Category Archives: Points of Information

The drying out of Mars

Edge of wash
The Murray formation as seen in 2017

A new paper based on data gathered by the rover Curiosity in 2017 when it was lower on the slopes of Mount Sharp, as well as data obtained more recently at higher elevations, has confirmed that the past Martian environment of Gale Crater was wetter, and that deeper lakes formed lower down, as one would expect.

In 2017 Curiosity was traveling through a geological layer dubbed the Murray formation. It has since climbed upward through the hematite formation forming a ridge the scientists dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge to reach the clay formation, where the rover presently sits. Above it lies the sulfate-bearing unit, where the terrain begins to be get steeper with many very dramatic geological formations.

Looking across the entirety of Curiosity’s journey, which began in 2012, the science team sees a cycle of wet to dry across long timescales on Mars. “As we climb Mount Sharp, we see an overall trend from a wet landscape to a drier one,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory mission that Curiosity is a part of. “But that trend didn’t necessarily occur in a linear fashion. More likely, it was messy, including drier periods, like what we’re seeing at Sutton Island, followed by wetter periods, like what we’re seeing in the ‘clay-bearing unit’ that Curiosity is exploring today.”

Up until now, the rover has encountered lots of flat sediment layers that had been gently deposited at the bottom of a lake [the Murray Formation]. Team member Chris Fedo, who specializes in the study of sedimentary layers at the University of Tennessee, noted that Curiosity is currently running across large rock structures [Vera Rubin Ridge and the clay formation] that could have formed only in a higher-energy environment such as a windswept area or flowing streams.

Wind or flowing water piles sediment into layers that gradually incline. When they harden into rock, they become large structures similar to “Teal Ridge,” which Curiosity investigated this past summer [in the clay formation]. “Finding inclined layers represents a major change, where the landscape isn’t completely underwater anymore,” said Fedo. “We may have left the era of deep lakes behind.”

Curiosity has already spied more inclined layers in the distant sulfate-bearing unit. The science team plans to drive there in the next couple years and investigate its many rock structures. If they formed in drier conditions that persisted for a long period, that might mean that the clay-bearing unit represents an in-between stage – a gateway to a different era in Gale Crater’s watery history.

None of these results are really surprising. You would expect lakes in the flatter lower elevations and high-energy streams and flows in the steeper higher elevations. Confirming this geology however is a big deal, especially because they are beginning to map out in detail the nature of these geological processes on Mars, an alien world with a different make-up and gravity from Earth.

Below the fold is the Curiosity science teams overall map, released in May 2019, showing the rover’s future route up to that sulfate unit, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
» Read more

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Capsule and booster for SpaceX launch abort test arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 first booster for SpaceX’s launch abort test have both arrived in Florida and are being readied for flight.

SpaceX’s launch license suggests this test will occur no earlier than November 1, so it looks like the company is getting close. However, don’t hold your breath about the manned launch. It appears that NASA is still hassling SpaceX “with certification and safety reviews,” which in plain language is mostly paperwork and filling out forms that NASA’s safety panel can then rubber stamp.

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Protests in Iraq

Three days of protests in Iraq have now resulted in the deaths of 60 demonstrators, many shot by sniper fire.

The violence is the worst since Iraq put down an insurgency by Islamic State two years ago. The protests arose in the south, heartland of the Shi’ite majority, but quickly spread, with no formal leadership.

Security and medical sources gave a death toll on Friday of 60 killed across Iraq in three days of unrest, the vast majority of the deaths in the last 24 hours as the violence accelerated.

“It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction,” Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon. “The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground,” said Sistani, who stays out of day-to-day politics but whose word is law for Iraq’s Shi’ites. “Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening.”

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, ordered his lawmakers to suspend participation in the legislature until the government introduces a program that would serve all Iraqis.

Many government officials and lawmakers are widely accused of siphoning off public money, unfairly awarding contracts in state institutions and other forms of corruption.

It is suggested that the demonstrators are protesting government corruption. This could easily be true, since bribery, payoffs, embezzlement, etc, are very normal in Arab culture. At the same time, the factionalism that divides Iraq has not gone away, and these demonstrations could be a tactic by the opposition to damage the ruling party. Moqtada al-Sadr (who had been nicknamed “Mookie” by U.S. troops) has a long history of using force for his own political gain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is behind these protests.

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Chinese head in Hong Kong invokes emergency powers

Escalation: Carrie Lam, the Chinese-appointed chief executive in Hong Kong, today invoked emergency powers in her effort to stem the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have been on-going now for four months.

[P]rotesters here can now face criminal penalties of up to than $3,000 and a year’s imprisonment simply for wearing the masks they have used to defend themselves against tear gas and the possibility of arrest.

And, having invoked emergency powers, Lam is now in a position to do almost anything. As the New York Times sums it up: “Under the emergency powers, Mrs. Lam has a wide discretion to create new criminal laws and amend existing laws — all without going through the legislative process.” Newspapers can be censored or shuttered, web sites closed down, property seized, searches carried out galore, and so forth.

It appears that China is beginning the process of cracking down, and will likely do it incrementally, in the hope this will defuse the response, both by the Hong Kong population and the international community.

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Astronomers photograph baby binary system

Baby binary stars dance in joint accretion disk
Click for full image.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA), astronomers have obtained the first high resolution image of a baby binary system, its two young stars dancing within a joint accretion disk.

Most stars in the universe come in the form of pairs – binaries – or even multiple star systems. Now, the formation of such a binary star system has been observed for the first time with high-resolution ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) images. An international team of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics targeted the system [BHB2007] 11, the youngest member of a small cluster of young stellar objects in the Barnard 59 core in the Pipe nebula molecular cloud. While previous observations showed an accretion envelope surrounding a circum-binary disk, the new observations now also reveal its inner structure.

“We see two compact sources, that we interpret as circum-stellar disks around the two young stars,” explains Felipe Alves from MPE, who led the study. “The size of each of these disks is similar to the asteroid belt in our Solar System and their separation is 28 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth.” Both proto-stars are surrounded by a circum-binary disk with a total mass of about 80 Jupiter masses, which contains a complex network of dust structures distributed in spiral shapes. The shape of the filaments suggests streamers of in-falling material, which is confirmed by the observation of molecular emission lines.

Why most stars form as binary systems is as yet not understood. This data is a major first step towards figuring this out.

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Weird glacial features in Martian crater

weird glacial feature in crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In reviewing today’s October release of new images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the strange geology shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The uncaptioned image calls these “glacial features within crater.” The crater is located at 35 degrees north latitude in Arabia Terra, one of the more extensive regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It is also located within the northern band from 30 to 60 degrees latitude where most of the buried Martian glaciers are found.

The most abundant type of buried glaciers are called concentric crater fill (CCF) because they are found inside craters, and often show decay in a concentric manner. This weird feature likely falls into that category, though I would hardly call these glacier features concentric.

I’m not even sure if this is an impact crater. If it is, its rim has been heavily obscured, making it look instead like an irregular depression with one outlet to the south. In fact, I suspect it is possibly one of the lakes that scientists believe pepper this part of Arabia Terra and might have contained liquid water two to three billion years ago. That water would have later frozen, and possibly become covered by dust and debris to protect it.

According to present theories, Mars is presently in a period where its mid-latitude glaciers are shrinking, the water sublimating away and being transported back to its poles. The weird formations here suggest this process. Imagine what happens when you spray warm water on a big block of ice. It dissolves, but randomly to form weird shapes.

In this case the glacier is shrinking randomly where the ice has gotten exposed. In the thin Martian atmosphere, it transitions directly from a solid to a gas, sublimating into the atmosphere to leave these inexplicable shapes.

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Italy buys tickets on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital VSS Unity

Capitalism in space: Italy yesterday announced that it has purchased seats on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital VSS Unity for a research flight sometime in 2020.

The deal marks the first time a government has bought a ride on a private, suborbital space mission to conduct any kind of human-led experiments. The first research flight could take place as early as next year, the company said. “We’re delighted to work with the Italian Air Force to further space-based research and technology development through this historic mission,” Virgin’s chief executive, George Whitesides, said in a news release.

The contract announcement, plus the 2020 mission date, both lend some weight to Virgin Galactic’s recent claims that it will begin commercial operations next year. However, forgive me if I remain skeptical. Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson have been making promises like this for more than a decade, with none ever coming true.

Right now I will only believe it when they actually do it.

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Astronomers roughly map out Andromeda’s history

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have now roughly mapped out the history of the Andromeda galaxy, identifying two major events whereby it had absorbed nearby dwarf galaxies.

“It’s been known for 10 to 15 years that Andromeda has a vigorous history of accumulating and destroying its neighbours,” Mackey says. In fact, he says, “It seems to have a much more intense history of that than the Milky Way.”

…[New data] “tells us there were two main events that formed the halo of Andromeda,” Mackey says. “One occurred very long ago. The other must have happened relatively recently.”

Not that Andromeda couldn’t also have eaten innumerable smaller galaxies. ”We can’t trace them with galactic clusters, because they didn’t have any to begin with,” Mackey says.

Most of the news reports about this new research have been very overwrought (Andromeda is “violent” and is going to “eat us!”) and very unaware that the assimilation of nearby small galaxies by Andromeda is not really news. Astronomers have known for years that big galaxies like Andromeda and the Milky Way absorb the dwarf galaxies around them. All this story does is postulate a more detailed though very rough timeline.

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Blue Origin hints at the New Shepard ticket price

Capitalism in space: For the first time a Blue Origin official has provided a very rough estimate of what the company will charge per ticket for someone to take a flight in its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft.

But today, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith hinted at a ballpark figure. “It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference.

Although he stressed that the price for passengers hasn’t yet been published, he indicated that Blue Origin now has a price range in mind. “Any new technology is never cheap, whether you’re talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today,” Smith said. “But it’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially.”

Smith added that over time, “we’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people” can afford a ticket to space. [emphasis mine]

This price sounds somewhat comparable to the prices being offered by Virgin Galactic. For the first people who had been willing to put down a deposit years ago they will pay $250K. Future buyers will pay more, at least at first.

Of course, neither company appears ready to put passengers on board, though both seem finally close and aiming for commercial flights no later than 2021. (Having said that, please don’t quote me, as I don’t really believe it, based on the endless delays coming from both companies.)

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InSight robot arm to help mole dig

Mole in hole, with robot arm and scoop above
Click for full image.

In their effort to solve the issues that have prevented InSight’s mole from penetrating more than fourteen inches into the ground on Mars, engineers now plan to use the scoop on the robot arm to “pin” the mole up against one wall of the hole so that it will have the friction necessary to drill downward.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, illustrates what they have been doing and what they will do. Previously the hole was much larger, which prevented the mole from moving downward because it needed the friction from the material around it to hold it in place after each hammer action. (Think of pounding a nail into a wooden board: The nail is gripped tightly by the wood around it as it goes down, so that after each hit it goes further in.)

Since June they have been using the arm and scoop to fill in the hole around the mole. Now I think they intend to bring the scoop around to the mole’s left side, as shown in the image, and pin it upright against the right wall of the hole. When it resumes hammer-drilling they hope both the wall and the scoop will provide enough friction for the mole to drill downward.

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SpaceX wins launch contract for NASA privately-built lunar lander

Intuitive Machines, one of the three companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers, has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its planned 2021 mission.

The Houston-based company’s first robotic Nova-C lander will carry up to 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, of payloads to the moon’s surface. Launch and landing are scheduled for July 2021, according to Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace systems at Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines previously stated plans to launch the first Nova-C mission on a SpaceX rocket, but Martin said in an interview Wednesday that the company held a “fully open competition” among multiple launch service providers before signing a contract for a Falcon 9 launch.

In a statement, Intuitive Machines said it “ultimately selected SpaceX for its proven record of reliability and outstanding value.” The company said the Nova-C mission will take off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [emphasis mine]

That “outstanding value” almost certainly was the lowest price by far offered by any rocket company, a reality that continues to bring SpaceX business while taking market share from everyone else.

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Hayabusa-2 releases last mini-lander/rover to Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released their last mini-lander, dubbed MINERVA-II2, toward Ryugu, with an expected landing expected no later than October 8.

After MINERVA-II2 lands, it will do the same as the first, operate for about two days on the surface, moving by a series of bounces/rolls and taking close-up pictures of the surface as it does so.

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The slowly changing dunes of Mars

Map of Mars

In order to better understand the climate and geology of Mars, scientists need to study how the thin Martian atmosphere causes changes to the planet’s numerous sand dunes. To do this, they have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to periodically snap photos of the same places repeatedly over time, to track any changes that might occur.

Recently the monthly download dump of images from MRO included one such location in the northwest quadrant of Hellas Basin, what I call the basement of Mars because it the planet’s lowest point. The uncaptioned image was taken on May 20, 2019 and was titled “Hellas Region Sand Dune Changes.” A review of past images shows that MRO has taken pictures of this location several times in the past, in 2011 and in 2017. All these images were taken during the Martian autumn season, and were taken to see if over time there were any significant changes to the dunes due to winds.

My superficial comparison of the 2011 and 2017 images does not show much obvious change. There could be small changes that my quick review did not spot, and there is also the strong possibility that the entire dune field could have shifted as a unit over those three Martian years, a change that would require a more detailed analysis beyond my technical capabilities. Click on both links, put the photographs in separate tabs, and switch quickly between them to see if you can spot any differences.

Comparing the 2011 and 2019 images however shows some significant changes, most of which I think are due to the 2018 global dust storm. Below is that comparison.
» Read more

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More organics detected in Enceladus’ plumes

Using Cassini archived data scientists have detected evidence of new organic molecules in the water-ice plumes coming from the tiger stripe fissures on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Powerful hydrothermal vents eject material from Enceladus’ core, which mixes with water from the moon’s massive subsurface ocean before it is released into space as water vapor and ice grains. The newly discovered molecules, condensed onto the ice grains, were determined to be nitrogen- and oxygen-bearing compounds.

On Earth, similar compounds are part of chemical reactions that produce amino acids, the building blocks of life. Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor provide the energy that fuels the reactions. Scientists believe Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents may operate in the same way, supplying energy that leads to the production of amino acids.

For clarity I should point out that I am using the term “organics” as chemists do. It refers not to life, but to any molecule that is formed using carbon.

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Juno completes long engine burn to avoid Jupiter’s shadow

In order to avoid a twelve-hour plunge through Jupiter’s shadow that would have likely sucked all power from Juno’s solar powered systems and killed the spacecraft, mission engineers have successfully used its attitude thrusters to complete a 10.5 long engine burn.

Juno began the maneuver yesterday, on Sept. 30, at 7:46 p.m. EDT (4:46 p.m. PDT) and completed it early on Oct. 1. Using the spacecraft’s reaction-control thrusters, the propulsive maneuver lasted five times longer than any previous use of that system. It changed Juno’s orbital velocity by 126 mph (203 kph) and consumed about 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of fuel. Without this maneuver, Juno would have spent 12 hours in transit across Jupiter’s shadow – more than enough time to drain the spacecraft’s batteries. Without power, and with spacecraft temperatures plummeting, Juno would likely succumb to the cold and be unable to awaken upon exit.

“With the success of this burn, we are on track to jump the shadow on Nov. 3,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

This burn did not use the spacecraft’s main engine, which they fear has a problem that would produce a catastrophic failure if fired. Instead, they used Juno’s small attitude thrusters, which explains the length of the maneuver. In fact, this 10.5 hour burn might actually be the longest chemical engine burn in space ever. While ion engines routinely fire for this long or longer, as far as I can remember no chemical engine in space has ever fired even close to this length of time.

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NASA in negotiations to buy more Russian Soyuz astronaut seats

Collusion with Russia discovered! NASA has begun negotiations with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to buy more astronaut flights to ISS using Russia’s Soyuz rocket and capsule.

According to the story at the link, NASA’s last purchased ticket will fly in March of 2020, and these negotiations would buy flights beginning in the fall of 2020 and beyond into 2021. The story also cites statements by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to CNN, confirming these negotiations.

Apparently NASA thinks the manned capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX will not be ready by the fall of 2020, and needs to buy tickets from Russia because of this.

However, the only reason those American capsules will not have been approved and flown by then will be because NASA’s timidity in approving their launch. The agency’s safety panel as well as its management have repeatedly delayed these private American capsules, sometimes for very strange reasons, including a demand that lots of paperwork be filled out, and what I consider to be an unjustified demand for perfect safety.

Had NASA adopted a reasonable criteria for launch, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could have flown three years ago.

Meanwhile, NASA seems quite willing to put Americans on a Soyuz rocket, launched by a foreign power whose safety record in the past half decade has been spotty, at best. In that time Russia has experienced numerous quality control problems, including mistakes that led to an Soyuz abort during a launch and a Soyuz parachute failure during a landing, corruption that forced them to recall all rocket engines and freeze launches for almost a year, and sabotage where someone drilled a hole in a Soyuz capsule prior to launch, a sabotage that Russia still refuses to explain.

It is unconscionable for NASA to favor putting Americans on a Soyuz with many documented safety issues, but block the launch of Americans on American-made capsules, for imagined safety issues that have mostly made no sense. In fact, the contrast makes me wonder about the loyalty of NASA’s bureaucracy. They certainly seem to favor Russia and Roscosmos over private American companies.

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Relativity raises $140 million in third funding round

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket company Relativity announced yesterday that it has raised $140 million in its third funding round, providing it enough funding to complete and launch its Terran 1 rocket.

The new round brings the total raised by the Los Angeles-based company to $185 million. The new funding, Relativity executives said, will be sufficient to complete development of its Terran 1 rocket and begin commercial operations in 2021. It will support expansion of its headquarters and establishment of a factory for rocket production at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where it currently tests its engines.

“That round will carry us past first flight of Terran 1,” said Jordan Noone, co-founder and chief technology officer of Relativity, in an interview. “This round is all the capital required to get to first flight, build out more of the Mississippi test site, Launch Complex 16 in Florida and expand our L.A. headquarters and manufacturing.”

That first launch, once scheduled for late 2020, is now planned for February 2021. “That original prediction for when first flight would be was made about four years ago, so moving it two months to the right here is not bad,” he said. Part of the reason for the slip is a decision to develop a larger payload fairing with twice the volume of the original one, based on feedback from prospective customers.

This all sounds very encouraging. The test will be their engineering concept to manufacture their rocket entirely by 3D printing, something no one has ever done before. If they experience any problems with this those launch dates will immediately be threatened.

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Musk on Starship, engineering, and management

Several listeners have sent me the link to a fifteen minute interview with Elon Musk that took place the day of his big Starship speech on September 30.

I have embedded it below. Watch it. It reveals several very important overarching things about SpaceX and Musk.

1. Musk calls himself SpaceX’s chief engineer, and during this interview he demonstrates why. He understands this stuff at more fundamental level that I think most similar big rocket company heads. This gives him the ability to distinguish good engineering from bad, and thus shape the company’s design direction more forcefully. It also makes him more similar to the early owners of American airplane companies (Douglas, Boeing, McDonnell, Northrop, etc), all of whom were engineers first and managers second. Too often today CEOs know little about the engineering behind their company, and therefore can be easily sidetracked by bad ideas.

2. At several points in discussing his management approach, Musk clearly wants to give an example of how bad management leads to bad engineering, but it is clear he censors himself. I suspect he is thinking of SLS, but does not want to say so to avoid a controversy he doesn’t need.

3. Much of the interview revolves around the aerospike nozzle, and why SpaceX hasn’t used it. It appears Musk’s reason is that while it might make the exhaust of a rocket more efficient, it causes a loss of efficiency in combustion, and the trade-off isn’t worth it.

4. Finally, Musk’s openness to new ideas, even if they prove him wrong, is quite obvious. As he says,

If someone could show that we’re wrong, that would be great. If someone can show you a way to make your design better, this is a gift. I would be like, thank you! Wow, this is awesome. The worst thing would be that we want to do a dumb design and stick with our dumb design. That would be insane.

This is one of those moments where I think he is thinking of SLS, but doesn’t come right out and say so.

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The sounds of Mars

The InSight seismometer team today issued an update of their results since the instrument began recording quakes on Mars in February.

But after the seismometer was set down by InSight’s robotic arm, Mars seemed shy. It didn’t produce its first rumbling until this past April, and this first quake turned out to be an odd duck. It had a surprisingly high-frequency seismic signal compared to what the science team has heard since then. Out of more than 100 events detected to date, about 21 are strongly considered to be quakes. The remainder could be quakes as well, but the science team hasn’t ruled out other causes.

The press release provides audio for many of these detections, including two 3.3+ earthquakes as well as a strange sequence of what they call “dinks and donks” that appear to occur each evening as the seismometer adjusts to night-time temperatures.

So far the data suggests that Mars’ interior is a relatively quiet place, compared to Earth.

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Rocket Lab sets next launch date

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab yesterday announced its next launch window, beginning on October 15, while adding that it has switched out the payload planned for that commercial launch.

The launch, scheduled for a two-week window starting October 15, will take a single spacecraft created by Astro to low Earth orbit. Corvus — the genus to which crows and ravens belong — is the name of the series of imaging satellites the company has already put up there; hence the name of the mission.

But this mission wasn’t scheduled to launch for some time yet. October’s launch, the fifth this year from Rocket Lab, was set to be another customer’s, but that customer seems to have needed a bit of extra time to prepare — and simply requested a later launch date.

Rocket Lab correctly touts this late and fast switch as an example of its ability to provide on-demand service to its customers. Making a switch like this is rare in rocketry.

At the same time, Rocket Lab had hoped to launch as many as sixteen times in 2019, with launches occurring monthly beginning in the spring. They have not come close to that pace, and right now it does not look like the company will top ten launches in 2019. and will likely do much less.

Whether this is indicative of problems at Rocket Lab, or with its various customers, is not clear, though I suspect the latter. The rocket has been reliable and operational now for more than a year.

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NASA solicits proposals for manned lunar landers

NASA yesterday issued its final solicitation for proposals for private companies to build its manned lunar landers, with one major change resulting from comments to their earlier preliminary announcements.

Those comments resulted in some modifications intended to streamline the process and give companies more flexibility. One of the biggest is that NASA will no longer require lunar landers to dock with the lunar Gateway to serve as a staging point, at least for initial missions to the lunar surface.

“The agency’s preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the moon,” the agency said in a Sept. 30 statement about the solicitation. “NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.” [emphasis mine]

If these landers, using Orion, bypass Gateway in getting to the lunar surface, then there will literally be no reason to build that lunar station. NASA knows this, which is why they spent a lot of time hiding this fact by touting the requirement that any proposal must be designed to eventually dock with Gateway. The agency has been using Gateway to garner support on Capital Hill for its manned program, since the project will take decades to build and thus create a lot of jobs while generally taking few risks in space. (Politicians love this kind of space jobs program.) NASA now probably fears a pushback from both Congress and the big contractors building SLS and Gateway, and want to defuse that.

Nonetheless, this decision signals the Trump administration’s desire to get itself an off ramp from SLS and Gateway. Since NASA plans on issuing two lander contracts, I think they hope to issue one using Gateway, and one that does not. This way, when (not if) Gateway is delayed, they will still be able to fly manned lunar missions.

Yesterday’s solicitation also set a fast deadline for submissions, one month.

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UAE astronaut completes telecast to UAE

The new colonial movement: The first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) yesterday completed his fifth day in orbit on ISS, answering questions from students during two telecasts.

The goal from the start for this mission was to encourage a new space agency in the UAE, thus diversifying its economy. These telecasts are clearly aimed at doing that.

His flight is about half over.

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Russia to reduce manned missions to ISS in 2020

According to a Roscosmos, Russia will halve the number of manned Soyuz missions it will fly to ISS in 2020, from the normal four per year that they have been doing since 2009 to only two.

The article provides little additional detail, other than those two flights will be in the second and fourth quarters of the year, and that there will be three Progress freighter launches as well.

In May the Russians had announced that NASA had agreed to buy two more astronaut tickets on Soyuz. Since then there have been two manned launches, one of which I think was covered by this purchase. If not, then both launches next year are to launch Americans to ISS, and that Russia will not launch otherwise.

Either way this information tells us two things. First, NASA is probably getting very close to finally approving the manned flights of Dragon and Starliner, after many delays by their safety panel.

Second, Russia’s reduction in launches suggests that they are short of funds, and can’t launch often without someone buying a ticket. It is unclear what they will do when the U.S. is no longer a customer. I suspect they will fly the minimum number of crew in the fewest flights while still allowing them to maintain their portion of the station. Periodically they will likely add a flight, when they sell a ticket to either a tourist or to another foreign country, as they are doing right now with an Soyuz-flown astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

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China to open FAST radio telescope to world

China has decided to allow astronomers worldwide to apply for time on its new FAST radio telescope, the largest such telescope in the world.

Since testing began in 2016, only Chinese scientists have been able to lead projects studying the telescope’s preliminary data. But now, observation time will be accessible to researchers from around the world, says Zhiqiang Shen, director of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and co-chair of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ FAST supervisory committee.

Obviously U.S. astronomers are going to want to use this telescope. I wonder if there will be security issues. I suspect that if they only request time and then make observations, there will be no problems. However, if they need to do anything that will require the use of U.S. technology, in China, then they may find themselves violating the U.S. law that forbids any technology transfer to China.

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Martian impact into lava crust?

Impact crater north of Pavonis Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on April 23, 2019. It shows a quite intriguing impact crater on the northern lava slopes of Pavonis Mons, the middle volcano in the chain of three gigantic volcanoes to the west of Valles Marineris.

What makes this image cool is what the impact did when it hit. Note the circular depression just outside the crater’s rim. In the southeast quadrant that ring also includes a number of additional parallel and concentric depressions. Beyond the depression ground appears mottled, almost like splashed mud.

What could have caused this circular depression? Our first clue comes from the crater’s location, as shown in the overview map below and to the right.
» Read more

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First data suggests Comet Borisov resembles solar comets

The first spectrum obtained from Comet Borisov suggests that it is quite similar to comets in our solar system.

The gas detected was cyanogen, made of a carbon atom and a nitrogen atom bonded together. It is a toxic gas if inhaled, but it is relatively common in comets.

The team concluded that the most remarkable thing about the comet is that it appears ordinary in terms of the gas and dust it is emitting. It looks like it was born 4.6 billion years ago with the other comets in our Solar system, yet has come from an – as yet – unidentified star system.

It is still very early, so drawing any firm conclusions at this point is risky.

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