Category Archives: Points of Information

Russia confirms launch delay to 2021 of Nauka module to ISS

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscomos, confirmed yesterday that the launch of its Nauka module for ISS will not occur in 2020.

In January they had hinted that the mission would be delayed to early 2021.

Construction of Nauka had begun in 1995, twenty-five years ago, which in a sense puts it in the lead for the most dismal government space project, beating out the James Webb Space Telescope (about 21 years since first proposed) and the Space Launch System (16 years since Bush proposed it). All three now say they will launch in 2021 but no one should be criticized if they doubt this.

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Third Starship prototype collaspes during tank pressure test

During the final part of a tank pressure test the third SpaceX Starship prototype apparently collapsed, its outer welded hull failing.

Video below the fold. The prototype is on the right, and it appears it fall inward along its hull welds.

The SN3 (Serial Number 3) vehicle incorporated lessons learned from previous vehicles and test articles, and took advantage of improved manufacturing techniques and expanded facilities at SpaceX’s South Texas launch facility.

The next round of testing began this week with cryogenic proof testing. These tests saw the vehicle filled with liquid nitrogen at cryogenic temperatures and flight pressures. Proof testing began in Thursday and continued through to Friday morning when SN3 failed during what appeared to be the end of the test.

With Elon Musk noting “we will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake,” on Twitter and the first-look observations, the fault may have been related to detanking, rather than another failure under pressure.

I’m no engineer, so I wonder how detanking could cause such a failure.
» Read more

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Predictions four to eleven times higher than actual COVID-19 hospitalizations

Garbage in, garbage out: The computer models being used by hospitals and government authorities to justify the shutdown of the entire American economy have routinely been way too high, four to eleven times higher than the actual numbers.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which owns HealthData.org and has been cited by the Trump administration, is getting called out for promulgating COVID-19 projections that turn out to be far too high. The institute’s projections are treated as the gold standard by several American hospital systems and state governments, according to its website, which warns that the demand for “ventilators, general hospital beds, and ICU beds” are “expected to exceed capacity.”

Yet it overestimated by four times how many hospitalizations would happen in New York State on one day this week, already accounting for the “lockdown” in the state, according to former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson

For example, the Institute predicted that on April 1 New York would have 50,000 hospitalizations. It only has 12,000. Similarly,

The Federalist co-founder Sean Davis noted similar overestimation on a national level, saying the UW model is using New York and New Jersey data – the epicenter of the epidemic – “and applying it to the rest of the U.S.”

This “garbage” model estimated 121,000 hospitalizations Wednesday, about four times higher than the actual number, he said, delving into more wild divergences between projections and results state-by-state. Tennessee and Texas projections were particularly off, at 11 and nine times higher than actually resulted, while Virginia’s was the closest at only two times higher. [emphasis mine]

For any model to be that badly off in only a week indicates it is total garbage, entirely divorced from reality and more a political document expressing the desires of those who wrote it.

But we’re all gonna die! We’ve got to do something! We’ve got to assume bad things so we can justify our actions!

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Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:
» Read more

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Shutdowns forcing hospitals to cut staff during Wuhan panic

This makes perfect government sense: The shutdowns that our governments have imposed on people and businesses nationwide due to the Wuhan panic has forced hospitals to cut staff and shorten hours.

The article describes the growing collapse of medical services caused by the state-imposed lockdowns in Ohio, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, South Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, and Arizona. That’s only ten states, but it is very likely the remaining states are experiencing the same problems, as described in the article:

The Connecticut Children’s Medical Center is furloughing 400 across its health system as a result of surgeries being delayed, which has caused patient volumes to plummet, resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue, according to the Hartford Courant.

The number of elective cases at Prisma Health in South Carolina has fallen by over 75% in two weeks. CEO Mark O’Halla issued a letter to employees informing them of furloughs, adding that they will be able to file for unemployment and apply for open positions at the hospital.

Two-hundred healthcare workers in Tennessee are being furloughed as a result of “dramatically reduced” hospital visits, which means a loss of revenue, according to the Tennessean.

We need to bankrupt ourselves in order to save us! Thank you government and centralized rule!

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First estimate of the cost of the Wuhan panic shutdown

The estimated lose to the U.S. economy due to the shutdown over the Wuhan panic is now estimated at $32 trillion, more than the entire annual gross national product for the country.

That number is of course preliminary, but for a first guess I think it is probably low, especially because it does not include the following:

  • Lost opportunity cost for businesses
  • Lost opportunity cost for individuals who had to delay dreams, plans, etc.
  • The loss of freedom (priceless)
  • The cost of not educating millions of students and falling further behind in academic standards

It also assumes we get back to work relatively soon. Should the shut down extend through May, I think the Great Depression will appear like a lark in comparison.

Note that the overall social cost of this panic and shutdown cannot be measured, as it is also establishing new social distancing customs that are probably overwrought and counter-productive for a healthy society.

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SpaceX bans use of Zoom by employees

For security reasons, SpaceX has banned its employees from using Zoom for video conferencing or communications.

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has banned its employees from using video conferencing app Zoom, citing “significant privacy and security concerns,” according to a memo seen by Reuters, days after U.S. law enforcement warned users about the security of the popular app.

…The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Boston office on Monday issued a warning about Zoom, telling users not to make meetings on the site public or share links widely after it received two reports of unidentified individuals invading school sessions, a phenomenon known as “zoombombing.”

Investigative news site The Intercept on Tuesday reported that Zoom video is not end-to-end encrypted between meeting participants, and that the company could view sessions.

It appears that Musk’s concern is that someone might use Zoom’s security weaknesses to do some industrial spying. Based on what I have read about Zoom, it seems to me that Musk’s concern is valid.

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ESA resumes science operations on orbiting spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reactivated four science spacecraft, two in Mars orbit and two headed for the Sun, after putting them in safe mode because the agency had shut down many operations due to one person becoming infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the initial case remained the only one as the people in quarantine did not develop any symptoms. “When we shut down science, we established very clear criteria to decide when it would restart, and as of this weekend we have begun to gradually bring the missions back into their normal state,” adds Paolo.

…Because of preventative measures taken early to limit the chance of infection spreading, the situation at ESOC is now stable. The few individuals that periodically go on site are predominantly working in isolation, and generally do not even meet each other. If they have to be in the same room, they follow very strict social distancing rules and protections.

It remains unclear whether this reactivation means there will be sufficient staffing for the fly-by of Earth by ESA’s BepiColumbo Mercury mission on April 10th. The information at the link is very encouraging, but it is also an official statement from ESA. Getting the real truth from such statements is not guaranteed.

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Momentus wins contract with Taiwan university

Capitalism in space: Momentus, a company that sells a small upper stage designed to provide orbital transportation for cubesats, has won a new contract with Taiwan university.

Under the agreement, Momentus will provide in-space transportation for a satellite mission called Intelligent Remote-Sensing and Internet Satellite (IRIS)-A. Odysseus is providing pre-launch testing and arranging launch services for the IRIS-A mission developed by Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University. IRIS-A is designed to test technology to improve the quality of downlink signals.

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Momentus executives say they are continuing to sign up customers interested in traveling on Vigoride, a vehicle to move small satellites from their drop-off point in orbit to their final destination.

The article does not say what rocket will launch the cubesat plus Vigoride, but Momentus has a contract with SpaceX to launch five cubesats as secondary payloads, so this is probably how the payload will reach orbit.

Normally cubesats launched as secondary payloads on big rockets like the Falcon 9 have very limited options on the orbits they can reach. The primary payload’s requirements are what rules. The idea here is Vigoride takes over once deployed and moves the satellite to the exact orbit needed. If Momentus is successful in doing this it will give cubesat makers many more launch options. It will also put more competitive pressure on the smallsat rockets like Rocket Lab’s Electron, since its main selling point is how it can put cubesats where they want to go, something that bigger rockets have not been able to do, up until now.

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States begin push to end voting at polls

The rigging of elections begins: As part of the Wuhan panic, state legislators (as well as Joe Biden, the present Democratic Party front runner for president), are now pushing to change election laws to allow more voting by mail, and to even eliminate in-person voting at the polls.

States are weighing measures to change voting rules in November’s presidential election as they struggle with social-distancing orders during the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, according to a report Tuesday. “More people who vote early or vote by mail, means fewer people standing in line on election day,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told the Axios news website.

But the effort to keep voters from going to the polls in person Nov. 3 faces legislative and financial roadblocks. The price for states to change their methods of voting could pass $2 billion, Axios said.

Of course, they are completely sincere about their desire to protect us from this evil virus. None of them would ever take advantage of an election conducted entirely by mail to rig the results. Never! How could anyone think such a thing?!

I mean, really, these are the same kinds of people who wrote the FISA court legislation, and then administered it perfectly! They are also the same kind of governmental people who run the IRS and never use it to go after people they don’t like, for political reasons. Never!

I await the coming our perfect government-run utopia. All will be well. Just accept it.

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Enigmas on Mars

Enigmas on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a perfect example of the difficulty of explaining the alien landscapes on Mars, based on orbital imagery. It was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 23, 2020.

In this one image alone we have the following strange features, all within an area about 8 by 11 miles in size:

  • Several small very obvious pedestal craters (near the top right), some located inside depressions. Pedestal craters are created because the surrounding terrain eroded away around them. Since these are pedestals, however, why are they also inside depressions?
  • Two large circular mesas that appear to vaguely have terraced erosion. These might also be pedestal craters, but maybe not. They also sit much higher than the pedestal craters above. Either way, the mesas remained while the terrain around them eroded away.
  • Several normal craters with a series of circular features within each. At this latitude, 34 degrees south, it is possible these craters are filled with buried ice, what scientists call concentric crater filled glaciers.
  • A light-colored string of ridges aligned to almost look like a kite with tail. The light color says this ridge is not made up of the same material as the circular mesas and pedestal craters, but it too was not eroded away.
  • A number of small bean-shaped depressions (just south of the biggest circular mesa and near the top left). Don’t ask me what caused them. I have no idea.

Overview map

The spot is located in the Martian southern cratered highlands, as shown by the blue cross in the overview map to the right. Complicating its geological history is that it sits inside a very gigantic very old and degraded crater, with numerous newer smaller impacts overlaid on top. Any explanation needs to include these impacts, and the ejecta from them.

If you click on the image and study the full resolution photograph, you can find even more enigmatic features. For most there is a reasonable geological theory. Putting them all in one place and somehow getting all those different explanations to fit together however is far more difficult.

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The lack of context during the Wuhan virus panic

Link here.

This editorial tries to remind people that when you look at the whole picture, the coronavirus epidemic simply does not yet justify the fear it has caused, or the over-the-top authoritarian measures politicians have imposed. For example:

On its own, 3,000 fatalities [from COVID-19 as of yesterday] might seem like a tremendously large number. But that’s before you learn that an average of 7,700 people die in the U.S. every single day. Which means that over the past week, when the coronavirus took 2,000 lives, nearly 54,000 people died from other causes. [emphasis in original]

They then list the many other preventable causes of death that each year kill far more people than the coronavirus, and yet pass entirely unnoticed, with no panic, fear, or government-imposed edicts. The mortality numbers for other infectious diseases I find especially revealing:

  • 35,000: antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • 40,922: blood poisoning resulting from bacteria
  • 55,672: flu and pneumonia

Once again, these are numbers for deaths that occur routinely, each year. I don’t remember the government declaring martial law over these. Do you?

COVID-19 could still be as bad as our panic-stricken leaders say, with predictions of between 100,000 to 200,000 deaths this year. I remain very skeptical. Such numbers would be from two to four times higher than the worse flu epidemic. The data from too many sources suggest this prediction is absurdly high.

And even if it is correct, I suspect these deaths will not be additional mortality, on top of all other causes. Instead, I predict that overall the mortality will be about the same, if not less, because of the imposition of martial law. Unable to go out, there will be fewer traffic accidents and flu infections, for example, causes that routinely kill a lot of people.

Thus, the overall death numbers will not be significantly different than we normally see, a result that will hardly justify the panic that has gripped everyone.

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Triple impact on Moon

Impact craters Messier and Messier A on the Moon

Cool image time! A new image release from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) takes a look at the impact process that created the crater Messier and its neighbor crater Messier A. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows both craters.

Take a close look at Messier A. It is actually a double crater itself. From the release:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Did these three craters happen as separate events. According to the data, it appears no. Instead, they might have all been part of a single rain of asteroids, all occurring in seconds.
» Read more

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NASA selects full crew for first operational Dragon mission

Even though SpaceX’s first demonstration manned mission to ISS has not yet occurred, NASA yesterday announced the selection of the full four person crew for the second flight, set for later this year and intended as the first operational mission to ISS, lasting six months.

This announcement tells us several things, all good. First, it appears NASA has now definitely decided that the demo mission, presently scheduled for mid-May, will be a short-term mission. They had considered making it a six-month mission, but it now appears they have concluded doing so will delay the demo launch too much.

Second, that NASA is solidifying its plans for that operational flight, the second for Dragon, including a tentative launch date later in 2020, is further evidence that they intend to go through with the demo mission in mid-May.

Finally, it appears that NASA has decided that it will not buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules, something that they had previously hinted they needed to do because the agency was worried the American capsules would not be ready this year. The article describes the negotiations on-going with the Russians about the use of Dragon, as well as the future use by Americans of Soyuz. NASA wishes to have astronauts from both countries fly on both spacecraft (Starliner too, once operational), but Russia is as yet reluctant to fly its astronauts on Dragon. They want to see that spacecraft complete more missions successfully.

Regardless, future flights of Americans on Soyuz will cost NASA nothing, as the agency wishes to trade the seats on the U.S. capsules one-for-one for the seats on Soyuz. It also means that NASA has decided it doesn’t need to buy Soyuz flights anymore, as it now expects Dragon to become operational this year.

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2019 was a boom year for the commercial space industry

Capitalism in space: According to a new industry report, 2019 was one of the strongest in years for the entire commercial space industry.

More than 183,000 workers were employed in the U.S. space workforce at the end of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Core employment, those jobs most closely aligned with the space industry and not the larger aerospace industry, rose to 141,520 jobs in 2019. This represents a 4.1% increase from the 135,930 private sector workers in 2018 and marks the third year in a row of increasing employment in this workforce and the highest level since 2012.

Some sectors saw significant gains in employment over the last five years. Together, the workforce supporting manufacturing of space vehicles, space vehicle propulsion units, and other space vehicle parts grew by nearly 20% over the past five years, adding more than 14,000 new employees. Other sectors experienced decline. Broadcast and wireless communications equipment manufacturing employment decreased 9.8% over the past five years, shedding more than 5,000 workers.

The report also noted that the COVID-19 panic will likely cause a major negative impact to the industry in 2020, hurting the smaller companies the most.

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SpaceX prepares next Starship prototype; releases Starship user manual

From SpaceX's first user manual for Starship

Capitalism in space: Even as SpaceX has begun preparing its third Starship prototype for new testing, it has also released a first user manual for the rocket, outlining its proposed capabilities and potential uses by customers.

From the first link:

The next round of testing is anticipated to begin this week with cryogenic proof testing. These tests will see the vehicle filled with liquid nitrogen at cryogenic temperatures and flight pressures. Prior Starship test vehicles have had their campaigns cut short by failed cryogenic testing, including the last flight vehicle SpaceX rolled to the Boca Chica launch pad, Starship SN1.

If all goes right, they hope to begin short flight tests with this prototype, moving to longer and higher flights with the next.

The user manual [pdf] is mostly a short description of what they hope they will be able to accomplish with Starship. It notes that they will build both a cargo and manned variety, and that both will be available for point-to-point transportation on Earth. It also notes:

Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and
Earth, Lunar, or Martian landing sites. Potential Starship customers can use this guide as a resource for preliminary payload accommodations information.This is the initial release of the Starship Users Guide and it will be updated frequently in response to customer feedback.

I guarantee that much of what is written and drawn here, such as the illustration above, will change significantly as development proceeds.

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Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 complete 16h lunar day on Moon

China’s Yutu-2 rover and Chang’e-4 lander have now successfully completed their sixteenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon, and have been put into hibernation for the long lunar night.

This means that both spacecraft have now worked longer on the Moon than any previous mission.

The news report, from China’s state-run press, provides only one real piece of information: Yutu-2 has now traveled a total of 424.45 meters (1,393 feet), which means it traveled about 24 meters (79 feet) during this sixteenth lunar day.

Their goal is to reach a different geological area of basalt a little over a mile away, a journey they say will take about a year.

I question that time frame however. Yutu-2 has averaged about 88 feet travel per lunar day. To go a mile at that pace will take about sixty lunar days, which is equivalent to between four and five years. The difference might be because the information at the second link is a bit unclear, and that they hope to begin entering the basalt region much sooner.

We shall just have to wait and see.

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Total mortality is DOWN in Europe during Wuhan panic

According to the latest weekly report of overall mortality in Europe, the number of deaths during the March 18 to 24 time period had dropped, even though that was the exact period when the panic and alarm over the COVID-19 epidemic began to reach its height.

The article at the link also notes that this particular flu season has so far been relatively mild, which corresponds with the U.S. data I posted on March 26.

Both the article and his source speculate with some puzzlement as to why this is the case. Obviously, the panic shutting down our entire economy and society is probably helping. At the same time, this flu season was already clearly going to be a mild one, long before the Wuhan panic took over.

Regardless, what these numbers once again suggest is that the response to COVID-19 has been way out of line and over the top. While our bankrupt press keeps focusing on specific deaths and coronavirus mortality rates, they are failing to note that the overall death rate is not changing, and is possibly even dropping.

A good example are the wild rumors, widely reported, of a gigantic order of burial urns for China, implying that these urns were needed because of millions of extra COVID-19 deaths, not reported by the Chinese authorities. What nobody asks is how many urns are normally ordered each year? I suspect the numbers would be quite similar.

We are not all going to die from the Wuhan virus, though the extreme measures our government is forcing us to take might very well kill us, in other ways. At a minimum, those extreme measures are destroying what was once a free society.

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IG report: FBI screwed up on every single FISA warrant application it submitted

So, why hasn’t Trump fired everybody there? A new inspector general review of 29 FBI FISA warrant applications has found that on every single application looked at, the FBI made numerous errors, often failing entirely in doing the most basic required documentation.

The [inspector general] review released Tuesday suggests that the FBI’s problems are widespread. “As a result of our audit work to date and as described below, we do not have confidence that the FBI has executed its Woods Procedures in compliance with FBI policy,” the [report] said in a memo to FBI Director Christopher Wray.

More information here, including the revelation that the FBI could not even find the files for four of these warrants. The IG suspects they might never have existed.

I repeat: Why has Trump so far not fired the entire upper management at the FBI involved in this work? Every single one of these bums should be out on the street, looking for work (though to be honest, the last place I’d want to see them working is as a stock person in a supermarket. They’d hoard and steal, and everyone else would starve.).

For example, the IG memo was submitted to Wray, who has been a top manager at the agency for years, and was directly involved in issuing most of these FISA warrants. Does anyone really expect him to fix this problem? He’s part of it.

Until Trump begins a real house-cleaning, I have no faith in his claim that he is “draining the swamp.” Instead, I see him as simply doing a little light dusting, just enough to make us peons not notice the thick piles of dirt buried under the rugs and beneath all the cushions and behind the books.

Also, this IG report provides further proof that Congress should not renew the FISA court law, when it comes up for renewal again in about two months. The entire law and all involved with it are corrupt, and routinely have abused the power it gave them.

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It ain’t simple keeping a camera functioning properly in orbit around Mars

ADC settings test on MRO
Click for full image.

In doing my normal exploration through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the last to occur near the end of February, I came across a slew of 49 images, each labeled as an “ADC Settings Test,” each covering a completely different location with no obvious single object of study, almost as if they were taken in a wildly random manner.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a typical example. It shows the mega dunes located near the end of the canyon Chasma Boreale that cuts a giant slash into the Martian north polar ice cap, almost cutting off one third of the icecap.

The black areas are shadows, long because being at the high latitude of 84 degrees the Sun never gets very high in the sky, even though this image was taken just before mid-summer, when the Sun was at its highest.

I was puzzled why these images were being taken, and contacted Ari Espinoza, the media rep for the high resolution camera, to ask if he could put me in touch with a scientist who could provide an explanation. He in turn suggested I contact Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who coincidentally I had already spoken with several times before in connection with the annual summer avalanche season at the Martian north pole.

Dr. Byrne first suggested I read this abstract [pdf], written for the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science conference by the camera’s science team. In it they outline two issues with the camera, one blurred images and the second an increasing number of bad pixels occurring in images over time.

The first problem has since been solved. To preserve battery life — another long term problem that they have to deal with — they had adjusted the orbiter’s orbit slightly to get more sunlight and stopped warming the camera during the night periods. “That had the unfortunate effect of changing the camera’s focus,” explained Byrne. “Since we understand that now, we do warm-ups before taking the images and that fixed the blurring problem.”

The other problem however remains, and these ADC test images are an effort to fix it.
» Read more

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New York: Where politicians consider criminals their base and ordinary citizens their enemy

Like the Democrats running California, the reaction of the Democrats running New York to the Wuhan virus has nicely revealed who they consider their base, and who they consider their enemies:

The first story is one of several from New York. Even as the Democrats in charge have moved to place all citizens under house arrest, they also seem to think releasing criminals from jail (the perfect type of quarantine) is a good idea.

No one should harbor any doubts about where the Democrats loyalties lie. They are not really interested in saving lives. They are interested in stamping a jack boot on the face of every decent person. And they know that if their own efforts to impose martial law fail, they know that releasing a lot of violent criminals surely will help.

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Stratolaunch now wants to build a reuseable hypersonic vehicle

Capitalsm in space: Stratolaunch announced today that they are now planning to build a reusable hypersonic test vehicle to launch from their giant Roc airplane.

That vehicle, powered by a liquid-propellant rocket engine, will launch from the company’s aircraft and fly to speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 7 before gliding back to a runway landing. It will also be able to take off on its own from a runway under rocket power.

“The Stratolaunch Talon-A is a flexible, high-speed testbed built for offensive hypersonics, hypersonic defense and hypersonic R&D,” the company said in a fact sheet about the program. That document emphasizes the vehicle’s ability to provide “here-to-fore unobtainable measurement access to the hypersonic flight environment on a recurring basis.”

Forgive me if I remain skeptical. From memory I think this is about the fifth different design or concept for launch from Roc, with the previous proposals differing from this hypersonic test vehicle in that they were all intended to go to orbit. All were the same however in that they were trying to find a design that could be launched from Roc and also make engineering and economic sense. So far none has done so.

This new proposal is clearly aimed at garnering government research dollars. It also probably wants those dollars to pay for Talon-A’s development. In a sane world, the military would tell Stratolaunch to build and prove Talon-A’s capabilities first, before signing on.

When it comes to government spending, however, we however are no longer in a sane world.

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In the midst of Mars’ volcano country

lava channel
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While the rest of the world is entirely focused on panic and disease, I am going to go on with my life. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 26, 2019. I suspected this channel was lava, and when I asked Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, he confirmed my suspicion.

Yes, that surface appears to be lava–it is part of the Elysium plains, which have many geologically-young lava flows. It’s likely that the channel is a lava channel, and the surrounding plains may be from an earlier stage of the same eruption.

The entire surface of the channel and the surrounding plains appear very fresh, mostly because of their smoothness and lack of many craters. You can also see what looks like a recent impact (the small dark splotch near the left edge about two-thirds from the top).

The fresh and smooth look of Elysium Planitia generally has led scientists to conclude that much of this region is formed from lava flows, some relatively recently. Thus, this particular lava channel is smack dab in the middle of Mars’ volcano country, quite vast and extensive. The context map below illustrates this.
» Read more

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Europe’s BepiColumbo mission to Mercury threatened by COVID-19

Because of the strict rules and work suspensions imposed due to the Wuhan virus panic, there will be a reduced workforce during the April 10, 2020 fly-by of Earth by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) BepiColumbo Mercury mission.

The press release tries to make it sound like they are heroically working through the fly-by, but the truth is revealed far down in the text:

The operation, however, will be performed with limited personnel at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, where engineers will have to comply with social distancing rules presently in place all over Europe as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. “The Earth swing-by is a phase where we need daily contact with the spacecraft,” says Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA. “This is something that we cannot postpone. The spacecraft will swing by Earth independently in any case.”

The coronavirus threat forces the team to work with minimal face to face interaction while ensuring all steps in the process are properly covered. “During the critical two weeks prior to the closest approach, we need to upload safety commands to prepare the spacecraft for unexpected problems,” says Christoph Steiger, BepiColombo Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager. “For example, we need to prepare the transfer module for the 34 minute-long eclipse when its solar panels will not be exposed to sunlight to prevent battery discharge.”

Operations can still be conducted as planned, he adds, but will require more effort and attention than in a normal situation. [emphasis mine]

I suspect that much of the software work is now being done remotely, but there is no doubt the inability to be present in the control room will prevent any quick fix, should the spacecraft need help during the fly-by.

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Flu deaths appear to be plummeting as COVID-19 arrives

Sarah Hoyt has published a very revealing analysis of the CDC numbers of the on-going 2019-2020 flu season.

The graphs, which are astonishing, show two trends, one somewhat expected, the other completely a surprise. You should definitely go to the link to see.

First, this flu season there is a giant uptick in people seeing their doctor because of flu symptoms. Though the big rise in doctor visits began in December, when COVID-19 first began to make the news, the trend did began well before its appearance, making the uptick somewhat puzzling.

The second trend makes that uptick even more baffling. It appears that in the last four weeks the number of deaths because of flu and pneumonia has plummeted, dropping to far below any numbers for the past five years. As Hoyt notes at the link,

BTW the author and I had several “people who know better than us” look at the charts, and it remains a mystery. No, we don’t know what’s going on. We know it makes no sense.

I suspect the drop in deaths is connected to the high level of concern by the general population, causing them to get treatment earlier so that many who would have died in past seasons don’t. I also suspect that this data also confirms the relatively minor impact so far of COVID-19 overall. As the author notes,

As to conclusions, there isn’t enough data for any concrete conclusion. Looking at this logically, IF there have been COVID-19 cases in the US since December, it doesn’t appear to have been deadly enough to have been very noticeable.

This data is very preliminary, has great uncertainties. Nonetheless, it suggests once again that the panic over the Wuhan flu is way out of line.

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TMT protesters abandon camp due to Wuhan virus fears

The protesters who have been blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii have abandoned their camp due to fears of COVID-19.

Though this gives the consortium an opportunity to begin construction, don’t expect it. Based on info I’ve gotten from within the astronomy community (most of which is liberal and thus very focused on identity politics), the consortium that wants to build TMT is torn over these protests, with many astronomers sympathetic to the protesters’ false claims of bigotry and religious oppression.

TMT will not be built in Hawaii. Whether it is built at all remains an open question.

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OneWeb files for bankruptcy

Capitalism in space: OneWeb yesterday made official the rumors from the past week by filing for bankruptcy in the United States.

It appears that those rumors were essentially true, that one of the company’s biggest investors, Softbank, was having financial trouble due to the stock market crash caused by the Wuhan flu panic, and was not able to continue its investment in OneWeb. The result was that OneWeb could not pay its creditors, the biggest of which was Arianespace, which was managing the launch of most of the company’s satellites, using Russian Soyuz rockets from either French Guiana or Kazakhstan.

With about 18% of its constellation already in orbit and the rest pretty much ready for launch this year, the company has valuable assets that in bankruptcy will have value. It will likely be sold and continue operations under new management.

In the meantime this filing will hurt the bottom line of Arianespace and Russia.

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NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

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