhere, but not many, with none in the southern oceans. And while we do have a great deal of proxy data that provides some guidance as to the global temperature prior to the space age, strongly suggesting there was a global warm period around the year 1000 AD, and a global cold period around 1600 AD, this data also has a lot of uncertainty, so it is entirely reasonable to express some skepticism about it.

Second, the data in those well-covered regions have been tampered with extensively, and always in a manner that reinforces the theory of global warming. Actual temperature readings have been adjusted everywhere, always to cool the past and warm the present. As Heller notes,
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Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019

Summary: Curiosity begins journey off of Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity’s silence is now more than seven months long, with new dust storms arriving. Yutu-2 begins roving the Moon’s far side.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided to provide links to all the updates that have taken place since I provided a full list in my February 8, 2018 update. As I noted then, this allows my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past few years.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now an update of what has happened since November!
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Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
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A visit to the Mexican border

Last night President Trump gave his first prime-time speech to the nation, focused specifically on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. You can read the full text, with the Democratic response, here. A fair analysis can be read here, which also includes a thorough critique of the press’s mindless partisan reaction.

I usually don’t watch such speeches. I read the transcript afterward, to see if there is any substance there (usually not). It saves time.

What I did do yesterday however was visit the very location that is the subject and focus of these speeches, the border between the United States and Mexico. Diane and I and Earl, a visiting friend from back east, decided to give Earl a taste of international travel by driving down to Nogales to cross the border for lunch.

We do this periodically, not to go sightseeing but buy many of our prescription drugs, which tend to be about 75% cheaper in Mexico and do not require that prescription for purchase. For example, one of our cats has a fungal disease called valley fever which requires giving her a pill twice a day. In the states that drug costs more than $200 for a ninety day supply. In Mexico I can get that same amount for less than $50. (The cost difference illustrates well the mess our Congress has created of our drug industry, since the high cost is directly related to government regulations imposed in the last two decades and topped off by the passage of Obamacare in 2010.)

Anyway, below are some photos from this trip. They give you a sense of what it is like at one of the major populated border crossing points, which by the way and not surprisingly does not much resemble the impression given by our modern mainstream press.
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Sunspot update December 2018: Decline to solar minimum continues

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

December 2018 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

There really isn’t much to say about the sunspot activity in December. It continued to show a steady decline to solar minimum, exhibiting activity very comparable to what we saw in mid-2008 when the previous unusually long and extended solar minimum began.

One interested detail however: When NOAA issued this graph last month, it finally extended it out beyond the end of 2019 to the end of 2022. In doing so, it also extended out the 2009 prediction of the solar science community, as indicated by the red curve. I hadn’t commented on this last month, but if you look at that curve it drops to zero and then flatlines for the entire year of 2022.

If this is what the solar science community now expects for this upcoming minimum, it means that community is now expecting a record-breaking minimum, lasting far longer than any previous minimum, two to three years at least. It also means that they have not dismissed the possibility that the Sun is about to enter a Grand Minimum, where no significant sunspot activity is seen for literally decades.

Should such a grand minimum occur, it bodes ill for global warming advocates. The track record of the Earth’s climate consistently shows that when sunspot activity declines, the global climate gets colder. Why this happens is not clearly understood, though there is at least one theory backed up by good experimental data. Should this happen, we shall discover that global cooling is a far worse thing to fear than global warming.

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The 2018 global launch race plus predictions for 2019

In 2018 the global launch industry turned a significant corner. While there have been strong signs in 2016 and 2017 that we were about to see the arrival of a boom, it was not until this past year that we finally saw the beginnings of this boom.

Below is my updated launch graph showing what was accomplished in 2018. To put what was done in context, the graph shows all launches by every nation and private company for each year beginning in 1980, with 1968 added to provide a sense of what the launch industry was like during the height of the Cold War space race.

Before reading further, however, it is worthwhile to review what I wrote in my 2017 launch industry assessment, written in January 2018. My assessment then, as well as my predictions, provide some worthwhile context for understanding what actually happened this past year.
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Dried mud cracks on Mars?

Mud cracks on Mars?

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and rotated to post here, was one of the uncaptioned photographs in the December Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image release. If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. I have cropped the most interesting area, though cracks can be seen in other areas in the image.

What we appear to have here is a darker lower valley filled with dried mud, which over time has cracked as it dried. At its edges there appear to be ripples, almost like one sees on the beach as waves wash the shore. The perimeter slopes even show darker streaks as if the water in some places lapped up the slopes, and in others flowed downward into the valley.

Later, several meteorite impacts occurred, the largest of which produced concentric dried cracks on its outside perimeter. This impact also provides a rough idea of the depth of the mud in this valley.

Mud of course suggests that this lower valley once was filled with water. Was it? It is not possible now to come to a firm conclusion, but this image’s location shown by the red dot in the overview map below and to the right, provides a clue that strengthens this hypothesis.
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The real meaning of the Apollo 8 Earthrise image

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 a 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.”

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Apollo 8: Fifty years ago

Fifty years ago the Apollo 8 mission successfully began with a 6:51 am launch at what was then called Cape Kennedy. It would be a space mission that would not only make history, being the first to take humans to another world, it would change America and western culture in ways no one at that time imagined.

I don’t have much to add. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on this mission already. If you want to know more, you can read or listen to Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8.

What I find gratifying is that it appears my goal in writing the book in 1998 has been an unparalleled success. Today alone there have been three major stories celebrating Apollo 8 and its legacy, from the Washington Post, Scientific American, and New Atlas. In the past week there have another half dozen. I expect dozens more in the coming week. All so far have gotten their facts right, and have been able to tell the story correctly of this nerve-racking mission given 50-50 odds of success. More important, all have understood thoroughly the political and historical context of the mission, and the long term impact that it had.

In 1998, when I wrote Genesis, the mission had been largely forgotten, even though I knew and remembered how important it had been. When the book came out that year, during its thirtieth anniversary, I was pretty much the only one writing about it, expressing my strong desire to change this lack of recognition, to make people remember.

Today, none of the many articles about Apollo 8 make mention of my work. This is right and fitting. I wasn’t an astronaut on board. Nor did I build the rocket or capsule. I was merely a historian telling the story. However, if my poor effort has served to make others remember, and report the story correctly in 2018, its fiftieth anniversary, I can sleep peacefully when my time comes.

There will never be another first mission by humans to another world. We should remember that first journey, and honor it. I am glad we finally are doing so.

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Curiosity’s future travels

MRO image of Curiosity's future travels

In the December release of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), there was one image entitled “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover.” To the right is a reduced, cropped, and rotated section of that image, annotated by me to show Curiosity’s future planned route (indicated by the yellow line). If you click on the image you can see the untouched full resolution version.

Curiosity’s journey has not yet brought it onto the terrain shown in this image. (For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.) The rover is right now just off the left edge of the photograph, on the white ridge dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge visible in the uppermost left. This week it completed the last planned drill sampling on that ridge, and it will soon descend off the ridge and begin heading along the yellow route up the mountain. The white dots along its future route are the locations of recurring slope lines, believed to be seasonal seeps of brine coming from below and causing gentle landslides that darken the surface. As you can see, they hope to get very close to the first seep, and will observe the second from across the canyon from a distance of about 1,200 feet.

The peak of Mount Sharp is quite a distance to the south, far beyond the bottom of the photograph. Even in these proposed travels the rover will remain in the mountain’s lowest foothills, though the terrain will be getting considerably more dramatic.

Below is a full resolution section of the image showing the spectacular canyon to the south of that second seep. This is where Curiosity will be going, a deep canyon about 1,500 feet across and probably as deep, its floor a smooth series of curved layers, reminiscent of The Wave in northern Arizona. The canyon appears to show evidence of water flow down its slopes, but that is unproven.
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